Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Tips for starting an office on a shoestring

June 30, 2012

Need to run a business but have to pinch pennies hard enough to leave calluses? I have some advice for you.

First, you’ll need good hardware. Don’t skimp here, because reliability trumps economy. Buy new if it means your gear will last longer and be more productive. Eschew the hyped-up stuff; you’re paying for somebody’s PR machine. Cool does not help productivity.

Case in point: the iPhone and iPad. Both good, but both overpriced for what you get. Read reviews and pick judiciously. Know what you want to do with your hardware before you buy it so you don’t succumb to sales talk. The object here isn’t to dazzle others at business meetings (unless you’re in the dazzling business, of course), but to get long life and reliable operation.

The logic applies to desktop computers, laptops, wireless routers, tablets, printers and anything else you might need. Sites that have long been trusted for their reviews include CNET (reviews.cnet.com), ZDNet (www.zdnet.com/reviews), and PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com).

And speaking of those other gadgets, you can often buy used and save. Ebay has good deals on occasion. Again, know what you need before you plunge into the auction. How big a printer do you need? What features will you need? Planning saves money. Will you be holding videoconferences or use an Internet phone from your desk computer? Then you’ll need a good headset.

Be careful about buying used computers. Hardware becomes obsolete quickly, although a machine just a year or two old can be a good bargain if you know what you’re getting. If you don’t, buy new. Entry-level desktop computers are commonplace nowadays for under $500 brand new. As always, the more features you need, the more costly the asset. But don’t assume you need a scorching-fast top-end machine. Most offices don’t.

The phone is a good way to save money, if you can tolerate the downsides. Internet phones are now available for very little, usually much less than a landline or cell phone. Even the ubiquitous chat application Skype has phone capability. A vendor like Vonage (vonage.com) can turn your usual cell and landline into an Internet phone for around $26 a month at current rates. I don’t like Internet phones because they tend to break up at vital moments during conversations, but your mileage may vary.

You can also do all sorts of other trickery with phones, like getting a Google Voice account phone number that your customers can dial but can then ring at any number of other points, making you seem bigger than you are.

For office supplies, resist the temptation to shop online and have it delivered to you. Shopping online is fine for comparing prices, but shipping charges can quickly vaporize any savings you might have imagined you’re getting. Manage usage so things run out together and you can shop at one time, and go pick it all up yourself. Buy store brands for expensive items like toner and printer ink.

Software is often a huge hit on the wallet. Whatever computer you buy will probably come with an operating system, but little else. Depending on what you need to do, you’ll likely need a word processor, a spreadsheet, and maybe a database.

You may also need industry-specific products like drawing programs. When you need these things, consider the free and open-source markets. Google Docs is free, as are OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) and IBM’s Symphony (www.ibm.com). All have the basic applications offices typically need, for a lot less than commercial packages. All offer document compatibility with Microsoft’s Office products, so you can interchange spreadsheets and documents with the rest of the universe.

If you’ve bought a Windows-compatible computer, you can even go all-out and replace Windows with free software like Linux, but you have to know what you’re doing, and most of us will pay the minimal price for Windows upgrades to avoid having to tinker with the system.

There are low-cost alternatives everywhere in the online world. Paint Shop Pro from Corel (www.corel.com), for example, will do most of what Adobe’s PhotoShop will do for only $50 downloaded. GIMP, another graphics package, is free (www.gimp.org). Audacity (audacity.sourceforge.net), a good sound recording and editing application, is free for the downloading and can produce sound good enough for professional webinars and other presentations. There is free software for making Acrobat PDFs, fetching your e-mail, managing projects, drawing diagrams, creating websites, making fliers and other marketing materials, burning CDs and DVDs, backing up files, accounting for your money, managing your customer base, and securing your hard drive.

If you don’t have much money, you’ll need to spend time finding deals, but if that’s what you need to do, you can outfit an office for much less than you probably thought. With these hints and a vacant back bedroom, you should be on your way.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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