Creating A Virtual Office For Cheap or Even Free

If you’re starting a side business, you probably don’t have the budget for a secretary, commercial office space, or all the usual business amenities. But you can still project a professional image by using these cheap and even free services to create what I call a Virtual Office:

Telephone Service
Obviously, one option is to just use your current phone. Calling out is fine, but you’ll have to change your answering machine recording and also warn the other people in your household not to answer the phone with the usual “Yo wassup!”. For cell phones, you may be concerned with call quality or running out of minutes.

Another solution is to sign up for a free voicemail-only phone number (206 area code) from K7.net. You can customize the voicemail recording, and it even accepts incoming faxes. All messages and faxes are sent directly to your e-mail instantly.

Since with K7 you can’t actually answer the phone, it may not be ideal for all businesses. The cheapest “real” phone number that I found is via SkypeIn. For ~$38 a year (~$3/month), you get a real phone number with a local area code and voicemail service included. You have to use Skype, but with this method you can receive calls anywhere you have internet service.

Another option is with some VoIP services you get a 2nd number for free, like I do with Sunrocket VoIP, which I have for home service. I can’t set a different voicemail message for the 2nd number, but I can forward the local number to another place (like K7.net which isn’t local unless you are in Seattle).

Fax
I’m always amazed at how much I need to fax since starting up a side business. Mostly things with signatures, but still. I would just say buy a fax machine on the cheap and use your own phone line, but with only VoIP and it doesn’t always work.

Again, with K7 above you can get free incoming faxes, which are converted to the TIF image format and sent to your e-mail as an attachment. Alternatively, you can use eFax Free. It gives you a free non-local fax number and sends faxes to your email in a proprietary format. However, it’s easy to convert them to Adobe PDFs if you have a PDF print driver (or Print to PDF for Macs).

For free outgoing faxes, the only one I can find (other than trial offers) is FaxZero. With them you can send faxes online in MSWord/PDF format, up to 2 faxes a day, 3 pages each.

Mailboxes and Postal Services
Again, the free option is to just use your current one. Which is perfectly fine and legal. I’d let your mailperson know if you all of a sudden plan getting mail to your business name.

For outgoing packages, you can now get free pickup from all the major carriers at your home, even the US Postal service. With the new Click-N-Ship at USPS.gov, you can print and pay for postage online, and request a next-day pickup. Spending $20 on a scale keeps you from overpaying for postage, and probably saved me that much in gas alone.

If you want an alternate address to complete the “this is a real business” image, you can either go for a PO Box (<$100/year), or a Private Mailbox at a place like the UPS Store (~$150-200/year). The latter adds features like acceptance of UPS/FedEx packages and an actual street address (123 Main Street #412).

E-mail Addresses
Free e-mails are easy to find – Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail… But let’s face it, if I see a tech-related business with a Hotmail address, I’m running the other way. On the other hand, if I see john.doe@bizname.com, that’s always a plus.

At Godaddy.com, you can register a domain name and get 100 free e-mail addresses with it for less than $10 a year. If you really like the Gmail interface or something, you can just have your email forwarded there (They’ll even host your mail for free). You can even use the free Starter webpage from Godaddy to list your business address and various contact methods that you just created from above :)

Comments

  1. I haven’t done this yet, but SunRocket is also a good choice, as it offers that second phone line. My second number currently just sits around unused. The fax services sound good.

  2. Another tip to cut down on long distance minutes/charges is to use internet telephony sofware, Skype. With a PC, microphone (or headset) and Internet connection you can call anywhere in the US and Canada for free (not just PC to PC but PC to landline). I believe the free US calling is until the end of the year. And if you need to call other countries their rates are super cheap.

  3. Another very affordable solution is GotVMail.com – $9.95/mo gets you voicemail with 5 mailboxes, call forwarding, and a ton of other features. You can also add fax, web based messaging center, and a bunch more.

  4. Yeah I used to use my 2nd SunRocket number just for that. You have to be careful though as it just rings the same phone, although you can set a different ring.

    You may actually be able to fax with SunRocket as well if you have a machine. Unfortunately I’ve had only had about a 70% success rate faxing out.

    I’ve heard both good and bad things about GotVMail including some downtimes. I’ve never used it though – have you?

