ALICE BREDIN

I felt the need for spring cleaning a few weeks ago when my husband and I had weekend guests. As I looked around our home office through the eyes of our visitors, I noticed small piles that had grown into messes. Business supply catalogs were piled up in bins. Obsolete and broken equipment consumed a closet. A pile of business cards needed to be added to our electronic database.

I traced the source of our mess to the huge amount of information and technology we use to run our home-based business. With only a quick scan of our space, we recognized the need to control the mess.

Like many people in our data-rich society, everyone in my office suffers from information and technology overload. This phenomenon especially affects people who work at home because we are bombarded with important items for both work and family in one place.

While I still plan to do some dusting as part of my spring cleaning, I've added information management to my list of cleaning tasks. If you're also feeling the pressure of the pile-up, here are some ways to clear the clutter:

? Create e-mail filters. Within your e-mail program, set up filters that separate priority items from everyday correspondence. For instance, I filter electronic newsletters and industry updates into a separate box.

? Purge your equipment graveyard. Obsolete equipment can be hard to part with, especially if it was expensive. Chances are, however, its only future function will be as clutter. My company's graveyard includes cordless headsets that don't work with our new phone system and outdated electronic organizers that I sometimes use as paperweights. Sell, donate or throw out these items.

? Face the reading reality. If your "to-read" pile is approaching knee height, face the fact that you won't catch up on all your reading. Recycle old publications and store the ones for future reference out of sight. If you resist reducing your paper mountain, remember that you only need be an "expert" in your chosen specialty.

? Revise your phone number system. If you still search through papers, date books and files for phone numbers, create a contact database on your computer. Investing in a contact database now will save time and aggravation in the future. A hand-held organizer can be synchronized with your desktop address book, so you can input contact numbers while on the road and transfer them to your computer later. This also ensures that you have a backup of important information.

? Create a priority box. This box is for items that you need to look at, but don't want to have on your desk. It will clear your workspace and provide a sense of order, even if order is fleeting.

? Unsubscribe to old electronic information sources. Get off e-mail lists that you no longer read. These might include travel specials or daily news updates. A word of caution: Before you unsubscribe to these information sources, make sure they're legitimate. Some less-than-ethical businesses will use the request to be dropped to verify your e-mail address for further promotions.

? Set aside time to make changes. The purging and filtering mentioned here won't happen if you tackle it during the workday. Set aside a Friday afternoon or rainy Sunday to clean and reorganize, rather than trying to squeeze this work into your already busy schedule.

Finding your niche

Entrepreneur magazine recently released its list of top business ideas for 1999. The top 10 list includes Internet commerce, private record label, specialized staffing, niche greeting cards, personal concierge service, herbal pharmacy, upscale sandwich restaurant, computer training, clothing design, and Webzines/online communities.

Studies like this one offer insight into industries with good potential for start-up ventures. They also highlight trends that translate into opportunities for entrepreneurs. That said, use caution when considering someone else's start-up idea. Surveys are valuable for general insight and sparks for brainstorming, but they cannot determine your personal fit with a profiled industry.

The right business idea will be based on your skills and interests and will also fill a need within your community, whether it be local or global. If you want to start a home-based business and can't seem to find the right idea, ask yourself the following questions to discover one that's right for you.

? What am I good at? List 10 things you do well. You might be conceptually creative, analytical or a great public speaker. Even a sense of humor or boldness can impact the kind of business you would excel in. If you have trouble completing your list, ask people who know you well to describe you with five adjectives. You might also make a list of tasks you mastered in former positions.

? What do I enjoy? Make another top 10 list of things you like to do. Extend it beyond hobbies, and include things that make you most content such as walking in the wilderness, baking or playing with your grandchildren.

? Which businesses include these elements? After you complete your self-survey, consider start-up opportunities that connect to both lists. For instance, if you have strong organizational abilities and a love of cooking, you might consider a catering business. If your strength is creativity, perhaps a better food-related fit would be a wedding cake company.

? Who will my customers be? After you zero in on a few potential ideas, visualize your customer. Write a customer description including spending and shopping habits, challenges, priorities and other elements that relate to the sale of your intended product or service.

? Do these customers want my product or service? Do some basic market research to determine if the opportunity is worth exploring further. Ask at least 12 people in your target market questions such as: Do they want or need your service? Where do they currently shop for it? How much will they pay for it?

? Who will my competition be? Research the area you plan to serve and evaluate your competition. Identify competitors' positioning and a point of differentiation for your offering. Common points of differentiation include price, product, quality and distribution. You can use one point, or a combination of them, to distinguish your business. For instance, you may decide to offer lower prices, or you may aim for higher quality at a lower price. If you find no competition, review your idea again. It may still be a good one, but if no one is currently in the field, there may be a reason why.

Alice Bredin is author of the "Virtual Office Survival Handbook" (John Wiley & Sons) and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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