14 Ideas for Running a More Successful Virtual Business

Among the innumerable advantages afforded by modern technology is the ability to transform your home into an office even though the two boundaries can be and often are somewhat blurry. Still, there is something to be said for not having to deal with traffic jams, rush hours, punching clocks and the cozy plushier alternative of sitting in an office chair clad in pajamas and silly slippers. Not only that, in terms of your own virtual business, your hours and profit are all your own. But beware. That could mean that your shop is NEVER closed!

The freedom afforded by a virtual company is limitless, but so are the problems and pitfalls if you do not organize, prioritize and get off your butt so that you can eventually sit down on your butt. Unlike a conventional organization, those of the virtual variety have no shared physical space and no employees. An entirely different frame of mind and set of skills are required than those who work at a physical location. There are some specific issues to be addressed however, some emotional, some practical and others purely fiscal. Starting with the character traits that best lend themselves to running a virtual business, here are some tips to consider about how to make your virtual business a lucrative, satisfying, interesting and successful business venture.

  1. Be passionate about working from your home. If you do not live and breathe your particular product or service, you will eventually want to take it out to the backyard and kill it along with all your dreams for success on your own terms.
  2. Understand your motivations. Are you driven to work for yourself? Virtual work settings attract different people for different reasons. Make sure your reasons are clearly etched in your brain, as they will become part of your emotional mantra when the hard times come and help to propel you through them.
  3. If it is at all possible, maintain two separate computers in your home; one for work and one for your other life. This helps you to distinguish work from leisure in your own mind, which is one of the greatest challenges in maintaining a successful virtual business. Do not install instant messenger programs, chat room applets or computer games on your workstation computer; save those for your private time.
  4. If you are not determined to succeed, you probably will not make your concept for a successful virtual business work very well. There's an old saying that translates into something like: "Those who think they can usually do and those who think they can't, usually can't." The good news is that just like any other positive habit, determination is something that can be developed over time. Make up your mind to not let anything stand in your way to success and it won't.
  5. You will have to assume full responsibility for everything that succeeds or fails within your virtual business. When problems arise, you must solve them in the most responsible manner possible. Conversely, you get to take every single scrap of credit for jobs well done, making the virtual business unmatched in rendering a sense of pride and satisfaction.
  6. You must cultivate self-discipline and realize that if you only have to report to yourself, the work involved will not get done unless you go and do it. Distractions are everywhere even on your own website where pleasant things are only a click away from realization. Most people don't have this skill naturally, but rather learn how to acquire it over time. You too can be among them (and maybe even be the first on your block to do so).
  7. You must get organized, set a schedule for yourself and stick to it. As the head of your virtual business, you have the advantage of being able to create a flexible schedule for yourself that fits around the rest of your life. Whether your personal bio-rhythms call for you to work week-ends, evenings, early morning or all or some of the above, you must remember that your decided work schedule must be adhered to as strictly as possible. Be your own slave driver. In the end, it will all pay off.
  8. Select practical office furniture. You will spend a major part of every day in your office. Shop around and find the best computer, office chair, and equipment and supplies for your money and your needs. These items can be tax-deductible and are well worth their cost. They will serve you well. Buy the best you can afford and do not buy impulsively.
  9. Select the right spot in your home for your office. This is not only true for the achievement of that elusive concept known as optimum feng shui. It also pertains to a space where you can work UNDISTURBED for hours at a time. No distractions. This means, wives, husbands, children, pets, friends and relatives, well meaning and otherwise. 
  10. There must be a leader of the virtual business. No matter how many partners and participants, there must be one person in charge of all the operations of your virtual business. There is no underestimating the importance of a strong leadership from the corporation's very inception.
  11. All partners must be able to communicate with each other at all times. With so many remote locations, it is mandatory for all who share both profits and responsibility for the daily operations of a virtual business to remain "in the loop" so to speak about all events and decisions affecting the company. The two most effective ways to accomplish that are video conferencing and conference calls. The most current video-conferencing systems are very easy to use and they transmit pictures and audio of the best possible quality. It really is almost like being there.
  12. Despite the liabilities associated with video conferencing, namely the absence of eye contact and appearance consciousness, experts agree that it is a valuable tool for the day-to-day operations of the virtual business. As people become more accustomed to video conferencing as a means of communication, these issues will disappear. Now that personal video-conference systems based on a web cam, personal computer system, software compression and broadband Internet connectivity have become affordable commodities, video conferencing is available to many who otherwise would not have been able to afford it.
  13. The distribution of equity in a virtual business must be clearly established in writing and understood by all participants. With multiple partners, who does what and for how much should never be a matter of guesswork. There will always be those partners who are either "hunters or skimmers" in terms of working styles. Hunters make the kill and skimmers watch them. In a very lean organization, however, there is no room for skimmers. Everyone must pick up the slack and be a hunter. Still, each partner is entitled to whatever share of the equity has been agreed upon.
  14. The participants in your virtual business do not necessarily have to be friends, but they all have to be motivated by their common commitment to the corporation. They all must exhibit a personal compatibility in their dealings with the other members. Even remotely, one can become intimate with the help of hi-tech conference calls and video conferencing.

