Is the economy running you down? Here’s how to run a virtual business to save cost and introduce efficiency

Mobile technology has rapidly replaced many of the tools that used to clutter the workplace: the old-fashioned telephone, the phone book, the diary, the Dictaphone, business cards, cameras, the big PC on your desk…the list goes on.

Now that most of your productivity tools are available on your smartphone or notebook, the world is your office and you can work nearly anywhere you have an Internet connection.

The result is that more and more small business owners are starting to ask whether they still require physical offices, especially as the economy remains imbalanced, traffic gets more congested and commercial property rentals rise. Whether you’re just starting out and wanting to stay lean, or whether you want to cut the costs of running an existing company, it might make sense to set up a virtual business.

Here are a few of my tips on how to start a successful virtual business:
1. Set up a virtual office
There are many virtual office providers – for example, Regus and The Business Centre – who offer virtual office services for an affordable monthly fee. They will provide you with a receptionist to answer calls in your company’s name and take messages, as well as boardrooms in prime locations for face-to-face meetings. This can be useful in an industry where you need to project the right sort of image or if your customers would feel comforted dealing with a company that looks like more than a person with a cellphone. As a small business owner, you already have countless hats to wear. This will at least trim the stress and help you to focus on growing your business.

2. Invest in good connectivity and devices
If you are going to be operate virtually – whether that means working from your study at home or from coffee shops on the road – you need to invest in the right tools. That might mean setting aside the budget to purchase a powerful but compact notebook or the smartphone that best meets your needs. Read reviews and test devices before you buy it, to make sure they are what you are looking for. You’ll also need to set aside money for mobile data or a decent Internet connection at home. It might make sense to invest in data SIMs from two providers, just in case you’re in an area where your primary provider has poor coverage. You may want to invest in a freelance accountant to help you to work through your finances so that you can budget accordingly for the tools that your business needs.

3. Automate
An important element of creating a virtual business lies in automating the right processes to save time and money. For example, marketing automation tools can help you generate automated marketing emails to your customers, schedule social media and blog posts, track in-bound sales leads, and so much more. Cloud-based accounting and payroll solutions can enable you to streamline quoting, invoicing, financial reporting, compliance, and reconciliations. As a small business, this may be a great place to start if you are looking to showcase results faster to clients. Working virtually means that investments require quicker returns.

4. Outsource
If you’re going to build a virtual business, you can be more flexible about how and where you source talent. For example, it might make sense to get freelancers or contractors to help out with finance or marketing. If you do project-based work like building or IT, you could round up the right team to collaborate with you for every contract rather than employing full-time resources.

5. Collaborate
The great thing about the cloud is that it makes it easy for you to interact and share files, ideas and data with your virtual team wherever they are. Encourage everyone you work with to standardise on the same set of tools— for example, DropBox, GoogleDrive or OneDrive sharing files, Webex or Skype for Business for voice and video comms, and Slack or Microsoft Teams for messaging – to make communicating and sharing easier. These tools are also great to introduce to client and showcase that you are a technology driven small business. After all, being virtual means that you run entirely with the help of technology.

In its purest form, a virtual office is the opposite to your traditional bricks-and-mortar business, which relies heavily on face-to-face transactions with customers, a physical workspace for you and your teams, and the retention of physical records and data. This could help you to completely automate your daily processes to become more streamlined, flexible and available to your clients, from the comfort of your own home (or the coffice – aka the coffee-shop office).

By Viresh Harduth, Vice President: New Customer Acquisition (Small & Medium Businesses) for Sage Africa & Middle East