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Finding A Home For The Homeless SOHO

by Alf Nucifora

The bane of all good marketers is their inability to switch it off. Like psychics, the vision of opportunity confronts them wherever they turn. Irrespective of the time and place, they constantly fantasize about the "what if" implicit in every experience, transaction or event. To illustrate the point, let's flesh out a concept that's long overdue and bound to make some entrepreneur filthy rich. You read it here first.

The Lonely SOHO

In addition to being driving force behind much of the US economy, the small office/home office market (SOHO) continues to impress by virtue of just the numbers alone…over 9 million self-employed, not to mention the 5+ million small businesses with 1-20 employees. I'm one of them.

This growing business sector needs an affordable, user-friendly place to meet and transact business. Outside of expensive private clubs and noisy restaurants, they have very few places to congregate. Interestingly, we are now beginning to see them gather at Starbucks where the coffee is decent and the Internet available via WiFi. These are also the same independently-minded business pioneers who pick up their mail or ship a package at the UPS Store, followed by a side trip to Kinko's for some high volume printing and copying. Why not combine the three? None by itself satisfies the need. As an example, the Starbucks concept, in spite of its rightful claim to owning the "third" place space, is antithetical to doing business, what with noisy blenders, loud background music, lounging students, and a paucity of tables, desks and power outlets. Yet it is not uncommon to see 40+ businessmen and women meeting with accountants, conducting meetings or feverishly responding to email messages. Granted, they visit Starbucks for the coffee and the newspaper, but they do business there because of the convenient location and the lack of an alternative work space.

Welcome to SOHO HQ.

Here's how it works. We start with 2500-3000 square feet of space in a strip center with plentiful parking and walk-in access. None of this "parking in the garage" or "taking the elevator" routine. This is not Commuter Central. The first point of greeting is an amiable concierge who will do what a good concierge does…provide a friendly greeting, answer questions and make life easy for the over-worked and under-staffed customer. After that it's "pick-a-zone"… specific areas or spaces earmarked for particular use or need and each designed acoustically and ergonomically to meet the mood, from convivial to contemplative. There's quiet space for the reader or worker as well open meeting space for the garrulous. There's the "Nosh Nook" with sodas, juices, good coffee and an array of foods for breakfast or lunch (could be a Starbuck's outlet but with fresher, less sugared snacks). Of course, there are always five newspapers to choose from…New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, the local business weekly and local daily rag.

From there the choices are all encompassing…small enclosed meeting rooms, a copy center (could be Kinko's), mailboxes, retail office supplies (just the staples), and the traditional grab bag of secretarial and administrative services running the gamut from parcel packing and drop-off to notary assistance. (Yes, it could be a UPS Store). The latest computer equipment will always be available for rental…everything from scanners and laptops, to GPS and high-speed Internet. We'll have affiliate vendors offering computer repair and personal secretarial services from translation to transcription.

What's the Point-of-Difference?

For one thing, it's one-stop-shopping, everything under one roof. Why suffer the inconvenience of making multiple stops? After that it's an issue of ambience…providing an environment that acknowledges and respects the SOHO businessperson for who he is and what she needs. Not to mention customer service. At SOHO HQ, we actually smile at customers, make them feel welcome, try to be helpful and always respect their time, which is generally in short supply. Long lines will be the exception rather than the norm. Incidentally, we'll run the operation on a franchise basis, but do it the old-fashioned way. The centers will be managed and operated by those who own them, preferably retiree couples or families who understand the importance of the personal touch; or self-starting entrepreneurs who aren't afraid of commitment and hard work.

How will the customer pay? All the services are available on an a la carte basis. We won't be inexpensive (convenience rarely is). But we'll definitely be more affordable than an executive office suite. Run well, these locations can throw off six figures pre-tax.

The first person or company to put it all together along the lines I've outlined has got my business and my loyalty. And the patronage of many of those other fourteen million SOHOs who labor daily, unacknowledged and unloved.

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