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Your Home Office
Will the Internet make your home business obsolete?
By Paul and Sarah Edwards

"John" had carved out a successful niche in the executive recruitment field, and his business had grown year after year. But recently things have slowed, and now they're getting worse.

He's worried but remains optimistic. "The Internet is definitely affecting my business," he says, "but I think it's only temporary. As employers see they can't find as high a caliber of personnel online, they'll be back."

Wishful thinking?
We hope he's right, but we wouldn't bet on it. Like such technological breakthroughs as the printing press and the steam engine, the Internet, it seems, is changing the nature of work. Many economists point to the World Wide Web to explain recent boosts in productivity and the sustained growth of the economy.

Airlines, for example, are saving billions by enabling consumers to bypass travel agents and buy tickets direct. Such changes may be good news for the economy, but they're wreaking havoc on certain home-based service businesses. At the least, the Web will substantially alter the nature of some; it will render others obsolete.

Executive search is one such business that will change, as are real estate, financial investing, travel services and newsletter publishing, to name just a few. In writing the newest edition of our book Best Home Businesses, we found nearly every business we'd featured previously has changed as a result of the Internet.

Adapting to new opportunities
Certainly, the Internet is creating opportunities, but those opportunities may involve dramatically altering what you do. And what should you do if the Internet threatens to make your business obsolete? Here are several strategies that are working for others:

1. Be prepared. Because the Internet is changing not only the way large companies do business but also the way people shop for products and services, it's best to assume your own business will be affected. The question is, how? Get online and find out who's doing what in your field.

2. Be proactive. Don't wait to see what happens. The writing is on the wall, even if you don't see it. Develop a plan now. If you don't have a Web presence, create one. Get your feet wet, even if it's just with a simple home page.

3. Consider new directions. If your business could become obsolete, start exploring one or more of these possibilities:

  • Take your existing operations online. Many newsletter publishers, for example, offer both online and print versions of their publications. Some have gone to "online only." Real estate agents are using Web sites to display listings, thereby attracting new customers and providing time-saving options for busy would-be buyers.
  • Provide other services that are unrelated to the Internet for the same clients you've been working with. Listen to what your clients complain about. What do they need help with? How could you help? Some travel agents, for example, are becoming travel consultants, charging to arrange elaborate itineraries for clients wanting arrangements like destination weddings, where an entire wedding party will be traveling to an exotic location.
  • Find a new niche. Could you provide an existing or similar service to other types of clients for whom the Internet is not a solution? Certain investors, for example, don't want to navigate the Web, in which case the fact that you offer "hands-on" investment advice could become an asset.
  • Move into a new field. You can, of course, get involved in one of the many high-demand Internet-related businesses, such as Web design or Web PR. Few businesses will be completely Internet-immune, but there are certain fields that will remain "real-time" by nature. Gardening services, tour-guide operations, day care, bed-and-breakfasts and pet sitters, for example, won't ever become fully "virtual." So pick your favorite hands-on activity and explore how to turn it into your livelihood. To transition from an existing business, start on the side.

Keep in mind, however, that even in the most low-tech business, it's vital to start thinking about how you could use the Internet to reach and serve your clients better.


Paul and Sarah Edwards are nationally recognized experts on self-employment and working from home. (c) 1999, Paul and Sarah Edwards. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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