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Tech takes home offices to extremes

WASHINGTON – Oct. 15, 2009 – Katy Leakey rises early in the morning, has breakfast with her husband, Philip, and heads to the 12-foot-by-12-foot office where she spends much of her workday.

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Like many other entrepreneurs, she keeps her jewelry and home accessories business running smoothly by checking in with customers and distributors through phone calls, e-mail and the VoIP service Skype.

Unlike many entrepreneurs, she works out of a tent in Kenya.

Katy and Philip Leakey, son of the famous archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey, hire rural Kenyans to create the eco-friendly products that make up The Leakey Collection. The couple, who live among the Maasai people in the Kenyan bush, sell the goods online and in U.S. retail stores. They reinvest a portion of revenue on local projects such as building roads and schools.

Kathy Levinson’s office environment is vastly different. The real estate agent works in a 10-foot-by-12-foot refurbished storage closet in the basement of her Port Washington, N.Y., home. She made the windowless office cozy by adding carpet, fresh paint and soft lighting.

Leakey and Levinson are part of a surging group: business owners who work from home or in remote or mobile offices. Nearly 9 percent of all North American adults operate a business out of a home, according to Forrester Research. And the number of people who work remotely will continually increase worldwide, according to research firm IDC.

Many factors will contribute to the continued growth of remote working. They include technological advances, workers’ urges for more life/work balance and the desires of retiring Baby Boomers and older adults to keep working for personal and financial reasons.

Folks in their 60s, 70s and 80s “have 35 or more years (of life) to enjoy and pay for, but not everyone wants to be a greeter at Walmart,” says Joanne Pratt, a futurist and researcher who has studied the effect that technology has on home-based businesses. She expects many in these age groups to operate their businesses from home. “That gives them the luxury of enjoying so-called retirement while keeping a hand in and earning income.”

Laptops, broadband make it possible

Nearly 17 million people who are self-employed, business owners or contract workers toiled at home or remotely at least one day per month in 2008, according to a study by The Dieringer Research Group for human resources group WorldatWork. And of those, 8.8 million self-employed folks worked at home or remotely almost every day.

Levinson and Leakey have disparate careers, work styles and offices. Yet they credit the same necessity with enabling them to run businesses on their own terms: technology.

Souped-up laptops, speedy broadband connections and low-priced global phone plans have helped empower millions of people to ditch traditional office settings and run businesses from their homes, cars, vans or even a tent.

Forrester Research principal analyst Ted Schadler says three factors are fueling the rise in home-based businesses:

• Growing broadband adoption. Internet access is so easy to get that even Leakey can tap into it from her tent. About 63 percent of adult Americans have a broadband Internet connection at home, according to The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. That’s up from 55 percent in April 2008 and 47 percent in March 2007.

• Increased use of social media. Social-networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn help those who don’t work in a bustling office to interact with others. “Social networking is one of the best things that happened for entrepreneurs,” says Blane Charles, who opened the design and wellness consultancy Beau-T by Blane last July. Twitter updates, for instance, enable potential customers to get a feel for his personality and work style, he says.

• More business services that support entrepreneurs. Bookkeeping software such a Intuit QuickBooks and the increase of “cloud-computing” services that allow folks to store their data on easily accessible remote servers has made life easier for the home-based business owner, Schadler says.

Small-business owners now have access to “more powerful tools that used to only be available to large enterprises,” says IDC mobile enterprise research analyst Sean Ryan.

Lower costs, no commute

There are many lifestyle benefits to running a home-based business: no commute, working in sweatpants and the array of readily available food in the kitchen refrigerator.

But there are also financial benefits. Home-based businesses take in less revenue than businesses that lease a space, but they keep more money because there is no rent or other expenses that go with leasing, for example, according to Pratt’s research for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy.

Another consideration for the home-based entrepreneur: figuring out everything from office ergonomics to how to separate family and work time. “You can’t build a business if you have kids talking in the background and dogs barking,” Pratt says.

Jim Balis also has to manage work and family demands.

When he’s not on the road visiting clients or at the flexible office space that he leases in New York, he runs The Restaurant Management Group, a restaurant restructuring consultancy, from his home office in Boise. While working, he hangs an “at wrk!” sign on his door that was created by his 6-year-old daughter, Sophie, this summer.

He says he often has a hard time separating clients and family needs.

“Having a home office makes you always feel like you should be at work when you’re home. You’re always being pulled downstairs,” he says. “My daughter calls (the home office) my ‘man cave.’ She says, ‘You’re always going to your man cave.’ But it’s not the fun kind with a television and DirecTV.”

Mark McDaniel, who owns ReMARKable Affairs Catering and two cafes in the Dallas area, had issues with his home office. Among the largest: a lack of meeting space.

McDaniel tried to host catering consultations at local coffee shops, but after a sales associate told him he was too loud during his meeting with a bride-to-be, he explored other options.

The chef found out about Regus, a company that rents out “virtual offices” and flexible times for actual office space in more than 1,000 locations in 75 countries, through a local networking group.

McDaniel opted for space at the swanky Regus Crescent Court Business Center in Dallas. He pays a fee – typically $125 to $150 per month – to use the Crescent Court meeting rooms and for other services, such as having his business mail sent to that address.

Renting through Regus gives McDaniel the peace of mind to know that his mail will all be in one place – and that he doesn’t have to worry about outsiders disturbing his business meetings.

He says the Crescent Court address also gives him another benefit – prestige.

The catering industry “is very image driven,” he says, and “Make no mistake, my clients notice that (Crescent Court) address. … It would be like a Park Avenue address in New York.”

When it’s time to leave the nest

Esther Luongo Psarakis, owner of food company Taste of Crete, transitioned away from her home office last month. In 2004, she launched a Greek olive oil importing business from the basement of her Bridgewater, N.J., home.

As business grew, she needed to hire workers. “I started to add people to work with me, and that became a problem because my basement isn’t big,” she says. And when holiday orders came in, her basement, living room and family room overflowed with olive oils, honey, jam and cookies.

“My home was being taken over by the business,” she says. “This is a split-level house … it’s not gracious digs.”

Adding to the trouble: Customers who thought she sold goods from her home would Google her address and unexpectedly show up. “I had people ringing the doorbell – total strangers coming to the house,” Luongo Psarakis says.

Finally, she had enough and bought a small store in Hillsborough, N.J. The opening was Sept. 19.

She says the move has improved her life – and her fashion sense. “I would roll out of my bed and roll to my desk,” at home, she says. “You’re in your sweats and slippers, and sometimes you get sloppy with that.”

© USA TODAY, By Laura Petrecca

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