  5. bigmouth says:

    That just got me interested, here is a business idea: providing true virtual office packages to small business owners ranging from phone, voicemail, fax, and so on…

  6. faxzero.com seems to be out of commission.

    Tip: for free incoming phone/fax/voicemail try stanaphone.com. They give out new york state area phone numbers, you can set it up on your computer and it will ring. Cheaper than skype-in. Theyre stana-out calling out rates are fairly competitive as well.

  7. I’ve been using GotVMail for corporate use for over a year. We have 5 mail boxes. The intferface is great and easy to use. We haven’t experienced any downtime that we know of.

    Wes

  8. Voicestick.com offers a free local telephone number and several plans, one of which is a pay-as-you-go @ 2 cents per minute. Their service will also forward to any phone number you choose.

  9. Anonymous says:

    You should just be able to fax out using your regular computer connected up to your phone line through the modem port. There is plenty of free software available for doing that and we’ve never had a problem. The only other equipment it requires is a scanner to actually get the document into the computer for scanning.

  10. there is even a FREE VM only phone… it even emails u the .wav voicemail…www.privatephone.com – run by netzero
    check the blogpost:
    http://www.ofview.com/2006/07/12/frucall/

  11. There is VOIP phone providers like Vonage that is really the only way to go. It’s what I do for my small business.

  12. I’ve got a a question about free mail pickup
    , Do UPS and Fedex really offer Free parcel pickup, because it seemed to me last I looked I would have to pay like $12/week or so for Fedex to pick up my packages. I only mail like 3 parcels/week b/c I don’t like having to go out to drop off mail daily but I would definitely use it more if I knew it was free for them to pick up.
    Thanks

  13. methodmuse says:

    I have a 2nd vonage line for my biz fax machine/voicemail setup. I suspect this is mainly due to my comcast cable internet connection but I can rarely fax out (too slow upload on comcast?) and sometimes incoming faxes gag as well. My main house line (also vonage) fails occasionally too depending on what I’m downloading/uploading at the time. It’s all been pretty limiting. I wish Verizon would lay down some fiber in center city philly… I need a bigger pipeline to use this technology to suit my needs.

  14. The free fax number is a great tip Jonathan. I can send faxes here at work, but it’s more convienent to recieve faxes as a soft copy and you can’t beat free.
    Since sunrocket offers faxing capability, it would be nice if I could fax using their online service, but then again I’m always asking for too much. I’m happy to have a free fax number
    Thanks again

  15. Gerard Sorme says:

    Gotvmail nickles and dimes you to death. I left them and re-joined uReach.com ….

  16. john nathan says:

    For free telephone service:
    Use Skype to make outgoing calls because its free and use AIM Phoneline to get a local phone number and voicemail for free. The catch being you have to use the AIM Instant Messenger service, which is also free, but it allows you to answer incoming calls.

  17. with Gmail you can even get your domain hosting from them for free.
    although its currently free, its still an added bonus

  18. For FAX services I have been using myfax.com.

    DO not install thier software it has bugs with Outlook, I just send email in this format: 12345551212@myfax.com

  19. Chris Messina says:

    $10 Shareware FaxCenter for the Mac might also be a good choice for sending and receiving faxes. Out of bunch of tools that I tried, it seemed the most straight forward and useful.

  20. Why GoDaddy.com for 100 emails? Instead go to Gmail For Domains with a domain booked for less than $2 at Yahoo (I did it for http://www.automentum.com). Why waste upto a $100 / year on some domain hacker?

  21. Clay Scott says:

    Don’t forget http://www.FreeConferenceCall.com for free conference call setup. It will likely be a long-distance telephone call, but with Skypeout free until the end of the year or with free long distance calling on your cell phone, it’s a great deal.

    I’ve used it frequently and it works great.

    On the other hand, with Skype you can create a small conference call pretty easily. You can mix with Skype-Skype as well as Skypeout calls.

  22. Hey John,

    For pacakage pickup, just use USPS.com, go online, pay for your shipping (OK, you’ll need a postal scale), leave a note and the carrier will pick it up the next day where ever you leave it. I use it all the time for EBay shipping. They have priority boxes they’ll bring you by the ton if you want. Free boxes, 2 sizes, fill them full of lead and it’s only $8.25. No matter what you put in them, it’s $8.25, ship from Florida to Alaska, $8.25. You really can’t beat it.