The statistics are a bit scary, although they are constantly changing as people learn what works for the virtual business and what doesn't. According to statistics, more than 90% of the people trying to earn a living online are failing. This is a hard fact and must be addressed realistically. The main reason for the failure seems to be the frame of mind that most entrepreneurs are in when they embark on this type of business venture.

Many have an unrealistic image of a glamorous freedom from cares and responsibilities all while money rakes in along side the enormous pool in the backyard of the mansion. Too many are dreamers without direction. But that doesn't have to be you. 

Group Communication Options: What's Out There and Why

Not so long ago, there was only US mail and the telephone for people who needed to stay in touch. But in the last 10 years, there has been an explosion in the numbers and types of communications tools that can be used to keep your team together and keep important stakeholders informed of project and/or company progress.

Many still revolve around the land-line telephone because it is such a universal installation. But as computers and wireless installations have become increasingly more prevalent, communications technology that uses these platforms have entered and revolutionized the field.

The ability of these more recent platforms to let people share graphics in real time and the ability, of some, to allow that all important "face-to-face" type of meeting is dramatically changing how some businesses communicate, boosting their productivity, and dramatically cutting costs.

Due to the newness of some technologies, there can be reliability and interface issues that still need improvement, but the rapid rate of technology advancement and provider innovation is quickly eliminating these issues.

Some of these technologies include: classical and suped-up conference calls and videoconferencing; podcasts; webinars; Instant Messaging, just to name a few.

Preferred Modes of Communication: Identifying the Right Media

Once you and your team have produced your list of people for your communication plan, gotten everyone's phone number and email, and listed their role, there is one more thing that needs to be done. Add each person's preferred mode of communication to the list. This is one of the most crucial, but commonly overlooked, elements of a good communication plan. Different people have different ways they like to communicate and the more you respect that, the better off you and your project are going to be.

Some people are at their computers all day and constantly check their email, others travel a lot and you can catch them only on their cell phone, others prefer office phone calls, and still others only respond if you talk with them face-to-face. Not using a person’s preferred mode of communication means you may not get the information or feedback you need when you need it. This can prevent you from being able to effectively make a required quick decision or stave off an impending crisis.
In today's workplace, adequate communication is difficult because many times not all the people in your communications loop work in the same building or city or state, and some don’t even work the same hours. Once you know how you need to communicate to the people identified on your communications plan, you then need to identify which of the many available communications tool are best suited for your team/company and how they work.

Strategic Communications: Who Needs to Know What When

For any project, the most important part and, indeed, the area almost always identified by project managers and management as needing improvement is communication.

Communication between team members, communication between the billing department and suppliers or subcontractors, communication between upper management and the project team, communication between management and outside stakeholders, communication between the construction bosses and inspectors, communications between your company and the surrounding community…..you name it.

Communication to all major stakeholders not only keeps people up to date on your project's or company's progress, but it also helps create that all important buy-in and ownership of project or company decisions.

Just remember however that, although communication is your key to success, no one likes to be spammed continuously with information they don't care about or need to know. Indiscriminant communication not only irritates those receiving it, but can also dilute your ability to get what you need from people when you need it, because they no longer read what you send them because so much of it has nothing to do with them. So, after you make that extensive, team-generated, communications list, sit down and look at it (with the team), think collectively about the risks of one person or another not knowing something important and the impact it could have on your project, and then prioritize the people on that list.

This will help you and your team to identify who has the capability and highest probability of wreaking the most havoc on your project if they are not adequately informed. Sometimes the results of this kind of analysis can be quite surprising and you find people you might not have thought would have such a huge impact as they do!

You will also find that some of the people on the list you thought might be important are less critical than you initially thought. Obviously, keeping the highest priority people informed of the project, its status, progress, and problems is going to be your project's or company's key to success.

A Brief History of Telecommunications (Abridged)

We've come a long way from smoke signals and drums, the earliest forms of telecommunication. Today's telecommunication industry uses electromagnetic waves and electronic transmitters to connect people. Connections are still made by sight or hearing, but telephone, television, radio, computers and satellites now allow the message to travel around the world, even out into space, and to be received almost instantly.

