Special Report: Doing Business With No Walls

Entrepreneur's guide to fully mobilizing your business--including the best gizmos to get the job done.
14 min read

This story appears in the November 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Special Report: Doing Business With No Walls

A computer, a telephone, a personal assistant: The 21st century mobile phone is all of that, and more. Now Entrepreneur offers a guide to fully mobilizing your business--including the best gizmos to get the job done.

The first indication that Doug Sohn runs an old-school operation is the sign in front of the cash register at Hot Doug's, his "sausage superstore" in . It reads "Cash Only," and Sohn means it. If a customer protests, he might chide them: "Didn't your mother tell you to always have $20 in your pocket?"

No surprise that Sohn isn't what you would call an early adopter of new technology. Yeah, he carries a cell phone (just his second in six years), but that's about as wired as he gets.

It's a shame, because the truth is: There is accessible, affordable, that could change his business and his life.

Just think about it:

Sohn spends 50 hours a week in the store, taking customer orders and answering the land line next to the cash register. Then he spends 12 more hours working at home, managing his accounts with Intuit Quicken QuickBooks on a desktop.

What if he invested in a new phone and a mobile service plan--maybe a two-line plan with a separate business number that he can ignore when he's not working.

And what if he bought a , and put QuickBooks Mobile on the device.

Or how about one of the new mobile broadband service plans packaged with a netbook rather than a phone Then the netbook would fit next to the cash register, and Sohn could manage his books during downtime at the store.

It would add hours to his week.

So what's stopping him Nothing so different from what stops so many entrepreneurs from streamlining their operations: There are now so many plans, so many complex mobile devices, so many specialized applications, it's enough to overwhelm anyone but the most devoted technophile.

"The ideal device might make life easier for me," Sohn says. "But ... "

Well, the time for hesitation is over.

In this month's special report on mobile technology, Entrepreneur sorts it all out for you--the service plans, the apps, the providers and, yes, the gadgets. We'll help you shop smarter and figure out the best combination for your business.

But we're not all breathless over this new technology, either--not in this economy. We'll help you figure out exactly what your business needs--and doesn't need. So read on, and untether your business from the past.

13 Apps That Will Change the Way You Work

It's likely that you're already soaking your monthly mobile plan for every last voice minute available. But online applications stores such as the Apple App Store and the BlackBerry App Store make it easy for small-business users to download new mobile functionality that can improve productivity and overall connectivity to colleagues while on the go.

Here's the download on the must-have apps for small-business users:

  • DataViz Documents-to-Go: Originally created for the earliest Palm devices, it's now available for BlackBerry, , Android and other devices. Allows you to create and edit Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents and Adobe PDF documents from your phone.
  • Intuit QuickBooks Online for mobile devices: QuickBooks, one of the most successful online small-business applications, was adapted to work on iPhones and BlackBerrys late last year and made available from Intuit Labs in a beta version. Has all the favorite QuickBooks Online capabilities: Balance sheet and profit and loss reports; bank account and credit card balances; vendor, customer and employee lists; accounts receivable and payable; and QuickBooks Online contact resources.
  • TimeTTracker MX2: Developed by R&F Consulting Inc. to integrate with QuickBooks to track time, expenses and mileage on a mobile device.
  • Exgis Time and Expense: Another of the many time and expense-related mobile applications available for various devices. Exgis T&E is for the BlackBerry and has various levels (Enterprise, Pro, Lite) depending on your business size and need.
  • NOCturnalWare TraveLog and While You Were Out: TraveLog is a mileage tracker. WYWO is a mobile version of the popular desktop e-mail feature. Helps if you have a busy, mobile personal assistant who intercepts a lot of your calls.
  • Salesforce Mobile: The mobile version of the popular online CRM resource application is available for iPhone, BlackBerry and other devices.
  • Bitrino WiFiTrak and AppMiner: Both for the iPhone. WiFiTrak searches for free public Wi-Fi hotspots. AppMiner addresses a fast-growing problem for mobile users--app overload--by tracking frequent updates and price changes in desired apps.
  • Nice Office: From developer eAgency, this is a mobile office assistant app for Windows Mobile and BlackBerry that wirelessly syncs with Microsoft Outlook c­omponents. Includes features for employee oversight sales and opportunity management.
  • BillableGoal: Helps you organize billing time for multiple clients by tracking call and e-mails and creating timers for other billable tasks. Can be exported as an e-mail attachment.
  • Put Things Off: Its "laid-back to-do list" helps organize and prioritize tasks while maintaining a sense of levity and sanity. Spun off from the "Put Things Off" blog by U.K.-based Nick Cernis.
  • reQall: Voice-enabled memory aid records tasks and reminders before you forget about them, organizes them, sends you alerts and daily "Memory Jogger" reminders.

