17 Killer Tools for Running a Virtual Startup


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.

smart phone virtual business

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!

  • Anthony Feint

    Good list. I’d add a tool like Tungle.me to handle scheduling. I couldn’t manage without it as it handles all my appointments for me and deals with timezones automatically.

  • Tariq Haneef

    Hi Maren,

    Wow, perfect timing! I have been looking for this kind of information for the last few weeks. I really like and agree with -starbucks – virtual assistants – mobileme – collaborative notes – dropbox – and, of course, internet connection.

    I believe these tools are not useful only as for a startup, but also for people who plan to generate passive income which one the streams is online business.

    All in all, I love reading this article and your blog is so ROCK! You are helping people like me to become more financially independent through your words of wisdoms.

    Thank you so much for sharing and keep up good job Maren!


  • http://quickeyespeedreading.com Ryan

    I haven’t heard of so many of these. Definitely going to mix a couple in. Thanks again for another great post.

  • http://twitter.com/steven_mcg Steven McG

    If you have an iPhone and use LinkedIn CardMunch (http://www.cardmunch.com/) is a great (and now free) alternative for digitising your business cards.

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Thanks for the tip – I hadn’t heard of that one yet.

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    No problem :) how are things going on your end?

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Thanks so much for the kind words :) That’s the goal – financial and physical independence, personally i think it’s the only way to really live.

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Aah that’s a good point – I’m still waiting for a scheduling tool I actually like to use and doesn’t get confusing – I’ve used Tungle.Me a few times before (and it may just be me) but I always get a little confused and sometimes schedules get botched (thinking about it – it probably is just me!).

  • http://quickeyespeedreading.com Ryan

    The Entrepreneurial ADD is finally paying off. I’ll send you an email sometime.

  • http://www.maxitleader.com Melodee Forbes

    Wonderful, Maren Kate! Thank you for all of these great tools and resources. You come from such a different mindset and I love it! I checked out Earth Class Mail and it sounds pretty unbelievable. . .

    I hate that we missed each other in Austin. However, if you drive around and happen to pop into Houston.. give a shout out on Twitter and I’d gladly have an iced tea with you! :)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3ZZTMNN5NP6Y5YKP4EF4OHELHQ M

    Love it. The one thing I’d add is a document scanner to go digital. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003990GMQ?ie=UTF8&tag=182451-20&camp=1789

  • http://www.foursides.ca James M

    I’ve been using Freshbooks for invoicing mainly because it accepts PayPal for payment, and it’s free for up to 3 clients. This is perfect for me since I’m just starting out. Once I have more clients, and more revenue, I can easily upgrade.

    I heard about something else from Merlin Mann: Doodle for arranging for meetings between multiple people, or someone can use it to book a meeting with you. Not using it yet, but looks real interesting and valuable to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lyndsysimon Lyndsy Simon

    Awesome list :) I use most of these things daily, with some different service providers:

    A) I use Toktumi instead of Grasshopper. Unlimited toll-free is the way to go, and its under $15 / month. You can read my experience with it here.

    B) I’ve got a Toshiba laptop. I wanted a Mac, but when I was standing in Bestbuy with cahs in hand, I just couldn’t do it. My Toshiba has a 9-hour battery – my most important criteria – and more power than a MacBook Pro, for less than $700. Sure, it’s bulky, and not as sexy, but it gets the job done on a budget.

    C) For calendaring (and email, document processing, etc.), I use a hosted Google Apps account. It’s free, and integrates smoothly into my iPhone, even for multiple email accounts.

    D) Dropbox is awesome. ’nuff said.

    E) For accounting, I was using Outright – but it only supports a sole-proprietorship model. I plan to move to being taxed as an S-Corp in a year or so, so I’ve hacked together and Excel workbook that pulls feeds from FreshBooks and PayPal to deal with that. There has to be a better way, but I’ve not found it yet.

    F) Tethering – I use an iPhone 3GS, jailbroken, with MyWi. AT&T hasn’t complained yet, and I use on average 15GB/month on my grandfathered unlimited plan.

    G) Payment processing – okay, so you didn’t mention this one. I’ve been using 2Checkout.com for a lot of my payment stuff online, and Square in person. PayPal is dead to me for two reasons: Their fee structure sucks, and they place heavy restrictions on what you can sell. My businesses deal with firearms and accessories (sell what you know!), and PayPal will freeze your account for so much as advertising them. I still use PayPal for some things, but I much prefer not to.

  • http://www.megabizflakes.com samuel

    Awesome tools shared here! I guess you’re getting more work done when using these tools? Nice tip on how to get a good PC on eBay! Will try it out when I want to get one :) Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Maren – great list! Thanks for including Grasshopper :) Glad to hear it’s working out well for you!

