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THE CUTTING EDGE | SMAL OFFICE / HOME OFFICE

Thinking Small

For Entrepreneurs, Being Little Has Big Advantages

June 24, 1996|KAREN KAPLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the Internet, no one knows you're a SOHO.

Not that the three co-founders of True World Access, an Internet services firm, are ashamed that their operation occupies just a single 250-square-foot room in a Yorba Linda office building. In fact, they quite enjoy being part of the small office/home office phenomenon, thank you.

Dwaine Robison, the company's president, says he'd rather work in a SOHO than spend two hours each day commuting to and from downtown Los Angeles.

Randy Smythe, vice president for sales and marketing, spends half his working hours visiting clients and can work anyplace where he can set up his laptop computer.

And Frank Harris says he's had a SOHO for so long that he'd be virtually unemployable in traditional corporate America.

Forget the marble floors and the wood-paneled walls of plush suites in high-rise office buildings. The simple green carpet and undecorated white walls of True World Access' one-room office are in sync with the company's personality--bold, straight-shooting and unpretentious.

True World Access is the creator of U-Build It, a World Wide Web site for people who build other Web sites. At U-Build It (http://www.ubuildit.com), customers can browse through a dozen templates used to build sites decorated with dogs, planets and circuit diagrams--and download them for about $20 each. The graphic elements can be mixed and matched or left in their suggested layout, to be transformed into new sites simply by changing the text.

True World Access also designs custom Web pages and hosts other people's sites on its server. In the coming months, the 8-month-old company plans to sell a program to turn Web sites into programs for offline kiosks.

Whereas their Web site is fancy, their office is not.

Robison uses a folding table for a desk, which supports a PC, a telephone and many stacks of papers. When Smythe is in the office, he fires up his laptop on the room's other folding table. Harris puts in the most hours, so his work space is the most substantial: His PC is in a corner, and desktops stretch out on both sides.

The office, for which they pay $510 a month on a month-to-month basis, also has room for a bookcase, a supply closet and a few filing cabinets, along with two inkjet printers, a fax machine, a scanner, a small refrigerator and a coffee machine.

True World Access has five virtual employees, off-site independent consultants who do programming, illustrations and graphic design for the firm. Since they are spread out around the state, there is no need to make room for them in the Yorba Linda office.

When the three church friends decided to form a company a year ago, they agreed they wanted to have the kind of business that could be run from anywhere and was not dependent on their geographical location. (They chose the Yorba Linda location because they all live less than seven miles away.)

Their first idea was to start some kind of mail-order business that could draw customers from all over the country. But their thoughts quickly shifted to the Internet, the global computer network that renders considerations of time and place irrelevant.

"We got excited about the Internet because it gives small companies access to the world," Robison said. (Hence the company moniker.)

Operating out of a SOHO keeps overhead expenses low, and the smaller investment in infrastructure gives the company the flexibility to adjust to changing market conditions.

"A lot of guys out there are trying to be Henry Ford," Harris said. "We don't want to be a car maker; we want to make the accessories. As cars change, we can change and make new kinds of headlights. Or if people stopped buying Fords, we could shift and make headlights for Chevys."

Smythe also says their small, nimble company is better equipped to respond to the continuous change in the online world than corporate behemoths such as Microsoft. But when it comes to the Web, he said, "our presence is the same as any big company's."

Karen Kaplan can be reached via e-mail at Karen.Kaplan@latimes.com

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SOHO Defined

SOHO stands for small office/home office. The term was invented a few years ago by companies that wanted to sell computers, fax machines, photocopiers and other office equipment to a growing segment of the market. Since then, people who work out of their homes or in other small environments have embraced the SOHO label as a way to differentiate themselves from traditional employees in corporate America.

The rise of small businesses has helped fuel the growth in the number of SOHOs, especially since new enterprises often grow out of an extra room in a home. Telecommuters, who work from home but connect to their main office via phone, fax and modem lines, are also a significant segment of the SOHO market.

The number of people working in SOHOs is estimated to run into the tens of millions. According to IDC/Link, a market research firm in New York, nearly 13 million Americans operated full-time businesses from their converted bedrooms, kitchens and garages in 1995. An additional 14 million had part-time home businesses, and 8 million telecommuted from home offices.

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