WHETHER YOU’RE A WRITER LIKE ME OR A REPAIRPERSON, an accountant or an artist, we all have our favorite office products and services: the plain-paper fax that ended the era of curly paper; the tax software that lets us plan year-round; the voice-mail service that banished phone tag forever. Then there’s the why-did-I-ever-buy-that category. You know, the stuff that’s collecting dust out in the garage faster than my Lionel Richie record collection. Funny how those products seemed like such great investments–until you got them.
It turns out that the self-employed have very similar tastes when it comes to what works and what doesn’t. In an informal survey–online, on the phone, and in person– of dozens of businesspeople, I found that the same products, supplies, and services turned up on almost everyone’s “favorites” list. And many people’s regrets were the same too. Heck, some of them even help you market yourself. Here’s a roundup of smart money choices, starting with my personal favorites. The items I’d buy over and over and over include ….
* Fax software and modem. In my house the fax machine is in my husband’s office, two stories above mine. In the old days, when I wanted to send a quick letter, I’d have to print the document, run upstairs, and waste time feeding the balky machine sheet by sheet. Now, after spending $209.95 (including software) on the SupraFaxModem external modem (Diamond, 800-727-8772; Win/Mac), I press a couple of keys and send faxes automat’1cally from my desktop. Besides saving me hundreds of hours annually, the software also stores all my client’s fax numbers.
* Contact management and calendar software. For years I resisted keying contacts into my computer on the theory that I wasn’t a salesperson and didn’t need to track cold calls. Boy, was I wrong. Since I’ve invested the time and dime (well, $49.95) on TouchBase & DateBook Pro (Now Software, 800-237-2078; Mac), I’ve changed the way I do business. Ask me who the source was for the column I wrote last month, and I can find him in a couple of keystrokes. If I want to reinterview a financial expert I used in a credit card article years ago, I can locate her name and number immediately. When I need to send a follow-up letter or dash off an invoice, I can print addressed envelopes automatically from my computer. What’s more, I buy Avery Rolodex cards specifically designed for laser printers (available from Quill, 800-789-1331; a package of 400 sells for $18.88) and create customized address hooks for various locations around my house.
* An extra phone line for data. This was by far the most popular item in my informal survey. If you’re still juggling voice, modem, and fax through the same line, give it up. A fax line that you can share with your modem will change the way you do business forever. What’s great is that it won’t set you back as far as you think: For a business fax line, Pacific Bell charges $14 a month; on the East coast, Bell Atlantic costs $21.75 a month.
* Computer checks. If you write your checks by hand and then enter the information in Quicken or Microsoft Money, you’re doing the same boring task twice. Instead, buy checks from the publishers of these programs. Designed to work with their software, computer checks require that you enter your monthly accounts payables only once; from then on you need only hit a few keys to print checks whenever your bills are due. Besides, they look professional when you buy those little window envelopes to go with them. Intuit (800-433-8810) sells 1,000 checks for $87.95 and l,000 envelopes for $59.95.
* A comfortable headset. Anyone who uses the phone a lot complains of chronic shoulder pain (usually on one side) and backaches. That’s because they constantly lean into the receiver or cradle it on one shoulder. Thanks to office ergonomics, headsets are no longer those big, uncomfortable things switchboard operators wore in the 1940s. Plantronics (800-544-4660) sells the basic SP05 for $79.99. And if your budget allows, check out the company’s FreeHand for roughly $220. One of this magazine’s reporters who’s always on the phone swears by its little 0.3-ounce cushioned earplug, which has a microphone that reduces background noise.
* Removable disk labels. These wonderful office inventions actually encourage you to recycle disks because you can label and relabel them. No more messy, crossed-out writing or half-peeled-off labels. Better yet, you can reuse all those extra America Online disks crowding your desk. Quill sells 1-by-l.5 inch labels (500 for $2.77).