How To Find A Good Website Marketing Company

htfagwcAre you starting an internet business of your own? Or, do you have one already but it seems to have stunted growth? Perhaps you need a good website marketing company to boost your business and make it get noticed by potential customers. Here are some tips on how to find a good website marketing company to help you make your business grow. First, ask your colleagues and friends who have successful internet businesses already. You can ask them about the marketing company that helped them in their marketing efforts. Ask them how to contact that company and how you can hire it to help you promote your product and brand.

Second, visit the homepages of different marketing companies and read their About Us page to learn about their background, experiences, track record, and services. See the testimonial page to see what customers say about the company. Read reviews of the companies if there are to gain more information about them. Last, contact the company and inquire about their services and how they can help your company. This will give you an idea if they are the right companies for you. Finding a good website marketing company is easy if you know what to look for. Just follow these tips and you will be in good hands.

The Best Search Engine Optimization Techniques

Web site owners who build web pages for to sell products or to accept paid advertisements need to increase traffic in their web site. Increasing traffic is only possible if the web pages are highly visible in the internet. Increasing the chances of being seen in the internet world is known as search engine optimization.

You would want to explore various avenues of marketing before you decide on the organic search marketing approach. You can always make a decision on the purchase after seeing it firsthand. There might be glitches in it like in any tool and these could relate to the strategy or the customer service. However, you will not know it until you give it a try. The point remains that you must talk to someone in the field of internet marketing so that you get a better handle on how it is done. There are various kinds of search engine optimization tools and a lot of them come in the form of software. How successful each one is, is open to debate. Some companies opt for installing a software to do the organic search marketing work for them. Some people leave it in the hands of agencies that claim to be good at building a corporate identity for you in the market place. The basic idea of getting your web site or your products get maximum exposure cannot be ignored. In fact, you need to realize that it is only when your products are beating the rest of your competitors’ that you can see a solid return on investment. Therefore, you might want the expertise offered by successful internet search marketing agencies such as San Diego’s All Systems Go Marketing.

There are several search engine optimization techniques that can help your web site get ranked by Google and other search engines. The first technique is supplying unique and relevant content to your web site.  If your content is interesting, readers will keep on returning to your pages and this will improve your page ranking in major search engines. The second technique is using keywords that are trending and which are relevant to your niche.  For instance, if your topic is on health insurance, you must use keywords that have bearing with health insurance. There are guidelines on how many times keywords can be mentioned in one article. It you mention them many times, you could be violating an SEO rule. The last is link building. You must be linked by popular or high ranking web sites. This will increase your page ranking. Using good search engine optimization strategies will help your online business grow.

The Disabled Thrive With Work At Home Opportunities

iiofWORKING AT HOME IS REGARDED BY MOST AS EITHER a perk or lifestyle choice, but for workers with disabilities, it’s often the only way to earn a living. The number of disabled Americans who are unemployed–75 percent–nearly equals the number who wish they were working–72 percent–according to the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

Those numbers are discouraging, but they’re poised to make a remarkable turnaround. Three trends are working in concert to launch disabled people into the workforce: A record-high demand for skilled labor; advances in adaptive technologies–hardware devices and software programs that let the disabled perform common business tasks like searching the Web or using the telephone; and perhaps most important, an ever-increasing awareness and acceptance of workstyles such as telecommuting and flextime that let workers train for and perform full-fledged careers from home.

Admittedly, adaptive gear such as wheelchair ramps and text-enlarging software utilities have helped small numbers of disabled workers compete for jobs over the years, but the need to commute to a traditional office has arguably kept three-quarters of America’s disabled workers on the sidelines.

Only now, with the advent of ubiquitous Internet access and innovative computing and Web-based technologies–including instant messaging and speech recognition–is it possible for significant numbers of disabled workers to do their jobs seamlessly from home. Also benefitting are workers who battle physical ailments such as chronic fatigue syndrome, and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments–many of whom find working from home a viable alternative to accepting long-term disability or losing their jobs outright.

Making Strides

“Employers are pretty open when it comes to flexible work hours, and they’re gradually becoming more willing to participate in work-at-home situations,” says D.J. Hendricks, assistant project manager for the Jobs Accommodation Network, a service of the President’s Committee. “The concerns managers have [about disabled workers] are the same ones they have about any telecommuting arrangement,” she adds.

Disabled employees, even more than able-bodied telecommuters, need to get to know their office-bound supervisors and coworkers, advises George Creamer, a senior product consultant for ABS InfoLink Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based software development firm that hires disabled programmers to work both on-site and remotely.

