From the December 1998 issue of Startups

What's one of the most underutilized resources in a homebased business? Surprisingly, it's the PC. Yet, when handled properly and to its full potential, your computer has powerful capabilities to take on the role of an extra employee, answer and route phone calls, and help you collaborate with virtual employees. Doing more than just boosting office productivity, today's PCs can help to improve your business's image, provide faster service to clients and draw in new customers.

Most people don't understand all the capabilities hidden in their computers, nor do they realize that many formerly expensive and complicated programs are now affordable and easy to implement. If you've always believed advanced computer resources remain solely in the realm of big business, get ready for a revelation. A PC is an amazing tool--a powerful device that accomplishes daily business tasks faster, improves the quality of your work, and gets the job done right.

Contact Central

The owners and five sales representatives of Douglass Inc., a family-owned manufacturers' representative agency, work from their home offices. While this affords them greater flexibility, Matthew Douglass, 39; his father, Charles, 63; and his uncle, Dick, 57, felt employees of their Indianapolis company could work more effectively as a team, especially when processing quotes and orders.

For Douglass Inc., the answer was GoldMine 4.0 Standard Edition ($295; http://www.goldminesw.com), a contact management program from GoldMine Software. With the help of a reseller that created a customized system for the company, Douglass Inc. now has one central place where everyone downloads the activity logs, quotes and orders they've created in GoldMine, rather than taking the time to fax the information to one another.

Furthermore, GoldMine has helped the company create a polished image. "Our correspondence looks much better because we use templates," Matthew says. "Everyone's [quotes and letters] look the same, instead of being handwritten like before."

Contact management software is about more than just organizing contacts. It's about automating your sales processes to retain and attract new customers. Ultimately, Douglass Inc. has used it to improve communications with clients and provide better customer service by delivering quotes and orders in a more efficient manner.

If you're unfamiliar with contact management programs, you may want to check out Symantec's Small Business/Home Office Trial CD (http://www.symantec.com/trialware). By calling (800) 835-6222, you can get Symantec's award-winning ACT! contact management software, WinFax PRO, Norton Utilities 3.0, Norton AntiVirus 4.0 and pcANYWHERE for a 30-day free trial.

Promotion Pizzaz

Like most homebased business owners, Carmen Knowles, owner of MicroFast Systems, a computer consulting company in Port Moody, British Columbia, has a rather modest marketing budget. When she needed a brochure, instead of paying a local printer's sky-high prices, she designed it herself using Corel Print Office ($99; http://www.corel.com). "I'm on a very tight budget, and [Corel Print Office] has been a huge cost saver for me," says Knowles, 63.

Using the program, Knowles was able to produce a brochure with crisp images and professional-looking graphics. She also found the image-editing program Corel Photo House 2.1 (included) very useful for altering photos and adding nifty effects.

If you don't already have brochures, business cards and letterhead, desktop publishing programs like Corel Print Office or Microsoft Publisher 98 ($99.95; http://www.microsoft.com/publisher) can help you build a corporate identity for your business, one in which all your materials have a professional and consistent look. And learning to use either of these programs demands only a very small investment of time. "It doesn't really require any training to use [Print Office]," Knowles says. "It's very easy to learn."

Now Presenting . . .

Creating a corporate identity isn't the only thing you can do on your own. Professional sales presentations are also no longer limited to companies with large budgets. Today, the majority of companies both large and small use inexpensive presentation programs to produce eye-catching multimedia presentations with audio, graphics, text and video.

One of the most popular presentation programs is Microsoft PowerPoint 97 ($339; http://www.microsoft.com/office/powerpoint). If you're short on time, no problem. You can choose from 50 new templates with pre-created formatting and text; just customize the information, and you've created an attractive presentation in less than an hour. Today's programs also have features that allow you to show your presentation on the Internet. For instance, PowerPoint 97 contains a Save As HTML wizard to automatically convert PowerPoint files into HTML allowing you to share them with anyone who has a Web browser.

Features like these give you the power to build presentations quickly and show them in a variety of ways. More important, they're inexpensive tools that help you sell products, explain vital messages and make your business stand out in the crowd.

