Barn Office Basics

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Many horse businesses have nothing but the kitchen table for an office, particularly in the early years. But whether your office makes way for meals or you have a dedicated room at the barn, the elements and arrangements of your space make a difference to your business. The tips below will help you set up shop—or assess and, if necessary, revamp your existing space—for comfort and effectiveness, to help you run an organized, efficient and successful farm.

Dedicate Space

“I think there has to be a certain area dedicated to the office,” says Paula McRill, office manager for University of Findlay’s 300-stall, 73-acre Center for Equestrian and Pre-Veterinary Studies in Ohio. McRill and her husband also run their own small boarding facility. McRill acknowledges that not everyone has the ideal situation—a separate room. But even singling out a portion of a room as your barn’s business office can do the trick, she says.

Carol Hilton, office manager for Peter Phinny’s Cold Spring Farm, a private reining horse breeding facility in Maple City, Mich., agrees. “Basically, you set up wherever you can carve out some space,” she says, “unless you’re building [a new facility] and specifically think of putting in an office. A lot of people just use a spare room.” Hilton’s own office at Cold Spring is actually the living room of an empty house on the farm.

Hint: If you don’t have a spare empty room, you can use screens, bookcases and similar devices to define office space in another room.

Make Arrangements

Once you’ve found a spot for your office, think about how you want to arrange the components. Consider:

• The location of electrical and telephone outlets, since you’ll need to set equipment within reach.

• The dimensions of the room, since this affects what furniture and equipment will fit as well as how you can situate it in the space.

• The location of windows and doors, since you don’t want sunlight glare on your computer screen, and you may not want your back to the door, particularly if you have frequent visitors.

Hilton’s office is something of a box pattern. Her main desk is pushed forward into the room, with a low cabinet to her left holding copy machine, printer and other computer equipment. Another surface to her right holds a second printer. Her computer is on a separate desk behind her. A swivel chair lets her reach nearly everything without having to stand and walk about—an arrangement she finds highly efficient.

Hint: When setting up your work space, position items you use most within closest reach, including most-used files,the telephone and so on.

Pick the Pieces

Once you’ve addressed the points above, you can start purchasing furniture and equipment. According to Hilton and McRill, these are the basic elements of an efficient barn office:

• Desk. Whether it’s an elaborate executive style or a piece of plywood resting on a pair of sawhorses, you need something to write on, says McRill.

• Comfortable chair. Don’t cut corners here. A good chair can not only ward off back troubles, but, as McRill says, “Anytime you’re going to make yourself do bookkeeping and paperwork, the more comfortable you can make yourself, the better!”

• Telephone. This is an absolute must. Consider whether you’ll need special features such as multiple-line or call-transfer capability. In place of a traditional or built-in answering machine, Hilton prefers voicemail, which allows callers to leave a message even when the phone line is in use. “When people call a business and get a busy signal all the time, that’s really annoying,” she says. “I love voicemail because people don’t get the busy signal.”

• Fax machine. This is handy for sending and receiving forms, contracts, prize lists and other communications, particularly if your farm or some of your clients and vendors aren’t comfortable with e-mail.

• Computer and printer. These two really go hand-in-hand as a pair of invaluable office tools. Hilton actually has two printers—one high-quality laser printer and a less expensive ink-jet-type color printer.

• Copier. You won’t have to run to Kinko’s every day if you have your own copier. However, a good fax machine also has copying capabilities.

• Storage units. Storage is essential to staying organized, and staying organized is critical to a smooth-running office, says McRill. Both she and Hilton use filing cabinets to keep track of records for clients, horses, bills and accounts payable. McRill also suggests having a file or binder with catalogs (or catalog pages) for items you regularly need to order, such as horse health care supplies. In place of larger filing cabinets, she notes that a smaller business may be fine with a filing box; she simply uses a desk drawer to file records for her own boarding business. Hilton recommends adding a desk-top file holder to keep current or urgent matters organized and top-of-mind.

• Good lighting. Hilton and McRill agree that good lighting is vital, helping to prevent eye-strain and headaches, and simply making papers and computer screens easier to read. McRill finds incandescent lights easier on the eyes than fluorescent, but acknowledges that’s personal preference. Hilton has some incandescent lighting and, facing her computer, a special floor lamp from Spectrum Lighting (www.firststreetonline.com) that replicates natural sunlight.

• Management software. Both McRill and Hilton are big believers in the power of management software to help keep your office—and your business—running smoothly. McRill uses software designed for the equine industry, while Hilton prefers QuickBooks Pro. The key, says McRill, is to find a program you’re comfortable with that, at minimum, allows you to keep records on horses and clients, and lets you print out invoices.

Hint: Instead of purchasing separate machines for faxing, printing and copying, look for a multi-function machine that does it all—and often scans, as well. McRill uses one of these multi-purpose tools at her home barn.

Get in Line

If you’re running a business, and particularly if you plan to write-off phone and fax costs as business expenses, then you’ll want separate lines than the one for your home, says McRill. Ideally, your phone line will also be distinct from your fax line, which creates less hassle for you and the people trying to call you or send you faxes, agree Hilton and McRill.

Hilton and McRill strongly recommend having Internet access at your office, since many people prefer to communicate by e-mail these days. However, notes Hilton, not everyone has jumped on the Web bandwagon, and some communications are more easily accomplished by fax. She recommends having both options available.

Hint: To allow simultaneous use of fax and Internet functions without having two separate lines, talk to your local phone company about the availability of DSL in your area.

Focus on Function

Roll all the advice together, and setting up an effective farm office really comes down to one thing: function. If you’re just using the office to pay bills, record incoming payments and keep records on a handful of horses, then a desk in your home may be all you need. If you’re managing a major facility, supervising the care of a large herd and regularly welcoming visitors, then you may need a full-size office with all the trappings.

Keeping function in mind and using the tried-and-true ideas above, you’re sure to create an office space just right for your specific needs and designed to help your horse business thrive. [sm]