There’s just something awesome about running a virtual startup. First of all today I worked from cafe, the lobby of the oh-so-fancy Omni Hotel (note: I’m not staying there I just like their free wi-fi) and a killer co-working place called Rocket Space. What else rocks about a virtual startup? Things like a very low overhead, very low burn rate, very high profit margins and the fact that your team can be compiled of individuals from all over the world.
So I decided to compile a list of all the tools me and the team at Virtual Zeta use to run and grow a virtual startup. Hopefully these will help you go virtual and start reaping the rewards of running a location and building independent business.
1. Business Card Scanning. What to do when you’ve gone to a mixer and your pockets are full of stodgy business cards? The contacts on those cards of so precious but the trees they’re printed on are making you feel bad about the state of the Planet. Well my green conscious friend, I’ve got the solution! Simply ship those business cards off to Cloud Contacts a company that will process, scan and enter all your business cards into a database so you can easily access those contacts later and leave you free of rolodexes full of paper. They’ll even look up each business card’s owner and link you with them on your chosen social networks – networking win!
2. A Virtual Mailbox. Often a problem for virtual startups is that cryptic entities like your lawyers and the government want a “physical address” on file (in case they need to do sweet things like seize your assets or audit you). An amazing option for a “real” street address that receives, processes and scans your mail is Earth Class Mail. Funny name, awesome service. It’s a tad bit pricey per month, but when you’re running a profitable virtual startup (which is the goal) it won’t be but a drop in the bucket my friend.
3. Virtual Phone. One of my favorite things about our home page on Virtual Zeta is the lovely 1-800 number slapped on the right hand corner. People call and ask questions, they call to say thanks and sometimes they call just to talk. It’s our little way of paying homage to Zappos amazing customer service track record, they’re big on great phone support and so are we. Also it pays dividends. Not only do people buy more when they can call a number and reach a real live person but using Grasshopper is incredibly easy. Their customer support is epic, I can get voicemail turned into text messages and I can be reached easily no matter where I am in the world I’m in.
4. Starbucks. Yes, I just said the S word. Starbucks is actually one of my favorite spots to “virtually” work from, for several reasons. First, free wi-fi. Second, very consistent beverage preparation. Third, being around people (even though my headphones are in w/ white noise playing) makes me feel less isolated than if I were working from “home”. Fourth, you cannot throw a rock without hitting a Starbucks in most major cities (Worldwide) this way I always know I have a reliable place to work (that I’m familiar with) no matter where I am.
6. A Trustworthy Laptop. I personally use a MacBook Pro (13″) and will soon be switching to the brand new MacBook Air (13″) because it weighs less than a sandwich and I have tiny shoulders which bear heavy book bags poorly. There are also a variety of PC notebooks and mini-laptops that I hear are good for being mobile and getting work done. My tip: buy used on eBay from a very reliable seller, you’ll get a better deal and often the computer will have a lot more bells and whistles installed for less than new.
7. A Smart Phone. Yes, you do need a smart phone if you’re going to be a kick butt virtual startup entrepreneur (though in a talk I once heard Tim Ferriss claim he has a “dumb” phone to keep himself from wasting time on applications). I use mine to do conference calls, map out new cities, check the web, check my email and sync up my events w/ my virtual assistant, Mary. My tip: be very selective about what service provider you choose – it is like a marriage -you will be with them for a long time and when you split it’ll be nasty.
8. Cloud Calendar. This for you MacHeads, I use MobileMe to sync all my calendars, emails, contacts, photos and more with this service (that my assistant can access and edit). This way instead of having to schedule things in myself, she can do it and then it’s automatically synced to my phone so she can keep me on path even when I’m out and about. It’s very useful especially if you are a chronic space case (like me) and forget everything if it’s not marked down and someone else is reminding you of it.
9. Team Management Tool. Between me and my team we have a ton of documents, to-do lists and projects that need serious management. For a year we used a hacked up version of Google docs and Skype but after a while we found the wonderful people at Base Camp HQ. All I can say is that it’s one of the tools that is essential to our business running smoothly, it’s also ridiculously simple and one of the few monthly bills that I’m happy to pay. Check them out if you’re starting a virtual business or any kind of online venture.
10. Fresh Pair of Eyes. We use tools like Concept Feedback to get objective looks at our projects, websites and product. This is super helpful when you’re working remotely and your team is dispersed throughout the world – often it’s hard to get away and get a fresh perspective on things – but this makes it simple as pie.
11. Collaborative Notes. Imagine having a scrapbook for everything! That’s exactly what we use Evernote for! You can archive your ideas, websites, audio memos, business cards or just about anything. The coolest part is that this information is accessible from any computer, phone, or mobile device. I have a notebook in Evernote where I keep all of the blog post/video ideas I’m incubating – that way whenever I have a free minute I can start writing a post without a hassle.
12. Going Paperless. As an entrepreneur you always want to make sure you are focusing your attention on profitable activities. For most business owners this does not include organizing receipts. That’s where Shoeboxed.com comes into play; simply mail them your receipts and they will scan the data online and organizes everything for you which makes tax time and book keeping simple.
13. Cloud Computing/File Sharing. Upload files in one part of the World and have them immediately available to team anywhere, anytime. Drop Box gives you to a virtual hard drive that syncs your files online and across a variety of computers automatically. It’s perfect for virtual entrepreneurs, since it allows you to simply upload files to your “Dropbox” drive and instantly have them accessible to your team members, collaborators or virtual assistants.
14. Virtual Accounting. Outright is the service me and my team use to balance our “books” and make sure everything stays in the black and is tidy for tax time. It’s a simple, easy to use service that syncs with all of your bank accounts and credit cards to provide up to the minute information and show profits and debt in real time (sometimes depressing, sometimes exciting!).
15. Internal Dialogue. Knowing what’s going on with your developer in the U.K., your assistant in the Philippines and the brother you hired out of pity in Dallas is critical when you’re a virtual startup. That’s why we use Yammer a site that is best described as a Twitter for businesses. This way you can always see what’s going on within a project or in general with your team members spread far and wide… and you can use it to tell your lazy brother to get to work!
16. Internet Tethering. A must for a virtual entrepreneur is to never be without internet access. Yes, there will be tons of gurus who tell you to limit your time online to an hour so you can meditate more – but when you’re building a scrappy startup you’ll find yourself needing to hook up to the “mothership” more often than not. Check your cell phone carrier for tethering prices and plans. My tip: some older versions of the iPhone can be hacked to provide tethering for free.
17. Virtual Assistants. From start to finish virtual assistants are a must if you’re running a virtual business or startup. Not only will a virtual assistant keep you on track, organized and act as your 3rd arm online (handling tons of things you don’t have the time for) but your virtual assistant will be the building block to a larger and more in depth virtual team. Learn how to delegate the right way by starting small and hiring just one VA to help you out – you and your assistant will grow together and you’ll learn important lessons in management without paying an arm and a leg. Virtual Zeta is not only the company we recommend when you want to find & hire a quality virtual assistant but it’s also the company my team and I run so we’ve got to rep it! My tip: we heart your support – mention that you read this blog when you order and I’ll make sure they take extra good care of you and maybe throw in some bonus goodies!
P.S. I’ll be in Austin for the next two weeks (starting now)… I’d love to meet any of you who are in the greater Texas area as I’ll also be driving around the state where I was born. Feel free to drop me a line and we can say hello to each other at SXSW or grab an iced tea!