Did the men who invented modern telecommunications -- Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), Guglielmo Marconi (radio), John Logie Baird (television) – realize how profoundly they would change the world? Today, the telecommunication industry is a significant factor in world economy, generating 3% of the gross world product. Figures for 2006 place industry revenue at $1.2 trillion and rising.

Highlights, interesting facts and a few near misses in telecommunications history:

  • 1837 Samuel Morse develops the electrical telegraph and signaling system. Embarrassingly, he couldn't get it to work during the unveiling demonstration!
  • 1849 Antonio Meucci invents the first device to electronically transmit the human voice (i.e., phone). It flopped because to hear, users had to put the receiver in their mouth.
  • 1866 First transatlantic telecommunication is made.
  • 1876 Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray independently invent the telephone. Although Gray filed his patent application first, bad legal advice and a clerical error led him to withdraw his application and the patent was awarded to Bell.
  • 1878 First commercial telephone service set up in New Haven, Connecticut (home of Yale University) and the following year in London.
  • 1901 Guglielmo Marconi positions himself to win the 1909 Nobel Prize in physics by inventing a working wireless radio that functions between Canada and England.
  • 1925 John Baird demonstrates the transmission of moving pictures at Selfridges, a London department store which conveniently sells couches.
  • 1929 The BBC makes the first experimental TV broadcast.
  • 1940 George Stibitz makes the first computer transmission using a mainframe system and remote terminals. Mammoth mainframes dominate the emerging industry through the next two decades.
  • 1960 Computer geeks start experimenting with packet switching, bypassing the mainframe to send large packets of data directly to different computers.
  • 1969 The first network – just 4 modes – is in operation.
  • 1970 Scientists at Corning Glass Works produce the first viable optical fiber, ushering in a new era in telecommunications and enabling the internet.
  • 1978 The first international packet switched network connects the U.S. and Europe.
  • 1989 While working for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau invent the web.
  • 1990 Fledgling micro-networks slowly merge to become the behemoth that today we call the “net.”

No longer an infant, telecommunications has hit its teen years and like a teenager is growing by leaps and bounds. A chronology of the discoveries and achievements of the past 15 years would fill pages. Today the path from discovery to implementation and production moves literally at the speed of light.

Telecommunications have enabled companies to build global empires, just look at Amazon and Wal-Mart, two outstanding examples. It is now possible to do face-to-face business with customers all over the world while sitting at your office desk. When you must travel, telecommunications allows you to stay connected to your home office and instantly resolve customer issues. With telecommunications, employees can remain an integral part of your business team while working from home when personal or family matters demand their attention.

It's been less than 100 years since Samuel Morse first pressed down on a telegraph key. It's only taken 15 years for the internet to change life as we know it. Can you imagine where we'll be 15 years from now? Buckle up! We're in for an amazing ride!

Management Mistakes You Don't Want to Make

You're climbing the corporate ladder. You've just landed your dream job or maybe you've been tagged for that management position you've been angling for. You're anxious to impress your boss with your leadership capabilities and earn your colleagues' respect. This is the opportunity that could send your career skyrocketing!

So what's the catch? Many new managers make the mistake of assuming that their previous work habits will continue to gain them success in their new position. It's a common mistake says Michael Watkins, a former Harvard Business School professor and author of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders At All Levels. In fact, though managers come from different backgrounds and possess different characteristics, they often make the same common mistakes.

Top 10 Management Mistakes

  1. Rigid policies. While policies need to be followed, some flexibility must be afforded employees and customers, particularly in small companies. Before you act, weigh the importance of the policy against the good will of a loyal customer or employee.
  2. Lack of communication. Communication is the key to being a good manager. Employees need to know what is expected of them and when projects or tasks are due.
  3. Failing to listen. A good manager listens to what his employees have to say and hears the needs and concerns behind the words.
  4. My way or the highway. A good manager doesn't try to solve every problem or pretend he has every answer. He knows when to seek help and realizes that there's more than one way to accomplish a task.
  5. The half empty glass. Don't always focus on what went wrong. Recognizing achievements and employee accomplishments builds morale and creates a positive work environment.
  6. The buck stops here. As a manager, you can't delegate blame. If you're in charge, you're responsible for the actions of the employees you manage.
  7. Favoritism. Showing favoritism is a fast track to poor morale. You lose credibility and the respect of your team when you play favorites.
  8. Just do it. You can't expect your team to blindly plow ahead if they don't understand the project. Take time to explain the project and how it fits into the larger plan. A team that is invested in a project will work harder and produce better results.
  9. Too much technology. Don't hide behind emails. You must embrace and practice your people skills too.
  10. Never change. In the rapidly changing business environment, you must be open to change. There is a place for tried-and-true methods, but there must also be room for new ideas and practices. Be flexible.

