When Daniel P. Reuben's employer laid him off because it had lost a defense contract two years ago, he had a choice.
He could get another job knowing that the economy was suffering and he might be laid off again, or he could give up his two-hour commute and begin selling his expertise on compact disc information storage from his North Laurel home.
Dionne Frank was forced to abandon her 15-year teaching career when she followed her husband to Clarksville from Illinois six years ago and found that area school systems were hiring only entry-level teachers. Like Reuben, she chose to begin a home-based business, sellingdata base and mailing list services. Now both are earning incomes comparable to those they left behind but with the advantage of being their own bosses and setting their own hours.
Reuben and Frank are part of a trend that regional business experts say is growing during an era in which both parents need to earn incomes, and out of the revolution in communications, which makes it possible to run a business from just about any place that has a telephone hook-up.
When the county Chamber of Commerce sponsored "Selling to the Fortune 500 Out ofYour Basement," a seminar for home-based businesses last month, Reuben, Frank and 40 other home-based business people attended. The businesses represented ranged from "voice-image consulting" to word processing to brokerage in "socially responsible investments."
Surprisingly, there were almost as many business people from Montgomery and Baltimore counties as there were from Howard, evidence that home-based businesses are growing faster than their needs can be met, said home-based public relations specialist Sarah Pick, who organized the seminar.
No data are available on the number of home-based businesses in Howard County. Nationally, 11.8 million people were running a home-based business full-time in 1990 -- 1.5 million more than the year before -- according to research done by Link Resources of New York.
The seminar's issues ranged from dealing with "neighborhood Nazis" --people who report violations of property covenants in Columbia neighborhoods -- to pumping up one's psyche.
"Get up in the morning andconvince yourself, 'No, I'm not going to go out of business today,' " advised Softaid Inc.'s Jack Ganssle, whose $1 million company started seven years ago as a home-based operation. Operating a home business often means operating very close to the brink, he said.
That makes it all the more important to keep the stress of running a business from interfering with the rest of life, reminded Bob Wood of the Robert W. Wood Co., facility planners and consultants in Columbia.
"We've physically separated the home and the business, so I can say I'm at work or I'm at home," he said.
The tendency is for the trappings of the business to spill from the designated part of the basementor spare bedroom into the living areas of the house, Wood said, "andit's really hard to operate a family under those circumstances."
Wood's three-room suite, equipped with a fax machine, postage meter, two printers, a memory typewriter and drawing boards, has an outside entrance.
"I can walk upstairs, but if I want to turn around and walk back in, I've got to use a key," he added.
Seminars like the chamber's are not just to inform, as management consultant Harvey S. Caras reminded his audience, but to provide a forum in which these shoe-string entrepreneurs can promote their enterprises.
"Spending a lot of money putting ads in magazines is a total waste of time," he warned, encouraging the business people to instead "stand up in front of groups and talk to people."
There are hundreds of groups "crying out for people to talk to them about subjects of interest to them,"he said. Home-base business people can find them in the telephone book and through other groups such as the Chamber of Commerce.
"Manyof them I just put on my mailing list; I send them my newsletter. Other times, I write a letter of introduction," and after a few speaking engagements, word-of-mouth referrals start to come in, Caras said.
Although business people should not hide the fact that they're home-based, he said he wouldn't suggest advertising it either.
The way the phone is answered, for example, can make all the difference when trying to impress a client. Caras said his big clients don't like talking to answering machines, and he encourages home business owners to get one of the many answering services now offered by telephone companies.
Image is important, especially when large businesses sometimes frown on home-based businesses.
Frank knows that well. She told the group about a potential client she had talked to for months about her data base and mailing list services. The problem came when the woman asked Frank when she could come out and see her "facility."
"I said, well, I'd be happy to come out and make her a cup of tea,but currently there was no mailing job in the house. She said, 'Oh, you're a home-based business,' and said she had another facility to look at."
Frank didn't hear from the woman for another month, untilshe had a problem getting the same service from a "facility." The woman has hired her for several jobs since, Frank said.
TIPS FOR ASPIRING HOME BUSINESS PERSONS
* Be on good terms with your neighbors; let them use your copier and fax machine. If they don't approve, they could invoke property covenants to force you out of business.
* Speak to groups about your area of expertise. Many trade associations and business groups are anxious to find speakers and some even offer fees to speakers.
* Establish strict guidelines for the use of the telephone. Don't leave callers on hold for lengthy periods and try toavoid machine-answered calls. Your company's reputation could be made or broken on the phone.
* Don't hide the fact that your businessis home-based, but don't advertise it, either.
* Ask business people doing similar work about their equipment before deciding what to buy. This could prevent unnecessary expenditures or getting stuck with inadequate equipment. Bernadette Grey, editor of Home Office Computing magazine, recommends a fax machine and a laser or ink-jet printerfor most businesses.
* Try to establish a physical and mental barrier between work and home environments. When work is done for the day, avoid letting it spill into your private life.