Robert Mayo gets to the office most mornings by 7: 15, and sometimes works well into the night designing software and angling for clients. But he manages to meet his family in the kitchen for lunch, rarely has to wear a tie and relishes the breaks he takes with his children at the backyard swing set. All without the hassles of a daily commute.
Mayo is no longer an anomaly. He's part of a mushrooming army of former clock-punchers who have left the meetings and the power wardrobes behind -- to run businesses from home. About 25 million people are working from spare bedrooms, paneled basements and converted garages. Their number is swelling by more than a million a year.
"I couldn't see doing it any other way," said Mayo, who left a large corporation and a series of smaller companies before becoming his own boss in his Eldersburg basement.
Many home-based business owners crave independence and flexibility. Others want to shed their corporate lifestyles -- long commutes, endless meetings, rigid schedules. Still others have been forced into it after losing jobs to downsizing. They all hope to control their own destinies.
"We hear over and over again, 'I want more control of my life and schedule, to determine when I work and what the priorities are,' " said Paul Edwards, an author and home-based business expert.
But control comes at a price. Starting a small business is always risky, especially when it means giving up a regular paycheck and benefits. Working from home presents its own challenges -- balancing family and work under one roof, managing time and staying motivated amid distractions, overcoming feelings of isolation, marketing from the relative obscurity of a home.
Despite the hurdles, advances in computers, fax machines and the Internet have opened possibilities that few people imagined a generation ago. Technology has created a work force of Web masters, computer consultants and desktop publishers, while an overworked, over-stressed society demands image consultants, meeting planners, personal organizers and medical claims servicers. Those who offer such services or products from their homes are becoming a business force.
The phenomenon has spawned a cottage industry of consultants, associations, how-to books and magazines targeting home-based business owners. Owners of home-based businesses have become more organized, lobbying to improve what is viewed as a less-than-professional image and get equal treatment in such areas as taxes, zoning and health care.
Provisions of a federal budget balancing tax bill -- signed into law by President Clinton several days ago -- could help level the playing field, small business proponents say. One key provision would give thousands of home-based businesses the ability to deduct the costs of their work space, just as a business owner renting a storefront does.
"People think it's a bunch of little old ladies knitting," said Beverley Williams, who heads the American Association of Home-Based Businesses in Rockville. "There still are people who think, number one, they don't work, two, they're not making money, and three, they just want to stay home with their children. None of those are true. Most people say they work a lot more than they've ever worked."
In reality, many home businesses eventually outgrow the basement. Analysts estimate that nearly a fifth of all small businesses with 50 or fewer employees started in someone's home. And some make it even bigger -- the founders of Baskin-Robbins, Domino's Pizza, Pepperidge Farms, Estee Lauder cosmetics, Microsoft and SOS scouring pads, to name a few.
In 1995, members of the home-based business association earned an average gross income of $34,500, and were expected to earn an average $42,300 last year, according to a survey for the association.
And the stay-at-home work force has grown steadily since the mid-1980s, with the number of income-generating offices up to 13.1 million in 1996 from 12.2 million in 1995. The number of part-time businesses, meanwhile, rose to 11.8 million from 10.8 million. Those numbers are expected to increase by about 10 percent each year, at least through the end of the decade.
The idea of working for herself first occurred to Marcela Sardi six years ago. An interior designer with a large architectural firm in New Orleans, she found she needed more time for her daughters, then ages 10 and 11. She established her own business -- Sardi Design -- so she could schedule her work around her daughters' school hours and activities.
"You can arrange your time and appointments," said Sardi, now re-establishing Sardi Design in Lutherville, where her family moved two years ago. Her home also offers a setting to showcase her interior design work to potential commercial and residential clients, while an upstairs bedroom, outfitted with computer and drafting table, serves as her work space.
"When I was working in an office, I had to be there at 8 a.m.," Sardi said. "Working at home gave me flexibility. But it's good and bad -- your work is always here."
Unlike Sardi, Daniel Greene of Westminster left corporate life unwillingly, a victim of downsizing at a pharmaceutical company in 1991. The former senior executive was 50 and experiencing deja-vu. Five years earlier, he'd lost a job with another company after a merger.
"I thought, 'Here we go again,' " he said. After a months-long, fruitless job search, "I realized our society or our work market has changed in that the opportunity in the corporations is very, very reduced. What you're seeing is [that] out-sourcing of talent is the norm now."