Creamer says colleagues need to understand the specific issues stemming from a coworker’s disability–why, for instance, it takes a bit longer for an employee to pick up the phone, or why it’s necessary to schedule virtual meetings around scheduled physical therapy appointments.

“As a nondisabled person, I don’t think of Ed Isaac [profiled later in this feature] as a quadriplegic,” Creamer says. “I just call him on the phone and send him stuff. He’s one of our most productive people.”

Here’s how four workers have tapped adaptive technologies and their own on-the-job smarts to create telework arrangements that, as Creamer puts it, “make the disabilities a nonissue.”

When the Boss Is Away

Marian Vessels has an unconquerable spirit. Paralyzed from the midchest down as the result of a car accident 25 years ago (“I’ve spent more of my life in a wheelchair than not”), Vessels nevertheless pursued a career as a community health educator, then went on to develop programs for employing disabled workers for the state of Maryland.

Three years ago, Vessels took charge of the ADA Information Center of TransCen Inc., a job training outfit in Rockville, Md. Accustomed to the two-hour daily commute, Vessels occasionally worked from her home office, but only to tidy up paperwork after a day in the field.

Things changed in early 1997 when Vessels was diagnosed with breast cancer. Facing a grueling regime of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments, the boss scrambled to figure out a way to keep her small staff functioning. Vessels appreciated the irony: An illness, not her paraplegia, was forcing her to originate fresh adaptations.

“Because my office has only five people, you don’t just say, `I’m going to take a six-month leave and get healthy,’” she explains. Instead, Vessels moved her office essentials–a small library of books, CDs, and Web bookmarks–to her home office, and invested in a wireless telephone headset so she could maneuver her wheelchair around the office while on the phone with staffers and clients.

Moreover, Vessels trained her staff on how to handle incoming calls, meetings, and appointments. “We developed protocols about what people would be told,” she says. “It’s important for a caller to know that I’ll call back, not that I’m off-site. The office would take messages and relay them via e-mail, voice, or fax. [Clients] don’t want to know that the [boss] is home sick, so we didn’t advertise that.”

Once her chemotherapy sessions began, Vessels put her trust in the system. She took several sick days to cope with the worst of the side effects, then began easing back into work a few hours each day. The wireless headset proved to be a great help, allowing her to communicate with staff members while lying in bed or propped in an easy chair. And, to her surprise, Vessels discovered that with more autonomy, her employees made excellent judgment calls, passing on only inquiries that demanded her expertise. In the end, Vessels’s forced stint as remote supervisor helped make the office more efficient.

Now fully recovered, Vessels says that she regularly recommends telework as part of an employer’s package of accommodations for a disabled worker.

Vessels’s Tools:

* Corel Word Perfect

* Novell NetWare

Job Smarts:

* When a coworker is coping with an intense illness or medical treatments, use nonintrusive methods of communicating, such as e-mail and faxes, and page the employee only for emergencies.

* To protect an ailing worker’s privacy, use the three-way calling and teleconferencing capabilities available through most local phone services for client meetings, staff updates, and planning sessions.

* Help employees who use wireless headsets to create efficient portable workspaces, so the essentials–notebook PC, sticky notes, pens–are always on hand no matter where they settle down to work.

Calling All Programmers

When David Lerman lost his hearing at age 33, he was part owner of an audio-visual production company. Although the only fragment of his career that he could salvage was his proclivity for technology, it turned out to be all he needed.

At the same time Lerman was learning to reorient the way he operated in the world, he was getting hooked on CompuServe. It didn’t take Lerman long to take some programming courses and land a job at an Atlantic City hotel as a computer operator–”my own little Dilbert world,” he says wryly.

By early 1998, Lerman became sick of the two-hour commute to Atlantic City and began perusing various online career bulletin boards. Posting his resume at a site devoted to IBM 400 series computers (www. news400. com) “resulted in a lot of e-mail,” he recalls, including an inquiry from Alternative Resources Corp., an IT consulting firm based in Barrington, Ill.

Lerman’s desire to work from home didn’t faze the ARC recruiters, who know firsthand that disabled workers who prefer to telecommute are a reliable, eager workforce. ARC hired Lerman to work on a long-term project updating the IT infrastructures of Florida, Texas, Nebraska, and Wisconsin municipalities.

To collaborate with clients, Lerman uses a two-line phone with a voice carryover system–a computing/telephony device that lets him hold a conversation with a hearing person. To use it, Lerman speaks into the phone normally; to understand what the other person is saying, Lerman reads a text version of the comments transcribed and transmitted to his computer by a silent operator.

Lerman encourages hearing-impaired workers to learn how they can use technology to telework; he recommends contacting Self-Help for Hard of Hearing People (www. shhh.org).

