From the March 2000 issue of Startups

So I thought I was "faking it" as a business owner when I used to say to potential clients "Of course we can take care of that," and "Let me check with my team, and I'll get back to you." These should be strategic phrases out of a guide called TheSmall-Business Owner Hand-Book for a Company of One (good idea, no?). Then I found myself in a tiny, albeit new, office with furniture, office equipment and several warm bodies in front of computer terminals. Voilá! Insta-Company. The main thought on my mind? "What do I do now?"

My move from studio apartment into fully-furnished office space was a big leap in terms of incurring new expenses, both inanimate and human. How could I have eased the burden and reduced the risk of death by expenditure? And how could I have brought the image of my company, or at least the perception of the image of my company, up a few notches in the eyes of prospective clients?

Business consultant Mohamed Fathelbab of Forum Resources Network took a slightly different approach than I did when he outgrew his homebased office. "One of the best things I did was to find a shared office space. This was [a great] option for many reasons: 1) Lower initial investment because they had the fax and copy machines as well as the sophisticated phone/voice-mail system that made us sound like a big company; 2) We were able to use a boardroom for meetings without having to carry the entire monetary burden; and 3) It was good to have other businesspeople to talk to."

Looking back, I can see that Mohamed's course of action could have saved me a lot of money and aggravation. Case In Point No. 1: The Phone System. We started with two phone lines and a fax line. We leased the fax machine (as well as the Xerox machine), which actually turned out to be a great idea. But we didn't invest in a phone system.

Words will never do justice to the horror of phone hell that we endured. I can't even begin to estimate the number of important calls we missed because of a perpetual busy signal or because someone forgot to clear out the answering machine. Or how much productivity was lost because we had to constantly get up and walk around, forever searching for the phone. Or the lawsuit waiting to happen with a 25-foot phone cord twisting across the office floor as the lone phone traveled from desk to desk.

Investing in a phone system with voice mail is one of the smartest and fastest ways to manage your company communications and project a more professional image. We did that late in year two of our business. Which leads me to a mantra that all entrepreneurs should repeat to themselves when hesitating about investing in essential business tools: "You have to spend money to make money. An investment now will be a savings later."

I know that the purchase of a phone system took our company to a new level. The moment we installed and programmed it, productivity soared, calls from clients were better-managed, and calls from potential clients increased, not to mention the lift in company morale as each employee got their own phone and voice-mail box.

Another of Mohamed's points really hits home. Case In Point No. 2: The Meeting Space. Having a place to meet with clients and potential clients is a challenge when you only have one main room that houses all employees in a labyrinth of desks.

Starbucks to the rescue. I truly believe that the Starbucks across the street owes their livelihood to our company and client meetings-- sometimes three, four, even five a day--all held in their space. We've even asked them to turn down the music during the more important meetings.

By the way, don't underestimate the power of going to the client or prospective client's office, but make sure you show up prepared with enough copies of handouts, your own pads and pens, and the right team members to address main issues.

These days, you can actually rent conference room space from businesses such as HQ Global Workplaces Inc. (http://www.hqglobal.com), where an hourly rate can get you not only a cushy board room, but also use of a reception area, a friendly receptionist, and office equipment you may need in a pinch during a meeting, like a coffee maker and copy or fax machine.

We all know first impressions count, particularly when you're prospecting for new clients. I'm now a firm believer in making strategic investments in products, services and resources that will help make any company appear more polished, professional and established.


Aliza Sherman is an entrepreneur and author of Cybergrrl: A Woman's Guide to the World Wide Web (Ballantine Books, $12, 800-726-0600). She is currently working on her next book and new company.