An article on home-based businesses in Monday's Washington Business said Aimee Correnti and Kristen Faett, the owners of Correnti & Co., call a 12-year-old neighbor to watch their children when they have to run out to client sites. The neighbor watches the children only when the women are home; a family member baby-sits when they have to leave the children at home. (Published 10/07/1999)

At first glance, Kristen Faett and Aimee Correnti, founders of Correnti & Co., work in an atmosphere that would force Mister Rogers to swear off children.

The two, who run their event planning and gift company from Faett's new Ashburn home, answer phones, prepare orders, craft elaborate gift baskets and often entertain clients, all while caring for their collective children. Together they have five (although it always seems like more) under the age of 8.

At any time during the workday, 2 1/2-year-old Shane Faett (a k a "the Monster") is likely to empty the trash can over his head during a phone call. Correnti's 2-year-old, Nicolas, prefers sneaking upstairs to the bathtub to turn on the water.

It may appear that Faett and Correnti have failed to strike the elusive balance between work and family. But to them and to many home-based entrepreneurs, balance is an outdated notion. Today, it's all about blending.

Faett and Correnti may be an extreme example of the blurring lines between work and family, but as the home-based business and telecommuting scene matures, "there are some people who think it's a perfect solution to have the two mixed," said Alice Bredin, a New York-based columnist and author of two books on working at home.

There are about 23.8 million home offices (offices used by telecommuters and entrepreneurs) in the country, according to International Data Corp., up from 8.7 million in 1989. Of people who work at home, 49.6 percent have children under the age of 18.

According to the Department of Labor, 11 percent of households in the Washington area have a home office.

"I think that when people first started talking about home offices, it was always around the idea of how do you keep yourself from being distracted," Bredin said. Now a growing number find flexibility is the key, that "it's not such a bad thing to integrate things more closely."

The ways in which home-based entrepreneurs choose to blend work and home vary. For some, it means answering the phone with one hand and feeding a baby with the other. For others it may mean involving spouses, children, even parents in business tasks.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

For Gayle Young-Monroe, owner of Positive Organizations Inc. -- a consulting company whose specialty is managing change -- working at home means bringing the family closer together.

Her husband, Steve Monroe, a programmer, also works from the couple's Sterling home. His "office" is in the corner of an unfinished basement, two feet from the washing machine and dryer, while she occupies two converted upstairs bedrooms. He hasn't bothered to decorate, as he will soon reenter a corporate world that is willing to bestow on techies like himself many more benefits than he could get working on his own.

Having him around has been a major benefit, Young-Monroe said, sitting in her office, dressed comfortably in black slacks, purple sweater and stocking feet.

"He's my computer support," she said. While preparing training sessions, it isn't uncommon for her to turn to her computer, adorned with brightly colored stickers, and dash off a quick e-mail to her husband, who has cleverly networked all eight of the household's PCs. Because he is often on the World Wide Web anyway, he is usually happy to pull up information for her on customer support or whatever the topic may be.

The Monroes respect each other's space when it comes to work, and Steve often works at client sites. But the couple, former high school sweethearts from Kansas, also take advantage of their setup.

"What [has been] great about both of us working from home is we would say, `You know what, there's a 4 o'clock movie, let's go see it.' "

Personal trainer Fred Foster's wife, Vanessa, works outside the home. But her involvement in his home-based business has helped ease her mind about the family's finances.

"The biggest [problem] right now is when it comes to finances," Fred Foster said. Since he started his company three months ago, he and his wife -- and occasionally their 15-year-old daughter -- have had almost daily discussions about money. "In the old days, they knew I got paid on such and such a day," he said. "Now it's like, `Well, we know you're getting money, but . . .' "

Rather than shelter his spouse from the ups and downs of his cash flow, he asked her to help him. "She's actually what I consider my controller," he said. He regularly fills her in on when he expects to be paid, how much, and what he might need to spend. That way, she can remind him when certain clients are late in paying him.

The situation gives Vanessa Foster, an account executive for an insurance broker, peace of mind and helps her husband pay better attention to his finances.

"It fit her personality, and it fit our lifestyle," he said of his wife's role. Granted, there can be tension, he said -- but not as much as if he kept her in the dark.

Including family members in business activities can help create tight bonds. Young-Monroe often enlists her 24-year-old daughter, Heather, to help design marketing materials. Working together turns into an occasion, Young-Monroe said. "We get the music going, and it's better than if we were in front of the TV or at the movie theater."

Heather Monroe gets more than mother-daughter bonding out of the deal. Her mother keeps track of her time. But usually, the hours do not yield much of a payoff, "because she typically owes me money," Young-Monroe laughs.

