Being a frugal entrepreneur does not mean being cheap. It has everything to do with being smart about how money gets spent. It’s not about doing without; it is about using the best tools available to get the job done and being able to avoid spending a small fortune. Fortunately, today’s small business owner lives in a world full of virtual tools that not only make it easier to run a successful business, but are also friendly to even the most challenged of business budgets.
The Internet and all the technology built around it is the great equalizer. It gives even the smallest of companies access to tools that, not too long ago, were only available to the largest of corporations. That said, here are five popular virtual tools that any small business owner can use to improve communications, increase efficiency and productivity, and do it all on a shoe-string budget:
1. Virtual phone services. Quite recently, the only choice for affordable business phone service was a basic copper phone line. Anything fancier would cost a small fortune. Want multiple lines? Want the ability to route calls between employees or departments? Want the same phone capability large corporations enjoy? Want to not spend a bundle and end up with a closet full of phone hardware to make this happen? A virtual phone service might be the solution you are looking for.
A virtual phone service takes advantage of VoIP, or voice over IP technology, which is a fancy way of saying it uses the Internet to handle call routing. There are two types of virtual telephone solutions – one that uses your existing phone line(s), and one that only requires you to have a broadband Internet connection. Signing up for a virtual phone system can literally save your business thousands of dollars. Basic plans often start at an affordable $10 a month, require no hardware purchases, and come with an impressive assortment of features including: professionally recorded greetings, extensions, call forwarding to a land line or mobile number, and a toll free or local number dedicated to the business.
2. Online conferencing services. With the ability to meet with remote employees or geographically inconvenient clients, an online conferencing service turns any Internet connected computer into a vehicle for pitching products, explaining your company’s services, or holding team meetings. Designed for no more than 10 to 15 attendees, a web conferencing solution allows for shared computer screens, and online collaboration in addition to face-to-face discussion via webcams.
Holding an online meeting can eliminate the need to travel across town, the country, or even the world. Even if just one business trip can be eliminated, an online conferencing solution will pay for itself many times over. Free, informal web conferencing for a handful of people can be accomplished via Skype or Google+ Hangouts. Paid services range dramatically in price depending on the kinds of services you are looking for. But even the more expensive options may be more than a plane ticket, and you don’t have to worry about jetlag.
3. Webinars. A webinar is an online meeting on a large scale. While online conferencing may be great for small groups, if you need to do a presentation to many people then a webinar service is the way to go. It is a highly cost-effective method for business owners and professionals to reach a mass audience. It is also great tool for companies that work with remote employees and need to hold training sessions to bring everyone up to speed on a new product or service.
Depending on your needs, there are webinar tools that allow you to just share your computer screen with your audience, and there are others that allow you to incorporate live video using a webcam. Pricing is surprisingly low, and you have the flexibility of scheduling webinars whenever you want for as long as you want.
4. Online collaboration tools. Virtual teams are becoming more popular, including work at home employees, or people scattered around the country/world at satellite offices. The question becomes how do you have multiple people work on the same project when they are at different locations? Online collaboration is the answer!
An online collaboration tool can be as simple as using a service such as Dropbox, a free file sharing service that allows authorized individuals access to the same documents. Or it can be Google Docs, a free set of tools that allow multiple people to work on the same documents, spreadsheets, and more, all simultaneously. Online collaboration can also be done using the whiteboard feature of an online meeting service, giving attendees the ability to brainstorm together, all without needing to be physically present at the same place.
5. A quality, functional website. While a company website may not seem like a tool, it certainly should be thought of as one. Every small business that relies on customers to bring in income should have a website. It is amazing how many entrepreneurs don’t seem to understand this simple concept.
A website needs to be a sales tool that explains to prospective customers what your company can do for them, what makes your business stand out from the guy down the street, and why a customer should choose your products or services instead of buying from the competition. If you don’t have a website, or fail to properly utilize the one you do have, rest assured that your competition will, and they will happily take in your customers.
Moreover, you don’t have to be a web designer to have a great website. There are many, many free services, such as WordPress, Wix, Webs, Doodlekit, Moonfruit, or robust, for pay online services, such as Squarespace, that can help you build the right website for your business.
In short, if you want some very powerful, yet affordable, products and services to help you run your business, then you should be putting your head in the cloud.
Are there any indispensable virtual tools that I left out? What tools are you using to help run your business?
Marshall Davis interviews interesting entrepreneurs with his Talking Small Biz interview series. He believes that hard working small business owners deserve recognition and he is doing his part to put the spotlight on as many as he can.