Communications 101

Don't have a secretary? Well, who does? Fortunately, with the right computer telephony program, your PC can automatically take messages, route callers and more.

Computer telephony software like COMMUNICATE! PRO from 01 Communique Laboratory ($149; http://www.01com.com) contains comprehensive communication packages that are ideal for many home office environments. For instance, COMMUNICATE! PRO delivers telephone answering, speakerphone, fax, e-mail, contact management and data communications capabilities all in one package. Useful features include a CallAnswer wizard to create mailboxes with different outgoing messages, a Contact Manager to file e-mail, fax and voice messages by contact name for easier access, and Fax-On-Demand to automatically fax information requested by customers.

Computer telephony programs automate, organize and prioritize your company communications. Moreover, they allow you more control over the image you show the outside world.

Money Matters

Nothing's very glitzy about today's accounting programs. But there's no denying they're incredibly useful for managing your business finances. Besides traditional features like writing checks, managing accounts payable and receivable, and creating invoices and statements, some of the latest programs contain other powerful features. Accounting programs can now reduce repetitive tasks by memorizing frequent transactions, as well as protect sensitive data by tracking and limiting employee access to it.

Robert Griffith owns EES Construction & Consulting Inc. in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with his partner, Ellis E. Smith, 44. Griffith uses Peachtree Complete Accounting for Windows 6.0 ($199; http://www.peachtree.com) to keep the company's books because, above all else, it cuts down on the time he invests in accounting. "If I had to do [accounting] manually, I'd be spending a lot more time with the books than I would running my business," says Griffith, 41, who uses the software mostly for tracking accounts payable. Griffith also considers the Job Costing feature invaluable for its ability to track his projects' components and expenses.

Another popular accounting program is Intuit's QuickBooks 6.0 ($120; http://www.quickbooks.com). It contains check-writing, business-reporting, accounts receivable, accounts payable, invoicing and inventory capabilities. It also has extensive new Internet features, including quick access to the Internet, free online software updates and one-click access to online technical support and business services.

Far And Away

Since homebased business owners often don't have the space or budget to hire employees, many utilize virtual employees on a temporary basis. But collaborating on projects with people in different cities--or countries--can get complicated. Fortunately, new services such as HotOffice Virtual Office Service from HotOffice Technologies (price varies; http://www.hotoffice.com) provide a single online location where users can post documents and share ideas in real time.

Chris Ayers, owner and president of Lunchspecials Inc., operates a Web site out of his Richmond, Virginia, home where he posts daily lunch menus from local restaurants in several cities. He uses HotOffice to collaborate with his virtual employee in Louisville, Kentucky, on price lists and ad layouts because it simplifies communication and ultimately cuts down on costs.

"Instead of FedEx-ing or e-mailing documents, we can post them right on our HotOffice site and grab them from there," explains Ayers, 37. "Even though we're spread out geographically, we have one place to converse, get information and provide feedback."

If you already have a Web browser, modem and Internet access, HotOffice and similar programs like Netopia's Virtual Office 2.0 (starts at $14.95 per month; http://www.netopia.com) are an efficient, cost-effective method for communicating with workers in remote locations. (For more details on HotOffice, see "Net Work" on page 28.)

Desperately Seeking Data

Sometimes all the information you need in order to bring in business or make key decisions is right before your eyes. You just need a way to capture, store and retrieve relevant data, whether it's sales figures, invoicing information, or customers' names and addresses. That's where database programs come in--helping you get answers, share timely information and make better decisions.

Lotus Approach Millennium Edition from Lotus Development, included as part of the Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition ($399; http://www.lotus.com.), offers a powerful database to query, report on and analyze your data. If you already use another database program, you can seamlessly connect to all data stored in dBASE and other programs. A neat new feature, Save As to the Internet, lets you publish reports you've generated in Lotus Approach directly to the Web to present timely information.

Microsoft Access 97 ($339; http://www.microsoft.com) has features that make setup easy, including a Database wizard that automatically builds any of more than 20 types of customized databases. It also has a Simple Query wizard to sort through data and bring it all together to answer your questions, as well as Web-publishing capabilities and improved features in the Form and Report wizards. These new features make it easier to manipulate and use critical data, allowing you to make more knowledgeable business decisions.

