Assessing Your IT Needs

There are those who say that in order to start a home based business, all you really need is a table, a chair and a telephone, along with some writing materials and a calculator. This may be true in the very beginning – depending on what sort of business it is and what it is you’re selling – but (hopefully!) your needs will expand along with the business.

For example, if your home based business involves doing research for second and third parties, local libraries, universities and colleges and state and county government offices are great places to access, and may be necessary.

However, as more and more information is posted online, you’ll find it possible to save a great deal in travel costs by accessing the information on the Web, or at least confirming that the information you’re seeking is there and the trip is justified. (You could call on the phone and ask, but anymore, chances are you’ll spend considerable amounts of time wading through menus and trying to get to the person with whom you need to speak.)

Basically, information technology is about two things: (A) saving time and (B) providing secure access to data.

Assessing Your I.T. Needs

There are certain needs common to every home based business, regardless of what product or service it’s offering. At a minimum, every office will need:

A desk and a comfortable chair

At least one good-sized bookcase or shelving unit

A table

A telephone

A computer and good monitor

A printer, copier and FAX machine

Let’s look at these one by one:

Desk and chair

This is where you’re going to be spending a great deal of time, and if you don’t choose wisely, you’ll find yourself getting aches and pains in places you didn’t know existed. While it may not seem to have much to do with your I.T. equipment needs, it has everything to do with your long-term chiropractic health – and without that, the best I.T. and electronic equipment in the world won’t help you.

On the next page, you’ll see three set-ups. Can you tell which one is ergonomically correct?

Choose the chair where thighs are nearly straight out in front , wrists are at a slightly raised angle, and there is support both wrists and the lumbar region for back. Also, head is at the optimum level for viewing his monitor. Don’t Get a chair where , the monitor height forces you to bend your head and/or neck – which you’ll be feeling in a few hours.

You can get away with buying many things for your office second-hand and “on the cheap” – but do not skimp on the desk and chair setup. Go to a store that specializes in office furniture and try several until you find something that works for you

Bookcase/Shelves

You can probably get away with starting out small, here – but chances are good that your storage needs will expand substantially over the years. It may be tempting to go with a lighter model simply for ease of movement. If your home based business is a success however, those shelves will soon be groaning under the weight of reference books, ledgers, and more.

If portability is an issue, there are models available with casters – or you can add some prior to filling the shelves. Just make sure that the shelves and the casters are of sufficient capacity; plan on about 100 lbs. per shelf.

A word about home based business office supplies (including writing and computer supplies): shelves can be a great storage place for these as well. Just make sure they’re organized into small boxes, and store these items on the top shelves (since they’re lighter in weight).

Table

A table – aside from your desk – is an infinitely useful place for holding brainstorming sessions (by yourself or with others), meeting with clients, having a “working lunch,” or doing any work involving pen (or pencil) and paper away from the computer (which is probably taking up most of your desk space in any event).

One caveat: there’s a real danger that a table will turn into a “catch-all” for books, important papers, and more. Resist this temptation by making sure that (A) your desk has sufficient drawer space, (B) you have a decent file cabinet, and (C) you have enough shelf space (and you’ve made a habit of using it).

Telephone (And Phone System)

This is something to think about. If you plan on being able to talk on the phone while having your hands free, you’ll need either (A) a headset or (B) a speaker phone, or (C) both. Having both affords you a bit of flexibility, as you can conduct both a private conversation and a conference with yourself, the person on the other end and whoever is in the office with you.

Other elements of this system include answering machine, message forwarding and paging. There are numerous ways to set this up.

The easiest and most economical is to simply have an answering machine (and be sure to get one that allows the caller to leave a message longer than 30 seconds – or you’ll have a lot of abbreviated and unfinished messages), then provide a cell number in the outgoing greeting. That way, if it’s important enough, your clients and/or customers can always reach you, and you can avoid the expense of a paging/messaging service.

If you plan on taking cell phone calls while on the road, a “hands-free” set-up is absolutely necessary. Many auto accidents are caused by people attempting to talk on a cell phone while driving, and many states are beginning to crack down on the practice, issuing stiff fines.

Such “hands-free” set-ups are available at many electronic and even automotive stores. Top-of-the-line set ups will run no more than $150, and there are many (of varying quality) that cost less than that.

Another thing to think about is whether or not you want a second phone line. If you have teenagers, this is practically a necessity. There are now numerous companies on-line who can provide your business with a toll-free phone number. Typically, you’ll be charged a monthly fee ranging from $9.95 to over $80 depending on what features you choose, plus a per-minute charge that can vary between .02¢ and .08¢.

