The Fastest Way to Find New Customers

Tap into your customer base by piggybacking on established businesses with similar target markets.


Some years ago, I overheard a debate between two friends about the name of a start up business. "It's a good name," said one friend to the other, "but I'm not sure it's the best name." You could say the same thing about the techniques typically used to attract customers to a new business. Traditional strategies like networking and mailings will do the job, but they won't do the best job.

If you're a start up, the fastest way to get the cash registers ringing is a little-used method that involves forming "host-beneficiary" relationships with established businesses that cater to a target audience similar to yours. Then you promote yourself to their database with a special offer presented as a gift from the older business.

The beauty of this arrangement is that the start up (the beneficiary) can instantly reach large numbers of highly qualified prospects with the tacit endorsement of the established business (the host). The host is willing to participate because it's a way to reward loyal customers without incurring any costs. The rookie gains new customers, while the veteran gains goodwill.

Women's Clothing and BMW's
One start up that successfully used this technique was a high-end women's clothing boutique. The store arranged to give a free silk kimono to every female customer of a local BMW dealership who brought in a letter sent by the dealership offering the gown as a gift for their past patronage. The kimono had to be picked up at the boutique.

More than 600 women responded, picking up $100 kimonos that cost the store just $16 apiece. Those 600 women spent an average of $400 on other merchandise during their initial visit. Do the math, and you'll see that the start up spent $9,600 to generate some $240,000 in sales--and, not incidentally, to begin building its own clientele.

Six Steps to Success
Host-beneficiary marketing is actually a simple and relatively inexpensive process that will deliver solid results if you follow a few basic rules:

1. Precisely define your target audience. "Women 35 to 55" might be a start, but it's not enough. Create a detailed profile of your target customer. The more segments you can identify, the more potential hosts you can approach.

The women's clothing boutique that marketed to BMW owners, for example, determined that their likely customers drove certain types of cars, patronized a certain class of hair salon, belonged to a health club, and were likely to play bridge. A birdseed store might come up with a list that includes consumers who shop at outdoor equipment outfitters or are affiliated with local conservation groups.

2. Identify local businesses that serve the same market segments. That way, you can not only bring people in the door for your initial offer, but also increase the likelihood that they'll return to give you repeat business.

For a cigar store, logical host partners might include better men's clothiers, upscale shoe stores, luxury car dealerships and country clubs. And don't forget non-commercial organizations like Rotary or Kiwanis.

3. Develop a clear offer for each prospective partner. Come up with a free or deeply discounted product or service that has a high perceived value for the consumer with a low dollar cost for you.

One new computer support business offered a voucher worth two free hours of computer repair to the small business clients of a local accountant. A jewelry store offered free jewelry cleaning to clients of a hair salon. A marketing consultant offered a free seminar on how to run sales to one local newspaper's advertisers. A framing shop offered free photo framing to a photographic supply store's top 200 customers.

4. Pitch the plan, highlighting the benefits to the host business. Emphasize that it's a way for the established business to reward their customers at no expense and with virtually no effort. It's also a way to reach out to customers without overtly trying to make a new sale.

5. Supply a letter for the host's use. Providing a draft "offer" letter that can be sent to the host's customers on the host's letterhead will help put the plan into motion quickly. It will also show the partner how easy it will be for him to participate.

Some businesses will allow the letter to be inserted into their monthly invoices or newsletters at no cost to you. Others will charge or require that you pay for a separate mailing. It's a small price to pay for access to the host business' customer base.

6. Develop a strategy to convert redeemers to repeat customers. This, after all, is your long-term goal. For the women's boutique that gave away a kimono, the strategy was to encourage browsing and lure shoppers into dressing rooms to try the merchandise. For one new bakery that gave away a chocolate eclair, the approach was to hand out a buy-five-get-one-free VIP card with the free pastry.

Whatever the specific plan, the host-beneficiary method is the single most effective way to quickly attract a critical mass of qualified customers to a new business. Instead of beating the bushes for customers with individual referrals or scatter shot ads, you can tap into a targeted group of consumers en masse to jump start sales.

Best of all, you're piggybacking on the success of another entrepreneur who has spent years building a solid customer base. In many ways, this eliminates the need to reinvent the wheel. For a start up facing so many other challenges, it's just smart business.

Brad Sugars is's Start up Basics columnist and the founder and CEO of ActionCOACH,recognized by's Franchise 500 as the world's leading business coaching franchise.

Growing Strong

Celebrating the growing power of women's businesses, Entrepreneur and the Women Presidents' Organization teamed up to bring you the top 50 fastest-growing women-led companies. Meet our No.1 fastest-growing entrepreneur and find out how we chose our top 50.


Exceeding expectations is Amy Langer's business. When she and partner John Folkestad, 40, first wrote the business plan for Salo LLC, a senior-level finance and accounting staffing company, they anticipated sales of about $9 million by their third year in business--no small feat. "Most of our advisers [told us], 'These projections are unreal. No small business does this,'" recalls Langer, 35. "We hit $9 million after two years."

Through her background in staffing, Langer discovered a need in the marketplace to supply companies with top accounting and finance talent. Meeting that need triggered explosive growth for Salo, which launched in 2002. By 2006, sales hit $32.1 million, with 2007 projections of over $40 million. Attracting top-notch talent for outside contractors and her own staff is key to managing the company's astronomical growth, she says. Langer surrounds herself with people who are not only exceptional at what they do, but who also complement her skill set and help take the company to the next level. "I know where I'm strong, and I know where I definitely need people to help me," she says.

As the mother of three small children, Langer faces a big challenge that many working women do: balancing an entrepreneurial life with a life at home. "Wanting to be everywhere has been and always [will] be a challenge," she says. Knowing where to put her focus and how to delegate her time has helped her juggle all her responsibilities. She adds, "If I'm required to be in the office 80 hours a week or else the business can't run, then the business isn't sustainable."

Still, there's no resting on laurels for this Minneapolis entrepreneur, who plans to expand her company into other niches within professional staffing. In fact, Salo has already opened two other companies under its umbrella: Oberon, which focuses on HR placement, and Number Works, which focuses on junior-level accounting and finance staffing.

As she continues to move forward, Langer makes sure to keep her eye on the big picture when it comes to the future of her company and suggests other women entrepreneurs do the same. "Having a vision [and] really working on our business vs. working in it has made quite a difference," she says. "Ask, 'Where are you really needed?'"                             

Behind the Numbers
The 50 fastest-growing women-led companies ranking was compiled with the help of the Women Presidents' Organization, a nonprofit peer advisory organization for independent women presidents and CEOs. Entrepreneur and the WPO solicited applications from women-led businesses in North America and considered those that met the following criteria:

  • Must be a privately held, woman-led company in the U.S. or Canada.
  • Company sales in 2002 must be $50,000 or greater; 2006 sales must be at least $1 million.

Companies were ranked according to a sales growth formula that combines percentage and absolute growth. From this list, the top 50 were selected. (In cases where companies have multiple partners only women are listed.)

Research was conducted by WPO director of communications Caitlin Jenkins and communications assistants Keri Smyth and Tanya Rosado. Entrepreneur editorial assistant Celeste Hoang also contributed to this listing.

