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WORK & FAMILY
By Jill Hamburg Coplan
APRIL 12, 2000


Working from Home: A Single Mom Starts from Scratch

What are the available options? And how can she avoid being taken by a scam?

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The second of a two-part series

Last week in this column, we ran a letter from a would-be entrepreneur -- a struggling single mom with a disabled child and no startup capital (see BW frontier Online, 4/5/00, "Single Mom, Disabled Child..."). She asked for advice on starting her own venture and avoiding scamsters.

We took up the family piece first, examining her assumption that she would have more time to give her child if she worked from home. Given the stresses of running a new business, we suggested she find mentors, explore subsidized child care, and shore up her emotional support system before embarking on any business venture.

This week, we turn to the work part. If she does decide to start a business, what would be right for her? The best solution may not be to create an independent business right now but to work for someone else at home. We'll also look at how to steer clear of scam artists who target people under duress for their get-rich-quick, stuffing-envelopes-from-home schemes.

SLOW START. Whatever work-at-home solution you choose, your governing motto should be: Easy does it. Plan strategically. Don't quit a day job or throw money into an at-home venture impulsively. "There may need to be an intermediate job or two before you get to exactly where you want to be," says Heather Stone, president of Myjobsearch.com, a Web site of help-wanted ads and job-hunting advice that features extensive listings of contract and part-time work.

First, start saving money -- even if it's only a very tiny amount each month. Startups have an uncertain income stream. A cushion spells the difference between success and failure, says Trent Anderson, the editor of Kaplan Inc.'s career guides.

Next, it's time to inventory what skills you can parlay into a home-based franchise or business. Break down past jobs into their parts. Do you have computer or organizational experience? Scan online job ads to see what skills are being sought. Identify what you're missing, and plan to fill in the gaps.

You may have to volunteer or take a class. The information-technology field is particularly fertile for at-home work. For something low-tech, such as baking wedding cakes, try your culinary hand as a hobbyist first -- and consider formal classes at a community college or other professional cooks' training program.

The Web has created a new freelance profession that you might try: virtual assistant. Organizations, companies, and sites serve the field, many of which you can find via a Web search under the key words "virtual assistant." One, Virtualassistant.com is a year-old network of at-home moms who offer round-the-clock office assistance and medical transcription. They share work when they're overloaded. Founder Jennifer Madden of Shreveport, La., who has three kids, started the network with minimal expenditure -- mostly for business cards and paper (she already had a computer) -- and a "Doing Business As" account at the bank. (You can call her at 318 219-9833.)

GOVERNMENT AID. As the mother of a child with a disability, you may be eligible for financial help and entrepreneurial training through federal, state, and local government agencies. Check your city's economic development office, the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, and your local Small Business Administration resource center. Finding, applying, and getting aid takes a long time, cautions John Williams, Business Week Online's assistive technology columnist (see BW frontier Online, 1/10/00, "Commentary: Time to Enlist the Disabled in the Entrepreneurial Revolution").

Given your lack of resources, you may also be eligible for microloan programs, which give low-income entrepreneurs in the U.S. and abroad funds and training to start businesses. The Accion program has several offices in Texas, including one in Houston. Its Web site gives the following number for customer inquiries: 888 215-2373.

As for avoiding scams, the best protection is deliberation. Research any franchise or work-at-home opportunity thoroughly and skeptically. Ask people who have worked for a company or franchise how they were treated, what they learned, and what they would do differently. Make sure the people you're talking to are real references, not shills. (For practical advice on recognizing swindlers, see BW frontier Online's excerpts from "Fraud! How to Protect Yourself from Schemes, Scams, and Swindles".)

"If the company won't let you speak to other people, run the other way," says career coach Laura Berman Fortgang. Watch out for multilevel marketers who swear that distributors will make money for you "while you sleep." Unless you make a prosperous living selling the products yourself, you'll never coax others onto your team.


Send your questions to frontierlife@businessweek.com.



Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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