Real work-at-home jobs
Computers and high-speed Internet access mean new, better-paying choices for people who want the flexibility and convenience of careers that don’t require an office-building cubicle.
After the birth of her daughter, Carrie Opara knew she didn’t want to return to her old job as a mental-health counselor. But finding legitimate work she could do at home was no small feat.
She tried a multilevel marketing plan and wound up in debt. She looked on the Internet and found plenty of scams. Finally, she heard about LiveOps, a Palo Alto, Calif., call center that hired people to work out of their own homes.
Within two years, she was earning about $2,000 a month working 30 to 35 hours a week from her home in Columbia, Md. — about what she’d made previously as a counselor. Her shifts can be as short as 30 minutes, although she typically works five-hour blocks while her 6-year-old is in school, plus some nights and weekends when her husband, a certified public accountant, can take over child care.
Opara said she still faces the challenges familiar to every working parent: how to work enough hours, spend enough quality time with her family "and still figure out how I’m going to clean my house, make dinner and do the grocery shopping." Not having to commute or pay for child care, however, are big bonuses.
"It’s fit in perfectly," Opara said, "and we also like the flexibility."
Technology is opening up new opportunities for parents and others who want to work at home. Finding and landing legitimate, profitable work still isn’t easy, but here are a few venues to try:
A call center in your home
In recent years, you’ve heard a lot about companies routing their customer-service calls to workers overseas, but a less-noticed trend is the growth in home-based call-center workers.
Thanks to the Internet and better call-routing technology, more companies are finding they can outsource their order-taking, sales and problem-solving calls to home-based workers, said LiveOps board member Bill Trenchard. LiveOps not only runs an outsource operation, Trenchard said, but it also provides technology for companies that want to set up their own home-based call centers.
Home-based workers tend to be better educated and more loyal than their counterparts at traditional call centers, according to Trenchard. Most of LiveOps’ workers have college degrees — Opara has a master’s — and turnover is low.
The flexibility that Opara likes also benefits companies. Home-based operators are typically contractors who are paid for each minute spent on the phone, so companies can quickly gear up to meet high demand without having to pay for idle workers during slack times.
The job isn’t without drawbacks. Pay usually starts around $8 an hour, assuming you get enough calls, which can come slowly at the beginning, Opara said. The jobs that simply require taking orders often pay the least, while the better-paying jobs typically require that you have sales skills.
Call centers usually have no tolerance for audible distractions, so a crying baby, barking dog or ringing doorbell could get you fired. (Some companies require their workers have dedicated offices with doors to minimize potential distractions.) An operator also needs a dedicated phone line, a computer and high-speed Internet access.
Some call centers that employ home-based workers:
Start a Web business
Paul and Alison Martin, who met while they were students at Stanford University, decided to launch a Web-based baby-product business shortly after the birth of their twins, Ainsley and Sierra. The couple launched Noss Galen Baby in February 2004, just before Paul graduated.
By May 2005, Paul said, the site was profitable enough to support the family.
The Martins had some distinct advantages. Paul had programming and start-up experience from a stint at PayPal, so he built and maintains their Web site. The couple also moved from expensive Menlo Park, Calif., to more reasonable Albuquerque, N.M., which keeps down their living costs.
Perhaps even more significant, the Martins were able to capitalize their business with stock-option money from Paul’s time at PayPal. But Paul said initial inventory costs were just a few thousand dollars, and he could have gotten a small-business loan or worked a part-time job to keep the venture going until profits came in.
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Turn a hobby into a business
Working from home is a dream for many — and a reality for a few. Turn something you now do for fun into something you do for a living.
"The most important thing is to have the mindset that you’re going to make it work, that you’re going to learn from your mistakes," Paul said. "It may take longer than you think. . . . There were difficult times when we were wondering if we were ever going to turn the corner."
The Martins’ business isn’t the only thing that’s expanded. The couple had their third child, Dax, early last year.
If you find a concept that works, you might make additional money teaching other people what you know. Tamaira Sandifer of Sacramento, Calif., launched a service called Fun Mail for Kids that sends customized packets, complete with stickers, personalized letters and crafts projects, to kids via the U.S. mail.
As with any small business, it can help to draft a business plan. The U.S. Small Business Administration has a free business set-up guide on its Web site.
Online auction sites have helped people do more than empty their attics (or fill them up again). The largest online auction site, eBay, says it is home to more than a million "professional sellers" who report the site as a primary or secondary source of income.