It was just a few years ago when Cisco Systems got its start in a home in Silicon Valley, and before that, even Microsoft was birthed in tiny quarters in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There is no stigma to being small-or is there? The mind-boggling paradox is that, sure, everybody understands that virtually all companies start out tiny, but being small can most certainly be counted against you, since customers, vendors, bankers and the rest often prefer to deal with a big company. For you, the message is unmistakable: Look bigger than you are, and you'll grow bigger, faster.
How can you do this without burning through cash on unnecessary office space and superfluous staff? Follow these leads, and when outsiders look at your company, they'll see a business that shouts "We're big!"
1. Let's meet. Those may be the most hateful words to many start-up entrepreneurs because, immediately, you envision a prospect entering your cubbyhole, sniffing at the disarray and fleeing. Here's the solution: Never meet at your office. Never. Do lunches or dinners in restaurants, and book meetings at local hotels-a perfect solution when you want to walk a prospect through a PowerPoint show. The cost? Call around. Sometimes you can get meeting rooms for less than $100 for a half-day meeting.
2. Staff up. Who says you can't afford a full-time personal assistant? Log on to Webley (www.webley.com), and you'll get a slick computer voice that answers your phone and tracks you down. Webley will place calls for you, too-just speak a name, and Webley dials. Cost: $9.95 per month for standard service.
3. Phone us. Probably the critical point of contact with the outside world is your phone. Nowadays, it's very cheap (sometimes free) to give yourself a spiffy phone presence, with multiple phone lines. The absolute must-have: a dedicated fax line. It's yours, free, at OneBox (www.onebox.com). Another free option: eFax (www.efax.com), which provides much of the same.
4. Go mobile. Just a few years ago, cell phones were frills, but now they're business essentials. And prices are tumbling: Sprint PCS, for instance, offers plans that deliver 500 minutes for $49.99 monthly, with no long-distance surcharges. Or find other plans that suit your needs at Point.com, a super plan-comparison wizard. Tip: Nobody expects an assistant to answer your cell phone, so go ahead and give out that number-prospects won't blink when you answer.
5. Go international. What could be bigger than having an "office" in Ireland or Hong Kong? Go to JFAX.COM, and the $15 start-up fee plus $12.50 monthly buys you a phone number in any of dozens of global cities. Incoming messages get forwarded to you as e-mail attachments.
6. Write beautifully. It seems old hat, but nothing so thoroughly shapes how outsiders see your business as your letterhead, envelopes and business cards. Don't scrimp, and do not think you can toss together a design with a desktop publishing program and whip out copies on your $99 inkjet. Get print-shop quality but still save big bucks by doing the grunt work yourself at iPrint (www.iprint.com) or LivePrint (www.liveprint.com).
7. Web it! Want to look dramatically larger than life? Put up a Web site-now. The process doesn't get much easier than with Trellix Web (www.trellix.com), which offers slick fill-in-the-blank templates for free. On the Web, you can look every bit as gargantuan as Cisco. That's the beauty of the Net's virtual reality.
Robert McGarvey and Babs S. Harrison are based in Northern California, but they also maintain "offices" in Seattle, Manhattan and Albuquerque, although they no longer remember those phone numbers.