Shop Like a Business, Not a Customer

Most entrepreneurs buy mobile devices, services and apps as if they were shopping for themselves--but it pays to find the plans and equipment that are meant for business.

Small-business operators are among the most desirable customers for mobile service providers. They aren't locked into corporate contracts. They aren't bogged down by legacy IT systems. They're usually early adopters, and typically they use more than the average consumer. And they would probably use it more, given the right tools, applications and education.

But a disconnect remains between most small-business users and the mobile phone industry. Small-business owners looking to buy are often treated more like consumers than business professionals with specific business needs.

"Just look when you go into a phone store," says Iain Gillott, president at iGR, a market research firm that focuses on the wireless and mobile industry. "The small-business user's buying process is exactly like the consumer's. They look around at the same phones and buy the same stuff as consumers. There is not any special segmentation."

The fact is, though, that mobile technology tore down the walls between our business lives and our personal lives, prompting the evolution of the so-called "prosumer." Devices like the BlackBerry and the have had a social impact that encourages us to always be working, even when we're not working. You may think you had a choice in the matter, and maybe you still think you do, but the improved functionality of mobile devices and the improved quality of mobile calling and e-mailing probably already has changed your business life. And small businesses--particularly the entrepreneurs whose brains, hearts and souls, drive those businesses--need to always be connected.

Small-business customers need to think differently when they're shopping for service. Since the in-store shopping experience doesn't particularly beckon the small-business user, purchasing through carrier sites online offers a somewhat more specialized approach.

Verizon Wireless, for example, offers a number of small-business service plans and employs "small-business specialists" in many stores. The company also has small-business account executives who offer further analysis through on-site consultation.

The emergence of application download stores, meanwhile, is helping small-business owners better understand the extent to which they can use their mobile phones for a variety of business processes, creating high-profile venues for obtaining specialized business applications. These applications might be considered foundational to any entrepreneurial business looking to spread its wings and remain productive and organized while doing so. In most cases, multiple-use licenses are available, and most of the applications are available for a variety of device types. DataViz Inc. already had iPhone and BlackBerry versions of Documents-to-Go this summer when it announced a new version of Android phone models rapidly becoming available, said Shari Hoffman, sales and marketing spokeswoman at DataViz. "A lot of small-business phone buyers probably don't know right away, even after they buy a phone, the things that they can do with it," she says.

"There is more education needed, and that will happen."

Here's a rundown of what the major carriers offer online:

  • Online resources: Verizon Wireless; Sprint; AT&T
  • Business segmentation: All three carriers offer the same tabs you'll see in the consumer portions of their sites, allowing you to shop by device type or service plan preferences. But the additional tab "industry solutions" on all three sites leads to a shopping experience defined by more specific segments, such as healthcare, construction, manufacturing, finance, distribution and professional services. Sprint, for example, highlights 14 specialized sectors.
  • Community features: Both Verizon Wireless and Sprint offer small-business community discussion forums through their websites.
  • Special assistance: Sprint touts its Solution Launchpad, a feature that allows you to clock on an "organization need" and then build a service plan from recommended devices, pricing structures and applications. Verizon hypes its network of small-business "specialists" and "account executives." AT&T has the AT&T Exclusively Business Center.
  • Special devices: AT&T still has a lock on the Apple iPhone, which increasingly is being promoted to business users. Verizon Wireless heavily hypes BlackBerry phones like the BlackBerry Tour. Sprint has the Palm Pre and several BlackBerry devices. Verizon and Sprint also offer the MiFi personal Wi-Fi device that links to the mobile broadband network to create a small Wi-Fi coverage umbrella that can be accessed by as many as five colleagues. Sprint also offers the Airave, a device that expands mobile network coverage inside small offices.
  • Other special features: All three carriers offer push-to-talk capability on some phones, though Sprint's long-standing Nextel Direct Connect is still considered the market leader. All three carriers offer navigational capabilities and location-based features. Verizon offers a Field Force Manager app with Job Dispatch, Electronic Timecard and Location and Tracking features.

What Do You Really Need?

As president at mobile market research firm iGR, Iain Gillott studies small-business mobile trends, but he's also a small-business entrepreneur himself. The lead in a four-man firm that he says mostly uses Apple gear--including the iconic --Gillott knows what it's like to navigate a mobile device purchase. He describes the experience as one characterized by service providers who usually see small-business users much like consumers, and small-business users who often don't analyze their own needs and desires well enough to understand what they're looking for.