Accounting And Getting The Numbers Right

aagtValuable business info is trapped inside your accounting files–set your data free and gain new insight with spreadsheet analysis

HAS YOUR ACCOUNTING SOFTWARE TAKEN YOUR data hostage? If your only insight into your financial status has been via your bookkeeping program, you’re in for a surprise when you break your data free. Once released, you can use the data every day for business analysis, and display it in an easy-to-read and attractive report format suitable for use in a business plan, loan application, presentation, or even for publishing on your office intranet.

Of course, your accounting package can handle invoicing and payroll tasks that your office productivity suite can’t touch, but when it comes to keeping track of how well your business is doing, you need all the tools–and professional-looking charting and presentation aids–you can get. This month, we’ll look at how to create a report displaying key financial data.

Step 1: Draft an Introduction Start with your word processing program and create introduction for your report. You’ll need a cover sheet with a report title, your business name, and the date, followed by a table of contents listing the documents you’ll include in the report.

The next page will include an introduction or executive summary explaining your report’s purpose, its contents, and what can be concluded from the data. You’ll use spreadsheet data, charts, and even summaries (pivot tables) created from your accounting data to illustrate your points.

Step 2: Unlock Your Data Some accounting tools, like MYOB Accounting Plus Version 9 with its OfficeLink feature ($179; 800-322-MYOB, www.myob.com/us),provide an easy way to export financial data to other packages. If you use MYOB, choose the report you want from the list in the Index to Reports, then click on the Excel button to export it to Microsoft Excel using the special template.

For other programs, you’ll need to find a file format that both your accounting and spreadsheet applications can use. Open your accounting software and check its help index (under “exporting data”) to see which formats it supports. For example, in Intuit’s Quicken and QuickBooks, you export reports by selecting Print and then choosing ASCII Disk File, Tab-Delimited Disk File, or 1-2-3 (PRN) Disk File.

Now check your spreadsheet software to see which of these formats it accepts. In Excel, you’d choose File/ Open and read the formats from the “Files of type …” drop-down list or look up “file formats” in the help index. If one format doesn’t stand out as being exactly right, try comma-delimited text files (often called CSV or PRN files).

Once you’ve exported your data from your accounting software, load your spreadsheet and open the exported file. When you open a comma-delimited text file in Excel, the Text Import Wizard appears. From Step 1 of the wizard, choose the Delimited option; in Step 2, select the Comma checkbox; and then choose Finish to import the file.

Step 3: Add an At-a-Glance Chart Creating a chart gives you a visually interesting way of presenting complex data. It lets you focus on important areas of your finances and clearly illustrate trends–such as increasing sales or seasonal variations–which would be difficult to see from scanning rows of pure numbers.

Create a chart from your data in Excel using the spreadsheet’s Chart Wizard. To do this, select the area to chart–including the headings–and click on the Chart Wizard button (it’s on the Standard, or default, toolbar). Step through the wizard, making selections for the type of chart to use, and enter chart and axis headings when prompted.

You can print your chart from your spreadsheet and add it as an additional page to your report, or you can copy the chart to your report so it becomes part of the document. To copy an Excel chart to a Word document, select the chart (Ctrl-A is the keyboard shortcut to select an entire file) and choose Edit/Copy, or press Ctrl-C. Switch to Word, place the insertion point where the chart will appear, and choose Edit/Paste, or hit Ctrl-V.

You can now type additional explanatory text on the same page as your chart. To include a copy of the figures from which the chart was obtained, repeat the copy-and-paste steps.

Step 4: Prepare a Fancy PivotTable for In-Depth Analysis Using Excel 2000′s PivotTable or its new PivotChart Reports, you can summarize and analyze data that appears in a list format. (For Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 users, Quattro Pro 9′s equivalent to a Pivot-Table used to summarize and retabulate data is called a Cross Tab Report, while Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition’s 1-2-3 offers Dynamic Cross Tabs.)

Before you begin, remove any blank lines from your list and ensure that the first row of the list contains the headings for the columns. To create a Pivot-Table Report in Excel 2000, choose Data/PivotTable/PivotChart Report. From Step 1 of the resulting wizard, choose “Microsoft Excel list or database,” then choose PivotTable.

In Step 2, select the area containing the data, including the column headings; then, in Step 3, choose New Worksheet to place the report in a new sheet and click on Finish.

Complete the job of creating your PivotTable report interactively by dragging a table heading from the toolbar into one of the marked areas on the screen. For example, to analyze data from a check register, drag payee details into the area marked Drop Row Fields Here and drag amounts into the area marked Drop Data Items Here.

