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Running a virtual business

Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Internet business. Image: Getty Images
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By Diana Clement
MSN NZ Money writer

Forget backyard businesses! With a computer and wireless Internet connection you could run a business from a car or cafe — although the likelihood is that you'll have an office from home or a small office somewhere.

True virtual businesses employ no or very few staff — contracting in expertise. To the customer, however, it's seamless. They imagine your business is running from commercial premises with banks of employees behind computers.

A "publishing house" I once worked for was literally a husband-and-wife team working from home in Rotorua. The journalists and designer were all contracted and lived and worked mostly in the main city centres — giving the business nationwide presence, and printing and distribution were contracted out.

Virtual businesses mean that new business owners can "bootstrap" — that is start businesses with little or no money.

Virtual receptionists and secretaries
One of the most common services these businesses buy in is virtual receptionists and secretaries. Good virtual receptionists sound as though they're in-house. If you run a 24-hour business, you could even employ receptionists, customer service and sales staff who are based in different time zones — India being the most common example.

Secretaries can run your online diary from a remote location. Bookkeepers and accounting staff can also be virtual when you use packages such as MYOB or Xero to run your accounts.

IT specialists
IT geeks are hugely expensive to employ in-house. Yet, it's possible to outsource everything from computer maintenance and website development to payment systems. Companies such as Payment Express offer readymade systems that direct customers from your website to a hosted page, which complies with relevant laws and have fraud-protection systems.

When you need an office
Sometimes you'll need an office to meet clients. In that case you might hire conference rooms. Most hotels offer this service. But it may look more professional to hire meeting rooms from specialist companies such as Servcorp and Regus, at your local business development centre, or make your own arrangement with a company in the vicinity of where you need to meet.

Technology really does level the playing field for virtual businesses. Many high-tech businesses use chat-room applications and virtual whiteboards to have online collaboration and meetings.

Here's a clever tip. Telephony systems can be set up to direct callers to different departments and make your company sound bigger than it is — even if only one person answers those calls. For just $10 a month with a company like Conversant, you're able to receive up to five calls at a time, meaning callers never get an engaged tone. Or marketing calls can be automatically directed to your marketing agency, and sales calls to home-based sales staff or contractors. Technology like this really helps you portray a professional image.

We don't live in a perfect world and some virtual business owners and workers find it difficult to separate work and the remainder of their lives. Others say it cuts down on the unproductive negative chat between employees. They can't collect around the water cooler and whinge.