Putting together your first office is a lot like planning a garden. You have a certain amount of space to work with, and you need certain species of technology to grow a healthy business.
Your first step is to survey your plot. If you're starting out of an extra room in your home, chances are you don't have a ton of room to roam. So look for space-saving devices like an all-in-one printer/fax machine/scanner and an LCD monitor. We'll get into the details of these later.
You don't just plunk a plant down and expect it to thrive; you have to set up a hospitable environment first. Finding a desk and a chair to create a good environment for your needs doesn't have to be difficult or expensive. If your budget is tight, there's a lot of used office furniture floating around out there. Office surplus stores and even classified ads are solid options for desks. Chairs need more thought. If you're going to be glued to a piece of furniture for eight hours per day or more, it had better be right for you. Take sit-tests at your local office supply stores to find something comfortable and ergonomic. You can get a good chair for less than $150 if you shop around. Some big brand names to look out for include Global, Hon and Safco.
Your next move as a business "landscape architect" is to choose the defining feature of your office: the computer. Many entrepreneurs get going with a regular desktop computer, but more and more are opting for the portability and convenience of a laptop. As we start naming manufacturers and models, keep in mind that these are just examples of what you'll find out there. Get hands-on with your potential equipment when possible. Research reviews, talk to other entrepreneurs, and think about what you need your hardware to do for you.
Desktops are sold just about everywhere and can fit just about any budget. The eMachines (www.emachines.com) T series of desktops starts at $399 with a 2.2GHz Celeron processor, 128MB RAM and a 40GB hard drive. If you just need to run basic office applications and get online, this will cover it. It comes with Microsoft Works; you'll have to chip in extra for full-fledged Office if necessary. If you use any demanding graphics applications or giant databases, you might want to check into a model with more muscle.
What's the point of having a garden without a good view? You need a monitor to go along with your new desktop. Old-fashioned CRT monitors are still widely available and cheap, but LCDs offer great value and are easy on the eyes to boot. Those pressed for space will definitely want to go the flat-panel display route. A 15-inch LCD like the analog NEC (www.necmitsubishi.com) AccuSync LCD5V runs about $299. Digital inputs and larger sizes cost you more but can be worth it if your needs require the added features.
There are as many different kinds of laptops as there are species of roses. Tablet PCs are making inroads, but we'll stick with a regular garden-variety notebook. Toshiba's (www.csd.toshiba.com) Satellite Pro M10 starts at $1,999 and is built with Intel's Centrino technology for wireless networking capability. Specs also include a 40GB hard drive, a spacious 15-inch screen, 512MB of memory and a DVD/CD-RW drive. The one-year warranty is slim, but increasingly typical for notebooks.
When it comes to printers, one question to ask is "How colorful do you need to be?" Inkjets still dominate the small-business color printing market. However, when black and white will suffice, a personal laser printer is a smart way to go. As usual, the consumables for inkjets can add up quickly, but if you plan on doing short runs of your own promotional materials, they can be worthwhile. A good example is the $199 Epson (www.epson.com) Stylus Photo 900. It has the added functionality of being able to print directly onto inkjet-printable CDs and DVDs. Printed labels can help keep your backup discs in order after you put your CD burner through its paces.
Since some of you are working with small plots of land, it's a good idea to consider a multifunction printer with color printing, scanning and copying capabilities. These are especially popular in home offices, where they are space-conscious and budget-friendly. The $299 Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet 6110 does it all with a printer, copier, scanner and fax machine onboard. Its flatbed feature is especially convenient if you intend to do much scanning. For pumping out lots of black-and-white pages at a lower price, check into a printer like the $299 Brother HL-5040, an entry-level personal laser printer. It boasts output of up to 17 pages per minute and up to 2400 x 600 dpi print quality.
No entrepreneur is an island, and your office shouldn't be, either. Using dial-up Internet access is like taking a rowboat when you could take a speedboat instead. With broadband access rates down as low as $40 per month, there should be room in your budget for a DSL or cable connection. Check with your local phone company, cable company or ISP to find out what's available in your area. Look for deals that throw in the modem hardware for free.
Now things are shaping up! You have a computer, a printer, a place to set them in your office and a way to get online. The next seed to sow involves business communications, specifically a mobile phone. Some entrepreneurs can get by just fine with only a land-line phone, but if you're out of the office much and still need to stay in touch, a mobile phone is key. The array of options can be overwhelming: Do you want a PDA built in? How about a camera? Color screens are proliferating but can drain battery life.
If you're not going to use a bunch of advanced features, there's no point in paying for them. With all the specials and discounts that pop up, you can easily pick up a basic, functional mobile for $50 to $100 when you start a new calling plan. Visit a few retailers to check out hardware and plans. Look out for battery life (you don't want the phone to die in the middle of an important call), weight (since you're going to be carrying it everywhere), calling plan coverage area (roaming charges can sneak up on you), and long-distance charges (free long distance can be a boon).
Down the line, or right away if necessary, you might look into installing a Wi-Fi network. This is a handy way to share data and an Internet connection between more than one desktop and/or with a laptop. Once you have the freedom of movement, you'll be hooked. Prices are down, and the newest 802.11g technology offers a lot of security and bandwidth for the buck. For example, $189 gets you started with Belkin's (www.belkin.com) 54g router and access point.
When it comes to setting up your office, it pays to focus on these hardware basics. Some strong evaluation of your technology needs, as well as a little TLC when selecting products, will help you get your new business blooming.
A PDA isn't required equipment, but it can make your life easier. The 5.3-ounce Palm Zire 71 comes with a high-resolution color screen and built-in camera as well as all the scheduling, memo and contact database features you expect from a PDA. It's a couple of steps up from the super-entry-level $99 models. Also check into comparably priced PocketPCs to weigh your options.
Model: Zire 71
Phone: (800) 881-7256
Street price: $299
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