Use the Field Settings button to alter the way data is summarized. When your PivotTable is complete, click on the down arrow on any heading to choose items from the list for display in the table. This way you can analyze the data and display subsets of your data. You can then print the table or copy and paste it into your report document.

A PivotChart is created similarly to a PivotTable, except that you’ll drag and drop field headings onto a chart outline, and your data will be displayed visually rather than in table format.

Step 5: Final Touches Add final touches such as text formatting and page numbers to your report document in Word using View/Header and Footer. The Print Preview function previews your report’s layout before printing it.

Rating Postage Providers

rppFREQUENT TRIPS TO THE post office have always been a necessary yet time-consuming chore of doing business. But now, whether you use traditional mail for direct marketing, shipping packages, or simply paying bills, you can save time and gas money by using new electronic stamps and digital postal meters designed for small businesses and home offices.

Both types of products increase efficiency by making it first and easy to obtain postage and to add that postage to letters and packages. We looked at two of the first electronic-stamp products to be released, by E-Stamp and Stamps.com, and two state-of-the-art postal meters, Neopost’s Simply Postage and Pitney Bowes’s Personal Post Digital Postage Meter.

All four products require you to apply to the United States Postal Service (USPS) to receive postage electronically. After establishing an account, you can buy postage with the click of a button on your PC screen or on the postage meter. All the products then connect to a remote server to complete your purchase. Information such as how much postage you have remaining from your last purchase is stored on your PC, in a postage meter, or on the Internet, depending on which tool you’re using.

With the electronic-stamp products and Simply Postage, you set the amount of postage, the class of service (such as first class or parcel post), and other shipping details through simple PC interfaces. The products then print postal indicia on either envelopes or labels. Like bar codes, indicia contain all the machine-readable information the USPS needs to process your mail. Pitney Bowes’s digital Personal Post prints a more traditional postmark, and has no software component.

To test these new solutions, we established accounts with each of the vendors, applied to the USPS, and prepared postage for a variety of package and letter types. We also set up mass mailings with the products that supported them.

Each product type has its benefits. We find postage meters simpler to use because they aren’t as weighed down by USPS regulations (see the sidebar “Going Postal”). However, electronic stamps let you use built-in address books to simultaneously print address labels and postage to many recipients in a single operation, making them more efficient for bulk mailings.

Both types of products offer different pricing schemes. Depending on your usage, one may be more or less expensive for you. Since prices are competitive, weigh your options and match a product to your specific needs.

E-Stamp

8.0

E-Stamp ($50 dongle rental, plus fees; 650554-8454, www.e-stamp, com) is one of a new breed of products that enables you to purchase postage directly over the Internet. This electronic-stamp service is really a dual solution, consisting of software and a dongle that connects to your PC’s parallel port. The dongle is about half the size of a deck of cards and stores information about your account. After connecting the hardware dongle to the parallel port, you connect your printer cable to the dongle to print your stamps.

When we first launched the software, E-Stamp displayed dialog boxes that guided us through the USPS application process. The program requested basic information, such as our name, address, and how we preferred to pay (the USPS accepts credit cards and electronic funds transfers). Don’t be intimidated by the onscreen warnings of possible wait time; we received permission within a day of application.

E-Stamp’s interface is well-organized–all the elements you’ll use are readily available. It’s easy to get started, too: You click on buttons to select the class of service and envelope size, then type in your parcel’s or envelope’s weight. The program calculates the postage and gets you ready to print. By the time you read this, E-Stamp is scheduled to be selling a scale that attaches to the dongle, to save you from having to enter the item’s weight manually and risk insufficient postage.

To buy more postage, you simply click on a toolbar button; the system then uses your Internet connection to tap the company’s server, which has USPS approval to sell postage. Clicking on another button prints simple reports about how much postage you’ve purchased and used.

We typed addresses one at a time and used an address book to print several envelopes and labels with different addresses. E-Stamp verified all the addresses and showed a preview image of each piece of mail, including address and indicia, before giving us the option to print.

Unfortunately, we think E-Stamp botched the address book in this initial release. The program uses the address book included with Windows Messaging, an e-mail ” client which, in turn, is included with Windows. However, Windows Messaging doesn’t come preinstalled as part of Windows 98, so you must find your Win 98 CD-ROM and install it yourself. If you don’t, you won’t have an address book. An E-Stamp spokesperson says the company is fixing the problem.

Unlike Stamps.com, which provides free software, you must pay for E-Stamp. However, unlike its rival, E-Stamp doesn’t require that you be connected to the Internet to print postage, which makes it a good choice if you have a low-bandwidth dial-up link instead of a cable or DSL modem.

