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Lawyer-therapist couple finds success at home

  • Story Highlights
  • Husband and wife merge disparate careers at home by writing books
  • Home-based businesses can be successful right away or take years to build
  • Two home-based worker personalities: segregators and integrators
  • A key element to a successful home-based business is marketing
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(CNN) -- CNN spoke with radio show hosts, authors, consultants and home-based business owners Paul and Sarah Edwards to find out some of their hard-learned secrets to being successful while working from home.

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Paul and Sarah Edwards host an Internet-based radio show advising home-based business owners.

Now in their 60s, the Pine Mountain, California-based home-business experts have seen the industry flourish since they started their first enterprises in their home in the 1970s.

CNN: How did you both start working from home?

Sarah: I was the first one to go home because we had a young son and I was working for the Headstart program in child development, and it didn't make much sense to me that I was working in that field and I never saw my son in the daylight. I felt badly about it and then I went to a meeting in the office of one of our outside consultants, and it was in his home. And this was not something most people did or even knew about, and I thought, "Wow, this is fantastic! This is what I want to do." So it took me a while to figure it out, but I went back to school while I was working so I could become a psychotherapist and I opened my practice in my home.

Paul: I opened up a public affairs consulting firm and I did the thing that people usually do and opened up an office downtown. I wouldn't bring my work home; instead I would do my work at home and then bring it downtown to where my secretary was. And then one day it made sense to me. I said to myself, "Why am I doing this?" Actually, it was in order to get overhead: I had a government contract at the time, they wouldn't recognize expenses of a home office, but that changed, and I said, "I don't have to do this anymore!"

Sarah: We had two separate businesses originally. It wasn't until we started writing our book, "Writing From Home," that we started blending our work. We had always wanted to do that and we were always trying to think of ways that we could, but Paul was a lawyer and I was a psychotherapist and I didn't really want to be a legal assistant. And he took some various psychotherapy courses and he wasn't really interested in that, so when we decided to write the book that's when we started merging our work, and I would say by 1985 we were working in the same business. We've written 16 books, we just finished our 17th book, and so I guess you could say we were writers.

CNN: How long did it take until you considered your home-based businesses successful?

Paul: We were fortunate. I, in my first year, made more money than I'd ever made as an employee, and that including being president and CEO of a non-profit organization. Part of that was I was able to immediately move into some contracts, in fact I subcontracted for the organization I had been president of. They needed a skill set that I had, and that gave me a real head start. In fact that was the government contract I mentioned.

Sarah: It took me longer than I thought it would, because I knew nothing about marketing. In psychotherapy you weren't supposed to advertise, it was frowned upon. So as a result I had no clients! So having just starting out, I had to go take a job again while I built out my practice. I felt like I was a failure until one of my mentors, a psychiatrist from North Carolina, told me -- I told him, "I really feel like I'm in the wrong field, I don't know what I'm doing, I think I failed here." And he said, "Well, how long have you been doing this?" I said two years. And he said, "Well, it takes six years to establish a self-sustaining practice." And I said, "Oh!" and I felt much better. And I would say it took five or six years, but then we moved and had to start all over again. I would say it depends entirely on the business. Like Paul said, you could start out running, or it can be something you have to build slowly over time.

CNN: What about your books?

Paul: Oh, no, that was a long, long struggle.

Sarah: Paul and I have this tendency: We're always about five years ahead on everything. So we were sure that it would be instantly a best seller. ... And let's see, it came out in 1985, and it didn't really take off until 1990.

CNN: How is working from home because you own a home-based business similar or different from telecommuting?

Sarah: They're similar, in terms of having the benefit of making it easier for you to balance home and work, but there also is that challenge of doing that balancing: being sure that you get to work, staying organized. It's equally important whether you're working at home for yourself or someone else. Either way you're not going to be successful if you can't be sure that you're going to get your work done.

Paul: With telework or telecommuting, because you get a paycheck, you're not dealing with cash flow problems, and you may be when you're on your own. That makes a world of difference in terms of how you spend your time, because you need to spend a great deal of your time when you're on your own marketing. When you're a teleworker, or telecommuter, presumably you're able to spend almost all your time doing the work of your employer. This is why studies over the years have shown that people who are telecommuting are more productive at home than they are at an office. At the same time they have to pay attention to maintaining contacts, and that takes time.

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

Paul: The easy answer to that is, "What can I do?"

Sarah: Before they're in business, it's, "What are the hot businesses?" Which is always another trap that people get into. Yes you do have to have something that people want, that's in demand right now, but you can't just follow what's hot because what's hot right now could be cool later, so it has to be something you enjoy and are willing to keep going at, so that's the most common question we get asked overall. But in business, it's more a matter of people wanting to know, "How do I get business?"

CNN: So what's the answer?

Sarah: In the beginning we started out saying you have to learn to sell. But then we did a magazine article where we interviewed 101 home businesses, and what we noticed is that some of them didn't know how to sell at all, and the secret was finding ways to market yourself. The key is to do things that give you exposure and make people aware of you that you would be very comfortable doing in the normal course of who you are and what you do instead of trying to become an expert cold caller, if that's not your thing.

And when you start out, until you have clients, you're marketing 100 percent of the time. Hopefully that can go down to as low as 20 percent of the time, but you always have to do it all the time. Because if you don't, you say, "Oh I'm doing great, I'm doing fine," like someone we were just consulting with yesterday. He's been doing well for several years but he was getting 80 percent of his income from one client who decided to hire someone in-house. Suddenly he is in trouble.

Paul: And that's always a problem. It's very tempting to rely on one client, but any time you get over half your business coming from one source you are very vulnerable.

CNN: What are the qualities of a successful home office?

Sarah: We used to say you needed a separate room with a sound, solid door. Or like we do: We have a separate floor, our lower level has all the offices, and we assumed that that was the best way to work so that you wouldn't have interruptions and distractions and such. But [a co-author of ours did a study of over 500 work-at-home parents] and guess what? There are two different types of people, segregators and integrators. Integrators just integrate their families and daily life in with their work, and the home office is not a separate entity. And then there are segregators, like ourselves. And so the key to having a successful home office is really knowing what your style is. And it also relates a little bit to your type of business, because obviously you can't have an integrated psychotherapy practice, it's got to be separate.

Paul: And that study was done a couple years ago. If it were done today it would have a third category, which is people who have no office at all. Like we interviewed somebody on our radio show last night, and she operates from a backpack and goes to Starbucks and does her work. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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