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Mom, Incorporated is your go-to guide for a home-based business, from coming up with your business idea to finding the resources to setting it up to staying on track. Authored by Danielle Smith and Aliza Sherman.

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Hiring a Virtual Assistant

Our guest blogger this week is Stephanie Lee of Scratchpad Secretaries. We featured Stephanie in our book in the section about virtual assistants. She’s awesome, and here is some of her great advice!

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Hiring a Virtual Assistant

You’ve finally gotten to the point in your business where it’s time to delegate some projects and tasks. Good for you! It’s exciting to be ready to take that 5 step in partnering up with a virtual assistant to take some of that administrative load off your plate (and your desk!). Continue reading

Becoming an Unintentional Work-At-Home Mom

By Kathy Zucker

Kathy Zucker

Over the past six years, I have been a managing partner in three companies. In the past year, I have written two business plans and raised a million dollars in investor capital commitments. In the past 16 months, I established a beverage company’s online and social media presence, redesigning the look and wording of all its marketing materials. The result of those efforts? The company has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon.com, shot to No. 1 in nationwide sales in the Amazon grocery section, and is now being sold at the Ritz Carlton, at the hotel’s request. And I accomplished all this while working from home.

When I launched my marketing consulting business six years ago, I never expected any of this to happen. But the biggest surprise of all? The fact that I am home at all. I never, in a million years, intended to stay home when I became a parent. I thought I would be your typical Manhattan marketing director, taking 12 weeks of maternity leave before putting my child into day care or hiring a nanny.

Life has a way of moving in unexpected directions. I found parenting to be much harder and more gut-wrenching than I ever expected. You don’t truly know what sleep deprivation is like until you have parented a newborn; it’s like walking around drunk all the time. And I found that I couldn’t stand being away from my daughter. Watching her little face pull away from me in a car window is one of my most emotionally searing memories of early motherhood. Also, my husband’s career started ramping up; I had been the primary breadwinner until then, but I agreed to scale back so he could go for the big time. Two parents working 60-hour weeks — we would never see our kid.

Struggling to balance parenting with your career?

It is surprisingly easy to start working for yourself. The most basic level of being in business is a sole proprietorship. You come up with a business name, register it with the state you live in, and get a federal Employer Identification Number (EIN). It can all be done online; it should take about an hour to establish your business. And the cost? Under $100.

Why do you need an EIN as a sole proprietor? Privacy is huge; do you want to give your Social Security number to every client? Having an EIN also enables you to partner with other people; I often put together marketing plans that involve multiple vendors (interns, a web developer, etc.) At the end of the year, I issue them 1099s since they are independent contractors; no tax liability for me.

Having an EIN makes you look legitimate. Many clients request my EIN before they will do business with me. It doesn’t change my income tax filing status; I file one set of personal returns and all my business activity goes on schedule C.

Useful links:

Kathy Zucker, serial entrepreneur and mother of two toddlers, writes about juggling career and family in an urban setting. See what Kathy is up to at her blog and on Twitter.

 This article originally appeared on Metromoms.net on Jan. 9, 2012.

Advice for The Pregnant Entrepreneur

Darla DeMorrow

Darla DeMorrow wrote The Pregnant Entrepreneur because she couldn’t find a book to help her through her pregnancy while running her small business. A professional organizer who owns Heartwork Organizing,  Darla helps people find their desktops, their keys, useful time in their calendar, money and their sanity. (Still, she admits, her kids leave their toys on the floor.)

Through her book and accompanying website, PregnantEntrepreneur.com, she also helps moms-to-be through the special challenges facing child-bearing entrepreneurs. Darla loves crock pots, public radio and cats, all of which she describes as things that make life calmer.

MomIncorporated: How did The Pregnant Entrepreneur come about?
I went looking for this book — twice. When it was clear that it didn’t exist, I wrote it. I figured there must be others like me, women who are running a business, then get pregnant and think, “Now, how am I going to get through this new state of affairs?”

