When it comes to running a business, our feet are firmly on the ground but our data and software are increasingly in the cloud.
My burgeoning media empire consists of two people (my lovely wife and me), but to the outside world we seem a lot bigger, thanks to online applications. To get our tasks done, we lean heavily on Web-based apps, from office suites to calendars to collaboration tools that let us work with colleagues on the other coast. Better yet, many of the services we use are free - at least, in their most basic incarnations. That never hurts.
The good part about going virtual is that you don't have to worry about leaving your data or software on the wrong machine when you're away from the office. The bad part, of course, is when you can't reach the Internet. Even then, however, more and more online applications are offering offline access so that you can keep working while waiting for Road Runner or Comcast to restore your Net connection.
Here are five ways you can make your business virtual, too.
1. Hire a virtual receptionist
You may run a mom-and-pop shop, but with the right phone tools you can sound like one of the Fortune 1000. We use Skype for many of our outbound calls. You have to download the software to your machine, but your phone book and call histories reside on Skype's servers, accessible to any connected computer.
Calling other Skype users is free; to receive calls from non-Skypers, you must buy a SkypeIn number starting at US$3 a month (United States and Canada). To call landline or cell phones, you purchase SkypeOut minutes (calls to most US locations cost about 2 cents per minute). Using Skype we can set up free conference calls with as many as nine other people, though the quality varies depending on each person's Net connection.
We've taken an extra step and hired Pamela for Skype, an add-on that records incoming and outgoing calls (for "quality assurance," of course). The free version stops recording after 15 minutes; other versions offer unlimited recording, store voice and video mail, route calls, and do even more, for prices ranging from $13 to $37.
Another of our favourites is Google's GrandCentral, a free service that lets you automatically route or record incoming calls. (Unfortunately, it won't record outbound ones). You can set up unique voice-mail greetings for each caller or, if you're trying to avoid someone, play a "number not in service" recording. GrandCentral will ring up to three phone numbers in succession until it finds you, or it can send callers straight to voice mail, which you can retrieve anywhere.
GrandCentral even lets you post an "unlisted" number on your blog or your eBay auction listing; visitors to the site can click a button to call you, but won't ever know what number they dialled. The only problem? At press time the service was in closed beta; Google won't say when it will open GrandCentral to the general public, so for now a current user must invite you to sign on. (Though you might get lucky here.) Google also sometimes offers GrandCentral to users of other Google services: My editor received a log-in when he created a Blogger account.
2. Feed your suite tooth
You don't have to lug a laptop loaded down with a bloated office suite, or email endless revisions of the same documents back and forth with your colleagues. Cloud applications such as Google Docs and Zoho Office turn your browser into a word processor, a spreadsheet, or other desktop software, and store your documents on the Web so they're accessible (and shareable) from anywhere. Google Docs serves up a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentations program. Zoho offers all that and a ton more: email, project management, a wiki, a database creator, invoicing, Web conferencing, and other apps.
Admittedly, such online applications aren't as powerful as those that come with "Microsoft" on the box (or even the free ones from OpenOffice)...yet. But they are handy when we're away from our primary computers and we need to access files, or when we're working with people spread across different time zones. Google Docs can even send an email alert if anyone has made changes to a file. Better yet, both Google and Zoho offer offline access. Download and install Google Gears, and you'll be able to open files you've created when a Net connection isn't available, and then sync them back up when you reconnect.
Want more? The Web is bursting with other collaborative apps, but most of them charge you for the privilege of using them. So far, Google Docs and Zoho Office are 100 percent free.
3. Get a robotic personal assistant
We can't afford to hire an administrative assistant, which is why we use Highrise. Nominally an online CRM tool, 37signals' clever Web app does nearly everything a personal secretary might do except go out for coffee and pick up our dry cleaning.
Of course, the last thing you need is yet another address book to populate. Fortunately, Highrise makes the job easy: Just bcc email messages to a special 'dropbox' address, and your recipient's address joins your contacts database automatically. You can then copy and paste their phone number, physical address, and other info at your leisure. (You can also upload V-cards or import whole address books from Outlook and other contact managers.)
But Highrise is really more about organising your work life and keeping you on track. You can create a "case" for each project, associate contacts with each case, add notes and upload documents, share the case with colleagues, and add tasks for each person to perform. Highrise is free for two users and up to 250 contacts; paid plans that allow multiple users to swap files, collaborate on cases, and share thousands of contacts range from $24 to $99 a month.
When we need full-on project management, we also use 37signals' Basecamp, which lets us create milestones, view them on a calendar, track successive versions of the same document, and do a whole lot more. You can manage one project with unlimited users for free; for multiple projects, prices start at $24 a month.
4. Outsource your calendars
It was a happy day here at TynanWood, when we finally ditched Microsoft Outlook for handling our schedules and went with Google Calendar. We set up calendars for everyone in our organisation (including our kids and their schools) and shared them; now we can view everyone's appointments in one screen by clicking a few boxes.
Google sends alerts to my email inbox and my cell phone when I'm about to miss an appointment, and even synchronises with the calendar on my Windows Smart Phone (via a free third-party utility called GooSync).
The downside? Unlike Google Docs, the calendar service has no offline capability yet, so we can't access our schedules when we're flying or when the Net connection goes kablooey.
Fortunately, there's a groovy alternative in Scrybe, which lets you update your calendar even when you're offline, and then sync up when you reconnect. Scrybe offers some extremely cool-looking features, such as the ability to zoom in and out on particular days or time slots and produce miniature calendars on actual paper! The bad news: Like Google GrandCentral, Scrybe has closed its public beta for now, so you'll need to find a sympathetic Scrybe user to invite you.
5. Do the virtual meet and greet
These days, most of our meetings are virtual. And while plenty of tools can help you trot out a dog-and-pony show without leaving your desk, most of them cost more than we want to spend. You'll pay at least $40 to $50 a month to use GoToMeeting or WebEx, for example, and often much more.
If you only occasionally need to meet and greet the outside world, FreeConference.com is a reasonable alternative. The standard free service lets you schedule phone briefings up to four hours long for as many as 150 of your closest friends. If you want to record the sessions, you'll need to pony up $9 a month; goodies such as a toll-free number or a dedicated bridge line cost 10 cents per user per minute. Want to do live demos or foist PowerPoint slides upon your audience? At press time, FreeConference was offering the SharePlus desktop-sharing beta for no charge - a price that's hard to beat.
Contributing Editor Dan Tynan is the lesser half of TynanWood and bloviates frequently on his blog, Tynan on Technology.