When I visited friends this summer, I noticed that most of them had one thing in common. In addition to being great hosts and lots of fun, almost all had home offices. Some run businesses from home; others work at home part-time for a large employer.
In an earlier column, I discussed how to find good business ideas by identifying small-business owners' needs for technological assistance. Another key trend to watch if you are business-idea hunting is the proliferation of home offices.
International Data Corp., a research company, estimates that the number of income-generating home offices will reach 23.8 million by the end of this year. Another 10.7 million people are expected to work out of corporate home offices on a full- or part-time basis.
The increasing popularity of telecommuting working at home for an employer is driven by growing traffic congestion, the desire to balance work and family life and the recognition that flexible work arrangements enhance employee retention.
For entrepreneurs, a home office serves as a convenient and affordable place to start and/or operate a new business. The growing number of home-based entrepreneurs can be attributed to the same factors that are influencing small-business growth: a strong economy, an increase in funding resources and affordable technology.
Home-based business owners and telecommuters represent a promising market because they need office set-up and maintenance help. Businesses currently serving the home-office market include technical consultants, office organizers, marketers, public relations specialists, desktop publishers and bookkeepers.
The home-office segment is also attractive because demographically it exceeds other households in income, technology use and education. If you're curious about whether or not the home-office market would be a good customer base for a business, look at these statistics from a 1999 study of the small-office/home-office (SOHO) market conducted by Forrester Research:
> The home-office population is expected to include more than 28 percent of U.S. households by 2003.
> Networked computers are expected to proliferate in tech-friendly households. This means more home-based workers will link multiple PCs and laptops to shared Web access, software and peripheral devices such as printers.
> Currently, 11 percent of households run a home-based business. This category is extremely diverse and includes companies such as dog walking services and technical consulting firms.
> Home-based business owners are reported to be less tech savvy than their telecommuting counterparts, but they are more wired than the rest of the population. Internet use is on the rise among this home-business market segment. More than 50 percent regularly use the Internet for product research, and 24 percent request customer service online.
> Telecommuters represent 4.2 percent of households. They are often the wealthiest home-based workers and tend to be well-paid professionals who spend only part of the workweek at a home-based desk. Thirty-seven percent own more than two PCs, and 39 percent have a second phone line. Many of these workers are reimbursed for technology and office expenses by their employers.
> Two-thirds of telecommuters have been online for more than two years, and nearly 60 percent of this group has made online purchases.
To find out if your business idea would appeal to the home-office market, visit home-business and telecommuting message boards and newsgroups. By reading online conversations among your potential market's members, you could find or hone a business idea. For example, iVillage.com has a work-from-home board, and AOL has newsgroups devoted to telecommuting and other work-at-home topics.
I recently met a business owner who donates one day of her company's time each month to help a local charity. The next week I interviewed a job candidate who has been working in the non-profit arena, and she told me about other companies' philanthropic work.
Corporate giving is nothing new; lots of large companies help build houses, give employees time off for charitable works and make other community contributions. Many small companies don't make these gestures as frequently, in part because resources are tight. To pinpoint some lower-effort means of giving back, I asked a variety of small-business owners how their companies find time to help needy organizations. Here are their ideas:
> Donate items from the office. Many charitable organizations, including the Salvation Army, will come to your office to pick up computers, furniture, phones and other items that you no longer need. Most businesses have unused equipment that can benefit someone else.
> Use your relationships. If your business serves the corporate marketplace, you may be able to encourage corporations to give to the charity of your choice. Veterans of this approach recommend having an event, sponsorship or specific program in mind when approaching larger organizations, as opposed to just asking for a general donation.
> Bring someone into your business. The Fresh Air Fund is one of many programs that bring kids with limited opportunities into businesses to learn skills and to be exposed to career paths. You and your team may be able to share expertise and enthusiasm with a needy child.
> Give employees choice. Some small companies provide time off and let employees choose for themselves how to donate their time. One of the benefits of this approach is that it enables your staff to give time to groups they are most passionate about.
> Recycle books. If your business has invested in books that are gathering dust, donate them to a local library.
> Give through your trade association. If organizing a charitable effort is too much to take on right now, you may be able to piggyback on a program your trade group sponsors.
> Speak at schools. Entrepreneurs can share their drive, passion and expertise by speaking to groups of elementary, junior high and high school kids about what they do.
> Review your skills. If your staff has well-honed skills in desktop publishing, editing or graphic design, you can donate your talent to a worthy group. You could probably make a minimal time investment and provide a big payoff for the cause.
> Ask friends. Finding the right organization to give to is often daunting. To streamline the process and to increase the likelihood that you will achieve your goals, ask friends and acquaintances about the charities they are involved in. These contacts can help you determine how your skills match local groups' needs.
> Provide financial support. Active involvement in a charitable project is usually more rewarding than simply writing a check, but sometimes there just isn't enough time. Some businesses ensure continual giving by setting aside a small percentage of company revenues for needy organizations.
Alice Bredin is author of the "Virtual Office Survival Handbook" (John Wiley & Sons) and a nationally syndicated columnist.
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