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Uncovering the world of 'hidden tech'

  • Story Highlights
  • Author-consultant Amy Zuckerman saw tech companies operating out of homes
  • She started a Web site for these home-based, "hidden tech" business owners
  • Communication is a major challenge with satellite work force, she says
  • Questions range from health insurance and tech support to renting space
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(CNN) -- The last time Amy Zuckerman, 53, entered a workplace as a full-time employee was February 1992. Once a journalist, she is now an author, freelance writer, consultant and owner of her own content and marketing business.

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Amy Zuckerman: "Half the workforce at one point or another may be maybe working virtually and not even realize it."

In the late 1990s she noticed more and more tech companies springing up in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts. "In my neighborhood ... I found six tech companies in these modern contemporary homes," Zuckerman said. "I was flabbergasted. This was not what this neighborhood was known for."

She called it "hidden tech" and established a networking and educational Web site in 2001 for mostly home-based, high-tech business owners. CNN spoke with Zuckerman to find out more about the world of "hidden tech."

CNN: What's the state of "hidden tech" business in America these days?

Zuckerman: You have full-time people who work virtually, and that's a new trend. Some pretty large companies are letting portions of their work force work from home or small offices to save money on energy, and I suspect this trend will grow. Teleworkers are people who may go into the office once or twice a week, but they work from home, so they are part of this whole equation.

Then you have the person like me who works from home and has a lot of backup support but I never see them and I never see my clients. But the fact is I'm working virtually because I'm alone but I'm managing my work through technology. Of this sector, probably right now the home based is probably largest, we have no proof of that because there is no data.

And then you have people who are different types of entrepreneurs. Of the people I've interviewed ... roughly 30 percent won't tell you that they're home-based because they rent space. They'll have a home office too, but they won't think of themselves as home-based company ... I call them hybrids.

CNN: Are there difficulties specific to having a satellite work force?

Zuckerman: There's always difficulties. Communication is really tough in managing, no matter if you see a person or not. People are people and communication is one of the toughest things we have to do as human beings.

Well, imagine if you never see a person, or rarely. I do see a couple of my subcontractors, I see some of my researchers, they live around here. But one of my guys is in North Carolina and the woman who's proofing for me is down in Tucson. You have to be really, really good at communicating. And I work at it, it's tough. You have to know when to use e-mail, when to not use e-mail, when to pick up a phone, when to get on an airplane even, and see someone face to face.

Cause when you're missing that face-to-face a lot of things get lost. E-mail is a curse and it's also a treasure. I think that probably through the Web and e-mail and broadband, I handle three times what I did when I first started out. In my first business in 1992 I was using a fax machine and a telephone and a computer -- for my clients I was actually overnighting disks. ... Managing remotely is an art, and it really involves knowing how to communicate clearly with people.

CNN: What's the most common question home-based business owners ask you?

Zuckerman: People just starting out really haven't a clue. My friend Marge ... I spent five days with her, transitioning her to start a business. What I'm understanding now is when you're looking at the transitioning baby boomers, 76 to 78 million of us, and stats are showing 50 to 75 percent will want to go out on their own and keep working, I find when people work in-house their whole career, they don't have a clue where to begin.

So the first thing is, "What do I do?" They're in shock. If they have an idea then their next question is, "How do I make that happen?" They don't know how to structure their ideas into a business plan. How to get health insurance -- that's a real big one for people starting out, and it's a real serious one. You have to have a good accountant and be really good at saving and investing. So ... health insurance is one of the first [questions] people ask me about if they're starting out.

And there's lots of business questions: What do I do about tech support? Do I hire someone? Should I work at home or should I rent space? And then you get into, "Is my idea good?" I show people how to break their ideas up with my "time, money, passion, energy and patience" formula. It seems to be that those are really crucial elements, and if they line up you might have a winner.

CNN: How big or small can virtual businesses be? Many people assume that home-based businesses are generally small mom-and-pop outfits, but is that really true?

Zuckerman: One reason I say I'm a virtual business entrepreneur is that there's this prejudice about home-based businesses, that they're hobbyists. And some are, that's great. I think particularly for retirees who are going to keep working, the fact that they can work out of their home, or ... young mothers....[is a] huge advantage for men and women.

In terms of size, there are major, major corporations ... that have home workers. There's the hybrids ... [that] have their sales force and marketing work out of their homes or small offices. The biggest one I discovered is this guy in Philly, a software designer ... this guy had hundreds of employees nationwide doing software ... several hundred employees is pretty big in operating and managing remotely.

The truck world is operating virtually all the time and no one ever thinks of that. Fleets of thousands of drivers out on the road using all kinds of remote technology you can imagine. They're using laptop PCs, they're doing all sorts of work and communicating back to the base. This is an example of a literally virtual business on the road all the time. Nowadays the technology and data transmission going on in the trucking industry is really phenomenal. They're being asked to gather much more information than they used to. Truck drivers on their own, they're operating virtually.

Think of all the business executives who are road warriors, who are working virtually constantly in airplanes, airports, trains. Half the workforce at one point or another may be maybe working virtually and not even realize it. So that's why I'm saying this trend is so much bigger than home-based. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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