Dear Dan: I'm about to launch my own solo business. Any tips on the essentials I need to get started - like phone services, office space and legal help? - Solo Gal
Dear Solo Gal: With big companies vaporizing jobs by the millions, self employment is becoming an option - and often a necessity - for more American's than ever before. And with a still-weakening economy and more job losses looming, the self-employment ranks seem destined to rise.
For some, the shift to self employment after years of working for someone else can be difficult. Suddenly it's just you and that can be daunting. You'll have to arrange for some kind of office space, create a business identity and website, establish phone service and voicemail, figure out how to reach and communicate with prospects and customers, advertise your product or service, manage billing and perhaps incorporate as well.
The good news is this: It's never been easier to manage all of these things with low-cost, web-based services designed for exactly this purpose.
Here's a 10-piece toolkit for self employment survival:
1. Get a domain name and website for your business. Easy, low-cost options abound. You can register a domain name at GoDaddy.com, NetworkSolutions.com, Register.com or Domain.com and purchase a do-it-yourself website package at the same time. Microsoft's Office Live Small Business (www.officelive.com) is a fabulous place where you will find everything you need to take your business online - much of it free (including the website).
2. Form a corporation or LLC. It's easier than you think, and will give your business a more professional look. You can do it online at Incorporate.com or MyCorporation.com.
3. Plug into the office space you need, only when you need it. Holding meetings in your home or a local coffee shop won't inspire confidence in your business. Virtual, temporary or shared office space is available in most cities nationwide. Check out the offerings from Regus.com and DavinciVirtual.com.
4. Get setup for web conferencing, online presentations and free conference calling. WebEx.com offers web conferencing solutions specially designed for self-employed professionals. Flowgram.com is a free web-based platform that lets you share presentations online. FreeConferenceCall.com offers free private conference lines that are great for three-way calling.
5. Unify your phones and messaging. Services such as RingCentral.com and GotVmail.com make it quick and easy for a solo business to establish a full range of phone and messaging services, including toll-free lines, virtual phone systems, unified messaging and more. These services were built specifically to help entrepreneurs stay connected and sound more professional.
6. Bill and collect money through easy web-based systems. The most essential function for any business is getting paid, but it's foolish to think that clients and customers will readily send payments in full and on time. Try using a web-based system such as FreshBooks.com to handle all of your invoicing chores easily and inexpensively online. Most FreshBooks customers are, in fact, self employed. The service makes you look more professional by branding invoices to your business and putting an end to the manual process of drafting and mailing invoices by hand.
7. Use web-based ads and email marketing. Google AdWords (www.adwords.google.com) and yellow pages sites such as DexKnows (www.dexknows.com) can get your business visible online for a modest budget. And check out ConstantContact.com for email marketing ideas.
8. Legal issues often present a dilemma for cost-conscious solo businesses. You want the best information and advice to understand your options and make the right choices. But paying legal professionals for every little thing gets expensive. LegalZoom.com is a web-based do-it-yourself legal solutions site that offers free or low-cost help for solving everyday legal matters - or at least learning enough about them to work more efficiently with a lawyer.
9. Create a business identity without going broke. Web-based services such as LogoWorks.com and LogoDesignCreation.com let you create an entire business identity, including a custom logo, for a few hundred dollars. Package deals can include everything from your logo design, to business cards, stationery, brochures, website design and promotional products.
10. Get a merchant account. You'll need one if you plan to accept credit cards at your business. You can apply at sites such as Card Service International (www.cardservice.com) and Authorize.net.