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So you’ve started up that home business and can’t wait to make calls and seal deals in your slippers and sweats?
Nothing wrong with that, but the fact is it’s not going to inspire confidence in your clients, customers, referrals or anyone else in the outside world if they know you’re proofreading your key presentation while accelerating on your NordicTrack.
For you to function best as an entrepreneur, it’s probably necessary to set up some borders between your business and home life by creating a separate environment that encourages focus, efficiency and professionalism while you’re on the job.
Here are some ways to create a professional structure, inside and out, for your home business.
Organize your time
Routine is one of the most important aspects of most successful endeavors. Make a schedule of activities for both business and home, and stick to it. Your business doesn’t necessarily have to be 9 to 5, but it’s important to let your clients know when you’re available, and to keep yourself accountable to a set time for work.
Julie Vitale, owner of Bankcard Processing Systems, Inc. of Shelby Township, Michigan, keeps hours from 9 to 5, but also monitors messages in case of emergencies. “You have to let your clients know when you’re available and that you also respond to emergencies if that’s part of your business,” says Vitale.
Present yourself and your home business professionally
When you’re calling on clients, make sure you’re on time and have all the necessary information and forms. This will save both of you time in the long run, and it will reassure your client that things behind the scenes are A-OK.
Sure, everyday is “casual Friday” in your home office, but take a long look in the mirror before getting in front of new clients. For example, Brad Wright, owner of B/Wright There, performs minor repairs, home improvements and painting, working from an office in his home in Troy, Michigan. But when dealing with new or prospective clients, he leaves the paint-splattered working gear at home, and dresses to impress.
Investing in professional business cards, letterhead, brochures and forms is also well worth it in the end. Price quotes and invoices written by hand on scraps of paper will not encourage clients to take you seriously. If you do on-the-spot quotes, you may want to invest in two-part pre-printed forms so both you and the client have copies. Desktop publishing software can help you design a coordinated package of these items on even the smallest of budgets.
Maintain good records and credit for your home business
Pay your bills and invoice your clients on time. This is a crucial aspect of any home business, and can be accomplished by investing in accounting software, along with the advice of a good accountant.
If you have employees, always pay them on time, and always pay taxes promptly. “One way to get yourself into difficulty is by paying taxes late,” says Janice Hermann, owner of an accounting company in Rochester Hills, Michigan.
Keep clear, accurate records. This is especially helpful since many business costs are tax-deductible. IRS Publication 587, “Business Use of Your Home,” offers guidelines for keeping these records.
Make your home business high-tech
Maintaining your own space is important not only physically, but also electronically.
A website is a must! They can range from less than a hundred dollars in cost to many thousands – you have to decide which kind suits your business opportunity best. The key is to make sure your website looks professional and is always up to date.
And when it comes to a home business phone strategy, remember this: as cute as it might seem, there is nothing professional about your six-year-old answering a business call. Take a high-tech approach and use a dedicated “smart phone” with multiple functions including calling, email, contact lists, calendar and more. And keep it out of the reach of the kids! The smart phone doubles as a portable home office too, so you can take it with you on errands and holidays away from home.
A multi-purpose color printer, scanner, copier is also a tech resource many home businesses use. It creates space efficiency and cost efficiency – with the quality of these products today, there’s no need to splurge on separate printers, fax machines, copiers, etc.
Another must is a back-up system for your computer data. The last thing clients want to hear is that your computer crashed and their project is MIA.
To keep your tech in check, be sure you set up reliable help. If you aren’t a computer technician yourself, make sure you have a service available on short notice to come to your rescue. Losing a day, let alone a week, can be very damaging to any momentum you’re building with your business.
Keep inventory and supplies in top order
In the spirit of being prepared, organize your inventory. Create a space for it in your office or storage area. If your business ships orders, necessities like envelopes, boxes, tape and labels should always be on hand.
If you’re retailing other people’s products, you might also consider drop-shipping. Drop-shipping simply means that you never take physical possession of the goods, but instead simply have product shipped directly from the wholesaler to your customer. But as elegant and efficient as this seems, the drop-shipping strategy has a rub – you’ve got to have technology to track shipments, since you’re ultimately responsible for purchases, warranties and returns. And you also have to establish trust with the wholesaler to ensure that they won’t poach your customers once they have their addresses.
Keep in touch with other professionals
Staying plugged in with other professionals in your area or online is a great way to keep your business dynamic and up-to-date. Join associations, attend seminars, be part of the StartupNation forums and keep in touch with others in your field.
Mary Ann Welden, owner of business-consulting firm Welden Associates, in Troy, Mich., stresses the importance of staying educated. You have to know what’s going on in your field and in the business world in general. The best way to do that is to keep in touch with other professionals and read about other successful business owners, she says.
The Home business bottom line
Many of the happiest entrepreneurs are those who are running their companies from home. But the “best” home-based entrepreneurs are those that keep a professional edge to their business. With the right organization, presentation, resources, techniques and attitude you’ll never have to make an excuse about being based at home. In fact, you’ll have the best of everything.
Donna Marcella is a StartupNation contributing writer.