Back Operations

Never underestimate the impact of back operations, especially as it pertains to your bottom-line. The decisions you make with your back operations will slim down your overhead expenses and streamline your business. Your front-line customer service is important, but they rely on your back operations to look good.

There is increased pressure for companies to go green. It can be a challenge to stream-line operations and save your company money while maintaining high environmental standards. A little does a lot, so here are a couple suggestions that we have worked for us. These are similar to the tips featured in our newsletter, but we wanted to elaborate more here:

Have your front and back operations use less paper. At our office we have a recycling container within ten paces of every desk. They are bright blue so you can’t miss them. The proximity of the cans makes it tempting to “shoot hoops” with paper-basket-balls and -airplanes. But if your employees are having fun recycling then that’s not a bad thing. In order for a system to work, everyone needs to be on board. We’ve also implemented paperless invoicing for our clients. We now send secure email attachments as PDF’s with all applicable billing information. No more stamps, envelopes, or paper. That being said, we still send the occasional letter in the mail, but we prefer to do everything online. We also send electronic emails too (because a mailing list to over 20,000 people can use a lot of paper). There is no reason why companies shouldn’t push hard to have their customers switch to online services. Not only will you save paper costs (and the environment) but your man power will significantly drop because everything will be done automatically and your back operations will feel better.

If you need a few more ideas, then here are some suggestions. First, implement a two-sided print policy for all inter-office documents. In addition, eliminate unnecessary pages such as cover sheets and tracking pages. Beside your photocopier store a box for recycling. When possible, reuse this bin of paper by cutting the sheets into smaller notepads and using them at your desk. You can also reuse this paper when you do “test prints.” Find a supplier of low-cost paper that you can integrate into other parts of your back operations… whether it is letterhead, napkins, or recycled boxes. Lastly, encourage a “sober-second-thought” rule, where you ask your employees to think twice before printing anything to make sure it’s absolutely necessary.

It won’t be long before you start seeing an ROI in your back operations. Paper costs a lot less to dispose than it does to purchase.

Office Cows

Every office has a sound. It may be the pitter patter of keyboards or the humming of a photocopier or the ringing of phones or the beeping of computers. These are rather innocuous… other sounds may include obnoxious thought-stopping laughter or distracting gossip in the cubicle next-door or incessant mooooing from cows.

What… you don't have cows mooing at your office?

At our office someone discovered an Outlook feature that lets them customize the sound their computer makes when it receives email. Popular sounds include a cow mooing and a high pitched cartoon that says "Oh, No!"

You'd think this would be problematic since we're on the phone a lot, but it's not.  Thanks to noise cancellation our customers only hear what they're supposed to hear. Since our conference call system removes distracting background noises we can continue on with our office antics.

A lesson from my 5th grade teacher

I recall my fifth grade teacher would have us journal every morning and we had to keep writing without a stopping. She told us to streamline our thoughts and that it didn’t matter if we made spelling mistakes or if our sentences didn’t make sense - so long as we kept writing.

I recently had a chance to re-read one of these journals. I wrote stuff like “My brother annoys me and cows don’t jump over the moon.” It doesn’t get more random then that. Anyway, that’s what I’m doing right now. Already I’ve hit the backspace button ten times but I keep plowing forward the best I can.

Too many times we don’t push forward on a task and we’re afraid to throw it on paper. I’m amazed at how unproductive I can be and how much time I waste staring at the wall. I think about work-related stuff but I don’t write it down.

I’ll be honest, I cheated with this blog entry. I decided in advance what I wanted to write about which makes this though-streaming-process much easier. I’ll have to try this again and truly start from scratch. I suggest you do the same. On your next big project or task, try putting your thoughts on paper, regardless of what they are. Whether it’s an email, newsletter, blog or memo – don’t go back or make any edits until you’re done.

I’m convinced that this will make you more productive and will also help you stay focused. I already feel better having done this. It also takes a lot of concentration. I’ve had to keep typing even as my outlook emails pop up in the corner of my screen. But I press on!

I’m happy to report that this blog took about five minutes to write (which is a record for me).

Let’s see how long it takes to edit it!

[Updated: It took about twice as long to edit… I’ll have to work on shaving that down next time]

Toll-Free Tyrant

Around 44 BC, Roman senators began to fear Caesar's growing power in the senate following his appointment as Dictator for Life.

A group of "Liberators" met in secret to find a way to over-throw him. They all agreed to hide daggers beneath their togas during the upcoming senate meeting.

The following day, Caesar was asked to attend a meeting where the Senators would read a petition asking him to hand power back over to the Senate. The petition, of course, was a fake and never existed.

While on-route to the senate flour, Caesar was redirected to another room where he was killed -- the unforeseen result was the eventual fall of the Roman Republic.

For Caesars' sake (and for Rome alike), it should have been a conference call.