Personal Post Digital Postage Meter

7.5

If the name Pitney Bowes conjures up images of hand-cranked postage meters, you haven’t seen the venerable company’s cutting-edge Personal Post Digital Postage Meter ($19.75 per month; 800-574-8639, www.pitneyworks.com). Formerly known as Personal Post Office, this was the most difficult product in this roundup to set up, but proved quite easy to use.

Before using this hardware-only system, we were forced to perform several minor tasks, such as inserting the printhead; attaching the included scale; and setting the time, date, and account information. We found this process to be more time-consuming than with the other products reviewed here, which require little or no hardware setup. Also, Personal Post relies on cryptic messages on a small LCD display, rather than a software interface on your PC’s monitor.

Another downside, at least compared to the other products, is the unit’s bulk. The meter is roughly the size of a fax machine, making it inconvenient for small home offices where PCs, printers, and scanners already battle for desk space.

But if you have the room, Personal Post is a joy to use. It took us no time to feed envelopes into the device and get back postmarked letters–keep in mind that the unit prints only postmarks, not addresses, and only on envelopes, not labels.

To purchase more postage, you press a button, use the keypad to enter the amount you want, and the unit uses an internal modern to log on to a private server. Postage is stored within the unit.

Although Simply Postage, the other hardware-based device, takes up less space and is easier to set up, Personal Post doesn’t require the power of your PC. It’s a good solution for high-volume mailing environments and home businesses that don’t want to tie up a PC.

Simply Postage

8.2

Neopost’s Simply Postage ($50, plus fees; 877-397-8267, www.neopost.com) is a cross between the classic postage meter, and the new Internet stamp solutions. It consists of PC software; a small, freestanding printer that prints USPS indicia; and a connected scale.

Initially, you purchase the software and install it, following onscreen prompts to sign up for USPS approval. After our approval, which took about two days, Neopost sent us the printer and scale (for which we waited an additional two days). We then plugged the printer into our PC’s serial port and the scale into the printer, and we were ready to go.

Simply Postage isn’t bound by the same USPS regulations as electronic-stamp products, so it doesn’t verify addresses. In fact, it doesn’t print addresses at all–it just prints indicia on labels or envelopes.

The software interface offers buttons on which you click to create stamps. After selecting a class of service and placing our mail on the scale, the correct amount of postage appeared in the stamp-creation dialog box. We then clicked on a second button to print out the correct indicia. The whole process took just a few seconds.

If you want to order additional postage, click on an onscreen button, type in the amount, and click on another button. The system direct-dials a server and downloads more postage, charging your credit card or using a direct debit from a checking or savings account. Rather than store postage on the Web or in its own hardware, Simply Postage stores it on your PC’s hard disk, something true electronic stamp products cannot do.

Simply Postage was the simplest to use of all the small-office postage products and, compared to Personal Post, it takes up little space. The only caveat: You must buy proprietary labels from Neopost.

Stamps.com

8.5

Rather than use a hardware device or your PC to store account information, Stamps.com (free setup, plus fees; 310-581-7200, www.stamps. com) stores it on the company’s secure Web servers. This requires you to connect to the Web whenever you want to print postage.

The benefit to this approach: Since address verification data and postage are also stored on the Web, you needn’t have a verification CD-ROM in your drive before you print postage, as is the case with E-Stamp. The downside: Web connections in many home offices often share phone lines with voice calls.

After installation, the Stamps.com software walked us through the steps of applying for USPS permission and, like its rivals, expedited the process. Its main software interface consists of five buttons that bring up screens and dialog boxes for tasks such as accessing your address book and account information, printing postage, and purchasing more postage.

Conveniently, Stamps. com verified addresses and zip codes only once–when we added them to its address book. That means you must be connected to the Internet when you add addresses, but the program doesn’t demand that you verify addresses when you create postage. You can import data in comma-delimited format or capture addresses within Microsoft Word.

From the address book, you can select as many recipients as you like. From another dialog box, you select a class of service and specify whether you’re printing labels or envelopes. Like E-Stamp, Stamps.com has decided to sell a parallel-port scale that calculates the correct postage. The scale was available for $50 at press time. Whether you find Stamps.com satisfying to use depends partly on your telephone service. If you use a single line for both voice and data, or have slow Internet access, you won’t like Stamps.com. If that’s not a problem, Stamps.com is the best new electronic-postage solution.

Tax Advantages For Home Workers

tafhUNCLE SAM IS VERY GOOD TO HOME-BASED WORKERS THESE DAYS. WHETHER YOU’VE launched a business out of a spare bedroom or spend your days visiting client sites, using your home as a professional base of operation affords numerous tax perks and deductibles-some of which are additions to the 1999 tax code.