Click here for a slide show of the top 50 fastest-growing-women-led businesses and profile of Amy Langer, the entrepreneur whose business ranked No. 1.

1. Salo LLC
Senior-level finance/accounting staffing, Minneapolis

Amy Langer
Began: 2002 
Initial Investment: $100,000
2002 sales: $55,000
2006 sales: $32.1 million

Biggest Challenge:
"By hiring the right management team and building a strong infrastructure, I can focus on the longer-term strategic aspects of growing our business."

Best advice:
"I feel very strongly that it is essential to create a clear vision for our business and to hire great people to help execute. This allows the founder to successfully work 'on' the business rather than 'in' it."

2. Koni Corp. 
Hospitality industry window treatments and linens, San Diego

Koni Kim
Initial Investment: $50,000
2002 sales: $60,000
2006 sales: $13.7 million

Biggest Challenge:
"Quality people are the company's best assets. A good skill set is only part of the equation. Their hearts, passion and outlook on life can be the most important elements in finding great associates."

Best Advice:
"Success is a state of mind. Everyday offers new opportunities to succeed. Share and enjoy the success with others."

3. Circles 
Marketing solutions, Boston 

Janet Kraus,  Kathy Sherbrooke 
Began: 1996 
Initial Investment:
$26.9 million
2002 sales: $1.7 million 
2006 sales:
$44.4 million

Best Advice:
"Communicate incessantly and consistently what you are trying to achieve. As the company grows, communication needs to become formalized."

Success Secret:
"Getting the right people on the team is the only way to succeed…at a certain point they have to have people work for them that can make business critical decisions in real time without 'checking with the boss.'"

4. Windsor Quality Food Co. Ltd. 
Food manufacturing, Houston  

Anne M. SmallingPhyllis S. HojelKathryn M. Geib
Began: 1990 
Initial Investment: $12 million 
2002 sales: $221 million 
2006 sales: $697 million

Best Advice:
"Face your issues/problems head-on and quickly. They do not go away; they just get worse if you are not willing to deal with them."

Success Secret:
"Not a secret, but certainly our belief: Our people are our greatest asset and we value honesty and integrity above all else."

5.  Mexus Transport 
Trucking company, Northville, MI

Alba R. McConnell
Began: 2003 
Initial Investment: $300,000 
2002 sales: $115,000 
2006 sales: $9.4 million

Success Secret:
"Keep your eye on the ball, always remembering there are many paths that will lead you to your goal. You have to want it bad! If self-sacrifice is not one of your virtues, you will most likely fail."

Best Advice:
"Have pride in what you are doing, whether you are alone at the beginning of the enterprise or with a staff as you grow. Always remember that every day you go to work, you are helping others to have a quality of life that we all deserve."

6. Temporary Housing Directory 
Temporary housing/hotel placements  Plano, TX   

Teresa Vidger
Began: 2001 
Initial Investment: $100,000 
2002 sales: $400,000 
2006 sales: $17 million 

Success Secret:
"We have most of our employees work from home offices. With the right people and technology, this is a great way to keep your employees happy and to be more productive."

Best Advice:
"I have found it is very important to listen to your customers and be willing to change the way you do business based on their feedback. Try not to be too rigid in your business model so you can adapt to changes when needed and you can constantly improve your service."

7. Lanmark Technology  
IT/administrative services, Fairfax, VA  

Lani Hay
Began: 2000 
Initial Investment: $6,000 
2002 sales: $151,000 
2006 sales: $10.1 million

Success Secret:
"Always portray where you are going in life, not where you came from. Dare to dream, and create the life you want to live."

"Prior to forming my company, I found that my professional growth opportunities were limited by people's perception of my talents. This led me to creating a company built on the foundation of my personal values with no corporate ladder to climb and no glass ceiling to break."

8. Sun Coast Resources
Petroleum products,  Houston  

Kathy Lehne
Began: 1985 
Initial Investment: $2,000 
2002 sales: $373.7 million 
2006 sales: $864.2 million

Best Advice:
"Know what you want. Know where you are headed. Ask for help. Give everything you have to accomplish your goals."

Success Secret:
"Never let anything but succeeding cloud your pursuit of excellence."

9. Morpheus Media
Advertising and marketing agency, New York City  

Shenan Reed
Initial Investment: $0 
2002 sales : $800,000 
2006 sales: $22.6 million

Best Advice:
"Never get too big for your britches. In a fast-growing entrepreneurial company, there is no job too big or too small for any member of the team, including the leader."

Biggest Challenge:
"As the founders, we were the ones who started everything--the methods, reasoning, thinking, processes--by which Morpheus Media operates…It's extremely hard to trust others to do the work as well, if not better, than you would do it. I've surrounded myself with extremely talented, intelligent people who have that same entrepreneurial spirit, trained them well and set them free to do the work."

10. Cenergy Corp. 
Energy solutions, Houston 

June R. Coldren
Began: 1996 
Initial Investment: $50,000 
2002 sales: $3.9 million 
2006 sales: $47.6 million 

"I was a very driven mother of three. I wanted to make a difference somewhere but needed flexability with my schedule. I saw this niche opportunity and decided to run with it!"

Success Secret:
"We try to become an integral part of our clients' team which opens up new opportunities for us."

11. Pinnacle Petroleum
Petroleum products, Huntington Beach, CA 

Liz McKinley
Began: 1995 
Initial Investment: $150,000 
2002 sales: $20.9 million 
2006 sales: $120 million

Biggest Challenge:
"Proving the company's legitimacy was key. Once you acquire one good flagship account, you are on your way. A supportive banking relationship can provide instant credibility as well."

Best Advice:
"Accounts Receivable management is critical. For that reason, the type of client you pursue is key. Bad debt will kill you in your start-up period. And of course, don't give up! Hard work always pays off!" 

12. Cavanagh Services Group 
Project management/logistics, Salt Lake City

Susan P. Rice
Began: 2002  Initial
Investment: $210,000 
2002 sales: $108,000 
2006 sales: $7.2 million

Success Secret:
"Always speak positively and act confidently about yourself and your company. All people, including customers, want to be associated with a positive force."

Biggest Challenge:
"Hitting your first 'valley' after years of 'peaks'! Look for a new niche to balance out the services your company offers. It minimizes the 'peaks' and 'valleys.'"

13. Providus  
Legal staffing, Houston

Lisa Moore Turano, Jackie Bebczuk, Beverly Mattocks
Began: 2001 
Initial Investment: Did not disclose 
2002 sales: $961,000 
2006 sales: $20.5 million

Success Secret:
"Challenging the status quo has been one key to our success; if you're not asking clients and employees to do something different and better, you run the risk of being seen as a 'me too.'"

Best Advice:
"Ask yourself, 'Which part of my business creates the most value for my clients?' Then build your core message, investment strategy and operational tools around the highest-value functions in your business. If your people understand their importance to you and to the clients, they'll feel great about why they come to work each day."

