Cheap and Affordable Ways To Create A Virtual Office For Your Small Home Business
Published 1/2/08 (Modified 3/8/11)
If you run a small home business on the side like I do, it's not always easy to project a professional image without breaking the bank. If your business is new, it's unlikely you have the financial means or even the budget to afford a commercial office space, a secretary, a furnished meeting room, or any of the usual business amenities. However, depending on your budget and needs, there are affordable options out there.
Rent A Shared Office For Meeting Room Or Virtual Office Needs
More established small businesses might be able to look into renting a shared or serviced office space through a workplace solution company like Regus. These business office rental locations are usually fully furnished with desks, meeting rooms, functional kitchens, and business amenities like secretarial service and a professional front desk to handle clients, mail delivery, and customized call answering. They provide a professional working environment without the long term commitment. I would know - I'm currently working a contract project at such a location.
Rental offices are a good alternative for small but growing businesses looking to expand but don't want to deal with the hassle of property ownership or long term commercial leases. However, many small business owners run things from their own homes. For them, there are virtual office solutions available:
1) Telephone Service
Sharing business phone calls with your personal home line isn't a good idea, especially if you get a lot of incoming business calls. Dialing out is fine, but for incoming business calls how does one line handle voicemail greetings for both personal and business calls? You can always get another landline or cellphone number, but that can get awfully expensive, especially if it is underused.
Since I don't have a separate landline at home, I currently use my cell phone plan in conjunction with eBay's GrandCentral free phone service to re-route business phone calls to my personal cell phone number. The service provides customers a free separate number that can be given out as a business line, and have calls automatically forwarded to your personal line.
Since exceeding monthly cell phone plan minutes may be a problem, another solution is to sign up for an established Voice Over IP (VoIP) phone service like Skype. For $3 a month, along with an extra charge for a personal SkypeIn phone number to handle business calls, you can receive unlimited incoming calls from a cell or a landline. SkypeIn calls are handled through the online Skype interface and calls can be picked up anywhere you have internet access.
2) Fax Service
Although it's ancient technology, it is still widely used, surprisingly. If you fax frequently, I'd recommend just going ahead and buying a cheap fax machine. But if you only need to receive faxes on occasion and rarely send them, you can try going with eFax Free, which will give you a free non-local fax number to accept incoming faxes through e-mail.
If you want to send faxes for free and don't mind having cover page ads automatically attached to your outgoing fax messages, then you can always go with FaxZero. However, you will only be allowed to fax 2 document sets per day, with a maximum of 3 pages each.
3) Mailboxes That Offer A Professional Mailing Address
Personally I use my home as my business address, but if you want some privacy or if you expect to receive a lot of packages, you may want to get a larger standalone postal box. The U.S. Postal Service and most major private postal carriers like UPS and Fedex offer free pickup and the option to conveniently pay and print your postal stamp labels at home.
You can get a separate standalone P.O. Box through the U.S. Postal Service, but your mailing address will contain the "PO BOX" tag followed by your personal box number. If you want to get a more professional sounding mailing address that contains an actual street address, you may want to go with a private mailbox at a place like the UPS Store. Prices vary but private UPS box prices are usually about $200 a year (compared to less than $100 for a standard PO Box). However, unlike a standard PO Box, a private mailbox through UPS is 24 hour accessible.
4) Business E-Mail Addresses
Free e-mail addresses are simple to find - just check out Yahoo, Hotmail, or Gmail. However, if you want to sound professional and want to be taken seriously, you probably will need to get an e-mail address that contains your business name. There are plenty of email hosting options out there depending on your needs. For example, with DreamHost, you can get unlimited e-mail addresses and email forwarding for a pretty good $5.95 a month.