To learn how your workstyle can earn you the maximum tax savings, we Consulted Maggie Doedtman, H&R Block’s sole proprietor tax research specialist. We also scoured the Web to compile a list of tax tips and resources you won’t want to miss. Here you’ll learn what’s deductible–and what’s not–and how to trim your tax bill to the bone (and be the envy of the paycheck crowd) come April 15.

On the Record

Cutting your tax bill is a year-round job, says Doedtman. Planning and recordkeeping are key to minimizing the amount you owe. Doedtman recommends keeping a business diary in which you jot down the particulars of business trips and lunch and dinner meetings: “In order to claim a deduction, you have to remember it.”

This Is Your Office?

The big news for 1999 returns is that the home office deduction has been expanded to include any space in the home that’s used exclusively and regularly for managing your business. So you needn’t take up an extra room for office space–you can claim something as simple as a desk or countertop, as long as it’s used exclusively and regularly for the business. This change means that those previously excluded from claiming a home office–such as consultants, sales-people, and even doctors who use a home office to manage a practice–can now claim that space.

However, Doedtman cautions that although the rules have relaxed, you must be scrupulous in your exclusive and regular use of the space. The IRS holds home businesses to a higher standard than their office-based counterparts, she says, and tends to subject them to closer scrutiny. In fact, it’s not above the IRS to send agents to question neighbors about any nonwork-related activities in your home office.

Home Office Perks When you file Schedule C (Profit or Loss from Business), all deductions immediately go to offset your income. And when you attach Form 8829 (Expenses for Business Use of Your Home), you can deduct expenses that are sure to make those who work for a traditional company envious.

For example, when a typical employee rents an apartment, every penny of his rent comes from after-tax dollars. But when a home business owner does the same, he can deduct a portion of his rent–as well as the cost of utilities, insurance, and repairs–from the business’s income. Homeowners can also deduct the depreciation in value of their home.

To determine how much you can claim as a business expense, calculate your home office percentage by comparing your office space with the total size of your home or apartment. To get the percentage, you can either count rooms or measure square footage. Then, use that number to figure the dollar value of each deduction. The dollar value of any given deduction (electricity, heat, insurance, garbage pickup, and so on) is the total amount you’ve paid for utilities during the year, multiplied by your home office percentage. This equals the amount you can claim as a business expense.

Not only does a home office deduction put you ahead, the tax break also makes your business more competitive by reducing your income tax burden and decreasing your self-employment tax, which pays for Social Security and Medicare. Remember that the 15.3 percent tax rate applies only to the first $72,600 of self-employment income in 1999. Above that, only the 2.9 percent Medicare portion of the tax applies.

Once you’ve claimed a home office, you can also claim travel expenses. Because your home office is within walking distance, you can include your first business-related trip of the day–say, to and from a client’s office–in your auto mileage claim. Without a home office, you can’t claim the mileage.

How to File

Home-based workers shouldn’t file 1040EZ forms–as a result, you need expert assistance if you decide to prepare your own taxes. Help can be found in a number of places. The IRS has always tried to provide all the information you need, and its site provides thorough information in downloadable PDF forms and instructions, as well as online and offline help.

Moreover, the past two years have seen a blossoming of online tax preparation sites, which also offer online tax preparation. As with tax preparation software, these sites guide you through pages of tax-related questions, then help you fill out the appropriate IRS forms. Many also submit your finished return to the IRS for you.

Although these services aren’t free, the fee for online tax preparation is often lower than the cost of discrete software or visiting an accountant or tax preparer. Some online services, however, offer live help from a C.P.A., who will review your return before submitting it.

What’s Deductible

Hey. Uncle Sam’s not such a bad guy. Here’s a summary of legitimate home office tax deductions

BUSINESS EQUIPMENT The Section 179 deduction (also called listed property deductions) has been increased to $19,000 for 1999. Section 179 lets you deduct the entire purchase price of business equipment the year you put it into service. So if you were worried that you might have purchased that 800MHz PC in haste, relax. This deduction also applies to any listed property used for business more than 50 percent of the time.

The term “listed property” is IRS-speak for items that are generally used for entertainment or recreation, but may be used for business as well–such as computers, cell phones, cars, and video cameras. The total limit on Section 179 deductions will continue to increase through 2003, when it tops off at $25,000.

FAMILY COMPUTER Don’t despair about claiming your family’s only computer because it can’t meet the exclusivity requirement. Instead, keep a record of your computer usage, logging all business hours. You can deduct the cost, providing you can prove that at least 50 percent of its use is for business. Just be sure to place the computer in an area other than your home office (otherwise, the computer’s non business use will violate your home office’s requirement of exclusive business use).

