Yes, there are even more!
Professional and business association dues. The business contacts and client leads you can generate by joining an organization are invaluable, but you get a lot more than marketing benefits. Align yourself with an association and in many cases you gain access to trade lawyers, financial advisers, and industry-trend analysts. If you need help collecting from a slow-paying account or fear a client may slap you with a suit, put those dues to good use and give your association a call. Even better, you often get group discounts on insurance, supplies, and travel expenses. These are even better for exporting businesses.
Trade group membership fees vary: I budget roughly $500 a year for dues and an annual meeting (not including travel expenditures) for a writer’s association; accounting, medical, or legal organizations charge more. Entrepreneurial association fees range from $49 annually for the Home Office Association of America to as much as $1,000 (if you choose to donate that much) for the National Federation of Independent Business.
* Fax/voice/data modem. Service entrepreneurs know that communication is key in business. One on-the-road computer consultant I spoke with swears by PhoneBlaster from Creative Labs (800998-1000; Win 95/DOS). For $269, including voice-mail software, it recognizes preset phone numbers and automatically alerts his paging service. Within minutes, he calls back on his cellular phone. Whether his client is having a computer crisis or just wants to meet for drinks, he’s never out of touch. Those “I’m always available” types also tout plain-old pagers and call forwarding as favorites.
* Accountants who specialize in your field. Even if you’re like the editorial director of this magazine who’s a do-it-yourself tax filer, you can pick an experienced accountant’s brain for deductions and save hundreds of dollars. Just hire a good CPA who you know represents other clients in your industry, and ask him or her to review your tax situation once a year. At roughly $75 to $125 for an hour of advice, you’ll reap many overlooked deductions and get sound savings suggestions.
* Phone company voice mail. Have you ever lost a caller because you didn’t pick up call waiting soon enough? Then you’ll treasure a voice-mail service (see this month’s Up Front). Although phone carriers dub it differently and rates vary, Bell Atlantic’s Answer Call will set you back a mere $7 a month. Add this to your communications system and the next time your line is busy, new callers will hear a recording that sounds just like an answering machine. You dial in for messages at your convenience and can save the ones you want, forward others, and wipe out the rest. And for an extra $2 a month, you can make your converted-garage office sound like an eight-department corporate headquarters. With Multiple Mailboxes, callers will hear the “to-speak-to-the-marketing-department-press- 1” message.
Here’s yet another utility that home-based entrepreneurs can’t live without. Assuming you have two phone lines, Commstar II by Pacific Bell, is a $16.40-a-month service that lets you answer calls on your business and personal lines from any phone in the house–replacing the need for a multiline phone–by entering a code. Call your local carrier and ask if it offers a similar service.
* Reliable backup drives. If you’ve suffered a computer crash, you know why this product made it to our best-money-ever-spent list. If you haven’t, consider yourself lucky–but still consider this an office essential. Our editors suggest the Iomega Zip Drive (801-778-1000; Win/ Mac; $189, plus $20 for a 100MB removable disk). It’s a lifesaver and a time-saver for those working with huge files or memory-intensive graphics.
* Business coaches. Most people become self-employed because they’re great at their craft, but they soon find out there’s more to running a business than they first thought. That’s why respondents to our poll included expert advice among their top investments. You can hire a marketing coach to perfect your sales pitch, a financial coach to clean up your balance sheet, and a PR coach to polish your image. Find your weakness and hire a pro to help strengthen it. Consultants charge about $75 an hour and up, but you can gain a lot of know-how in a few hours. Better yet, offer your own services in return for free advice (see “Peak Performance” in the August issue). To find an expert, contact your business association or a group that represents experts in the area in which you need help, such as the Walters International Speakers Bureau, http://www.walters. intl.com/bureauhome.html.
* Online services. Although many information-starved business owners use service providers to venture directly onto the Net, our poll shows that entrepreneurs still value their online service memberships. Some say they like the sense of community they get from signing on to special interest groups on America Online; others praise the articles archive in CompuServe. (I favor CompuServe because it doesn’t force me to download unnecessary graphics. Only text scrolls past my screen!) Respondents say they use cyberspace to blow off steam, keep abreast of their fields, do research, get tech support, and scout for new clients.
* Chairs with lumbar support. Heading the list of ergonomic office essentials is a good chair. They range in price from the $100 Ikea special to the $3,499 Recaro (800-873-2276). One California attorney can’t remember life without his $199 Harvard Executive Lumbar chair (OfficeMax, 800-788-8080). Pump a small button on the back of the chair (available in gray, crimson, green, and blue), and a cushion inflates to give you more lumbar support.
* Miscellaneous picks. Here are other items that made it to the top of our best-of list on the office supplies side: automated backup software, a strong file cabinet with weight-balanced drawers, and a big paper sorter. You can find all of these at your local office-supply store. On the human resources side–and much harder to find–respondents touted reliable babysitters and good clerical help.
The trick to spending wisely is to experiment a little yourself and to profit a lot from the advice of others. And if you end up with an occasional white elephant, remember that no money is ever totally wasted. At worst, it buys an experience, a story, and stuff to fill your storage space.