Who Needs an Office?

The virtual world can make them obsolete.
October 23, 2011

For that matter, who needs to travel to a meeting? Virtual tools and resources can help you hire, manage projects, collaborate with far-flung team members—and even make it look like you really do have an office.

Scott Gerber is just as comfortable working at home, in coffee shops or in shared workspaces. But five or six years ago, when he was starting his short-video production company, Sizzle It!, he thought he needed the credibility of a Madison Avenue address to attract top-tier clients. So, he paid $300 a year to borrow one from ManhattanVirtualOffice.com. That decision paid off—saving him $100,000 in rent, and ultimately helping attract clients that now include Procter & Gamble and The Gap.

Gerber, 27, now a serial entrepreneur and author of Never Get a “Real” Job, published in 2010, has become an evangelist for entrepreneurship, particularly for resourceful young go-getters who may not be cut out for life as cubicle dwellers. He’s even founded a nonprofit for Gen Y entrepreneurs, YoungEntrepreneurCouncil.com (YEC). As such, he’s always on the lookout for new ways, resources and tools to gain a competitive advantage.

“Entrepreneurs need to make sure they are in the know about the latest tools and SaaS resources. You never know when a $20-per-month service can save you thousands and help you scale up—all without making any client the wiser,” he says. “Virtual tools are vital for young entrepreneurs. They allow business owners to create systems, automation and infrastructure in a matter of minutes, while simultaneously enabling them to build credibility and compete at a higher level.”

Finding the right virtual tools for a startup is essential. Sometimes the only viable course of action involves a trial-and-error path in determining what works best for each entrepreneur.

SUCCESS sought out the opinions of some young entrepreneurs on what are proving to be the best tools in their enterprising toolboxes. Respondents included members of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a global network that also operates the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards program for college students who own and run businesses while attending a college or university (awarded in November). We also asked Gerber to reach out to YEC members for their input.

Some common favorites include Google apps, Grasshopper, Skype and Dropbox. And we got some unexpected comments too, like this one from Cliff Michaels, past president of EO Los Angeles: “If you are visual and tactile, which I am, there is nothing better than a good old-fashioned notepad—on your computer desktop or physical desk. Once you have to go too many layers into a software tool, it’s a time and focus killer. Old school, baby!”

Here are more entrepreneurs’ tips:

—“Virtual doesn’t mean alone: Whether you work in an office, at home, at a coffee shop, or on a beach, people are your most valuable asset,” says Natalie MacNeil of Imaginarius. She recommends Elance.com as a virtual human resources department for hiring and managing people. “Use it to find your logo designer, website developer, virtual assistant, and other people who can help you build a successful virtual business.”

—For project management, Devesh Dwivedi of BreakingThe9to5Jail.com says “I love BaseCamp. It has made us [nearly] 100 percent virtual. It has every possible feature for project management, and other products from 37signals’ Suite [web-based apps for collaboration, sharing information, and making decisions]. It is inexpensive and easy to use because once you’ve subscribed, anyone, e.g. your clients, vendors, and employees, can simply join in via web without… downloading or signing up.”

—Matt Mickiewicz of 99designs recommends taking advantage of subscription services. “It’s cheaper and easier to create a virtual office than ever before. Start off by getting a mailbox at a local UPS, get set up with a toll-free phone number through Grasshopper.com, register a professional domain name at NameCheap.com, and get business cards and marketing material from Vistaprint or PrintingForLess.com.”

—Keep it simple, says Kent Healy of DontGetBurnedBlog.com. “Some web services I suggest are GoToMyPC for international access to one base hard drive, and Evernote for paperless document and image management. More features are not always better.”

—Using an online fax service online can save you some money, says Ashley Bodi of Business Beware. “You don’t need a printer, toner or ink, and it makes it easy to transfer if you move rather than setting up a new line every time. I recommend Grasshopper or eVoice to help your small business stay mobile and on the go. Both services are awesome and help you with everything you need.”

—Kris Ruby of Ruby Media Group LLC is a proponent of virtual offices. “If you are on a shoestring budget, utilize services like Stark Office Suites or Regus, which will keep your overhead to a minimum”, she says. “I was able to move in and start working immediately without worrying about Internet or phones, and I even have a receptionist answering calls for me.”

—Eric Bahn of Beat the GMAT recommends oDesk.com to hire low-cost engineering talent if you’re building a web-based business. “oDesk is a directory of international contractors. Take some time to interview and vet the engineers with high ratings and lots of logged contract hours—it’s a good filter for finding good talent initially.”

—Elizabeth Saunders of Real Life E® offers a wise word of advice: “Reduce, reuse and recycle: For instance, your current software, email provider, phone service and office equipment may be most—if not all—of what you need to start. Also, you can begin with free web services like ZOHO CRM [for managing your sales, marketing, customer support, and inventory in a single system] and upgrade after your business has earned the cash to pay for new purchases.”

—Cliff Michaels, the former president of EO Los Angeles, recommends HootSuite as a simple one-click to push messages on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. His favorite free software is Pandora for instant access to music. His biggest virtual tool mistakes include web-based templates, which he says are often inflexible. “Also, trying to add complicated tools like heavy customer relationship management kills focus and time management. Simpler is best: Most CRM tools for example are overloaded with access features never used and they try to lock you in to their contracts, making it hard to switch over.”

—Connor Hood of The Site Slinger likes RescueTime for time management, and he offers another piece of advice: “Do not fall into the trap of trying too many things, and not using the important ones to their fullest potential. Just because it’s ‘cool’ and ‘new’ doesn’t mean you need to use it for your business.”

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