January 2006

The Wall Street Journal

Running the Show – Parental Guidance
by Kelly K. Spors

When Tammy Harrison, mother of four kids between the ages of four and 10, started an Internet advertising agency from the family’s log-cabin home in rural Cache County, Utah, in 1999, she thought juggling work with taking care of the kids wouldn’t be that difficult, given that her job is mostly done through email.

But she soon realized she couldn’t get much done while her kids were awake. She now works a split shift, doing a few hours of lighter work in the mornings, while her kids watch TV or do schoolwork, and then making a “concentrated effort” to get the bulk of her work done between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., after the kids’ bedtime. She naps in the afternoon to fit in eight hours of sleep. “I’ll admit, it’s not easy,” the 41-year-old says. “If I get enough sleep, I have a lot of energy.”

Like Ms. Harrison, more and more parents are giving up the cubicle and trying to make a go of a home-based business. Some do it to be closer to the kids, while others want the personal and professional freedom home businesses allow.

But it’s not always as liberating as it sounds. Many home-based entrepreneurs must cope with constant interruptions from family members, pets and personal calls — not to mention the screaming kids in the background as they try to maintain a professional image on the phone. And many feel isolated from their fellow professionals in the outside world. “Working at home takes a lot of discipline,” says Alvah Parker, a career consultant in Swampscott, Mass., who works at home, as do many of her clients. “In a home, there are a lot of distractions and you have to really be motivated” for the business to be successful.

Career coaches and veteran work-at-home parents have several strategies to make the balance between work and family more harmonious. Here’s a look at five of them.

DESIGN A MASTER PLAN — AND FOLLOW IT

With family, work and household chores all competing for your attention, the ultimate challenge of owning a home business is time management.

Judith Feld, a career consultant in Dallas, encourages clients starting at-home businesses to map out a regular routine. That includes building a rigid work schedule and designating other times of day that will be spent with the kids or spouse, doing housework, and other regular activities. You’re less likely to stray if you have a defined plan.

The essential thing: being realistic about how much time you’ll need to devote to both work and nonwork endeavors, so you don’t end up scrambling on either side of the equation. “You definitely don’t want to be building a struggle into your schedule,” Ms. Feld says.

Some home-business owners can work odd hours or late at night, but others have to be available during normal working hours. If the scheduled workday overlaps with a time when kids are normally home, it’s important to know how they will be occupied without you around. For instance, are they old enough to take care of themselves and know not to interrupt you, or do you need to hire child-care help? “The mom working at home and the baby happily playing in the corner is a nice thought, but it’s not reality,” says Nancy Collamer, a career counselor in Old Greenwich, Conn., and founder of the Web site Jobsandmoms.com.

Other key considerations when drawing up work plans include whether and how you’ll need to interact with clients, how much vacation time you’ll need and how the business will operate during those times, and what kind of work space you’ll need.

CREATE A PROFESSIONAL ENVIRONMENT

Don’t think of the kitchen table as a makeshift desk. Home workers need to carve out a secluded space where they can concentrate on work without interruption, ideally in a separate room with doors that shut, career experts say.

Having a separate office also keeps piles of paperwork and other work materials from seeping into other parts of the home.

If the home business requires face-to-face meetings with clients, it’s important for the house to be clean and presentable, and the meeting space should look as professional as possible. It’s best to arrange for some kind of child care for young children when you’re meeting with clients in your home, because “people need to remember that not everyone thinks their kids are cute,” Ms. Collamer says.

Some home-business owners rent space in local office buildings for client meetings, to create a professional image. Also, not every home-business owner feels it’s necessary to tell clients they work at home.

Beyond office and meeting space, business owners should have a separate phone line that kids aren’t permitted to answer, and their own computer that’s not used by the rest of the family. “I think with any home business you run the risk of appearing amateurish,” Ms. Collamer says. “It’s very tempting, especially if money is tight, to have a computer that you share with the family. But then you have a problem when the kids come home and they have homework to do.”

NETWORK WITH OTHERS

Many at-home workers feel isolated and out of touch with other professionals, and don’t have anyone to be a sounding board for ideas, as you would in an office environment.

This happened to Brian LeClair, a self-employed business lawyer in Marblehead, Mass., after he quit his job at a Boston law firm in 2001. “I was challenged by that loss of collegiality,” says the 57-year-old, who has two teenage children. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that sole practitioners do that with each other.” Mr. LeClair became active in his local chamber of commerce, and joined a networking group that meets monthly to discuss the challenges of working from home.

Networking with other work-at-home parents can also be a smart move because they often can help you figure out ways to deal with juggling responsibilities, and even sometimes offer pointers on getting clients and other tips for making at-home businesses successful.

Home-based working parents can also share duties. Vivian Juter Frankel, founder of Moms Making Money, a membership organization for stay-at-home moms, encourages work-at-home parents to set up babysitting co-ops that can share child-care duties when parents need to meet face-to-face with clients or run work-related errands. The parent can drop the kids off at another parent’s home and pick them up when the meeting is over.

CONSIDER OUTSOURCING

Just because you work at home doesn’t mean you can’t employ many of the same services you might get if you worked in an office — such as child care or housekeeping. In fact, those might be even more important for home-based businesses.

Parents who work at home often feel like they have to accomplish everything around the house, since they’re at home. But outsourcing some home and even some work duties can make the business more manageable and enjoyable, says Lesley Spencer, founder and president of Home-Based Working Moms, an online community of mothers who work at home.

Stacy Blackman, 34, who runs a consulting business from a home office in Los Angeles for people applying to business school, employs a live-in nanny who watches her 2-year-old son during the day and does some housework. “She’s there to take care of him when he’s screaming,” Ms. Blackman says. “Otherwise I would always feel like I had to run and get him. That’s really distracting.” Even if you have such assistance for just a few hours in the afternoon, it can be enough relief to help you finish your work.

Some home-business owners might also consider outsourcing duties such as accounting to make the job less time-consuming.

DRAW THE LINES

No matter how disciplined you are, it’s not always easy to persuade other family members — or clients — to be conscientious about your work schedule. So it’s a smart idea to lay down the ground rules before problems arise.

When Larry Muenz, a lawyer in Washington who represents small publicly traded companies, started working from home in 1993, he instructed his son and daughter — then ages 7 and 9 — not to disrupt him while he worked in the afternoons after school let out. Before he added another phone line, they were also told to never answer the phone when he was in the house, because “if a client was calling me, I didn’t want a child to answer the phone.”

“Children have to understand that you’re working and not just there to chit-chat with them,” says Mr. Muenz, who is 55. “Luckily, we had a large house and the children usually stayed downstairs, where they had whatever they needed.”

Moreover, he tried to make sure clients were aware of some rules, too. When he’s home, he tries to be available most hours of the day. But while vacationing in Europe last year, he told clients he’d be available to talk only in the evenings. “Because I work from home, I think the clients had the expectation that I’d always be there for them,” he says. “I really set boundaries, I guess for myself and my clients, so everyone knows what to anticipate.”