By RICHARD A. GREENWALD
Growing numbers of Americans are striking out on their own as solo entrepreneurs. And a whole industrial complex has sprung up to support them. Need a cubicle to put together a presentation or a conference room for a meeting? There are companies in most big cities that will rent you as much work space as you need. If you need someone to take your calls and arrange your appointments, a host of services will connect you with receptionists who work off site. There’s also help available online. Digital marketplaces make it easier to land clients and projects, while new software lets you access files on the road and track your finances.
Here’s a look at some new offerings that might prove useful to today’s solo entrepreneur.
A Place to Work
The desk in the spare bedroom is no longer the only option for solo entrepreneurs. In most major metropolitan areas, there are dozens of companies that let you rent out spaces in shared offices with other entrepreneurs. Prices start around $125 a month for a cubicle and can get as high as $1,400 for a prime urban office suite.
You can also simply get the trappings of a larger company without the real estate. For example, Regus PLC, Intelligent Office and VH International Business Solutions Inc. rent out space, but they also let you just buy prestigious mailing addresses, as well as receptionist services, assistants to manage accounting or back-office operations and IT support. So, you might work out of your home in the suburbs—but have an address in the business district and someone at a central location answering your phone.
Regus, for one, offers an entry-level package of $99 a month, which gets you a mailing address in a major urban center. Adding a phone number and receptionist will cost $179 a month. If you decide you do need a work space, $350 a month will get you all of the above plus five hours of office use a week. A conference room runs an extra $50 for two hours. (Month-to-month clients get a 10% discount on services that aren’t included in their package.)
A Virtual Staff
You don’t have to go through one of those real-estate services to get help from a remote receptionist or assistant, however. There are scores of companies that provide just these off-site services. You usually never meet or see your helpers, but they do almost everything an on-site staffer would: make appointments, arrange travel and even order your lunch. The services can cost about $9 per hour for an assistant and around $200 a month for a receptionist.
To find an assistant, you can work through an online matchmaking service—such as TTK Services Pvt. Ltd.’s Your Man in India, which links you with workers in that country—or use classified venues like Craigslist Inc. You could also go to the International Virtual Assistants Association. The group doesn’t formally license assistants, but it removes people from its ranks if there are complaints.
There’s one big caveat, however: Consider how much information you’re willing to trust to someone you may never even see. For instance, if you want to have your assistant book travel or do anything else important, you will need to provide them with confidential information, such as credit-card numbers. So, make sure you trust the service and give detailed instructions.
Having access to your data and the ability to email files on the fly is important to the micropreneur, who often spends lots of time away from the desk. With an array of online-storage systems that can be remotely accessed through a smart phone, you can literally point and click a file to a client or associate.
Dropbox offers a free two-gigabyte account that can be upgraded to 100 gigabytes for $19.99 a month. Apple Inc.’s MobileMe Network—which isn’t just for Apple users—allows you to create public folders that clients can see, or just send files by email. Both services also allow you to retrieve data remotely via a smart phone. Let’s say you’re sitting at the airport waiting for your flight and get a call that a client needs a copy of a report. You can locate and send the file without getting out of your seat.
One caveat: Don’t overspend. Experts say most people sign up for much more storage than they will ever need.
Online services can also help entrepreneurs track down work. There are numerous online platforms that connect consultants to clients, such as oDesk Corp. and Elance Inc., and as the market for freelance talent grows, the field will crowd even further.
What’s more, sites will likely start to specialize in certain industries, making it easier to search for the work you want. Consider Whinot, developed at the business incubator of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. The site specializes in connecting small and medium-size firms to management consultants for projects running $5,000 to $10,000. Clients post a need and are assigned a senior project manager. The client picks four to five community members and they collaborate on the project, sharing in the fee.
Beyond online services, there are a number of tech tools available to help solo entrepreneurs tackle common problems.
First, there are apps for the iPhone or BlackBerry that cover a range of jobs. Jott, from Nuance Communications Inc., allows you to record a voice message and have it transcribed automatically into an email. The service starts at $3.95 a month and runs up to $12.95. GoToMyPC, from Citrix Systems Inc.’s Citrix Online, allows remote access to your laptop or desktop from any computer for $179 a year.
Conferencing software, such as Citrix’s GoToMeeting, offers consultants the ability to do remote presentations by controlling a PowerPoint show on a client’s computer from their own machine. The cost: $49 per month.
Then there are products that help keep track of finances and billing, such as online service FreshBooks, from 2ndSite Inc., which has a limited trial edition and starts at $19 a month. You can download the company’s MiniBooks app for $14 to access your clients and invoices on your phone. A more robust finance-tracking product, QuickBooks from Intuit Inc., costs $179.
Finally, there’s a tech product that promises to tackle one of the biggest everyday hassles of entrepreneurship: clutter. Neat Co.’s Neatdesk allows you to scan all business-related papers and documents and store them electronically. The entry price for the scanner is around $199.
Dr. Greenwald is dean of graduate studies and a professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J. His next book is “The Great American Hustle: How We Went From 9-5 Jobs to a Nation of Freelancers.” He can be reached at email@example.com.