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Four changes that would help home-based businesses

Wednesday, 30 January 2013 | By Oliver Milman

feature-home-biz-thumbThey are a vital, but often invisible part of the Australian economy – soloists who work from home, often in a spare room, contributing innovation and wealth well away from the top end of town.


Running a business from home can provide great freedom and flexibility, but it also throws up challenges, as the International Work At Home Person Week, which kicks off next week, will look to highlight.


So what would be on the home-based business industry wish list? Here are four things that would help boost these soloists:



1. A bit of legislative help


The National Business Name Register only began in May last year but is already causing headaches for home-based businesses, which are required to include a physical address on the register.


The system replaces the previous state and territory services so that businesses only need to register their name with a single national register.


The new regime presents a security issue for home-based start-ups, which have to give their home address rather than a PO Box. You can use your accountant’s address, but this incurs a fee.


Peter Strong, executive director of the Council of Small Business of Australia, told StartupSmart last year: “That was something ASIC didn’t foresee and they have to address that. So we have told them about it as that is a concern for privacy, especially for women working from home.”


Cas McCullough, the founder of home-based businesses Mumatopia and Support a Work At Home Person, adds: “I recently registered another business name and was shocked that I had to make my home address public online in relation to my business.”


“What’s to stop someone from stalking me at home? Governments should be protecting home-based business owners, not hanging them out to dry and leaving them vulnerable.”



2. A peak body


There is a peak body for just about every trade you can think of in Australia, along with the big hitting business lobby groups such as the Australian Industry Group and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.


But while businesses in manufacturing or retail have their own dedicated peak body, there is no such help on hand for home-based businesses.


While the Council of Small Business of Australia often rails against the big business focus of government, it appears that sole traders operating from the spare bedroom or kitchen table are barely visible even to the SME community.


“There is no peak industry body for home-based businesses in Australia,” says McCullough.


“Many non-employing micro business owners simply don’t have time to lobby for change and they wouldn’t know who to go to anyway.”


Given that soloists are often targeted by scams and ripped off by service providers that see them as an easy mark, it’s clear that this group needs someone in their corner.


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3. A mentorship strategy


Working from home can be a taxing, isolating experience. Of course, there are upsides, too – you get to be your own boss and set your own schedule.


But this solo journey can leave home-based entrepreneurs without proper mentorship. Without the time to go out and make new contacts, or to bring in fresh blood to the business, soloists can struggle to get a diverse set of ideas.


Ventures such as Co-Founder Speed Date and the numerous online forums that link businesses are helping the isolated to reach out, but more needs to be done.


How about a national program of mentorship that links soloists to experienced business leaders? Rather than require participants to go to a Business Enterprise Centre or call the small business hotline, it could be tailored to their needs, meeting in neutral locations or in more formalised group settings.



4. Help with growing pains


Adelaide-based entrepreneur Sue McKay made a sensible choice when launching her administrative assistance firm Kick It To Me in 2005 – she based the business at home.


But when she expanded the brand to cover various other areas – from an online op shop to an accommodation service – she found that her business had suddenly taken over her home.


“The home office had become jam-packed and the accommodation business needed space for linen and the breakfast goods,” she told StartupSmart last year.


“We used the spare bedroom and then gradually filled the rest of the house. The washing machine was on non-stop and I’d have to do ironing at night in front of the TV.”


“The op shop took up the second bedroom, meaning that four rooms of the house were taken up by the business.”


“As much as I loved the business, I started resenting it. I realise that I couldn’t grow the business without getting premises. I just couldn’t cope with linen baskets being on the dining room table all the time.”


Fortunately, McKay managed to find the right office space for the business, while retaining some of the home-based activity that appealed to her in the first place.


But it is often a big leap for soloists to take. You’re moving from your spare room to signing a lease that commits you to commercial rents.


A halfway house of a co-working space can be the best way to manage this change. There are now a number of such communal spaces, such as The Hub in Melbourne and Fishburners in Sydney. But there needs to be more in order to cover the wide spread of home-working entrepreneurs.