Starting a small home business has never ever been easier than it is right now. The Internet and the new technologies/services that have come along with it have made the picture so very rosy for someone who is just starting out. Of course, there’s no doubt that everyone would like a swanky office with nice looking gadgets and everything else, but let’s face it, most people aspiring to run a home business can’t really afford that.
The good thing is that by using these new Internet technologies, projecting a professional image to clients isn’t that tough. So, today I am going to discuss a few things that will help you in running your own virtual office right out of your own bedroom. First of all, to start with this, you need a PC and an Internet connection. This is a no brainer, as there are plenty of offers on the market for both of these, and making the right decision is purely a matter of assessing your needs.
Every office needs a telephone service and most of us already have a telephone at home. However, using that solely for your small office isn’t always possible. After all, you have other people in the household too who might want to use the phone. Also, you’ll have to change the answering machine message and your 16-year-old daughter might not be “cool” with that. So, what direction can you go in now?
Well, using VoIP services like SkypeIn is one way. Skype gives you a local area code number with voicemail services included. The plus point with VoIP services, like Skype, is that you can use your phone connection anywhere you have access to the Internet. You can also visit voipreview.org to find more of these offers in your area. Most of these services are a lot cheaper than conventional phone connections and they offer a lot more value for your money, in terms of value added services.
Similarly, if you want a 1-800 number, there are plenty of options. One of them is GotvMail . They offer a 1-800 number for $9.95 a month. The service lets you forward a call to any number and they also send you voicemails and faxes via your e-mail as MP3 or PDF attachments. What else? You can even upload your favorite MP3s to be used as your phone holding music. After all, nothing gives your small business a true professional stamp like a 1-800 number does.
Yes, it’s the big machine with so many buttons. Every starting business can’t always afford one, so once again, we turn to the Internet. Some of the VoIP providers, such as FaxZero  that will let you send free faxes up to a daily limit. If you’re going to be using faxes a lot, the paid service option is the best way to go.
A service like MyFax  will even let you send 100 faxes a month for as little as $10. Additional pages cost you just 10 cents each as well. Apart from the few services I mentioned here, there are many others that will let you send and receive faxes, as well as, provide you with a personal local number. The best thing about these services is that they totally eliminate the need of a fax machine. In fact, other similar service providers even let you send out faxes directly from your e-mail account, even if you are using a free e-mail program like Hotmail or Yahoo! Visit the links below to check out some of these online fax services for yourself.
3. E-mail and Web site
All of us have e-mail and most of us who have been online for awhile now, have used everything from Hotmail to Yahoo! to the new and sleek Gmail. However, in a business scenario, it’s not always considered professional to use a free e-mail service. After all, sending an e-mail from firstname.lastname@example.org isn’t as professional as sending one from email@example.com.
What most people don’t know is that it really doesn’t cost a lot to get a paid e-mail account. For instance, you can get one or more at GoDaddy’s Web site that will provide you an address for $9.99 a year with 25 MB storage or you can even have five addresses for $19.99 with a total storage of 1,000 MB.
Alternatively, if you are also going to get a Web site online, your Web host is going to provide you with free e-mail addresses anyway. Most Web hosts now provide unlimited e-mail accounts along with value added services, like catch all e-mail, auto-responders, Web mail interfaces, etc. You could create multiple e-mail IDs for your business, like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. The clients will never know that it’s you sitting in your bedroom answering all of these e-mails from different addresses.
For hosting a small business Web site, you shouldn’t have to shell out more than $6 to $10 per month. Most Web hosts will provide you with one or more content management systems that you can use to organize your Web site. The good thing about them is that they eliminate the need to hire a Web designer to design your site for you. If you have been on the Internet for awhile (and reading WorldStart’s articles!), it shouldn’t take you long to get everything up and running. If you maintain a blog or a MySpace page, this should be an absolute piece of cake for you.
The screenshot above is a screenshot of Mambo CMS, one of the most popular Content Management systems on the Internet. Even now, if you are too worried to go through all this, remind yourself that a well made Web site can provide an extremely professional face for your home business. Visit the links below to browse through some vendors that provide e-mail and Web hosting services.
4. Postal Services
Though the idea of this article was to facilitate a virtual office, there are things that we still have to do offline. One of them is snail mail. This is very important for a business that constantly has to ship out merchandise or where vast amounts of paper work is involved. For outgoing packages nowadays, you will get home pickup from most of the service providers. Even good old USPS is online now , which makes life very easy for a busy small business entrepreneur.
On their Web site, you can print and pay for postage and schedule a next day pickup. Convenient, isn’t it?! If you want to get an alternate address for your business, you can go for a UPS P.O. box for less than $100 a year or a private mailbox for $150 to $200 a year. With the private mailbox, you get a street address with additional services like acceptance of UPS/FedEx packages, mail holding and forwarding, 24-hour mailbox access, etc. UPS will also notify you when you have mail or alternatively, you can call them to check if you have any. Check out this link for some additional information on that.
Does all this sound good to you? If not, then just sit in your favorite yoga position, close your eyes and simply compare this to the amount of money you’d spend getting a new phone line, a fax machine, a secretary to do all your work and so on and so on. A virtual office is the way to go for most aspiring entrepreneurs, unless of course, your last name is Trump or Gates. Give it a try!
~ Yogesh Bakshi