14. Outcomes 
Health-care data reporting, Charlottesville, VA  

Wanda Kochhar, Kelly Monical
Began: 1996 
Initial Investment: $60,000 
2002 sales: $629,000 
2006 sales: $16.1 million

Biggest Challenge:
"Hiring the right people is probably the hardest part, but it has the most impact on your success. Find energetic people with integrity and brains."

15. Pinnacle Technical Resources
IT staffing, Dallas 

Nina G. Vaca
Initial Investment: $300 
2002 sales: $4 million 
2006 sales: $42 million

16. Constant Contact 
Online communications, Waltham, MA 

Gail Goodman
Initial Investment: $37.9 million 
2002 sales: $1.9 million 
2006 sales: $27.6 million

Best Advice:
"Make sure you know the answers to the following three questions: Who are/will be your customers? What problem will you solve for them? Will they pay enough for you to make money?"

"In 1999 to 1999, it became very clear that the Internet was going to help small business look like big businesses. We wanted to provide them with a new set of tools to help them look professional and give them a way to easily, effectively, and affordably communicate with their customers."

17. EMC Venues
Meeting management, Annapolis, MD

Jody Wallace
Initial Investment: $450,000
2002 sales: $807,000
2006 sales: $16.6 million

Biggest Challenge:
"Get better before getting bigger. I made the mistake of growing too fast in the beginning, and it was overwhelming for my team and the customers. Focus on delivery and customer service."

Success Secret:
"Passion is key…You must be energized by your own passion and be ready to bring on new ideas and find the solutions to overcome your challenges. I feel lucky that I have found my passion. I enjoy my work every minute of everyday, even when the going gets tough."

18. TransPerfect 
Translation services, New York City 

Elizabeth EltingShirley Shawe 
Initial Investment: $5,000 
2002 sales: $28.7 million 
2006 sales: $112.8 million

Biggest Challenge:
"Finding, developing and retaining the best talent in the world is an ongoing challenge, but we continually redefine and customize our incentive packages to help accomplish this critical objective."

"After working at a translation company after college, I recognized a real gap between what clients needed and what was available in the industry. Given the increasing globalization of business, it was clear to my partner and me that there was a huge need for a top-notch language services provider."

19. Trans-Expedite
Freight forwarder, El Paso, TX

Keeli Jernigan
Initial Investment: $29,000
2002 sales: $878,000
2006 sales: $15 million

Success Secret:
"Remember the saying, 'If you don't know it, hire someone who does.' We would not be where we are today if we did not have such a great staff."

Biggest Challenge:

"We began operation on October first of 2001, right after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Most transportation companies were down sizing, due to changes in the industry, but we had nowhere to go but up. Our cash flow was a small family loan…My faith definitely helped me to overcome the challenges of those first few months!"

20. Milagro Packaging
Packaging solutions, Dundee, MI

Dolores Rodriguez
Began: 2001 
Initial Investment: Did not disclose 
2002 sales: $2 million 
2006 sales: $23.4 million

21. MNJ Technologies Direct 
Computer hardware/software, Buffalo Grove, IL

Susan Kozak
Began: 2002 
Initial Investment: $500,000 
2002 sales: $4 million 
2006 sales: $34 million

Best Advice:
"In your business plan, take whatever you think your budget needs to be, and double it. Don't be too conservative in what you think your [start up] costs will be."

"We started MNJ because we are passionate about technology. Our customers understand the value of a well-defined technology plan and how it can positively impact their business."

22. PeopleServe
Technology staffing, Chestnut Hill, MA

Linda Moraski
Began: 1999 
Initial Investment: $1,000 
2002 sales: $425,000 
2006 sales: $9.4 million

Biggest Challenge:
"One of the best things I've done is join a CEO forum of 8 to 10 noncompeting women business owners. We [advise] each other, learn from each other and push each other outside of our comfort zones."

Success Secret:
"Persistence. Don't give up. One of my best clients today would not take my phone calls for over 8 months. I never gave up calling. We just did under $400K in business with them last year."

23. Zorch International  
Branding agency, Chicago

Nicole Loftus
Initial Investment: $50,000 
2002 sales: $200,000 
2006 sales: $6 million 

"I started my business to create a platform from which I could [encourage] change in the world for women. We entrepreneurs need to use our collective strength to do good things."

Success Secret:
"Make everyone else's success the priority and you will be successful. It is the female mentality!"

24. RCC Associates   
General contractor, Deerfield Beach, FL 

Beverly Raphael
Began: 1971 
Initial Investment: $5,000 
2002 sales: $22.8 million 
2006 sales: $83.4 million

Best Advice:
"We strive to be better by learning from our failures as well as our successes. Hopefully we can pass that knowledge on to others to make their roads a bit smoother."

Success Secret:
"Listening and learning, and making the right decisions--no matter how difficult the consequences --are my key messages. Understand that there are resources, opportunities and allies available to assist you as you establish and grow your careers."

25. Search Wizards 
Consulting firm, Snellville, GA 

Leslie O'Connor
Initial Investment: $0 
2002 sales: $91,000 
2006 sales: $3.9 million

Success Secret:
"My success is based on a few core values: treating everyone with respect; attention to detail, particularly personal details; and treating people as individuals and understanding their personal needs."

Best Advice:
"You need to be prepared to make the sacrifice of yourself to be successful. No one can build your business better than you, nor will anyone have the passion that you bring to the table. You need to be prepared for many long days."

26. The Saxon Group 
Industrial construction, Sugar Hill, GA 

Jeni Bogdan
Began: 1995 
Initial Investment: $100,000 
2002 sales: $4.3 million 
2006 sales: $30.5 million

Success Secret:
"A company is only as strong as the people behind it. Our management team makes every effort to work closely on a personal level with both clients and employees."

Biggest Challenge:
"To overcome this challenge [of higher construction costs and employee demand] Saxon began a new training program to train young people to work in the construction industry. Additionally, we have increased wages and benefits. More importantly, we have listened to our employees and have included their ideas and suggestions into our business plan and benefits program."

27. LetterLogic 
Mailing services, Nashville, TN 

Sherry Stewart
Initial Investment: $50,000 
2002 sales: $321,000 
2006 sales: $7.4 million 

Best Advice:
"Know your numbers! Know what you need to know, and make sure that data flows to you daily."

"I worked for others in the industry and was frustrated by the 'status quo' when it came to quality of service we provided. Starting LetterLogic allowed me to create a culture for enthusiastically striving for excellence all day, every day."

28. The Bun Companies 
Baked goods manufacturer, Nashville, TN 

Cordia Harrington
Initial Investment: $17.8 million 
2002 sales: $12 million 
2006 sales: $55 million

Biggest Challenge:
"We have an aggressive training and recruiting program to get people hired and trained as our customers have greater demands. Last year we spent over $100,000 on training and preparing for growth."

"Embrace and encourage change in the workplace. Have passion and enthusiasm about your product--we all enjoy doing business with people who are excited about what they do!"

29. Big Communications
Health-care communications, Ferndale, MI

Lisa Stern
Initial Investment: $0
2002 sales: $875,000
2006 sales: $12.3 million

Biggest Challenge:
"9/11 put many of our clients out of business. We were forced to completely redefine our business. We successfully broke into a new industry, changed the way we did business and reinvented the company."