Many companies offer a set amount of “free” minutes (that is, minutes included with the monthly charge) before you wind up paying for additional minutes. As with every other service and tool, it pays to shop around.

Computer and Monitor

Here is the heart and soul of your operation. You’ll spend a great deal of time with this machine – which will probably be obsolete within two years. For this reason, it really doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of money on this year’s latest and greatest model. Last year’s top model will work just fine, and you’ll save a LOT of money by going that direction. During the summer of 2006, this writer purchased a one-year old Dell Dimension with an Intel Pentium 4 processor running at 3.2 GHz, complete with Ethernet, 3 GB of RAM, advanced ATI video card and a 160 GB hard drive from a private party for $750, including a 17″ monitor and keyboard. This is about half of what it cost new. It is suitable for high-end 3-D graphics and rendering, runs graphic-intensive 3d games at a good resolution, and allows for satisfactory mid-range video editing (the book you are reading was written and published on this same machine). Chances are, a computer similar to this one will serve about 95% of the small businesses out there quite well for several years.

There are of course risks to purchasing a used computer. You have no idea if it has been protected by a firewall (more on this later), what viruses may be lurking, and you have no way of knowing how well it has been maintained. 98% of all computer problems are software-related, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll experience a great deal of frustration and downtime. If you’re going to purchase a second-hand computer, make sure you have some computer knowledge, or bring a friend with you who does. The best cure for most all computer problems is prevention of course, so later on, we’ll be discussing the care and feeding of your computer.

If you are determined to have a brand new computer however, it’s best to have it custom configured for your needs.

This U.S. – based company uses unionized, U.S. American labor to assemble their products. Their machines are priced very competitively with those of the major manufacturers who use off-shore factories in Asia. You can purchase a new computer with an Intel Pentium 4 3 Ghz processor, 512 MB of DDR RAM, 80 GB hard drive, 52X CD-RW/DVD Combo Drive with Windows XP Pro operating system installed for $1018, and includes an optical mouse, enhanced keyboard and stereo speakers. That is nearly $70 less than the lowest-priced, overseas-manufactured name brand, which does not include mouse, keyboard nor speakers. Union Built PC offers a one-year warranty on its computers, and has additional products and business-related services available. The base price of their machines starts at $825, and a “wizard” is available on their website that enables you to add upgrades and see the price difference in real time.

About monitors: today’s standard is the 19″, flat screen LCD. Anything smaller will cause eyestrain if used continually. Unfortunately, the prices on LCD screens go up dramatically with every inch. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that like all technology, monitor prices have been dropping a great deal. We are now seeing 22″ LCD monitors on auction websites for less than $350, and 19″ monitors for a little over half that. Our advice is that you select the largest monitor you can afford – your eyes will thank you for it.

Printer, Copier, FAX Machine

Today, you can get one machine that performs all of these functions. Sometimes called an “all-in-one,” a printer-copier-FAX can run about $150 new. If you decide to purchase a used one, you may find a perfectly functional device for as little as $20 (more on this, later).

It should be pointed out that the copier function of these low-priced all-in-one machines is intended for light duty. If you are planning on making a large number of copies on a regular basis, you’ll be better off with something larger and more durable. PC Magazine and Consumer Reports generally have good, reliable independent reviews of the various brands and machines available that will help you make an informed choice.

Other I.T. Options

As mentioned earlier, laptops have the advantage of portability. However, unless you’re planning to be on the road or out in the field a great deal of the time, it’s probably not the best choice.

If you need to gather, store and even transmit information in the field, a Personal Digital Assistant – more popularly known as a “PDA” – is an extremely economical choice. Due to their size, they are limited as to what they are able to do, but for the price (ranging from as little as $25 to $150), it’s an excellent extension of your PC (though not a substitute), and can be used to transfer information back to your main machine at the home office. PDAs will be discussed in more detail in a later section.

When it comes to staying in touch, the answering machine and cell phone solution is definitely the easiest. The drawback of using a cell phone is that it is not always an economical solution. However, there are hundreds of companies offering literally thousands of different plans at prices ranging from $30 all the way to $250 per month. Many plans include free minutes; many do not. “Roaming” charges – the price you are charged for air time outside your service area – can really add up as well. Unlike a “land line,” cell phone users are charged each time they talk, whether the call is incoming or outgoing.

Only due diligence and some thorough comparison shopping will determine which cell phone plan will best serve your business’ needs.

An answering service, while expensive (plans start out around $40 per month), can be a great investment in customer and client relations. Having to speak with machines and mechanical voices while wading through menus has increasingly become a “turn-off” for many people. At least two marketing studies have shown than 30-35% more customer/clients will leave a message for a live person than they will on a machine or voice mail.3

All Those Bells And Whistles; Do You Really Need Them?