  • http://twitter.com/groupthinkbiz nathan winslow

    I love dropbox!. I back up all my files on it, and it’s free up to 2GB. Sweet.

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    I do too! I’m actually headed to Houston Friday and will be there over the weekend – let’s definitely get some tea :) email me your digits and I’ll text ya!

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Cool beans – thank you!

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Hmm interesting :) I’ll check it out – thanks for the comment!

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Thanks for the list! I’m checking out Square lately too as there has been a ton of buzz around it in S.F.

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    You’re welcome Samuel! And seriously you get the best deals on electronics on eBay if you buy through really quality buyers – I do it all the time.

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    It’s been amazing – I absolutely love my grasshopper phone number on Virtual Zeta we get lots of quality calls through it and i can access it anywhere = so I’m thrilled.

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Si – I haven’t even been using it that much but when I do it rocks :)

  • http://www.GenuineThriving.com/ Jeremiah Stanghini

    Something else that I’ve found useful in having a ‘virtual’ office is MagicJack.

    Disclaimer: (I am not affiliated with MagicJack in anyway, but I do have two of them!)

    With MagicJack you can get a Canadian (or American) phone number and you can call anyone in the US or Canada — unlimited — for free! (I think it costs me $80 total for 5 years of service.) The phone works off the internet, so as long as you have an internet connection, it works.

    One of the best parts about the MagicJack, you can use it wherever you are. I spent some time traveling in New Zealand and I was able to plug-in my MagicJack and get on the internet (at Starbucks, lol), and I was able to call my family/clients in North America just as if I was actually still in North America. There weren’t any long-distance charges.

    With Love and Gratitude,


  • http://lyndsysimon.com Lyndsy Simon

    I got an early prototype and have been using it for months – I’m in rural Arkansas, and I think I may have been the first one in the state to get one!

    I use it all the time, and have had zero issues with them. They recently dropped their per-transaction fee, which is just amazing – it goes from being a competitive payment processor to the only processor that I’m aware of that is viable for micropayments. Since they did that, I’ve taken probably a hundred $1 and $2 payments for small items at festivals and the like.

    The best part is that they still have that hard to define tech-startup, small business feel. It’s a totally different experience from working with a bank. I’ve had questions answered in email by Jack Dorsey, and have gotten to know a couple of their staff members via social media. It’s awesome, and I hope it is a sustained trend in the way my generation runs businesses :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=622376023 Jennifer Dunn Escalona

    Hi Maren,

    It’s Jenn, Community Manager from Outright here! I wanted to thank you for using Outright and mentioning us in your write up! It’s terrible that I didn’t see this before SXSW, because we were here and you would have fit in great at the Small Business Web Party. (Now don’t tell me you were there and I didn’t meet you!)

    And in the spirit of the post, my tip is about productivity. I started using Harvest’s “Gardener” app today as a GTD/time planning app and so far it’s helping me tremendously with my productivity. It’s really new, so here’s the link: http://gardenerapp.getharvest.com/

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    I’ve heard good things of MagicJack too! Thanks for sharing :)

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    Oh no! That sounds like a blast – I didn’t go but I was at a ton of events over SXSW so we may have passed each other and not even known it! Where’s Outright based by the way?

  • http://twitter.com/ManiBodhi ManiBodhi

    If you read this article and are building a company using virtual services, feel free to ping me for an invite to http://unifiedinbox.com – ideal for sharing messages (email accounts, social media access etc.) and folders within your virtual team.

  • Remco Tevreden

    I tried evernote some time ago, but never got the kick others get out of it. Will try it again, as today actually I read to positive reviews.
    I am using Nirvanahq as Getting Things Done, website, and i can recommend it!

  • http://www.VirtualZeta.com Maren Kate

    I actually had to use it 3 different times (separated by about a year total)
    before i really started to get the hang of it – definitely not super easy to
    use at first :) But worthwhile in the long run – especially for personal
    things i find

  • Anonymous

    Dropbox is good!! It allows you to sync programs for free anywhere and share them easily.. I would also like to share these free tools I’ve found that can be used to create an online virtual office.

  • http://twitter.com/mikitamikado Mikita Mikado

    Hello Kate, please consider adding business paperwork automation tool. I’d suggest our startup Quote Roller http://www.quoteroller.com
    Entrepreneurs have to send out proposals, contracts & agreements from time to time. Quote Roller helps to do it quickly & efficiently.

  • Pingback: 5 Tips for Effective Virtual Teams()

  • Bo Schaefer

    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.