A small subset of the small business community has been trying to make the dream of a totally portable, digital office a reality for years. Most people are already able to assemble pieces of the overall puzzle, but most don’t realize the full extent to which it is possible.
Since a significant part of my lifestyle design objective is to continue to do the jobs that I do now, but do them from anywhere, I required a rather robust set of solutions in order to pull off the virtual office. My desire was to be able to perform sales, marketing, and all client functions without much interaction with the “home office. In other words, I did not want to burden a member of our office staff with having to open my mail, sort it, scan it, and email it to me. Also, it was important that my clients experience an invisible transition not only to the virtual office, but also that they don’t even notice when I bounce from place to place geographically.
The solution I have set up is by no means ideal. In fact, I sense there is a business opportunity for a company to offer the majority of these services from one place, rather than having to utilize multiple different services to achieve the end result. Also, it should be noted that the nature of my business REQUIRES that I have access to fax and mail — yours may not have such a requirement.
Most businesses require some sort of CRM system to organize their client information, perform sales functions, etc. Since no solution existed for my particular industry that would suit the needs of both the sales department and the tax resolution departments of our company, I programmed my own, with generous assistance from James Orr. This system, TaxCRM, not only replaced ACT! and Timeslips within the company, but also offers massive functionality and reporting custom to our industry. Designing my own system also allows me to add features at will, and integrate it with whatever other services I choose to use.
The Google Factor
Google offers a large suite of services to small businesses that I make judicious use of. Our entire company is on Gmail, allowing rapid communication via Google Talk, and a powerful web-based email service in Gmail. Google Calendar allows us to share calendars amongst staff, and will soon be integrated with TaxCRM.
In addition to these services for the entire company, I also utilize Google Voice as my sole incoming phone number. I set GVoice to ring both my cell and desk phones simultaneously, and is the only number I give out. I don’t even know what my new AT&T mobile number is, to be honest. I do all my SMS text messaging via GVoice, and all my voicemails appear there, and also in my Gmail inbox. As you will see, my GMail inbox is my central inbound communication “portal”.
The vast majority of my clients still utilize fax communications. Many don’t even have email. In addition, the IRS communicates heavily via fax, and zero through email. Because of this, I needed my own email-to-fax service. I settled on using RingCentral, and pay $10/month for incoming and outgoing fax service. The service has been reliable and easy to use so far, no complaints from me. All my incoming faxes come in as a PDF to my GMail inbox, and I can send outgoing faxes (with attachments!) by sending a simple email.
The IRS sends all it’s notices via mail, and so it is imperative that I receive these. It took significant research to find this company, but Virtual Post Mail has a slick system. I have a mailing address in the Los Angeles area at which I receive all my IRS mail (and whomever I give this specific address to). They scan the envelope, and I view the image online. If it’s something I want opened, such as from the IRS for a client, I tell them to open the mail and scan the inside pages, and can then retrieve that a few hours later as a PDF. This service runs me $20 to $30 per month, depending on usage. Postal mail to email services are few and far between, with Earth Class Mail being the most popular, but also the most expensive. I have had no problems so far with Virtual Post Mail, after two months of usage.
Sending postal mail is also something I have to do occasionally. For this, I found a company called Postful that does this. Companies that offer outbound mailing services are numerous, and Postful does not have the lowest rates, by any means. However, they offer several features that make them awesome:
- An API so I can send mail directly from TaxCRM
- The ability to send one-off color postcards from uploaded images
- An email-to-postal-mail feature that allows me to send a letter on company letterhead directly from Gmail
This combination of features is what made me settle on Postful. The cost for sending a postcard is 55 cents, letters start at $1. This is a pay-as-you-go service, so I just put money on account to have credits when I need them. It’s a service I won’t use much, but it is an incredible convenience for sending letters from the road. I will continue to use Click2Mail for sending direct mail campaigns, due to cost, but Postful is great for what I need for client services in particular.
Getting some sort of smart phone is something I knew I would need. My search basically came down to getting a Droid (I was with T-Mobile already) or an iPhone. Their were pros and cons to both units, and I ended up getting the iPhone for a variety of reasons. The iPhone 4 came out literally a month after I bought my iPhone 3, so I felt like a stooge for not waiting, but whatever — it works for what I need. Several apps make life easier for mobile productivity. For example, the WordPress app allows me to to post to this blog from anywhere. Twitter, Facebook, and Hootsuite apps make social media marketing possible from the road. The Google App allows me to use all my Google services, and iPhone Mail syncs live with Gmail. The Kindle app lets me keep my library anywhere, anytime, and an awesome app called JotNot allows me to use the iPhone camera as a document scanner, which is important for my work. Other apps are allowing me to brush up on my Japanese, use online banking, and even interact with TaxCRM remotely. All in all, I can’t complain too much about the iPhone.
Skype was something I hadn’t played with at all until a couple weekends ago. My original plan for being able to make outbound calls was to literally take my desktop VOIP phone with me wherever I went. However, I have to admit to liking Skype, and have plans for making further use of it. There is even a Skype app for iPhone, which has interesting consequences.
So there’s the current run down. I funnel ALL incoming communications — email, text messages, voicemail messages, faxes, and even snail mail — into my GMail inbox. By subscribing to and using all these services, my life is greatly simplified in many ways, and I can work more efficiently in general, even when I’m in the office. But of even greater benefit is the fact that I’m in no way, shape, or form tethered to the office. I’m not the only one, either. We actually have several full time staff members that work full time from home. None of them need fax or snail mail like I do, but the other pieces of this system allow them to work remotely.
If working remotely is part of your lifestyle design, then look into some of these tools for yourself.