Success Secret:
"Determine what your culture is and hire, fire, review and reward based on those principles."

30. Global Advertising 1st
Advertising agency  Lanham, MD 

Jacquannette Lewis
Began: 2000 
Initial Investment: $100,000 
2002 sales: $83,000 
2006 sales: $3.6 million

Biggest Challenge:
"My biggest challenge: being perceived as an African-American advertising agency instead of a full-service marketing firm. I overcame it by establishing a successful track record."

"After reaching the glass ceiling in the corporate world, I knew I had to move on because it was no longer a challenge. I knew that owning my own advertising agency would allow me to fulfill my dreams and give me the opportunity to do everything I've wanted in this industry."


31. Perfect Power
Solar electric design/installation, Phoenix 

Lynn Paige
Initial Investment:
2002 sales: $62,000
2006 sales: $3.1 million

Biggest Challenge:
"Our biggest challenge is making sure our team sees the goal as we grow and change in an industry that changes every day."

Success Secret:
"Have an end goal in mind everyday, with every project."

32. Apex Facility Resources
Facility services, Seattle 

Marlaine McCauley
Initial Investment: $500 
2002 sales: $558,000 
2006 sales: $9.5 million

Biggest Challenge:
"The idea that you need a college degree to be successful at business [was my biggest challenge]. I overcame it by reminding myself that I was smart and could learn through hard knocks."

Success Secret:
"[Our key to success is] listening to what our customers need, and not being afraid to provide them with a solution even if it is outside our core competency."

33. Business Integra
IT consulting/engineering, Greenbelt, MD 

Prathiba Ramadoss
Began: 2001 
Initial Investment: $2,000 
2002 sales: $149,000 
2006 sales: $4.8 million

Best Advice:
"Be fair to your customers and employees, and in turn they will be fair to you."

Biggest Challenge:
"Breaking into a highly competitive market with practically no contacts [was my biggest challenge]. Business Integra started with one consultant and one customer and has grown to a $5 million company."

34. Saicon Consultants 
IT consulting, Overland Park, KS 

Swati Yelmar
Initial Investment: $2,000 
2002 sales: $1 million 
2006 sales: $12.6 million

"Being a woman, a minority and a foreigner in a male-dominated field was a triple threat. With lots of hard work, I overcame these challenges and have [grown] my company to 166 employees."

Best Advice:
"Give your whole commitment to your business, no matter how many obstacles come your way in your professional or personal life."

35. Atlas Travel International  
Travel agency, Milford, MA

Elaine Osgood
Began: 1986
Initial Investment: $65,000
2002 sales: $30 million
2006 sales: $95 million

"As a social worker, I helped many children, but dealing with trauma day after day was wearing on me. I decided to use my skills to build a business that helps people, but in a different way."

Success Secret:
"Hire the very best. The talented professionals on my team are responsible for the success of the company. I learned a long time ago that the company would not be able to sustain our growth unless we had 'superstars in game breaker positions.'"

36. Fraser Communications 
Advertising/PR  Santa Monica, CA

Renee Fraser
Began: 1998 
Initial Investment: $100,000 
2002 sales: $6 million 
2006 sales: $32.7 million

Best Advice:
"Reach high: Go for larger orders. If you've been successful after two years, you've beaten the odds and are damn good at what you do. Don't limit your opportunities."

"Fraser Communications started as a dream. After being president of a large division of an ad agency, I saw a better way to satisfy clients and cultivate creativity throughout the organization. By bringing together senior professionals from media, creative, research, promotions and account services, we could deliver super value to clients."

37. Delta Solutions & Strategies LLC
Defense contractor, Colorado Springs, CO

Kelly Roth
Began: 2000
Initial Investment: $100,000
2002 sales: $418,000
2006 sales: $7.3 million

Biggest Challenge:
"My biggest challenge was obtaining financial support from large banks. By working with a locally owned bank on a smaller scale, I was able to obtain the financing I needed."

"I started this company because I had participated in start-ups in my past and felt confident that I could do it on my own. I saw a good business opportunity in defense contracting, as Colorado Springs is home to several military institutions."

38. BrightStar Healthcare LLC 
Health-care staffing, Gurnee, IL

Shelly Sun
Initial Investment: $100,000 
2002 sales: $112,000 
2006 sales: $3.5 million

Best Advice:
"Surround yourself with great advisers. Do not hesitate to ask the best of the best. The worst they can say is no."

"I started BrightStar Healthcare after the real-life struggle that my husband and I faced to find reliable care for his late Grandma Pat while she was battling cancer. This motivated me to develop a health care staffing business to provide reliable, trustworthy and compassionate care to all in need." 

39. Energon 
Natural gas supplier, Chicago

Mary Skipton
Began: 1992 
Initial Investment: $200,000 
2002 sales: $27.4 million 
2006 sales: $80.9 million

Success Secret:
"I build solid relationships with employees, suppliers, utilities, and most important, customers. If I didn't have good relationships with all four, my business would not be as successful as it is."

Best Advice:
"Manage by the numbers. It doesn't make any difference what type of business you're in, how big or small it is, or whether you have employees or you're on your own. Manage by the numbers."

40. Ideal System Solutions
IT solutions  Maple Grove, MN 

Elise Hernandez
Began: 1996 
Initial Investment: $1,000 
2002 sales: $6.5 million 
2006 sales: $31 million

Best Advice:
"Do your research and plan every aspect of how your business will operate. Once that plan is formulated, don't be afraid to make changes to accommodate growth or the unforeseen."

Biggest Challenge:
"Historically, technology has been a male-dominated field. I had to make sure that I was well-versed in all areas of technology to be taken seriously."

41. Powertek Corp.
Business/IT solutions, Fairfax, VA 

Nancy Scott, Samar Ghadry  
Began: 2001 
Initial Investment: $25,000 
2002 sales: $611,000 
2006 sales: $7.8 million

Best Advice:
"Always be 100 percent loyal to your customers, and never let them forget that you always have their best interest at heart."

Biggest Challenge:
"The biggest initial challenge was to get people to trust our ability to do good as a newcomer. We overcame this by conveying to potential customers that we were a quality organization, and then living up to it once they gave us our first accounts."

42. Office Furniture Innovations  
Commercial office furniture, Houston 

Jayne Edison
1999  Initial
Investment: $75,000 
2002 sales: $2 million 
2006 sales: $15 million

Biggest Challenge:
"For four years, I ran the business from a closet in my home--something my competitors never failed to bring up when vying for a job. I quickly learned the importance of creating a successful image."

Best Advice:
"Always recognize the staff that helps you to grow your business. They truly are the 'backbone' of your success. At OFI, we like to say, 'It's not about me, it's about we.'"

43. Dougherty Sprague Environmental
Environmental engineering, Richardson, TX

Cathy West Dougherty
Began: 1998 
Initial Investment: $160,000 
2002 sales: $521,000 
2006 sales: $7 million

Success Secret:
"[Success] shows, and it's infectious. As an entrepreneur, you cannot 'phone it in.' If you don't love it, if you are not hungry and persistent, you will not make it."