He'd never given serious thought to telemarketing. But that began to look more appealing -- and a better bet for his future than a corporate job. He began laying the groundwork for a home business but kept job hunting at first.
"After five years, I still miss the structure of the corporate world, but does it slow me down or hold me back? No," said Greene, whose business, Advanced Telecommunications, finds telephone service customers for American Communications Networks, which does marketing for larger companies. "I don't have the anxiety of how am I going to make the bills at the end of the month."
But many home-based business owners live with such anxiety, especially in a venture's early stages. Mayo, the Eldersburg software designer, knows the tribulations well. He financed much of the $15,000 start-up cost for VoiceLogic Corp. himself, buying his third computer, a notebook computer, a fax machine, software, business cards and stationary using savings and credit cards. And for most of last year he did not pay himself a salary.
His workweek stretched to 50 or 60 hours. He traveled around calling on potential customers and demonstrating his product, drawing from contacts he'd made on previous jobs. A couple of evenings a month were spent networking at business functions or groups. In between, he designed software for his phone systems, which allow callers to perform various functions through a voice menu. His family relied for income on his wife's job as a part-time high school teacher. He nearly lost hope, at one point resorting to borrowing $300 from his son's savings account to pay the mortgage.
"Writing software is the easiest part," he said. "Trying to sell it is the hardest part. You have to have the personality for it. A lot of people are not predisposed to go out and be outgoing."
His break came after installing a phone system for free at Frederick Trading Co., a former customer, in exchange for using its system as a reference. In January, the phone started ringing. Since then, he's even turned away work -- and gotten the daily routine to a science.
In the mornings and early afternoons, his wife keeps the boys, ages 3 and 1, upstairs or outside and away from the basement playroom adjacent to his office. Mayo attempts to do most of his work then.
Around 6 or 6: 30, he stops working. "There's no reason why I can't take two or three hours to be with my family and then return to what I was doing," Mayo said.
He's learned when to let the answering machine get the phone or discreetly tell a client he'll call him back -- when one of the children begins to cry or fight over a toy. And he's learned he still needs to occasionally go out to lunch, just to feel part of the business world.
But some people simply can't adapt to that lifestyle. Missing the comaraderie or creative energy they once found in an office environment, they work toward either expanding their business outside the home or abandoning it altogether, said Raymond Boggs, home office program director for Framingham, Mass., consultant International Data Corp.
"They don't have the discipline or find it too much of a challenge to alter their work habits to fit their environment," Boggs said. "Many think of their jobs in the old way -- that it's 9 to 5 with one hour for lunch -- and that is a mistake."
Or they work too much and burn out, he said, adding, "The time for relaxation is actually time for renewal and reflection and strategic planning. If you don't take it, you're not going to be able to see the bigger picture items that will help you survive."
Others fail to realize the extent of the investment -- both financially and in the time it takes to establish a business, which might include becoming incorporated, hiring attorneys and accountants, adapting to paying business-related taxes.
But those thinking of starting a home-based business today won't find themselves at a loss for help. Edwards, the Santa Monica-based author, recalled that when he and his wife started their first book in 1980, nothing like it existed, and "none of the publishing companies was interested."
Today, the couple have written a fourth edition of "Working From Home," one of many how-to books on a topic that's also the focus of four national magazines and more than a dozen national organizations, some with their own niches -- mothers, fathers, women, executives.
For instance, the Association of Enterprising Mothers, based in a suburb of San Diego, sends new members a start-up guide to analyze skills and backgrounds and narrow down the types of businesses that work for people with children, said Tina Champagne-Egge, executive director. Williams' group, the 850-member American Association of Home-Based Businesses, offers seminars, speakers and information in areas such as choosing an accountant, pricing a product or service, using publicity and making the most of your time. The group also warns against potential money-losing scams.
Such lessons have paid off for Robin and Patrice Davidson, who say working from home has helped enhance their family life. The parents of four children rarely saw one another when they worked as hairstylists outside the home. Now, they run Revelations in Hair Design from a two-chair salon they designed to connect to their house in West Friendship.
"Unfortunately, our society has become one of two-income families, and you don't see your kids," said Patrice Davidson. "We figured we could put the business next to the house and both work and be together -- and see our children. It's been wonderful for our relationship."
The home office
Number of home-based businesses: 13.1 million
Projected average gross income for 1996: $42,300
Average age of business operator: 48
Sources: American Association of Home-Based Businesses, International Data Corp.
Pub Date: 8/17/97