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Chris Brogan on Running a Virtual Business

Doing business without the traditional trappings means equipping employees with the right platforms.

When I started Human Business Works, there was never a question that it would be a virtual business. The name of the game is staying in contact with my team and working with deliverables in mind--not proximity.

Making it work requires a comprehensive set of useful tools. Here's what we've come up with as staples in running our virtual business.

Communication

  • Google Apps. We use a hosted Google Apps solution for e-mail. It's been simple to manage, flawless in its operation and easy for new employees or contractors to adopt. We also use the calendar application.
  • Skype. We use Skype for a de facto office phone. It's free and allows one to work hands-free while collaborating. I use Skype Credit to dial out to numbers in the traditional telephone network. It's much less expensive than using an office phone.
  • Adium and Trillian. Instant messaging comes in lots of flavors. I chose an app that lets me use whatever system the other party chooses while keeping my interface the same. Whether using Adium for the Mac or Trillian for the PC, if you have a fast-paced collaboration project on the go, this is a huge help.
  • Yammer. My other company, New Marketing Labs, uses Yammer as an internal version of Twitter. At HBW, we just use Twitter if the missive is something of the 140-character set. (We do use cell phones, too, but sparingly).

Collaboration

  • Google Docs. We didn't bother buying office software. Google Docs works well for sharing information back and forth. I'm writing my next book with Julien Smith, my collaborator on Trust Agents, in Docs, and I also do financial projects with my COO, Rob Hatch, with Google's spreadsheet app. If you need an offline solution, OpenOffice has come a long way and works just as well.
  • Linoit. This is a virtual cork board where your team can put up sticky notes. Since we're a smaller company, I don't need to know every line item in a Gantt chart. Notes in various colors help us stay on the same page.
  • GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar. These guys are clients of my marketing company, so it makes sense that I should be a customer of theirs for my small business. I'm enjoying the use of these tools when sharing something that requires eyes on the same document or design.
  • Evernote. We use Evernote for note-taking, each with our own account. (Dear Evernote, I'd love a group app, please).
  • Dropbox. We pass files through Dropbox, which gives as much as 2GB of free storage.

At HBW, we went with a virtual office because it costs less, it keeps people closer to home and these tools ease any concerns on collaboration. Sure, we meet face to face at times, but that's the exception. I'd rather my team be more productive and have more family time than desk time.

Chris Brogan is president of Human Business Works, a small-business education and growth company. He is also co-author of The New York Times bestselling book Trust Agents, and author of Social Media 101. He blogs at chrisbrogan.com.

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This article was originally published in the January 2011 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Virtually There.

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