Best Advice:
"You must follow the money to get the work…And no one, not even your best employee, cares as much about your business as you do. Never forget that. Other people will be happy to spend your money for you."

44. The NewsMarket
Online video media, New York City 

Shoba Purushothaman
Began: 2000  Initial
Investment: $22.6 million 
2002 sales: $588,000 
2006 sales: $7.5 million

Biggest Challenge:
"I have learned to listen to my gut when choosing the right people. If there's any doubt, it's best not to proceed. It's easy to convince yourself people might change, but that really doesn't happen."

Success Secret:
"It may sound so basic, but having 100 percent unwavering faith that you will succeed is something that I think eludes a lot of people who want to take the entrepreneurial path. Understanding this and being able to commit to what it takes is key to achieving success."

45. Real Living
Real estate franchiser, Columbus, OH 

Kaira Sturdivant Rouda
Initial Investment: $30 million 
2002 sales: $200,000 
2006 sales: $4 million

Success Secret:
"If you are marketing to women, you need to develop a strong brand because women are three times as likely as men to recommend a product or service based on a brand."

Best Advice:
"Trust your instincts and your experience to guide your early decisions. And be true to who you are, because ultimately this is your business, and you have to love it with every ounce of your being to put in the time and energy required to make it successful."

46. Fulgent Media Group  
Media planning, Boston 

Karen R. Macumber
Began: 1999 
Initial Investment: $2,000 
2002 sales: $1.1 million 
2006 sales: $10.1 million

Biggest Challenge:
"Starting is easy because you are doing what you love. But for the company to truly scale, your role has to evolve, which means doing less of the work you love and giving up some control."

Success Secret:
"Be the client first. Write down everything you like and don't like about the vendors you work with in that area. Now use that list as your guide to create the right service model, then hand-pick a core team and business advisor to support you."

47. Communispace Corp. 
Online communications, Watertown, MA  

Diane Hessan 
Began: 1999 
Initial Investment: $16 million 
2002 sales: $1.6 million 
2006 sales: $12.3 million

Biggest Challenge:
"My biggest challenge was keeping everyone inspired and motivated—especially during difficult times. I overcame it with constant communication and openness."

Success Secret:
"The secret of our success was listening. We listened very hard to our clients and to our employees, and took action on what they said. Trusting them led us to the right strategy."

48. Advantage Performance Network  
Travel/incentives, Savage, MN  

Mary Sue Leathers 
Initial Investment: $40,000 
2002 sales: $21.8 million 
2006 sales: $60 million

Biggest Challenge:
"9/11 was our biggest challenge. We worked to overcome it by diversifying and finding ways to help other people in the travel industry by providing support services to business owners."

"I had been in the industry for 20 years and with all the changes taking place, there seemed to be a lack of customer service. My No. 1 priority was to bring customer service back to the customer and to create and atmosphere whereby our customers became our partners."

49. Rex Direct Net  
Internet marketing, Cherry Hill, NJ 

Jennine Rexon
Began: 2001 
Initial Investment: $0 
2002 sales: $325,000 
2006 sales: $4.9 million

Success Secret:
"Focus on what you do best. It's very tempting to try to become a one-stop shop for all of your clients' needs, but it's not necessarily the best strategy."

Best Advice:
"Hire the best people you can. It is not possible to manage and grow a business if you don't have the right mix of people supporting it."

50. MurTech Consulting 
IT services, Independence, OH  

Ailish M. Murphy
Began: 2000 
Initial Investment: $100,000 
2002 sales: $274,000 
2006 sales: $4.1 million

Biggest Challenge:
"During the challenging economic times of 2002, MurTech had to persevere and stay the course. I realized that the journey was a marathon, not a sprint."

Best Advice:
"Create core values that define you and your business. MurTech's core values are integrity, passion and work ethic."

When Success Isn't Enough

Business is good, but it could be better. So get out of that rut and take it to the next level--here's how.


Rachel Ashwell started out as a wardrobe and prop stylist for photographers and TV commercials in her native England, where she spent a lot of time exploring flea markets as a child. By the late 1980s, however, she was looking for a change and decided to use her eye for decorating and furnishings to start her own home furnishings company, Shabby Chic. Launched with $70,000, the company's first location, a 1,300-square-foot store in Santa Monica, California, featured washable slipcover furniture and other décor--items she snagged using her mastery of flea market bargain hunting. The launch was an instant success for Ashwell, who admits that rent, cash flow and inventory were new concepts to her at the time. "In a funny way, it was my ignorance that made me as brave as I was," says the 48-year-old entrepreneur. "Had I known all the 'what ifs' that could have happened, I probably would have never done it."

Over the next decade, Ashwell added five retail locations, inked a licensing deal with Target, attracted a celebrity clientele, wrote five how-to books and hosted her own program on the Style Network. But a few years ago, she started to feel like the company was stuck in a holding pattern. "Business was fine," she says. "But it had definitely reached a plateau [at just over $10 million in sales]."

At some point, the rapid growth in your company will level off. Sales will be good, but not great enough to provide the sustained year-over-year growth needed to take your company to the next level. This scenario is fine for lifestyle entrepreneurs who want to keep their companies small, but not for entrepreneurs who aspire to run the next Microsoft, Nike or Starbucks. "There is a choice [of] whether you want to grow or not," says Larry Greiner, a professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California who has spent decades studying how companies develop. "If you get on the growth path, that's a whole different game."

Ashwell realized Shabby Chic's business model had to change if the company was going to grow. She weighed her options and signed on with private equity firm Goode Partners last summer to position Shabby Chic for a big retail expansion. The plan is to boost the company's sales by opening at least 45 new stores nationwide over the next few years. "I wanted to build a team that would really be able to support growth," she says. "There are so many things I haven't experienced with my company."

Picking Up the Pace
What's holding your company back? Ironically, the pressure for short-term growth can make you lose sight of your long-term growth potential, and no industry or segment is immune. Angelo Santinelli, an adjunct business professor at Babson College and a former partner at venture firm North Bridge Venture Partners, has watched companies stall out because they don't have enough capital to grow with the pace of the market, then cede market share to highly capitalized competitors. "They'll get to $50 million [in sales] and plateau," Santinelli says.

In some cases, a small company has the capital but underestimates just how long it can take to build a product and have the mass market embrace it. "Companies can stall out because they have new ideas but run out of early adopters," says Dave Lemont, founder of Lemont Consulting, a firm that advises young companies on growth strategies. "The company can get the first $8 million to $10 million because there are many people in the world willing to try a new thing. But to become mainstream, you've got to get the more conservative laggards in the market."

Brad Allen, founder and CTO of Siderean Software, is trying to grow his El Segundo, California, company from annual sales of $3 million to sales of $10 million over the next year and a half. Siderean started out in 2001 with its own sales staff, but the focus has shifted within the past year to building partnerships and indirect channels that will take the company to the next stage. The company has secured 12 partnerships in the past year, including a co-selling agreement with Oracle and a reseller agreement with software company Inxight Corp.

"Building a scalable, enterprise-focused software company in this day and age is something that needs to depend much more heavily on partners and indirect channels," says Allen, 48. "The real issue moving forward for us is putting people in place to effectively establish, manage and grease the skids for these indirect partners."

