Recently I participated in a radio interview with my mentor and all-around badass, Renee Fraser, and her Unfinished Business co-host Betsy Berkhemer. The theme of the interview was, “How to Look Big Time Even If You’re a Small or Home-based Business.” (You can listen to my segment here.) After chatting briefly with Renee and Betsy, I found I had more to say on the subject and wanted to expand on my tips.
Mac and I were joking that the problem with doing a radio show or blog about tips for projecting more of a “Big Time” appearance automatically lets your readers or listeners know that you’re small or home-based. Whoops! Then again, we’re very proud of the fact that we’ve built a company that offers best-of-breed services and results in the digital space, supported by a strong team of professionals, and we’ve done it all without the “brick & mortar” walls of a traditional office space. Still, creating a successful new home-based business in the highly competitive online arena—and in the very image-focused LA—is a tricky proposition. In addition to the tips discussed in the radio show, here’s what I think it takes to make it work.
Invest in your brand. Get a logo, buy your domain name, set up a website. Not only do you need to be searchable online so that people can find your business, if you’re running a virtual office in this digital age, you need to at least have an online “storefront.”
For your logo, I highly recommend using a professional graphic designer. A good one will help translate the keywords and feelings you have about your brand into powerful imagery that you can use in all of your online and offline materials. Maintaining consistent branding in all of your company communication sends a very clear message: “We know who we are and we have our act together.”
Establish professional communication channels. First, set up a professional email address, as in “firstname.lastname@example.org.” Free email services can be a handy way to get started, but nothing says “amateur” like an email from an executive with a Hotmail account. Second, I highly recommend getting a PO Box. You need one that looks like a street address that can accept FedEx and UPS deliveries. Having this is especially important if, like Click, your business interfaces with thousands of people you may or may not know every day and you don’t want every Tom, Dick and Sid to know where you and your family live.
Finally, you need a dedicated phone line. This is important for three reasons. 1. It allows you to compartmentalize your business and personal calls–either for billing purposes or just because you don’t want to take business calls after office hours. 2. Knowing all calls coming into that line helps you to be your own receptionist. After all, what sounds more professional: the person who answers their cell phone with a simple “Hello,” or the person who answers their business line with, “Thank you for calling Click, this is Dinah, how can I help you?” And 3. If you want to get fancy, you can set up phone numbers for, say, New York and LA, and have them forward to your business line. You publish them both on your website and no one has to know your running your shop out of a garage in Duluth.
Decide and implement company structure and culture before you hire. The internal structure of your business could change over the years, but you should have an idea of how you roll as a company, how the work should flow, and be clear about that to anyone you bring on board. After all, when you’re a one or two-person team, you don’t have to worry about anyone else giving your clients the impression that your company is disorganized and people don’t know who does what. As soon as you bring on anyone else, it’s important to make sure they’re as clear on your company structure and culture as you are.
Treat your home office like, well, an office. The first couple weeks of working from home, it can be very easy to kick back and enjoy the casual benefits—flexible hours that may allow you to sleep in or take breaks in the middle of the day, monitoring emails from your couch, a carefree dress code of pjs and flip flops. And hey, if you can project a high level of professionalism while working in an environment that relaxed, more power to you. Most successful entrepreneurs working from home learn very quickly, however, that they are more productive and professional when they approach their work time, work space and work attitude at home exactly the same as if they were in a high rise downtown. So get up early, shower, put on clothes you’d wear in front of your employees (whether you’re planning to see them or not), set up a dedicated workspace and keep it organized, and focus your time on work during your office hours. (Scott wrote a great post on this theme as well!)
Compartmentalize and focus your time. This is especially tricky for parents because a certain amount of work/family life crossover is inevitable, and you have to be prepared to roll with the punches. Still, I’m a big believer in planning. Plot out a schedule that includes face time with your employees and clients, grouping meetings into the fewest possible days a week if long-distance travel is a factor. I also subscribe to Marley Majcher‘s philosophy of designating certain days of the week for certain kinds of projects. Like “Money Mondays,” “Reporting Tuesdays,” “Meeting Wednesdays,” or whatever works for you.
Keep communication tight. I mentioned this in the interview, but it bears repeating. Good communications builds trust; crappy communication erodes it. This is true whether you have an office or not, but if you have more to prove to clients, then make strong communication a priority. Anticipate needs, be swift as possible with your responses, and above all be honest. When you’re pulled in a hundred directions as an entrepreneur, responding to every email quickly can be a challenge, but the strong relationships you’ll build with your commitment to good communication will be worth it.
One final note on communication: Email has limits. If there’s a concern that the tone of an email could be taken the wrong way, make a phone call instead. If you’re reading an email and you can’t tell if it’s hostile or not, pick up the phone. If an email chain gets to be too long with back and forth clarifications, just get on the horn and figure it out. Or, if the situation is appropriate, use video chat tools and get some face time. That way you can eliminate dumb misunderstandings quickly and alleviate some of the isolation that can come from working from home.