There are a million books that tell you how to work for someone else while you are pregnant, but none that address the special challenges of a being an entrepreneur, like how to pay for maternity leave, how to build a team that can carry your business through your maternity, and how to credibly sign new clients when you can’t see your feet.

MomIncorporated: What are the most valuable lessons you learned about being pregnant and running an at-home business?
Get as much sleep as you can. OK, maybe getting more sleep wasn’t the actual lesson, but there was a lesson there. Before pregnancy, I had very few distractions from my business. Working at a breakneck pace to build the business was normal. I was wired that way, and I had been trained that way at my previous corporate jobs.

However, I really wanted a more sustainable life to enjoy my growing family. So the lesson was really about purposefully designing an enjoyable day, week and year. Pregnancy was the time to ratchet back activity a bit, but also to focus more on activities worth doing, and to cut out things I didn’t want to continue doing after the baby was born.

MomIncorporated: What kind of challenges does a pregnant woman with a home-based business face — challenges that are different than those faced by an employee?
The pregnant entrepreneur faces many differences compared with being pregnant in corporate life. The biggest challenge is financial. There is no paid maternity leave, no Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for companies with less than 50 employees, no unemployment compensation or paid time off of any kind in most cases. I get paid only if I’m working. So I created a tool to help women calculate how long they can afford to take time off from running their business without incurring debt or going out of business. This Super Simple Pregnancy Profit and Loss Snapshot for Maternity Leave is available in the book and for free in the downloads section of PregnantEntrepreneur.com.

Other challenges include not having a human resources department to advise or assist you in modifying your work activities, if needed. For instance, I work on a ladder, but that becomes questionable as soon as the third month in some pregnancies. And if bed rest is prescribed, your physical activities can be curtailed altogether. It is up to you — and only you — to find ways to replace your income.

Although discrimination against pregnant employees is outlawed under The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, amended in the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an entrepreneur who is trying to sign new business may not receive the same opportunities she would have prior to her pregnancy. Clients and potential clients may get skittish about her abilities or her commitment to continue the business. Even so, confirming and responding to discrimination is usually costly and impractical.

How about pay inequities that women have always dealt with? During pregnancy, the woman is more likely to be impacted by lost work and income due to medical appointments and health issues. Later, child-care duties and expenses usually fall to the woman.  Even in a two-earner family, women often feel as if they are better off leaving the work force rather than paying the high cost of child care outside the home. This can lead to lower earnings over a lifetime.

Then there are the simpler issues, like how to dress and when to disclose your news. An entrepreneur might need to be a bit more strategic than an employee would on both of these fronts, as she works to deal with potential and real concerns of her clients and employees.

The first three months with her new baby is also challenging for an entrepreneur. Although corporate employees on maternity leave might feel pestered by calls from the office, the entrepreneur needs to be concerned about building her business back up, potentially from a standstill. She may feel more stressed and compelled to be plugged into technology in order to not miss out on opportunities. If she doesn’t like marketing, that re-entry phase can be particularly painful.

None of these challenges are insurmountable, but a small-business owner may have fewer resources at her command than her counterpart at an established company. My goal is to help women who want to continue to run or start a business do so with grace and success. Thinking about these issues before they become crises can improve a business owner’s chance of having her business survive her baby.

MomIncorporated: How did your organizing business come about, and what kind of background did you have that facilitated your starting that business?
I was a corporate refugee.  After a dozen years selling and managing a technical line of business, I was laid off. It came at a great time for my husband and me, since we had been saving like crazy. We figured that if we ever got the chance to change course professionally, we wanted to be financially secure enough to take advantage of it. I had been a project manager at work and a home-improvement enthusiast at home. Those two passions morphed into a business that offers professional organizing, home decorating and home staging.

I pursued training and certifications each year, and continue to do so, to become an expert in my field. I love being a valued resource for my wonderful clients. And I enjoy seeing a project from start to finish and having a visible, tangible result.

