I used to write for a site called Suite101. The idea was to find experts on various topics. We were supposed to post something at least every other week. I’ll be picking some of these gems from time to time. Note that this was from an earlier incarnation of Ptype… I ran a web strategy and design company called As Was.
Yes, I had a pager. Yes, I was on IRC. Yes, I’m recommending a good dialup connection and fax. Yes, I’m suggesting keeping your cell phone off because keeping it on costs too much. Ah, remember when?!
Enjoy the throwback nearly 20 years ago to this old article I wrote in 1998.
Running a Virtual Company
8 September 1998
If the wave of the present is starting your own company, then the wave rolling in right behind it will be the rise of virtual companies. Times have changed so much that while you sit in your living room, your co-worker is in his home office room 10,000 miles away. Can such a business really run efficiently and succeed? I’ve been running a virtual company for three-and-a-half years, and I’m here to tell you it can be done.
The Virtual Company Model
Business is all about communication, whether that’s between client and staff, management and staff, or coworker to coworker. Once upon a time, this could only be done when they sat next to each other. Then they were on different floors of the same building. Then they opened up an office in another city, using the telephone and postal mail (and later fax and email) to move materials and information back and forth. Now, we’re looking at a model where basically no two employees of the same company are in the same building or even city.
My virtual company began when I stumbled upon a supertalented person named Ken. Although he lived 25 minutes west of me, we found that communicating over email and in the live chat rooms on IRC was much easier than meeting in real life (note: although it’s called live “chat,” it’s really mostly typing and sending and receiving files – there is no voice communication). We were both major internet-heads, so that method of communicating was “old hat” and comfy for us whether the topic was business or personal. When a project came along, I could email Ken the specifics, and he would write back with his estimate and ideas. If it needed discussion, we’d agree to meet on IRC. We’re both online fairly constantly, so our exchanges were and still are as quick and efficient as if I’d walked into the next room and spoken to him.
In the years since As Was® started as me and Ken, I’ve picked up Richard in California, Dana in Alabama, Kayt in Brooklyn and then California, Douglas in New Zealand, Mark in Colorado, and Eelco in the Netherlands. I’m also in the process of hiring Fran in Los Angeles to be a regional salesperson. I started in New York, moved to New Mexico, and am moving back to New York in December. For my internet business, I have found that few people care where I am or if they can ever meet me or my staff. As long as they have faith that my company can provide what they want at the price they want to pay, that’s fine with them. And as long as I can get to email and respond to my pager, the business machine is rolling.
The Virtual Client
My business has found that most clients end up as Virtual Clients in that we’ve never met or don’t meet, and communicate mostly through the internet. My clients email me questions, changes, requests, etc…, so I’ve found it’s more important for me to check and answer my email than to answer my phone or check voicemail. I have 1 or 2 voicemails a day whereas I have approximately 80 emails per day. I’ve also found my other tools, such as my pager, to be invaluable.
Tools for the Virtual Office
Your office is wherever you put it, whether it’s in a commercial space, or if it’s a spare room in your house. The main tools you will need are:
- A telephone of course!
- A good PC with a reliable internet connection (to me that means NOT AOL) – best to have a second line for your computer
- Email – sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised. I’m a big fan of Eudora email software. I use the filters and labels to dump spam automatically and give important incoming mails different colours so I know what to read first (ie: all mail coming from current clients is red, all mail coming from the “contact” page on my website is purple).
- IRC – virtual meetings are great on IRC (live chat). Many IRC networks give you the option to register your chat room and nickname (so that nobody else can use or control it), and you can also password protect a room to ensure that only the people you want will be present. As for IRC software, I prefer PIRCH for Windows or ircle for Macintosh.
- Internet Conferencing – I’ve tried this using Microsoft Netmeeting 2.1, and have not really been satisfied with it so far. I found the system a bit slow and clunky, and people in the conference seemed to keep logging on and off. I also tried to “talk” to a friend in the UK using Netscape’s conference software; there were so many dropouts and crackles that it was impossible. However, keep your eyes on these types of applications. As people get more and more bandwidth and the software improves, you will wonder how you lived without your co-worker in India watching you type an important business letter and working with you on it in real time. 🙂
- Fax capability – I’m now using JFAX, which lets me send and receive faxes through email. This allows me to use my computer and 2nd line without having to disconnect when a fax is coming in.
- An alphanumeric pager – I’m on SkyTel’s network, and when I move back to NY, I will use their SkyWriter 2-way system. For those unfamiliar with the term “2-way,” that means my little pager will not only receive text and numeric pages as usual, but can also send email or a fax to anyone as well as pages to other SkyTel users. Imagine getting all your staff on SkyTel’s 2-way system, and just zapping messages back and forth!
- A mobile phone aka cell phone – To keep costs down, I keep my cell phone off and do not give out the number. I figure that anyone requiring immediate attention can page me, and then I can call them back either from my cell phone or from somewhere else if it can wait.
The “Down” Side
To me, there is no down side, but that is because I’m comfortable “interviewing” and hiring staff based on emails and maybe a phone call. Some people think I’m crazy, but I think my track record speaks for itself. In 3.5 years of business, I’ve only had to fire one person, and that was because he lied about his skills. I couldn’t have known he was lying until I put him to work, and found that he not only couldn’t do the work as asked, but was also insanely rude to the client. You can eliminate this “down side” by having a decent travel budget that will allow you to go and meet potential staff or bring them to you.
The “Up” Side
The number one advantage to running a virtual company is that I’m not geographically locked into who can work for me. Instead of limiting my hiring search to anyone in the 505 or 516 area codes, or someone willing to commute to my “office,” I can hire anybody anywhere in the world as long as they have the appropriate qualifications and experience, and can use the internet like I do to keep this virtual company running as efficiently as it always has, if not more so.