As far as hardware is concerned: again, this depends a great deal on the nature of the business. If you’re doing high-end video editing or graphics-intensive desktop publishing, you’ll definitely want to get the best video card you can afford. A video card is like a co-processor for your computer’s main processor unit, and handles most of the mathematical calculations required to display images. The three most popular brands – ATI Radeon, GeForce and Nvidia – offer hundreds of different choices, ranging in price from as little as $30 to as much as $750. The price goes up with the amount of video memory installed on the card. More video memory (RAM) equals better quality video.

The same can be said for audio cards. If you business involves processing any sort of sound files, you’ll want the best one you can afford. Fortunately, audio cards are less expensive than video cards.

Speaking of RAM – that is, the main memory used by your computer’s Central Processing Unit (CPU) – more is better. No matter what you use your computer for, more memory will allow your computer to run faster, with more applications open at the same time. Main memory is called either SD RAM or DD RAM, and like your processor comes in various speeds.

RAM modules typically must be installed in pairs, and are purchased as such – so if your computer has 512 MB of RAM already installed and you want to upgrade to a total of 1 GB, you’ll need to buy two 256 MB RAM modules. All of this will depend on the number of slots your computer’s motherboard contains. Most today have at least four, and will accept up to 4 GB of RAM (that’s two pairs of 1 GB memory modules). Unfortunately, the operating system used on most business computers today – Windows XP – addresses no more than 3 GB. The upcoming Windows Vista OS may solve this issue, however.

In any event, RAM today is fairly inexpensive, especially compared to prices in the early and mid 1990’s. In 1992, you might have paid $400 per megabyte and considered it a heck of a deal. Today, RAM prices have dropped to around $100 per gigabyte – a mere 0.4% of what it was fifteen years ago. Regardless of what software you’re running, always install as much RAM as you can afford. When shopping for RAM, also make sure it is compatible with your particular system, and that all your modules are rated at the same clock speed.

Most of the “extras” that constitute the “bells and whistles” on a computer system consist of software that you really don’t need. They take up room on your hard drive, and may provide some limited functional or entertainment purpose, but if they’re applications you don’t use very often, its best to get rid of them. If you don’t know which programs are merely “taking up space,” there is an easy way to find out.

In order to bring up the screen in windows xp for example, you would click on “start” in the lower left-hand corner, then “Control Panel” and “Add Or Remove Programs.” Other systems have similar commands As you can see, highlighting the name of a program will tell you when the program was last used, and whether it’s used rarely, occasionally, or frequently. You then have the option of removing it by clicking on the “Change/Remove” button.

Uninstalling an application in Mac OS X is as simple as dragging it to the “Trash.” Although this will leave behind some of the application’s related files in the cache and the System, these will not interfere with your computer’s operation in any way due to the OS X Unix-based architecture. You have the option of removing them manually, if you like.

Getting It Cheap
Earlier, we mentioned that the best way to go is with last year’s equipment. The best places to obtain this equipment at a low price are (A) newspaper classified ads, (B) online want ads and (C) Internet auction sites.

When dealing with potential sellers found on Internet want ads, it’s best to deal with someone local with whom you can meet face-to-face. If you know little or nothing about computers, take someone along who does and who can look at the system and run some diagnostic routines. Otherwise, you’re better off buying a new system.

Reputable online auctions are another way to go. Sites such as eBay and Ubid have procedures in place that protect both parties in a transaction. If you are buying a used system, it’s important to look at the seller’s feedback rating. If an eBay seller has a feedback score of 100 or more and it’s 99.5% positive, chances are good that you’ll get your money’s worth and that the seller will stand behind his or her product. In addition, if you use Pay-Pal, you are protected for purchases up to $10,000 – although there is a lengthy procedure involved, and getting your money back may take some time.

When it comes to peripherals such as printers, these are showing up increasingly on the shelves of second-hand stores such as Goodwill and Value Village. Reputable second-hand stores will allow you to test the item before you buy it, and if it doesn’t work when you get it home, they’ll allow you to return it in exchange for an in-store credit.

We encourage the purchase of second-hand computer equipment for two reasons: (A) electronic waste – much of which is highly toxic – has become a major environmental problem.

The purchase of used equipment reduces consumption of resources and keeps this waste out of the landfills. (B) Buying equipment second hand keeps money in the local community (or at least the country), and – in the case of many second-hand stores – contributes to charitable causes. Likewise, when you purchase a custom system from Union Built PCs, you are keeping money in the U.S. economy and supporting domestic industry. Supporting your community and nation is always an excellent investment in your own business that will pay big dividends in the future.