CUSTOM BLENDING

And because "you don't get to be in this house without helping me one way or another," Young-Monroe has even had her parents help when they come to town. Her father spent his entire career with PepsiCo Inc., working his way from truck driver to vendor repairman. Her mother worked in a local grocery store. They both thought being part of such a modern situation was a kick, Young-Monroe said, even if they were only helping their daughter count out candy for favor bags for her training classes.

"Creating boundaries is an old story," Bredin said. "The bigger story is, there's no real right way" to run a home business.

Take Correnti and Faett. Beneath the chaotic surface, the sisters-in-law have developed simple but solid methods of mixing work and child care that have allowed them to grow a company impressive enough to woo clients such as America Online Inc. and a member of the Washington Redskins.

"Sometimes we keep candy in every corner of the house," Faett said. That way, wherever she picks up the cordless phone, there is a pacifier within easy reach.

"If we get a call, one of us will entertain," Faett explained.

"Conference calls are the hardest, though," Correnti added.

In emergencies, times when they must rush out to a client site, the women often call a trustworthy 12-year-old girl who lives up the street.

To Correnti and Faett, spending time with their children is worth the occasional inconvenience.

"I love being with the kids," Correnti explained as a couple of them wandered over to the dining room table to get in on the conversation. A huge stress reliever, she added, "is laying down on the floor and wrestling one of the kids."

Eight-year-old Jordan Faett agrees that having total access to Mom when he comes home from the third grade is great.

"She can sometimes wrestle me, which I like," explained Jordan, who hopes to someday chase twisters for a living, although he is not quite sure that "tornado chaser" is a real job.

His cousin, 4-year-old Katie, also likes the arrangement. She is often called upon to help label gift boxes while her mother works. "I like to watch her," she said, the wings on her butterfly hair clip fluttering as she bounces around.

Katie has decided she would like to own her own business. "I think a kids company," she said, "with toys and toys and toys and toys."

Watching a parent happy at work can be a great introduction to the business world for children, said Katherine Crowley, a psychotherapist and small-business consultant who specializes in self-employment.

One of the pitfalls, however, is being able to explain the difference between work time and play time to younger children.

Some parents do this through games. Correnti and Faett often play "the quiet game" when a client has to come over: The first child to talk loses.

Crowley knows one father who keeps a big sketch pad on the door to his home office. If his children want to talk to him, they have to draw a picture of what they want to discuss and then knock. Dad does not have to open right away, but the kids know he will look as soon as he can take a break.

Michael Arndt, a personal chef and Faett's neighbor in Ashburn, found it difficult to explain to his 7-year-old the importance of a work phone call. "The hardest is getting him to understand that when I'm on the phone it's a professional phone call and that having a kid screaming in the background isn't really professional," said the single father.

NO CHILD'S PLAY

One solution Arndt discovered was a distinct "identity ring" for his business telephone line that lets Brian know right away when a call is important. The distinct ring also keeps Brian from becoming an accidental receptionist. "He hears that and lets it go," Arndt said.

Arndt has a separate office in his house. When he is not cooking, he often uses it to prepare menus or do administrative tasks for his business, Culinary Convenience. But for the most part, he and Brian hang out together around the house. If the clients approve, Arndt sometimes brings Brian along on jobs. That way, "he can visualize where I'm going" on the nights he has to stay home with a sitter, Arndt said.

Mixing kids and clients is always risky. "You have to carve out what works for you and what works for your clients," Bredin said. "Some people think it's neat when your kids are in the background, but some people are not going to think that's cool."

Correnti and Faett do not take chances. "We tell everyone upfront," Correnti said. So far, most of their clients have been accepting, and some of them go out of their way to make the women's lives easier.

"We were helping with an event at the Morino Institute, and for meetings they would call and say, `Now can you get a babysitter?' " Correnti said with a laugh.

Of course, she and Faett are the first to admit their lifestyles are exhausting. "A treat for me is even just going to Wal-Mart," Correnti sighed, as Faett sat with the children around a coffee table with an extra-thick glass top that doubles as a dance floor for the little ones.

Although Correnti's husband, David, occasionally helps the women on big jobs, Faett said she rarely spends time with her husband, Kirk, a car salesman who works 12-hour days.

And there are other drawbacks, as well. It would be "scary" to have to set up a Web site, Correnti said. "Managing kids, managing the business -- couldn't handle that step right now," she said, adding that any site they put up would have to be good enough to impress their high-tech clients.

David Correnti, who had just walked in the door, took 4 1/2-month-old Avery and got her ready for the drive back to his and Aimee's house in Leesburg.

Avery is the most subdued of the bunch. Aunt Kristen Faett is convinced this was only because of divine intervention.

"Somebody knew we needed a good baby or we never would have made it," Faett said.