Complete Guide to Outfitting Your Home Office
Click your cell phone and PDA together three times and say, "There's no place like home. There's no place like home." Many entrepreneurs are discovering the joys and tribulations of starting a homebased business. Once you're psychologically prepared to do battle on the home front, a functional work space is the first step to a successful launch. We've got some furniture and technology tips to get your office started right.
You already know a separate room with a door is the ideal location to set up shop. If that's not an option, a secluded corner is a decent second choice. Susan Trainer, president and founder of Trainer Public Relations, started in 1995 literally working from her bedroom floor before upgrading to an old kitchen table. You might want to make it easier on yourself and buy a desk right off the bat. You don't have to spend a fortune to get a functional desk that fits the space and your working style. Secondhand is always an option.
Once you've got a level playing field for your computer and paperwork, it's time to position yourself in a chair. A chair is an important purchase, considering most of your working day will be spent there. Home office expert Jeff Zbar, author of 7 Keys to Home Security and Home Office Know How (Upstart), says you should never buy a used chair, since it "tends to conform to the body parts of the person who used it previously." Budget for no more than $200, and test-sit all the chairs at your local office supply stores. Features to look for include four or five legs on wheels, an adjustable back, adjustable arms and an adjustable seat pad.
Little things make a big difference. Small ergonomic items won't make a huge budget impact, but they will help keep you in good form throughout your eight-hour-plus days. Zbar works from a home office himself and swears by his telephone headset and ergonomic wave keyboard. "It creates a natural alignment," he explains. "It's pretty key to have that." Consider a split-key BelkinErgoBoard for $39 or the Logitech Cordless Freedom Pro with cordless mouse for $60. Your hands will be grateful.
A computer is a homebased entrepreneur's best friend, but be sure to choose your friend wisely. The most obvious initial question is, laptop or desktop? This may seem cut and dried. Travel a lot? Then buy a laptop. "Laptops are every bit as powerful as almost any desktop computer. Pricing is not on par, but it's very close," says Zbar. He recommends looking for at least a 1.3GHz Pentium III or equivalent AMD Duron processor with 128MB RAM and a 20GB hard drive. Add a docking station and separate desktop monitor into the mix, and you'll compute in comfort wherever you are.
You don't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool road warrior to take the laptop plunge, however. Install an inexpensive and easy-to-set-up Wi-Fi wireless network in your home and add a Wi-Fi card to your laptop's PC Card slot. Then take your work out on the patio or into the living room without missing a beat. A slight change of scenery can really perk up a long working day.
Trainer often travels in her line of work, and a ToshibaTecra laptop is her main machine. It has three qualities she can't do business without: "Durability, durability, durability," she says. "I've got to be able to drop it. I've got to be able to fling it in the back of my trunk." All Trainer Public Relations employees use laptops and work from home as well. The entire business is on a roughly two-year upgrade cycle for keeping their notebook computers up to snuff. Buy a well-stocked machine right off the bat, and you won't have to deal with difficult memory, processor or hard drive upgrades for a while.
If mobility isn't a factor, you can't beat a desktop computer for pure power and affordability. The mantra here is spend, but don't overspend. "If you go out and say 'I've got to have the latest and greatest of everything,' you could spend three grand easily and not be able to keep up with the power of your computer. Know what you need, and don't try to outpace it," says Zbar. Some specs are worth a bit of investment. For instance, 128MB RAM may get you by, but moving up to 256MB or more will make your computer work faster and with better stability. Tailor your technology to your tasks. Using multiple applications simultaneously, database crunching or heavy graphics work will require a more robust system than would just word processing and Web surfing.
Software is highly subjective, but there are some basics that nearly every office needs. MicrosoftOffice is an obvious choice. The latest version, Office XP, retails for $479 for the standard edition and $579 for the professional edition. If that's too hefty a price tag, check into Sun'slow-cost StarOffice productivity suite, which includes word processing, database, presentation and drawing applications.
A computer isn't going to do you much good without some way to see all that data. With vastly lowered prices and improved viewing technology, it's hard to resist going with an LCD flat-panel display. Fifteen-inch LCDs are shaving in under the $400 dollar mark, with 17-inchers priced around $600. Home offices are often tight on space, and a slim profile display can open a lot of valuable desk real estate. Entrepreneurs operating within very tight budgets might still consider a sub-$150 CRT monitor. But overall, even basic, no-frills LCDs offer a good value and are easy on the eyes.
You've got a desk, a place to sit and a computer system. Now it's time to fill in the blanks. You can add accessories like a digital camera, Zip drive, business card reader, speakers or scanner, depending on your business needs. Two items on nearly every entrepreneur's list are a printer and a PDA. With a rainbow of possible suspects to fill these roles, you'll want to invest a little research time into your choices.
In the spirit of the laptop or desktop question, you have to ask: laser or inkjet? If you can live without color, personal laser printers can be purchased for less than $200. The biggest advantages over inkjets are crispness, speed and lower consumables costs. Replacing inkjet cartridges every month can really add up over time. Still, the low initial hardware cost and color capability of inkjets are big draws. Both Trainer and Zbar use multifunction fax/scanner/copier/printers. All-in-one machines are convenient and space saving. If you go that route or are considering a stand-alone fax, Zbar recommends choosing a model with a separate phone handset.
For many entrepreneurs, PDAs have jumped from the cool gadget category to the business essential category. Says Trainer, "My number-one favorite tool of all time is the Palm VII and the software that goes along with it." She often substitutes the wireless Internet-capable Palm for her laptop on the road. That one device helps her keep track of scheduling, contacts, e-mail and note-taking with an add-on keyboard. If that's all you need, there's a bevy of sub-$200 Palm OS handhelds from which to choose. Windows PocketPCs like the Compaq iPaq H3835 that try to put a Windows desktop in your palm are up around $600. Be sure to budget in for the monthly cost of wireless access if you expect to use that feature.
Dial-ups and DSLs and cables, oh my! You're now entering the dark forest of Internet connections. With several high-profile broadband company fallouts over the past year, you'll be looking for a stable option. Check DSL Reportsto see what's available in your area. It's a hodgepodge of a site, but it covers a variety of connection options and is well-stocked with service reviews.
DSL and cable are popular choices for home offices. Expect to pay around $40 per month for low-end 256K DSL. Modem and installation prices can vary widely, so don't hesitate to shop around among large providers like Earthlink, local phone companies like Qwestand independent dealers found in the Yellow Pages. Of course, nothing says you have to go with broadband. If it's not integral to your business, you might do like Zbar does and stick with a sub-$20 dial-up account.
Dorothy didn't go it alone. Starting up a home office shouldn't be an entirely solitary pursuit, either. Some of the best resources for technology advice are your peers. This is one of Trainer's first lines of research. "Always talk to people in the industry. Talk to your friends. Talk to your neighbors who might have similar technologies, and ask them their opinions." Spec sheets will only tell you part of the story. Ease of use and reliability of information comes from people who know.
Surf sites like MySimon.comto hunt for bargains on the Web. It's time-consuming but can save you money. On the other hand, dealing with local sellers may give you an opportunity to test-drive products before you buy. Trainer found a way to save both money and time by going through major retailer Computer Discount Warehouse. "When you're not 10,000 people, there aren't such things as volume discounts," she says. "Find a retailer that can sell you all your stuff and give you a bit of a price break." Look for a situation where you're dealing with one salesperson as your business grows.