Greiner's research has found that successful companies go through five distinct stages of growth. The free-for-all, wear-all-hats first stage gives way to greater divisional structure, formal communication and hierarchy in the second stage. The third stage of growth is focused on delegation, where lower-level managers and employees have greater power to develop new products, chase new markets and help customers. The fourth stage--coordination--is geared toward creating product groups and formal planning and review procedures. Companies that evolve to the last stage--collaboration--are focused, among other things, on creating cross-functional teams and streamlining systems that have gotten too formal. The key is how companies handle the instability that lies between each push for growth. "The [company] starts to get really chaotic and unorganized," says Greiner. "This is often where they fail."

Fifty-five-employee Shabby Chic is feeling the turbulence as it pushes ahead with its multiyear growth plan. Ashwell's management team includes a new CEO, CFO, head of stores, planner and buyer--a big change for Ashwell, who prefers informality to formal analysis. The new team has opened three new stores this year and plans to open 10 more next year. "We are going to do this carefully," says Ashwell, adding that of the 45 new stores planned for the next few years, 15 will probably be free-standing stores, 15 lifestyle mall locations and 15 traditional mall locations. Once the company meets its U.S. goals, Ashwell would like to target the Asian, Australian and European markets.

Ashwell is trying to stay true to the company's original branding concept as she makes big decisions, like whether to move the company's Los Angeles-based manufacturing offshore and where new stores should be located. She has also had to make compromises with her team and come to terms with market realities. Ashwell prefers older storefronts, but a Shabby Chic location recently opened in a brand-new mall in Austin, Texas. "Believe me, I had to be educated and talked into that one," she says. "But it's where the traffic is going." The company is a little bit slower to open stores than anticipated, but the growth is already evident. "Even in this first year, [same store] sales [show growth of] 19 percent," she says. "They're pretty damn good."

Those companies that break through the ceiling of growth have to challenge the status quo and innovate continuously, says Rich Laxer, CEO of financial services firm GE Capital Solutions. They must also be good at finding waste and eliminating it--whether it's in terms of finances, production, time or materials. "You can't have steps that don't add value," says Laxer. "It's making sure you have as lean an organization as you possibly can, both in the people you have and in the steps they [take] to deliver the service."

Middle-Age Spread
Theresa Welbourne, founder of eePulse, an HR technology and research consulting firm, sees small firms struggling with what to grow first, second and third--whether it's head count, cash, customers or sales. The typical scenario is to focus on product, sales cycle and people (in that order), but the companies that win are the ones that spend more time hiring the right people. "[They're] really built on their core team and they're working on the people, but that's not what most people do," she says.

John Keagy is co-founder and CEO of 6-year-old ServePath, a San Francisco-based managed hosting company with 2,500 customers that is working to go from annual sales of $10 million to sales of $20 million. Its growth strategy is to target more sophisticated customers--namely accomplished Web 2.0 firms and software as a service companies--that have more complex requirements, but Keagy needs to build the 100-employee company's middle management layer to spur this growth. "Ten people can't fill out this whole company anymore," he says. "We need to teach the executives we've got now how to build executives that report to them."

Keagy is trying to keep the company's hiring costs in line with recurring revenue, which he expects to grow 60 percent a year. "I hope that our head count doesn't grow quite as fast," says Keagy, 40. "If our head count grows 40 percent and our revenue grows 60 percent, that's probably about right."

To grow, you'll have to balance your company's short- and long-term thinking, creating time and budgets that are focused on the future while also fighting today's fires. "You have to have both points of view," Greiner says. "You have to be short-term oriented to solve problems and get performance; you have to be long-term minded about where you're going."

For Siderean, balancing capital between short- and long-term growth is a struggle as the company alters its business model to expand into new markets. The company has taken on $12 million in venture funding since 2004, which only makes the push for aggressive growth more urgent. "It's easy to watch cash flow and to be able to manage expenses," Allen says, "but it's not necessarily easy to know when you need to increase your expenses to make sure you can capitalize on that investment with increased revenue downstream." Allen and his team constantly analyze market trends and talk about how to generate more repeat sales. At the same time, cost control is always an issue: To keep costs down, Siderean has shifted toward working with customers online. "It's about being very careful with spending," says Allen, "but also spending to be able to grow opportunities to address the market."

Ashwell has learned she's not the only one who wants something different: Sales of her three most recent bedding collections broke company records. "It showed me that I've got a loyal fan base, [but] they still need newness," she says. "That's been a great learning curve for me." And it's not too bad for the bottom line, either.

Rate yourself with this checklist based on questions developed by General Electric's Six Sigma Black Belts. If you answer no to any of them, it may be time to reassess parts of your company's growth strategy.

Y N  Our company has a defined process to tackle and fix problems raised by customers.

Y N  We constantly identify waste in our financial, production, time and materials processes and get rid of it.

Y N  We spend more time and resources trying to generate new customers than to retain existing customers.

Y N  We balance capital efficiently between today's needs and long-term growth.

Y N  We have a defined process to develop, launch and expand products and services.

Y N  We've come up with clear growth goals, and we invest in the staff and processes needed to meet these goals.

How Setting Up a Home Office Works [for YOU]

How Setting Up a Home Office Works

Introduction to How Setting Up a Home Office Works

Photo courtesy MorgueFile
Do you dream of a 15-second commute to work rather than a 45-minute commute? Do you want to squeeze some extra time out of the day by cutting out that commute time completely? Do you think you might get more done if you didn't have the interruptions inherent with traditional offices?

If you're thinking about any of these things, you've probably been dreaming of a home office. In this article, we'll find out what makes an effective home office, and we'll get you started setting up one up.

The Basics

Working from home can be a joy or a terror, (just like some two-year-olds you may know.) You may love the idea of the freedom, the flexibility, and the relaxed atmosphere your home office will have. You may relish the idea of working in your bunny slippers and bath robe.

Note that I said the "idea" of. In reality, working from home can be great, but it can also be just as frustrating as working in a traditional office and commuting. You have to set it up right and set some rules for yourself. The rules you set must be based on your situation, what works for you personally, and the type of work you are doing. Here are some guidelines that will get you started:

  • Set aside a special space for your office, especially if you hope to claim a home-office deduction on your taxes!
  • If you have a door, close it.
  • Try to minimize the number of distractions that are in your immediate work space (for example, TV, Gameboy, Nintendo, children).
  • If you have small children at home, don't look at those magazine photos of the home-based working mom talking on the phone and studying a spreadsheet while a delightful nine-month-old plays at her feet. That's a fantasy world. It really doesn't work that way! Get an in-home caregiver or family member, anyone, to help out. Your nerves, and your children, will thank you.
  • Make your workstation as comfortable as possible -- you may be spending a lot of time there!
  • Get organized. This means buying file cabinets, file folders, labels, and then putting them to use.
  • Try to set a work schedule that suits your own high productivity cycles. Everyone has a time of day that they work at their best. Find yours and make that your prime working time. (Assuming, of course, you have control over your schedule.)
  • Set some rules for yourself like... a break every hour, a set time every day that you leave your home (even if it's just to walk around the block), no surfing the net except for business-related surfing (and then don't cheat!). Your rules should address your own weaknesses. If you know you'll have a problem with the refrigerator always calling your name then make a "no food at the computer" rule.
  • Set a limit to your after-hours work. While you may have clients that call you at 9 pm, that doesn't mean you have to "always" be available then. Let your answering machine pick up calls unless you know there is a tight deadline and are willing to do it. On the other hand, additional hours of availability may be just the advantage you need to give your business (or job-security) a boost. Just keep in mind that workaholism is high among those who work from home.
  • Working from home can also be very isolating. Make a point to pick up the phone and call someone, or visit a neighbor, or something just to make contact with a live person occasionally. If you find yourself working for 10 hours straight without speaking a word, you may not last long in your new home office.