Productivity Boost

Office suites typically contain word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and other productivity programs to handle general business tasks. Purchasing an office suite like SmartSuite Millennium Edition from Lotus Development or Office 97 Small Business Edition 2.0 from Microsoft ($499; http://www.microsoft.com/sbe) can save you money. It also provides you with a host of programs that resemble each other and interact better than stand-alone products do.

For Micheline Long, owner of Micheline J. Long's The Red Phone, a computer consulting and freelance writing company in Palmdale, California, the cohesiveness of the programs in SmartSuite Millennium Edition makes using and sharing company information much easier. "I can take information from a database and throw it into a word processing document or even into something like Lotus Organizer to add it to my address book or calendar," says Long. "The integration is really wonderful."

More than just integration, SmartSuite acts as a valuable productivity tool. For instance, Long has used it to create word processing documents and build a Web site for her business that provides technical support tips to her clients online.

Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition includes Lotus 1-2-3, FastSite Web publisher, Organizer, Word Pro, Freelance Graphics, Approach, ScreenCam multimedia software and the SmartCenter Internet Information Manager. The most well-known office suite, Microsoft Office 97, integrates six useful applications: Microsoft Publisher 98, Outlook 98, Word 97, Excel 97, Small Business Financial Manager 98, and Expedia Streets 98 for mapping and travel information.

Setting The Wheels In Motion

No matter what business needs or problems you may have, chances are a computer-based solution is available. And because you wear many hats, it's important to make the most of your PC so you can get daily tasks done better and quicker than your competitors can.

In addition, the decline in hardware and software prices, the proliferation of small-business programs and the trend toward easier-to-use products leave you with no excuse. It's time to uncover the entire realm of possibilities that PCs can open up for you and your business. Doing so will get you on the fast track to greater productivity and, ultimately, greater profits.

Booting Up

Here are some additional ways to boost business with your new best friend--your PC:

*Select Phone (Windows 95 and Macintosh System 7.1, $199, http://www.procd.com) from Pro CD Technologies publishes residential and business phone listings in the United States.

*Xerox's Pagis Pro 2.0 (Windows 95 and 98, $99, http://www.pagis.com) offers four products for scanning and manipulating photographs and data: Pagis to scan and file items, TextBridge Pro 98 OCR software to turn paper into PC documents, MGI PhotoSuite to edit and manipulate photos, and Pagis Copier to turn your scanner and color printer into a color copier.

*Adobe PageMill 3.0 (Windows 95 and 98, $99, Macintosh, price not available, http://www.adobe.com) from Adobe Systems can help you build a professional Web presence. Key features include drag-and-drop editing, integrated Web site management and advanced page layout.

*Eudora Pro Email 4.0 (Windows 95 and Macintosh, $39, http://www.eudora.com) from Qualcomm offers excellent e-mail management features. Eudora Pro has a completely customizable interface, an e-mail filtering feature to automatically identify and organize your e-mail messages, and secure encryption capabilities.

A Model Choice

Confused by all the computer models available today? Ultimately, the right one for you depends on your unique business needs, brand preference and budget.

Some of the latest PCs come with fast processors, 56 Kbps modems, 19-inch monitors, 36X CD-ROM drives and more. You'll pay top dollar for these features, so choose a model that only has the capabilities you require.

Take specialized needs into consideration. For instance, if your home office is cramped, look into buying one of the new space-saving LCD monitors. Likewise, if Internet access and e-mail are crucial to your business, buy the fastest modem you can afford.

It's also a good idea to buy models that come bundled with business software like office suites and financial management programs. Don't go for consumer models with unnecessary video and audio cards, speakers and multimedia software. Finally, pay close attention to the type of warranty and support offered, and consider purchasing extended service.

Contact Sources

Douglass Inc., (800) 428-7810, http://www.douglassinc.com

EES Construction & Consulting Inc., (843) 361-0897, rgriff@gte.com

Lunchspecials Inc., headwaiter@lunchspecials.com, http://www.lunchspecials.com

Micheline J. Long's The Red Phone, (805) 947-0110, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/tink

MicroFast Systems, 201 Harvard Dr., Port Moody, BC, V38 1S9, CAN, (604) 939-5655.