With today's technology, it is now easier than ever to run your small business virtually. I remember reading about a company on the Inc. 500 list a couple years ago that had approximately $46 million in revenue and over 100 consultants but did not have a physical office. The three founders, who comprised the company’s executive management team, conducted interviews in Starbucks. Most of us have seen the Starbucks interview in progress. This decentralized, virtual operation helped them keep costs low and made it easier for them to recruit high-quality consultants. Since the company had no offices, the consultants could work from home when not working from a client site. The company was able to offer highly competitive salaries and benefits and was able to staff in various cities where they were awarded contracts, not just in cities where they had actual offices.
With that background, below I share some thoughts on virtual small businesses. I also cover a few of the technologies that enable lean small companies to conduct business on a larger scale - such as having employees/contractors that are located around the world and phone and Internet systems that allow them to be reached anywhere. A virtual business is the kind of business where it does not matter how big you are or where your office is or how many employees are under your roof. You can appear as big or as small as you deem fit or as best fits your customers’ needs.
Additional benefits of running a virtual business is that it allows personnel (and you) to telecommute, thus saving money on gas and reducing emissions. And, since many entrepreneurs rue the fact that they often do not have time for family or friends, operating a business virtually can give you more flexibility with the “where” and sometimes the “when” to do business, enabling you to spend more time with the ones you love.
So how do you start up and run a successful virtual business? Or make your existing business more streamlined through the use of virtual-enabling technologies? Here are my suggestions:
1) For integrated sales and customer service, a web-based customer relationship management (CRM) service is crucial. All sales representatives and designated customer service personnel can update and manage their leads, prospects, and targets, current and past customers, their interactions with them, and any marketing campaigns related to the targets. A web-based CRM system is typically purchased on a per user basis and enables all users, including management, to see who has responsibility for what customers, when these customers or prospects were contacted, and where they are in the sales process so there is no oversight or overlap.
2) Internet based phone and conferencing systems are crucial to enabling a large-scale virtual business. A good system will assign various extensions while linking individual offices, employees, or independent contractors’ phone lines to one central number so the connection process seems seamless to an outside caller. With the conferencing system, company personnel can call in from around the country or world cheaply, allowing virtual team calls and promoting team cohesion.
3) Web-based email systems enable all company personnel to have the same email look and feel, regardless of where the individual is working from or whether the person is full-time or part-time.
4) Other virtual Internet-based systems such as virtual merchant credit card transaction terminals can be set up to allow particular individuals to take credit card information while disallowing them access to make changes or provide refunds, thus maintaining the integrity and security of your company's credit card processing. These virtual terminals also provide a built-in layer of extra protection now required by Visa and Mastercard that many small companies do not have the systems or personnel to install and regulate themselves.
There are a number of other technology options for enabling a successful Virtual business. All recent year Quickbooks software allows you to share information over the Internet with your offsite bookkeeper, CPA, or even your banker. In addition, there is a lot of web-based industry software available. The information provided herein will help you get started.
About the Author: Tiffany C. Wright is the president of Toca Family Business Services , a C-level interim management provider and strategic advisory firm, and the author of “Solving the Financial Equation: Financing Solutions for Small Businesses", available on Amazon and “Help! I Need Money for My Business Now!", available at www.cash4impact.com . Both books provide overviews on business financing alternatives and the how-tos to obtain financing. Over the last six years, Ms. Wright has helped companies obtain over $31 million in financing and a similar sum in contracts and purchase orders. Ms. Wright has a BS in Engineering and an MBA in Finance and Entrepreneurial Management from the Wharton School of Business, Univ. of Penn. She volunteers, sits on non-profit boards, and often speaks at business events.