Gillott advises that entrepreneurial shoppers ask themselves several questions before deciding on a handset type and service provider (important since some services are only available from limited operators).

  • How important is the need to run non-business applications?
  • What business applications will be required?
  • Is integration with the Microsoft Exchange server required for e-mail and applications (such as calendar)?
  • Is a high-quality camera or video camera required (by Realtors, for example)?
  • Is push-to-talk service required, for example by contractors and couriers?
  • Will the phone be used mainly with gloves on? This is important since most of the touchscreens require skin contact. (The iPhone, for example, does not work well with a gloved finger.)
  • How important is image and form factor? Does the device have to be cool?
  • How important is battery life? Does the device have to last more than one day without being charged?
  • Will the user be staying in a single metro area? Will there be travel between metro areas? Or traveling in rural markets as well?
  • Will the device also be used for music and video entertainment? For example, I use my phone to listen on music on planes.

Best Tools For the Job

Best For Entertainment: "Apple iPhone 3G or 3GS ($99.99, $199.99). The ability to take video and music with you (for use on planes, for example) plus buy new entertainment on the road is a huge plus. The iPhone also has an excellent browser and user interface. But e-mail support is relatively weak, and so the iPhone is not the best for MS Exchange integration. If the entrepreneur wants more memory and higher performance, or if a video camera is important, then the choice is the 3GS. If the entrepreneur does not want AT&T service, an alternative is the Palm Pre (currently only at Sprint but coming to Verizon Wireless next year). The Pre has a great user interface, plays music and video from iTunes, has a great browser and is a nice design.

Best 'Business Integration' (MS Exchange Etc): RIM BlackBerry Tour (about $175). "The Tour is the latest from RIM and is a great device. It includes a great camera as well. The price is a little high, and there are other BlackBerry devices available for less than $100. RIM is obviously good at Exchange integration and e-mail. But if you can stretch the budget, get the Tour. The Nokia E71x (about $270) is also worth a look. Windows Mobile devices will integrate very well with Exchange. While Windows Mobile is looking a little old these days (especially compared to the iPhone and the Palm Pre), there are plenty of choices. But, I would recommend waiting--Windows Mobile 6.5 promises a range of new features and should be a major upgrade in the fall."

Best Camera: "Several phones have good five megapixel cameras these days. Nokia N-Series phones have Carl Zeiss optics and take great photos--the N85 or N97 ($366, $599) are both good (and available unlocked from Amazon.com). Others worth considering: the Sony Ericsson C902 (about $300), Samsung F480 (about $290) and the HTC Touch (about $250)."

Best Push-to-Talk: "For push-to-talk, you really have to look at Nextel (for the iDEN network). Motorola's i465 (with keyboard, about $100) and i335 (about $50) are both popular. But also consider Boost, which uses the same iDEN network but offers unlimited usage plans. The Motorola i290 starts at just $49.99."

Best for Gloves: "Forget a touchscreen and forget a QWERTY keyboard--touchscreens like warm dry fingers, and the keys on the QWERTY devices are small. Also best to avoid sliders or flip phones. A good candy bar design with a 10-digit keypad is best. The choice depends on the operator you are using. But good examples are the Pantech c630 (about $170) or the Samsung a637 (about $220)."

Best Battery Life: "The screen on a phone consumes half the available power. So,while the new touchscreen smartphones look great and have fabulous screens, they tend to be power hogs and hence have shorter battery lives. Higher-powered application processors (such as in the new Apple iPhone 3GS) also consume more power. For general business use and a great battery life, I would recommend a BlackBerry Curve (about $150) or Bold (about $200). Avoid the Blackberry Storm (about $100), since this has a touchscreen and takes more power."

Best for Metro Areas: "For unlimited service in metro areas, I would recommend a Cricket from Leap Wireless, or a phone and service from MetroPCS. Each company has multiple unlimited use plans (great for business people who are on the phone all day, such as Realtors), as well as roaming agreements that let users roam in major markets. But rural coverage is poor--stick with a nationwide operator if you need rural coverage. The best-selling handset at Cricket and MetroPCS is the Samsung Messenger (about $175)."

Best to Access New Apps: "Many operators and handset OEMs have been promoting their new application stores. But only one has seen major activity: the Apple App Store. To access this, you need an iPhone. While many of the apps are games or just for fun, there are serious productivity tools as well. If you like to explore and try new , an Apple iPhone (about $150) is a good choice."


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