Free agents, e-lancers, telecommuters. Whatever you call them, more and more people are working from home these days. The high-tech revolution has brought about not only better, cheaper and more mobile technologies but also an attitude that it is not only okay to work for yourself, it's preferred.
Of the approximately 23 million small businesses in the United States, a little more than half are based at home, according to government statistics.
Starting a company, of course, is a multifaceted process. You need to trademark a company name, find financing, and buy computers and office supplies. You might even need to hire employees and figure out how to deal with competition and the press.
We chose five sites on the World Wide Web that help with the process, from inspiration to paper clips.
I analyzed each site as a place to get information and ideas, as a source of equipment and supplies and as an electronic gathering place.
The "Work From Home" channel at iVillage (www.ivillage.com/work) is primarily aimed at "mompreneurs"--mothers who want to work out of the house.
Of the sites I reviewed, it has the liveliest community, maybe because it's not afraid to be quirky and fun. There's a sense on the site of a lot of other women out there with the same concerns.
IVillage is great at the inspiration thing. This is a good site for those who are thinking they might want to start a business but who don't know exactly what kind.
There's a section on "hot home businesses," which according to iVillage include personal chef, day trader, wedding consultant and Web designer. The site also tries to point visitors in the right direction for taking a course online and building their own home pages.
An interactive "mission statement builder" promises to produce "a written document to keep you focused on who you are and where you want to go." I tried it. Thirty minutes later, I had a vague statement that included a lot of personal goals and attributes I like and don't like. It's interesting in a new-agey way, but I'm not sure I could launch a company with it.
Smalloffice.com, a site put together by the editors of the magazines Home Office Computing and Small Business Computing and Communications, looks and feels like a news site.
In fact most of what it offers are articles from those magazines, such as a feature on "Your Home Office in 2000"--saying we'll all have broadband access, cheaper and faster computing, and voice-operated computer applications.
Other stories advise how to use job sites to hire employees, how to attract companies o your Web site and how to build banner ads. There's also a story on how to set up an office in any kind of space, and how to use feng shui, the ancient art of design used to balance energy flow, in a home office.
One good idea was a review of seven different ergonomic chairs. After reading, you can click directly through to the Web pages of the chair manufacturers.
Perhaps the best feature on the site is a listing of 200 small business associations, listed by state, and their phone numbers.
The least jazzy of these sites is Yahoo's small-business section. But what it lacks in looks it makes up for in content.
It's a little hard to find: You need to go to Yahoo, then to the business and economy section, then to small-business information.
This site moves beyond the physical setup of the office to questions such as "How do you know if you need more money?" and "Where do you get it?"
It also deals well with necessities such stamps--how to buy postage online, how to locate a particular post office and how to track packages sent via UPS and FedEx.
Yahoo has potential to build a community around its practical, common-sense advice. But the site's small business chat is disappointing. Witness:
First user: Hi.
Second user: Hello, room.
Third user: I sell computer parts.
Fourth user: Hi.
You get the idea.
But being part of Yahoo, the site has the ability to tap into some powerful parts of the Internet. For example, you can sign up to sell your small-business wares on Yahoo's auctions. And you can find out about meetings and conventions applicable to your business, listed by field and region.
Entreworld.org, from the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership in Kansas City is a virtual mini-MBA program.
More so than the other sites, it addresses the big-picture aspects of starting and building a business. The site acts as an entrepreneurial portal, offering its own content and providing links to related Web resources.
One interesting article advises those who start companies after the age of 50 to ignore the preconception that most start-up entrepreneurs are in their 20s, but warns that the role means putting the business first and missing personal events like family dinners and vacations.
Among good links to other sites are the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization (www.yeo.org); Fambiz.com, a site for owners and operators of family businesses; and BizPlanIt.com, a site all about how to write a business plan. There are also lots of links to research on the subject of small and home offices.
Okay, you need stuff.
This is not the site to inspire you to follow your dream, but because you'll have to write that dream down on paper, eventually, you'll need office supplies.
The Washington region is right now home of two of the strongest online office stores, OnlineOfficeSupplies.com, near Frederick, started by a UUNet executive Paula Jagemann, and AtYourOffice.com of Washington, run by Tom Graham.
For me, AtYourOffice.com is easier to navigate. But if I'm looking to buy, I'll check them both for choices and price.
AtYourOffice.com says it offers the lowest price on everything it sells--30,000 products and services--from ballpoint pens to paper shredders. Shipping is free on orders over $25.
I do have a couple of complaints that could send me over to OnlineOfficeSupplies.com eventually.
Some of the product photos at AtYourOffice.com are hard to make out. And while the sites tells you next to each item how much you save compared with full retail price, I'd also like to see how much I'm saving compared with the big brick-and-mortar discount stores.