COMPANY PHONE The easiest way to deduct your phone expenses is to have a separate business phone line. This also simplifies bookkeeping, because you know that all the calls on that phone are business-related. If, however, you choose to have only one line for business and personal calls, you can still deduct any long-distance business phone calls and the cost of adding any special services, such as call waiting, to your phone line.

ROAD TRIPS There’s a new hiccup in the standard auto mileage deduction. Because of 1999′s low gas prices, the IRS lowered the mileage deduction, effective April 1, 1999, from 32.5 cents to 31 cents per mile. However, as gas prices have crept back up, so has the standard mileage deduction–to 32.5 cents per mile in 2000. Be sure your 1999 tax return reflects the two rates appropriately.

ALL THAT TRASH If you pay for garbage collection, remember to include a business percentage of the annual rubbish removal costs on your tax return. This is a frequently overlooked utility. If your home business’s activities created a significant jump in the cost of your trash removal–and you have the documents to prove it–you can deduct the entire increase. But be prepared to prove your claim with receipts from before and after.

TAX PREPARATION As a sole proprietor, your tax return is a bit more complicated than the average employed person’s. As such, you can deduct the cost of preparing your business taxes. To do this, ask your tax preparer to send you an itemized bill. The cost of preparing your Schedule C, Form 8829, and other business-related papers is a legitimate deduction.

HEALTH INSURANCE Another piece of good news for home workers is the increasing deductibility of health insurance payments. This year you’ll be able to deduct 60 percent of your health insurance payments for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents. If you itemize personal deductions, the remaining 40 percent can be itemized on Schedule A. The deductible percentage will continue to rise, reaching 100 percent in 2007.

If you don’t want to wait until then for 100 percent deductibility–and if your business supplies health insurance to its employees–you may be able to take advantage of a perfectly allowable tax two-step.

According to H&R Block specialist Maggie Doedtman, it works this way: Assuming your spouse is a legitimate employee of your company, you let your spouse be the insured person on your health insurance. Then, your spouse includes you under his or her coverage. Because businesses can legitimately deduct the cost of health insurance for its employees, your entire health insurance payments are deductible. Remember, this works only for businesses that file Schedule C. This is a tricky maneuver, however, and you should consult a tax expert if you want to pursue this option.

What’s Not

Every year, thousands of sole proprietors attempt to claim tax breaks that the IRS simply doesn’t allow. Here’s Doedtman’s list of the most commonly disallowed home office deductions

CHARITABLE CONTRIBUTIONS Although the IRS doesn’t doubt your kindly intentions, unless your business is incorporated, it can’t make a charitable contribution. You can, however, put those deductions where they belong–on your Schedule A. If your good deed took the form of buying advertising in the high school yearbook or the rotary club’s event program, however, you can deduct that as a legitimate business expense.

UNPAID DEBTS When your business uses cash-based accounting (you record the money when it comes in), and someone doesn’t pay their bill, that’s bad news, not a bad debt. From an accounting standpoint, if you didn’t collect the cash, your books reflect less income. So you can’t deduct the money owed to you from your total income.

APPEARANCES Even if you have clients coming to your house, you won’t make a case with the IRS for deducting landscaping expenses. So plant trees to feed your soul and mow the lawn to keep the neighbors civil, but don’t expect to subtract the cost from your income.

PERSONAL CALLS Although business phone use is deductible, the IRS’s rule of thumb is that a home’s first phone line is for personal use. The IRS will disallow any business deductions made for the basic service charge on your household’s first phone line.

Staying On Top Of Your Contacts Is Critical For Contractors

sotoycWHOEVER SAID, “THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, the more they stay the same,” never ran a home office. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, freelance or contract-based worker, or work remotely full or part time for a firm someplace else, your contact information is your lifeline to clients, vendors, partners, and coworkers. Change it, and you’ll render entries in hundreds of Rolodexes and Palm organizers obsolete. A simple change of address or phone number can snowball into a loss of business, or even call your professionalism or your company’s stability into question. At the very least, it can annoy and inconvenience the very people with whom you’ve worked hard to establish relationships.

Like many home-based workers, Marilyn Milne has dealt with changes of all kinds. Over the past seven years, the Eugene, Ore.-based business owner has renamed her marketing communications firm and added new telephone and fax lines, e-mail addresses, and a P.O. box. On top of that, her phone company has changed her area code.

