Although the stock market has been doing well and companies besides the housing and automotive industries seem to be growing, many professionals are looking at self-employment. They prefer to work out of their homes as opposed to reporting to an office every day.
The 60-second commute from upstairs to my basement office is painless and usually stress-free -- unless my kids are at home. For anyone starting an at-home business, there are essentially 15 items you need.
: Don't waste your money on a desktop. A laptop, maybe with a docking station, is what you need. You will be surprised how often you are on planes or trains, and with a laptop you can keep working while in transit. Also, you'll find yourself making presentations using your computer. With a laptop, you can always find time to get some work in. Make sure the machine you get has the following:
- Windows XP. I have tried Vista, but found it to be a modest upgrade with lots of problems, such as syncing with my BlackBerry;
- At least 1 gigabyte of RAM; and
- At least 80 GB of hard drive space.
: Microsoft Office is absolutely essential software because it provides you with:
- Database, for contacts: The size of your database is only limited by the size of your hard drive. I have more than 5,000 contacts in my Outlook mail client.
- PowerPoint, for presentations: How often do you make presentations without graphics?
- Word, for writing documents.
- Excel spreadsheets, for developing projections.
- Web site development.
- Tasks: Once a day I check my tasks to see what I have gotten done.
I would also recommend purchasing software called
Prophet from Avidian, which is good customer relationship management software. As you hire employees, they can have access to the same information. It also syncs with most PDAs.
: I like this product because it gives you the following:
- PC security;
- Transaction security from identify theft;
- Automatic backup and restore for protecting files, which is invaluable when your system goes down and you have to recapture files and documents;
- A computer tuneup to make it run more efficiently; and
- 2 GB of online storage for photos, music, contacts and financial documents.
: I use the T-Mobile BlackBerry, but there are a variety of BlackBerry products out there. Next to your laptop, this is the most essential purchase you will make. I have to admit I am a "CrackBerry addict," but for good reason:
- Email: I was in Italy in April. As my driver was winding her way up a mountain to a thousand-year-old village, I was emailing my team and client simultaneously with instructions and feedback on a project we were working on. One day, I was on a train and needed to email a document, so I used my BlackBerry as a modem.
- Contacts: I needed to call clients to tell them that I was running late, but forgot their number. I looked in my contact database, highlighted the number, and made the call.
- Calendar: Who wants to carry a calendar or have to open up his computer every time he wants to check his schedule?
- Audio: I have downloaded Spanish language lessons so I can carry them with me. I have also download business books to listen to while I am traveling.
This device is one of the best investments I have ever made. It is a must-have product. It backs up your computer onto a separate hard drive and allows you to access your machine online in case you don't have your computer. The price is less than $300 for a 100 GB hard drive. It's priceless when your laptop crashes and you need to reformat your system but can't retrieve the hard drive.
: There are many services that allow you to back up information online. I am sure you are wondering why I mention this, since I just wrote that the Seagate Mirra will back up your files. My fear is a fire that wipes out my computer and Mirra. I have to say, these services aren't easy to use -- sometimes their software conflicts with existing software in your computer, and sometimes it doesn't load everything. Yet I still think it is worthwhile.
: Don't buy a cheap telephone. I have done that and always ended up replacing them every year. I like the RCA Executive Series, which allows me to:
- Conference people in;
- Put in telephone numbers of major contacts and clients;
- Use multiple lines;
- Track time I am on a call; and
- Check voice mail.
High-speed Internet access
: You need this to download big files and to use an Internet telephony client.
: I use VoiceWing from
, but there are other services such as Skype and
. What I like about VoiceWing is that I can make unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada for about $25 a month. Skype is very good if you are making international calls, because it is free.
: These are machines that print, copy, fax and scan. I use a Brother 210 because it takes up only slightly more space than a telephone book.
: No company can be without a Web site today. The least-expensive place for developing and maintaining a Web site is at
GoDaddy.com. You can buy the domain name cheaply, and they have a variety of quality templates.
: This is one of the best
online services you will purchase. This service keeps track of your contacts so you can send
- Press releases;
- Mass letters;
- Invitations; and
: You need accounting software to do your billing, keep track of expenses and revenue, and help you file your taxes. I use both Peachtree and QuickBooks. I prefer Peachtree -- I find it easier to use and more intuitive.
: The best is unquestionably TurboTax. It only gets better each year. It walks you through your entire return, and has information on any questions you might have. I haven't used an accountant for my taxes in 11 years.
: You obviously need business cards. There are a variety of Web sites that will start you off with 250 free business cards, including such as
It may look like a lot to purchase, but the security and efficiency of your business should be paramount. With these tools, you'll have peace of mind, letting you focus on the real goal: growing your business.
Marc Kramer is the author of five business books on topics related to venture capital, management and consulting. He is a faculty member at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and the veteran of more than 20 start-ups and four turnarounds.