With that said, let's move on to the hardware you'll need to set up your home office. We're starting with hardware rather than furniture because it's quite possible you don't need a desk or designated office area. You may be fine working from your kitchen table or porch swing. Of course, you may not even need a computer, but... we're going to cover it anyway.

What Hardware do You Need?

If your work involves traveling to client locations or other places away from your home base, you should probably consider buying a laptop computer rather than a desktop system.

With a laptop you will always have your files with you and won't have any of those embarrassing moments when you leave an important document at your office, because...well, your office is with you. While a laptop may seem a bit cumbersome to always travel with, there are many lightweight models out there that are very powerful. Just make sure you get a good carrying case that has a shoulder strap and room for your hard copy documents.

If always working from the keyboard and small screen of a laptop doesn't appeal to you, there are other solutions. Yes, they've thought of everything! To make using your laptop more efficient in your home office, a docking station can be set up that you can simply plug your laptop into. Docking stations make it easy to have a standard monitor, keyboard and mouse, printer, fax machine, scanner, and other peripherals always hooked and ready to use. If you plug your laptop into the docking station, you can use it just like a standard desktop system, and you won't have to worry about transferring or syncing files to another computer.

If you do not travel, or if you do not need access to all of your files while you travel, you can just get the traditional desktop computer system. Make sure you have plenty of hard drive space, memory for running several programs at once, and a moderately fast processor. If you're doing graphics work (anything involving photo images, illustrations or animations), you'll need a much faster processor and as much hard drive space and RAM as you can afford.

Other equipment and hardware options you might consider include:

  • A black and white 600-1200 DPI laser printer if your final documents require crisp, high quality black and white output. Laser printers also provide the fastest output, so if you know your volume will be high you should also consider a laser printer.
  • A color laser printer if your documents need high quality color illustrations, photos, or charts. These are quite expensive so make sure you compare the print quality with a less expensive ink jet printer.
  • An ink jet printer if you need good quality text, color charts and graphs, or photos. With ink jet printers, the paper that is used often makes the biggest difference in the print quality. Get paper that is best suited for the job you are doing. Also, try to get a test print from different models to compare quality before you buy. Ink jets can provide very good quality but are not as fast printing as laser printers.

  • A fax machine if you will need to fax paper documents often. There is also the option of online faxing services such as E-Fax.

  • A scanner if you will need to scan documents or photos. You can also use a scanner along with e-mail or fax software in place of a regular fax machine.

  • A CD burner if you need to provide clients with large files electronically, or if you want to back up your files on CD. There are many business uses for a CD burner, not to mention the ability to make your own music Cd's.

  • A DVD writer (DVD-RAM) if you need to provide clients with extremely large files, such as video.

  • A removable media storage device. Iomega™ offers the most common drive of this type, called the Zip™ drive, but there are many others like it. Data is written to the disk just like it would be to a floppy diskette. The difference is the amount of data that can be written. Currently, there are 100 Mb and 250 Mb disks available for the ZIP drive. Iomega also manufactures Jaz™ drives that use disks that can hold up to 2 GB of data.

  • A modem for accessing the Internet, faxing electronically, and e-mail. This can be either a standard modem that you use with your existing phone lines for dial up access, a DSL modem that also uses your phone line but does not tie up your line, or a cable modem that uses the same cable your cable television is hooked up to. DSL and cable modems are for broadband Internet access and require special connections.

  • A digital camera if your work requires photos for presentations, reports, a Web site, or other documents. While you can also use a regular camera and scanner to get digital photos for documents, you may find the immediate access you get with a digital camera more efficient than waiting for film to be processed and printed. The quality of the digital image is still somewhat better with actually photos that are scanned, but for most business applications digital cameras produce sharp enough images. Images for use in marketing materials may need to be of higher quality.

  • A multi-purpose scanner, fax machine, copier, printer if your space is limited and quality not as critical. Keep in mind with this type of equipment, however, if one part of it stops working you'll be without the other functions until it can be repaired!

For obvious reasons, mainly because equipment in the technology world changes more often than some people change underwear, we'll not go into the technical specifications for the computer equipment you'll need in your office.

Other Stuff
In addition to computer equipment, you'll also need a good telephone. Caller ID helps by allowing you to screen out telemarketers or other calls you can't take at the moment. A second telephone line for your business phone, fax, and Internet access is also a plus.

There are work-arounds if you don't want to shell out the extra money for the additional phone line. For example, if you have a cell phone, which is recommended, you can use that number as your business line. Or, if you have dial-up Internet access that uses your home phone line, you can have calls forwarded to your cell phone when you're online. There is usually only a dollar per month charge from the phone company to forward calls when the line is busy. You just have to make sure you turn off call-waiting when you go online by adding ,*70 before the number you dial. The limitations here are, of course, the signal strength you get on your cell phone. If you work from your basement there may be problems getting a good enough signal to actually carry on a conversation. If your cell phone service offers voice mail, you at least have the chance of getting a message left even if you can't actually talk with the person at the time.

There are also services that answer calls while you are online and play the message immediately from your computer. If you want to return the call you can disconnect and do so. Callwave and Pagoo are two of the most popular services. They charge about $5 per month for the service.

A surge protector is necessary, not just to give you additional outlets for your computer and its peripherals, but to protect your equipment.

You may also need a personal digital assistant (aka PDA, Palm Pilot, Handspring, etc.). These are quite handy if you travel and need access to contact information, e-mail, or the web.

What About Software

On the software side of things, there are several options for you to consider. If you're a sole proprietor and have no employees you need to communicate and coordinate with then fulfilling your software requirements is not so difficult. Here are some categories of software you may need along with links to some of the most popular packages:

Many business applications come packaged in "suites" that provide all of the above product categories and then some. Some of the more popular packages include:

Many programs also have less expensive "light" or "limited" versions that may work for smaller businesses. They are also usually available for both Windows and Macintosh computer platforms.

If you are working with others, and have the need to coordinate scheduling, access central files, maintain a contact manager, meet in chat rooms, etc. then you have more of a challenge. There are programs available, such as Lotus Notes or Novell Groupwise, that provide these types of features as a software solution. These solutions may require quite a good bit of computer knowledge and an IT person to manage the system.