MomIncorporated: How does your ability to organize help you juggle being a mom, a wife and an entrepreneur?
I might get a teensy bit more accomplished because I am organized and type-A.  But really, I’m not that special. Many, many women are working, raising families, volunteering and generally keeping the world spinning.

Probably the two things that set me apart are my dislike of multitasking and my focus on income and profit. As a mother, I know my best days are when I don’t try to return calls and emails when my kids are with me. In fact, I don’t even respond to emails or phone calls until after noon, when my kids are napping. Sure, there are times when I try to get something done for work, but I know there will be consequences at home.

As a business owner, my work activities have to contribute to a healthy bottom line, so the time I spend at work is really benefiting my whole family financially. After all, the reason I run my own business is to be able to spend time with my family. So when I’m with my family, I try to really be with them. Few days are perfect, but most days I play with my kids, get some work done, walk my daughter to and from school, eat a healthy home-cooked meal with my entire family, and generally fall into bed knowing I’ve had a decent day. If I could custom design my days, they would be pretty close to my current reality.

MomIncorporated: You’ve made a conscious decision to keep your business small while your kids are small. What has factored into that decision — and do you plan to grow the business when the kids are older?
That is the biggest struggle for me right now. There’s so much chatter in the market about experts and regular people making it big. But there is a price to be paid for a larger operation. I would love to bring on full-time employees, but that means changing my business model, spending more time in my office, opening my business up to inconsistent quality, and having less personal satisfaction at the end of each job. I’m not willing to go there just now.

But the opportunity definitely exists to grow the business. The same opportunity should still be there in about five years when both kids are in school full time. I have great faith and a history that proves that the right opportunities will be there at the right time.

MomIncorporated: What do you do for yourself apart from your business and your family?
Writing The Pregnant Entrepreneur was a milestone, and that feeds my need for achievement. I also spend time with really fabulous, smart, funny women. I belong to the local Mothers and More chapter, and the women I have become friends with amaze me with their accomplishments, friendship and hospitality.

It is so good to know that there are other women who aren’t doing what they thought they’d be doing at this point in their lives and yet love it so much more than they thought they would. I also have attended a weekly Bible study for the past three years. I thought I wouldn’t be able to do that until closer to retirement, but it has really become a priority for me.

MomIncorporated: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs — especially pregnant ones.
Being an entrepreneur means that you are in charge. If you’ve been in charge of your own company for a while, you know that most critical and strategic decisions are ones that only you can make. If you are just starting out in entrepreneurship, you can stop asking how you should do things and keep researching the best options for you at this particular point in your life. Always keep moving forward. There is no “should,” just the best answers for you.

Any answer that is legal and good for your family can lead to a successful business model. There are so many advantages to having your own business, especially when baby arrives. There are financial benefits like business and the home-office tax deductions, deductible travel, and the option of offering insurance to your spouse through your company.There is the flexibility that you can probably build into your business to accommodate things like play dates and summer breaks. There is the fact that you need not rely on your spouse for financial support or credit approval.

There is the fact that you can have continuous employment and not be concerned about the gaps in your resume. There is the possibility of portability of your business should you want to or need to move. And there is the pure satisfaction that you are building something unique, valuable and, possibly, long-lived.

You will teach your children by example.  Don’t get overwhelmed.  Read, plan, and enjoy your family.

She’s Mom Incorporated: Debra Cohen, Home Referral Network

Debra Cohen

Debra Cohen, one of the moms featured in Mom, Incorporated, initially wanted to contribute a few hundred dollars a month to her household income so she could afford to stay at home full-time with her infant daughter. Today, she not only owns Home Remedies of NY, Inc., but she’s created a nationwide network of independent referral companies using her business model. We asked her to tell us more about her company.

MomIncorporated: Provide a quick synopsis of the steps you took to get the business going.
First, I informally interviewed a few contractors and homeowners in my area to see if they’d be interested in using this type of service.  Once I felt confident about my idea, I brainstormed a business name. Once I came up with the name “Home Remedies,” I knew there was no turning back. Naming my business somehow gave it an identity of its own.