How has Milne managed to keep her business on track and growing? By approaching each change “as a twofold communications challenge” that involves “getting the word out” and ensuring that her “communications methods operate without glitches,” she says. To help you develop your own strategies for surviving professional change, we’ve gleaned tips and advice from experts, home workers like Milne, and personal experience.

Leaving a Trail

“Managing change is in large part managing behavior,” says Joyce Graff, a vice president of the Gartner Group research firm in Stamford, Conn. “You have to plan ahead, [but] human behavior is that we don’t,” she explains. “We don’t react until we have a problem in our face.”

To compensate, Graft recommends a mix of personal actions and high-tech tools. She says it’s important to anticipate changes, moves, or disruptions in service or connectivity. For instance, if your e-mail address will change, “keep the old account [active] for a couple of months’ overlap,” she suggests. As soon as you know your new address or other information, print it on business cards and hand them out “so you don’t just drop off the face of the earth.”

Graff also suggests employing a “follow me” phone service, such as AT&T’s Personal Reach Service, which lets you give contacts and clients a toll-free number that rings up to three numbers (such as your old and new numbers and your cell phone) simultaneously. Another choice is V-Link, which combines voice mail, a toll-free number, follow-me access to five telephone numbers, plus inbound fax into an integrated tool accessible from any phone. (See the sidebar “The Price of Staying in Touch “for pricing details.)

Regardless of the services you choose, you should plan for change, advises Debbie Gilster, owner of Organize & Computerize, a business organizational consultancy in Laguna Niguel, Calif. Gilster suggests you collect your contacts with Symantec’s Act, Microsoft Outlook, or another personal information manager (PIM), and master the program’s broadcast e-mail and fax functions. Create inexpensive postcards or flyers announcing the change; if you’ve moved, include scanned images of your new workspace or home office. Above all, she says, be proactive to maintain professionalism: “Don’t wait for others to make the communication move. You need to do it first.”

When Milne changed her company name, she says she created an all-in-one announcement and mailed it “to everyone we’d ever met.” Each recipient also received new business and Rolodex cards, as well as a pencil on which Milne had imprinted the phrase, “Erase us from your minds/ Pencil us in.”

For more minor changes, Milne gets the word out via her company newsletter, and sends letters and e-mail messages to her key contacts. Even the area code change was seamless, she says–the phone company provided warning to local customers leading up to the change and a recorded announcement alerting callers from outside the region for a year afterward. “The grace period reminded most people to update their auto-dialers or reprogram their telephone systems,” she says.

Sea of Change

By her own reckoning, Karen Bowman is a pro at handling changes to her Pompano, Fla., public relations and marketing firm. She’s moved three times, and survived an area code change from 305 to 954–which, because it lacks the usual 1 or 0 in the middle, confused callers early on, she admits.

With each change, Bowman writes a simple notice and blasts it out via Symantec’s WinFax Pro to her contact list. And each time her phone number changes, Bowman contracts with her carrier, BellSouth, to keep the old number as a “mailbox in the sky” for several months. Calls dialed to the number are routed to the carrier’s Memory Call voice messaging service.

When her new area code threatened to scrap thousands of dollars’ worth of stationery, Bowman printed “Please note new area code (954)” on small return address labels and affixed them near the telephone number. “With the right-sized labels, you can place the new information atop the existing return address and phone number,” she says.

Like many home-based business owners keen on keeping separate professional and personal lives, Bowman uses a U.S. Postal Service (USPS) P.O. box as her business address. Although her P.O. box has stayed constant through her moves, she lets some clients know her new home address; for this, she creates postcard mailings (20 cents each) printed herself on store-bought perforated cards that cost less than $20 a box.

Speaking of change, if you rent a box from a private postal receiver such as Mail Boxes Etc., the USPS’s recent Postal Bulletin 21994 gives you until April 26, 2000, to incorporate a “private mailbox number” indicator such as “PMB #128″ instead of “10 Main Street, Suite 128″ in your mailing address. Although enacted to prevent postal scams, the ruling represents yet another change that needs handling.

A CHECKLIST FOR CHANGE

Moving? Make sure nothing falls between the cracks by following these steps.

[check] MAKE A LIST As soon as you know you’re moving, start thinking about whom you’ll need to notify. Create an action file (perhaps a database or spreadsheet file titled “Move” or “Address Change”) and begin compiling contact names.

[check] MAP OUT A PLAN Using your PIM or contact manager software, set alarms or note the dates by which certain events will have to happen. Examples include ordering new phone service, mailing your change of address cards, or e-mailing clients so payment checks will be sent to the right address on time.

[check] SPREAD THE WORD Make sure your neighbors and mail and parcel carriers know when and where you’re moving. Hand out business cards with your new information, and consider including a tip, if appropriate.