O'FALLON, ILL. — Skip the commute. Work at home. Be your own boss.
For thousands of workers over the past decade or so, that's become the new American Dream. Office assistants, computer programmers, architects, and others - all yearning to break free from a 9-to-5 existence - have hung out their shingles at home.
Now their numbers are exploding, thanks to the Internet.
If these businesses prove viable - still a big "if," as dotcoms in general struggle through a shakeout - they could redefine the way service work gets done in the 21st century.
"There's really a serious trend where folks are leaving corporate America - men and women - seeking balance in their lives," says Greg Terk, corporate communications director for Guru.com, a San Francisco-based Web site. "We call it the rise of the guru nation."
Others call it the ascent of the "virtual assistant." Another term that's gained currency in recent years: "e-lancing."
"There are very few services that can't be rendered virtually anymore," says Chris Durst, chief executive officer of Staffcentrix.com, a Web portal for virtual assistants based in Woodstock, Conn. "We have CPAs, MBAs, PhDs." When the group polled its 800 members, it found they worked primarily in the United States but also in Canada, Western Europe, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Oman.
No one knows how many virtual workers there are. According to the Small Business Administration, using 1992 data, half of all US firms are already based at home. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that more than 4.1 million self-employed Americans worked in a home-based business in 1997.
But these statistics predate the rise of the Internet, which has pushed virtual work into overdrive.
"It's really starting to snowball," says Ryan Blitstein, a spokesman for eLance, a Web-based marketplace where virtual workers bid on projects posted by companies. The two-year-old Sunnyvale, Calif., Web site has grown from a network of three individuals to more than 100,000 in 140 countries.
Staffcentrix.com has seen its membership grow 10-fold in the past year. Guru.com now has 250,000 members registered on its site and 26,000 companies posting short-term jobs or "gigs" as the company likes to call them. In June alone, 50,000 new virtual workers signed up.
Working at home is proving to be a powerful lure in the New Economy.
"I'm getting a little fed up with the corporate world and all the office politics," says Kelly Poelker, sitting in her basement office in O'Fallon, Ill., near St. Louis. Her desk sports a computer, telephone, and scanner. A few feet away sits a huge box brimming with toys belonging to her seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son. "I'd love nothing more than to be a work-at-home mom."
So four months ago, Ms. Poelker founded her own home-based company, Another8Hours, offering a wide range of services from word processing to event planning. In April, she put up her Web site. And slowly, customers are trickling in.
Most recently she designed a brochure for a local school. One woman wants Poelker to plan her wedding. But with only a few hours worth of jobs paying anywhere from $15 to $35 an hour, she still has to work her full-time job as a sales-and-marketing coordinator.
Some virtual workers abandon well-paid employment despite the cut in pay.
"I was at the top of my field," says Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero, who left a job as executive assistant for a co-chief executive two months ago to start up her own firm at home in Studio City, Calif. She makes less than half her former salary. "But I'm so much happier being around my children. They're telling me things I never would have heard before."
Two months ago in Canada, Jane Gray gave up a lucrative programming job to start working from her Mississauga, Ontario, home. She's only making a third of what she used to. But "I'm happier being my own boss and picking and choosing what I do," she says. "For me, that's a good trade-off."
While much virtual work revolves around straightforward clerical work, many home-based bosses choose to specialize in the fields they've left, such as architecture, graphic design, or job coaching.
Guru.com offers massage therapists and a butterfly expert. One of eLance's best customers runs expeditions to the Arctic.
The offers can get pretty quirky too. Ms. Gray has designed Web sites for a martial-arts studio and a group of onion farmers. One published author advertised on the Internet for a virtual assistant who would take dictation and, in lieu of pay, accept free hypnosis sessions over the phone.
The Internet is overcoming all sorts of barriers. "It opened up doors that never would have been open to me," says Kathy Ritchie, a virtual assistant in Aurora, Colo., who put her company on the Web two years ago. She now boasts of clients in Canada as well as all over the US.
"It's really starting to open some doors and offer opportunities that [workers] never had before," says Ms. Durst of Staffcentrix.com. Workers with disabilities, military spouses, and people in less developed nations are using the Internet to find work beyond local markets.
Already, some 4 out of 10 eLance contracts involve an international partner. The site boasts a Web designer from Belarus and a California entrepreneur who saved a bundle by hiring programmers from Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and India to put together his Web site. The site has just introduced an automatic converter so virtual workers overseas can see all the bids in their local currency.
At this point, US employers appear the most willing to engage virtual workers.
"In Latin countries like mine, the major problem is to trust who you are working with ... so growth is slow," says Sandra Handley, who started her virtual-assistant business two months ago in Argentina. "It would be unthinkable to hire services of someone you haven't looked in the eye."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society