I interviewed lawyers, accountants, insurance agents and contractors to get their input on liability issues and the best way to structure my company. I also asked them if they’d be willing to be a part of my Board of Advisors so that I could turn to them with questions as I launched my business.

With a $5,000 loan from my husband’s retirement savings plan, I created my legal structure, bought a computer and set up my home office in my basement (adjacent to my daughter’s playroom).

To build my initial contractor base, I networked with real estate and home-improvement-related professionals in my community to find reliable contractors. I screened each one of them based on the feedback I’d received from my Board of Advisors and my own research.

To create my marketing materials, I hired a retired senior citizen (who used to work as a graphic artist) to help design my logo. A colleague from my job in corporate America helped me write and design my direct-mail campaign. I did some research to find a mailing list that would target my prospective customers and, within three months, I was in business.

MomIncorporated: What were the biggest challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them? 
Debra: My biggest challenges were that 1) my husband and I had just moved and were new to the community and 2) I love to decorate and renovate, but I didn’t have any technical home-improvement experience at all.

In hindsight, these were actually my biggest assets:

  1. Not knowing anyone forced me to get out and network.
  2. I realized that my area of expertise wasn’t in the technical aspects of home improvement. My contractors are the experts in their field and really don’t like third-party interference when it comes to their trade. My expertise is in sales and marketing, which is where most contractors fall short.

MomIncorporated: You’ve been in business 15 years. What has changed – and what remains the same?
Debra: Ironically, the core of my business has remained the same. This is still a people business, built on relationships with both my contractors and my homeowners.

Also, over the course of 15 years, I’ve worked through quite a few changes in the economy, and this business has remained recession-proof.  People will always invest in their homes but, in a down economy, they take on more moderate projects and are a lot more careful where they spend their renovating dollars.

Also, homeowners who once thought they would upgrade to a larger home are staying put and renovating instead.

Mom Incorporated: Which is now your primary business – the referral business, or the business opportunity for others starting their own business?
Debra: I would say it’s a 60/40 split. I spend approximately 60 percent of my time consulting with new HRN owners.

MomIncorporated: What’s the difference between running the business on your own – and helping others start and run their own businesses?
Debra: Both are gratifying because I get to help people in two different ways, but I do have a passion for business and really enjoy the consulting side.  Also, each HRN owner brings a unique personality to his or her business, and I find that I learn new things from them as well.

MomIncorporated: What questions are the most frequent from those who buy your startup packages?

  • What happens if a contractor does a bad job? If a homeowner isn’t happy with a job, then the HRN owner’s role is to facilitate communication between the contractor and the homeowner so that the job is completed to the homeowner’s satisfaction.
  • Is it hard to get contractors on board? Since there are no upfront fees, contractors are pretty open to working with my HRN.
  • What size commissions should I charge? Commissions can range from 6 percent to 20 percent, depending on the size of the job.  In some cases, I take a flat finder’s fee.
  • How large of a market should I plan to cover? This is really a local business.  Contractors don’t want to travel too far outside their immediate area for a job.  The quality of the market is more important than the size, and it’s better to start local so you can keep tabs on your contractors and their jobs’ status.
  • What are the operating expenses in the first year? This is a very big word-of-mouth business, and operating expenses are minimal.  Basic month-to-month expenses include a phone, computer, mailing list and postage.  On average, I spend about $250 to $300 per month.

MomIncorporated: What are you top tips for a mom who wants to start a home-based business?

  1. Chose a business that allows you to do something you love on a day-to-day basis, and you’ll have a much greater chance of success.
  2. Working from home can be challenging, especially if you have small children.  To work efficiently and maintain a balance, try and break your day into blocks of time devoted exclusively to your business, your family and (most important) yourself.
  3. Owning and operating your own business requires you to wear a lot of different hats (in addition to being a mom), and it’s impossible to be an expert at everything.  Outsource the tasks that don’t fall within your area of expertise, and focus on the money-making aspects of your business.