Q: What really makes a home office appear professional?
A: The key is separating it from the house as much as possible. Ideally, you should have a separate entrance. Living areas should not be visible from the office.
At the very least, remove all nonbusiness-related furnishings from the room you are using as an office. Another good idea is to erect internal doors to separate this room from the rest of the house. If there are any rooms or hallways that connect from the house to the office, make sure they are neat and kept as professional looking as possible.
Of course you could be as extreme as I was in starting my early apartment-based businesses where the only visible element that it was used personally and not for business was a small twin bed tucked in one corner behind overflowing stacks of boxes jammed with my inventory of books. Some employees worked there for months and never guessed that I lived there as well as used it for my business.
Q: What should I give my first effort to?
A: Chances are that, like most small businesses, you are going to do most of your business over the Internet or the phone. So, one of your first concerns should be how your business looks on the web. Is your website professional looking? You don’t need a large or complex site, but I think even a tiny start-up should have a great-looking front page, even if it’s the only page. If you are interacting with the public on social media, then that needs to appear professional, too.
How does the office “sound”? Answer your business phone with the name of your business. Have a professional-sounding message on your voice mail. Try to block out any background noise that may sound like you are in a home environment.
I have known people who try to change their voice to create the impression of a larger office. This is a transparent ploy. Don’t do it. It cheapens you and it can easily backfire.
Q: Are there inherent problems in having employees working in my home office?
The first obstacle may be in attracting people who want to work in a home office. Many people object to this sort of environment. But it is certainly possible to attract very talented, hardworking people who will work with you in your home. If you intend to employ people within your home, check your insurance coverage and determine whether you need additional liability coverage. You must also get workers’ compensation coverage, which is mandated by law. Furthermore, if an employee, even a part-time employee, is injured and you don’t have workers’ compensation insurance, you would be personally liable.
You need to make sure your premises are safe in every way. It’s one thing to not follow local zoning laws. It’s something else to have your employees work in conditions that aren’t safe in every way. Don’t do it.
Be aware that you increase your chances of zoning problems with every employee you bring into your home office. Even if you have a variance to do business from your home, you can still be subject to the zoning board deciding to review the variance if they are sympathetic to a complaint from an anti-business neighbor.
Q: Do I need to notify the post office of my business name?
A: My experience has been that generally you will get mail addressed to your business as long as the address is correct. You could be extra sure that you are going to get your business mail by putting the name on your mailbox, but that also may alert your neighbors and confirm to a building inspector that you are doing business from your house. Alternatively, you could just mention to your regular mail carrier the name of your business to increase his or her confidence in delivering business mail to you. Finally, you could just get a PO box.
Q: Do I need a separate business phone line?
A: First, I would tend to use a cell phone for a start-up business. Then, if I were trying to save money, I would just use my personal phone for business. However, what I really mean is that my personal phone would become my business phone and unless I recognized the call I would assume it was a business call and answer it with the name of my business.
If you want to use a landline for your business, you also may want to skip the expense of another line. Remember, though, this means you need to answer the phone every time it rings as though it were a business phone.
You could install a second residential line, which is generally not as expensive as business service. The phone company may call after a couple of weeks, however, to see if you are using the second line for business purposes. I’ve been through this. I once fielded a phone call from a phone representative on a newly installed residential line by answering with my business name. An interesting discussion ensued, but I did manage to convince the phone company not to bill me at the business rate.