A few days ago, I wrote a posting here talking about whether or not the economic downturn was a time to hunker down or whether you should innovate instead. An astute TechRepublic reader contacted me suggesting that now might be the best time ever to start your own business and provided a few suggestions for doing so on the cheap. Even though the proposition might be really scary to some, starting a small business today can be a pretty inexpensive thing to do.
Once you start your own business, you immediately become your own CIO. With the Internet and "the cloud" becoming ubiquitous, your new business can rely on all kinds of cheap - sometimes free - services to help you keep costs low while you get off the ground. The suggestions below aren't just pertinent for those starting a new business, though; you might find value in considering their use even if you're working in a well established organization.
It's assumed that you already have a reasonably high speed connection to the Internet so that some of these solutions will actually work. Whether it's an Internet connection in your home, in an office you establish in your home or elsewhere, look for high-speed, low latency - i.e. DSL or a cable modem.
Phone service is available from just about everyone these days. Look for bundled solutions from your DSL or cable modem provider. Make sure the solution includes unlimited nationwide service, voicemail and, if you need it, cheap international calls.
Sometimes, bundled deals aren't the best, aren't available, don't offer what you need, or are simply too expensive. For just these purposes, there are a whole lot of other options you can consider for phone service.
- Vongage (http://www.vonage.com ): At $24.99 per month for regular service, Vonage is probably the best known Internet phone service out there. Vonage also has a number of other plans, including a $14.99/500 minute plan and a $34.99/month plan with a calling area that includes the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, Italy, France, Spain, UK, and Ireland. These two plans are listed in Vonage's site as being for residential use, but the company also offers business plans. At $39.99 per month, Vonage provides 1,500 minutes of calling to the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. At the $49.99/month level, there are no calling limits, the calling area expands to include Italy, France, Spain, UK, and Ireland and a fax line is thrown in.
- Skype (http://www.skype.com): When it comes to Internet phone service from a computer, Skype is the leader. It's been around for a while and doesn't cost a whole lot. While best known for computer-to-computer calling, by purchasing a phone number and paying 2.1 cents per minute, you can call land lines from your Skype account and receive business calls from anyone. For a complete list of international rates on Skype, visit http://www.skype.com/prices/callrates. For an additional fee, you can also purchase a Skype voicemail box.
- BroadVoice (http://www.broadvoice.com): BroadVoice's services costs a little less than Vonage and phone numbers available through their service seems to have a broader reach when it comes to local number availability.
Small business phone system
If you're just getting off the ground, you may find that buying a phone system is cost-prohibited and complex. And, you might want to simply focus on your business and not on all of the underpinnings of operations. Instead of trying to build your own PBX from scratch and hire and assistant to manage calls, let someone else do it for you on the cheap!
- SmartOffice (http://www.businessphonesolutions.com): Starting at $59.95, SmartOffice is your virtual assistant. Base packages include up to five extensions and 400 or 3000 local minutes depending on whether or not you want to use a toll-free number. Under the $79.95 rate plan, unlimited local plans are included. Long distance calls are billed at $0.05 per minute. The SmartOffice feature set also includes faxing and automated attendants.
- OneBox (http://www.onebox.com): OneBox provides a similar service as the one provided by SmartOffice and has plans ranging in price from $49.95 (4 lines) to $79.95 (10 lines).
Virtual remote assistant
Sometimes, it's the little things that can make or break your business. Do you want to focus on your newborn business or do you want to handle invoices, perform data entry tasks and other non-critical activities? For relatively little money, you can hire someone with the exact skills you need to help you handle these kinds of tasks. Freelance services are available out there from which you can choose from a wide variety of potential candidates. Use the services of these professionals for as little time as you need to as much.
- oDesk (http://www.odesk.com): oDesk is an online staffing marketplace dedicated to helping people get the right person for your needs. The providers that make their services available on oDesk charge an hourly rate and oDesk takes 10% off the top as their service charge.
- YourRemoteAssistant (http://www.yourremoteassistant.com): YourRemoteAssistant is similar to oDesk in that the purpose is the same. However, unlike oDesk, which uses staff from all over the country and world, YourRemoteAssistant uses staff based in the Philippines.
There are a whole lot of these kinds of services out there. A Google search can point you quickly in the right direction.
Email & Web Hosting
I'm not going to get into too many specifics with regard to web hosting since there are a ton of resources out there to help you find hosting services for these items. Basic web hosting with unlimited email accounts can be had for $7 per month and less if you need just simple send/receive of email messages. There are also individual and business-focused Exchange hosting services out there. A hosted Exchange account gives you all of the benefits of running an in-house Exchange server, but without the huge infrastructure startup costs that go along with it.
- Intermedia (http://www.intermedia.net): Intermedia provides hosted Exchange services for individuals, small business and large organizations. In addition to a hosted mailbox & calendar, Intermedia also offers synchronization between your hosted Exchange account and your handheld device, such as a BlackBerry or Treo. Intermedia's smallest plan starts at $35.85 per month for 3 accounts. While Exchange hosting is not the least expensive option out there, it can be the most versatile.
- 1 & 1 (http://www.1and1.com): 1 & 1 provides single user hosting for Exchange accounts so you can buy exactly the number of accounts you need. Like Intermedia, 1 & 1 provides additional services, including mobile device synchronization. 1 & 1 charges $6.99 per month per user for Exchange hosting.
The items above are just the big ones There are dozens and dozens of things you can do to help grow your small business without having to break the bank.Web Conferencing
- GoToMeeting (http://www.gotomeeting.com): The owner of a brand new small business probably can't afford a whole lot of business travel, but with the world as a market, you might want to "meet" with potential clients to show presentations, explain proposals, etc. With monthly unlimited plans allowing up to 15 participants each costing $49.95, you can bring the world's clients to your desktop.
- WebEx (http://www.webex.com): WebEx is the grand poobah of the web conferencing industry and has been around for a long time. WebEx offers plans starting at $59.95 per month for individuals, small business and large business.
- Mozy (http://mozy.com): Loss of data due to failed hard drives, disasters or sabotage help close the doors to businesses all the time. Keeping your business data safe from loss is important to the success of your business. Mozy provides personal unlimited backup at $4.95 per month. For business, Mozy offers a full suite of services as well, including the ability to back up SQL, Exchange, Macintosh & Windows computers and more. MozyPro has desktop pricing of $3.95 + $0.50/GB per month with server licenses running $6.95 + $0.50/GB per month.
- IDrive (http://www.idrive.com): Do you have less than 2GB of data that needs to be backed up? Go free! IDrive provides backup space for 2GB at no cost with business plans offering up to 500GB of space for $49.95 per month. IDrive also supports both Macintosh and Windows computers.