As an alternative, there are also online management services that provide these types of services on the Internet for access with your browser. These are fairly simple to use. They offer many features to promote coordination of information between members of a team, client interactions, or simply communication and file-sharing with co-workers. They typically charge a small monthly fee per user, or a larger flat rate for unlimited users. Some include free limited versions, however. Below are some of these services available on the net:

Your software needs will vary greatly depending on the type of work you are doing. Check with similar businesses or your industry association to find out what programs are preferred by your peers.

Don't forget about shareware too. There are a lot of great programs that may perform all of the tasks you need without the high price tag.

Where Will You Put All the Hardware?

You'll need a desk with plenty of workspace. It should have space for a computer, as well as room to spread out paperwork if necessary. A corner "L" shaped desk works well for this. Make sure the desk has a large keyboard tray that can accommodate your mouse pad and mouse, as well. Many computer desks don't have large enough trays. Don't forget about space for your printer, scanner, fax and other equipment.

Shelves, cabinets, and file cabinets are also necessities that help tremendously by utilizing vertical space and keeping things organized. You may also be able to use the tops of these shelves and file cabinets for your printer, scanner, fax machine, etc.

Also, don't forget to invest in a comfortable chair that offers good back support. It should have as many adjustable parts as possible to help it fit your body. Arms on the chair will also make it more comfortable, particularly if you will be doing some work other than that on a computer. For more information on setting up your home office visit's Home Office Furniture page.

Connecting with the Outside World

The Cyber World
All of this hardware and software won't do you any good if you don't have a connection to the Internet. Your best bet is a broadband connection if you can get access. The term broadband just means a high bandwidth technology like DSL, or cable that allows you to send and receive files, sound, and video over a single connection.

If you can get cable television in your home then most likely you can also get a cable modem and Internet access. DSL uses your standard telephone line, but requires that you be located relatively close to the provider's central office (in some cases 3-4 miles). Check with local providers to see if DSL is available in your area. Many providers offer online tools that simply require you to enter your phone number to determine if service is available at your home.

If you live in an area without cable or DSL access, you still have the option of Internet access via satellite. These systems offer fast connections, but require satellite dishes and receivers as well as special modems. Click here for more information about satellite Internet access.

If you get an "always on" broadband connection then you also need to put in a firewall. Read our article about How Firewalls Work to get the skinny on protecting your files from hackers.

Regardless of the type of connection you get to the Internet, you will need an ISP (Internet Service Provider). In addition to access to the Internet, your ISP will give you an e-mail address, and possibly 5-10 Mb of free space for a website. You can also get additional e-mail addresses from sites like HotMail or Yahoo or Excite. These are free and the advantage of having one is that it doesn't have to change if you change your ISP. You can keep the same e-mail address and have the mail from that address forwarded to any other e-mail account you wish. It simply eliminates the process of sending out notices to all of your contacts that your e-mail address has changed. If you have an e-mail address from your company that you use for business, it is often a good idea to get a separate e-mail address for your personal e-mail.

If you need to connect multiple computers in your home, read our article about How to Network Your Home.

The Real World
What about your business address? If you're running a business from your home, you probably don't want your home address used as the business address. Depending on the type of business it is, it may just not give the impression you need. In this case, you have two options. You can rent a post office box, or you can use a CMRA (Commercial Mail Receiving Agency) mailbox service that gives you a corporate-sounding address and a suite number.

Each option has the drawback of requiring you to go somewhere else to get your mail (although there may be services that will deliver your mail to you). Post office boxes have the additional drawback of not allowing you to receive packages because couriers won't deliver to a P.O. box. If you use a service that gives your business a suite number (actually, just another name for a box number), you can receive packages. You also have 24-hour access and can request notification when a package has arrived.

NOTE: Current postal regulations for CMRAs require that a three-line address include the letters "PMB" before the number. If you use a four-line address, you may use the "#" sign before the number. For example:

Smith Industries
N. Main Blvd., Suite 14
City, ST 12345-2345
Smith Industries
N. Main Blvd., Suite 14 PMB 456
City, ST 12345-2345

What about client meetings?

Meetings with clients can't always take place in cyberspace, or at the client's location. When you are faced with this situation, rather than having the client come to your home (assuming they are in the same city), look into executive suites or hotels that offer space that can be leased for short periods of time. If you own your own business and this is a common occurrence, you may want to consider leasing an Executive Suite that provides you with a receptionist, voice mail, e-mail, and other services, along with time-limited access to private offices, a reception area, and a meeting room. If you don't need this type of arrangement on a regular basis, you can also rent spaces on an hourly basis at a fairly reasonable rate.

For example, using, a meeting room at The Blake Building in Washington, DC with a seating capacity of five, reserved for three hours would be $75. A room for 15 for the same amount of time would be $120. These types of services can often be reserved online and maps, written directions, contact information, photos and information about additional room needs is also provided.

Of course, there are also always the other standard meeting place options that include hotel lobbies, restaurants, golf courses, etc.


Communications today are drastically different than they were even 15 years ago. E-mail has become a way of life and the only communication method you may have with some people. If you think about how you communicated in business in 1985 as opposed to how you communicate in business now, there's no comparison. You probably used your office phone, and... well, there wasn't a heck of a lot more back then... maybe a telex machine. Shortly after that, however, fax machines began to enter the market, then car phones and e-mail hit the scene. Things changed very quickly after that. As technology advanced, the expectations of the amount of work produced also advanced. Now, we produce a lot more work a lot faster and expectations of higher productivity continue to climb because technology is enabling us to do it faster.

With technology advancing so rapidly and workloads increasing along with it, the desire to work from home and alleviate some of the stress that comes along with commuting, juggling family life, etc. has also become very strong. In that respect, the same technology that took away our freedom is also allowing us more freedom than we've ever experienced ... well, except for back before technology forced us to work so hard.

Photo courtesy MorgueFile

So, what does that have to do with communications and how we can communicate in a virtual business environment? A large part of work in any business, whether you're a sole proprietor or work for a corporation, is tied into communications of one type or another. If you can communicate effectively you can work more effectively. Take advantage of the technology available for communications and use your new found freedom to take back some of your life. Here's how:

  • With a simple cell phone you can go to your child's softball game without fear of missing an important call.
  • By using wireless web technology via cell phone or a Personal Digital Assistant, you can go the grocery store while you're waiting on that e-mailed file that needs your approval before it can be submitted.
  • With a virtual assistant or readily available office services, you can work from your basement but have a professional address, and a receptionist answering your calls.
  • With video conferencing you can communicate face-to-face with clients or co-workers across the country without ever leaving your city.
  • With teleconferencing combined with Internet presentation software, you can communicate with several people in real time while you're all viewing the same presentation from locations around the world. Sonexis offers these tools.
  • Using web hosted office tools you can perform scheduling, send files, communicate via chat rooms or instant messaging with co-workers, or clients.
  • In custom chat rooms or with instant messaging, you can have a discussion with several people from different locations and in situations where you can't necessarily talk.
  • Via web conferencing you can hold live interactive seminars, meetings, or other get togethers.
So, as you can see, communications in any office environment, whether virtual or not, are now quite simple and possible from almost anywhere. Don't forget, you also have the old standard, wired, corded, telephone you can use.

For some additional advice and information about working in a virtual environment, visit How Virtual Offices Work

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links