  23. I use the Google Hosted mail system and it works great. 25 email addresses plus your Google login is your own domain. We use it for shared calendars, mail, everything.

    Plus its better than forwarding to Gmail since your replies dont have that lame “bob smith [bob@gmail.com] on behalf of bob smith [bob@smith.com]“

  24. Stanaphone http://www.stanaphone.com gives you a free incoming phone # that you can use with any sip softphone. It also includes free voicemail and you can make outgoing calls for low rates.

    Also, you can forward your incoming number to any other number like your home phone or cell, then you just pay for the calls at the outgoing rate but you can recieve calls to your stanaphone # anywhere.

  25. Be careful Forwarding your emails to and from your g-mail account, a lot of email clients will mark your email as spam or send it to a bulk folder. That’s the last thing a small buisness needs.

  26. Daniel Kim says:

    For fax out, I have been using Interfax.net. Their service offers a “budget” option that costs about $10, and does not expire. This is ideal for my rather light usage, unlike eFax service, which charges a monthly fee.

    Interfax sends out a fax from an email, and will fax an attached MS Office document. No need to print, then scan, then transmit.

    I set some of my email distributions to send faxes to some recipients who do not monitor their email regularly. I don’t need to remember who takes emails and who takes fax, since they are all on the same distribution list. I can also set up a list of authorized email addresses who can ‘send’ faxes through my Interfax account.

  27. I recently received an invitation through Google for email hosting. It works exactly like my @gmail.com address and can be used as @yourcompanynamehere.com. It is still in beta (standard Google move) but works great.

  28. While not free, Faxaway.com is a great solution for sending faxes. It costs $1/month plus about $.10/page depending on the country to which you fax.

    I get what seems like ulimited faxing for about $15/year. Your mileage my vary.

    It apprears to be the same company that offer K7.net.

  29. Tobias Brown says:

    As a freelance web site producer with 25+ clients, I’m amazed at how little I need FAX. FAX are so 1980s. I go to my local drug store and fax from there on the rare once or twice a year i need to… It’s good to get out for a walk you know.

  30. While I was looking at k7.net I mostly liked it because I can send myself papers without taking it to a scanner when I want to store it on my computer. For a free alternative to sending you can check out
    http://www.tpc.int/sendfax.html

    There’s a list of covered of area codes that are allowed, but you can at least send more than the small account listed. I sent one to the 206 from k7 and this is the limit it told me

    This cell is currently configured to allow a maximum of 5 fax(es), 30 page(s) or 50 minute(s) of connect time per hour 10 fax(es) or 200 page(s) per day 30 fax(es) per week

  31. The stanphone are not accepting retail customers anymore — however the free fax no is A M A Z I N — thanks it helped a lot :)

  32. Sunrocket is shutting down… whats next for the existing customer ?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/17/business/17sunrocket.html

  33. tv satellite says:

    I will probably set up a virtual office myself, but one which also has other things besides mail forwarding ( I am talking about an address). I have my own reasons, but in the online world having a U.S. address will look much more professional. ;)

  34. nojuicehere says:

    A good expansion of the virtual office, especially for all these new net startups that have their staff scattered all about the country, is a phone system. Stuff like GotVMail routes calls from a vanity 800 number to anyone on your lists, and even replaces a live receptionist with a professional recorded message. Even larger companies like FedEx use it to reduce overhead.

  35. InsTrainer says:

    I know this is an older thread but I thought I would pass along what works for me for phone/voicemail faxing. I use an all in one solution called 800pbx.com. It is 14.99 month and provides professionally recorded scripts for free (You have reached the ABC Company. Please press 1 for sales, 2 for service, etc custom recorded how you want) Fax send and receive and best of all for me, they will assign LOCAL numbers in about a thousand different area code/prefix combos for free. The 14.99 includes 200 minutes of calls monthly. It allows you to have a dedicated voicemail and also an unlimited number of extensions with ‘find me’ where it will call a list of numbers until it reaches you and patches the call thru.

    For the money and the service I really like it. And believe me, I looked everywhere for a solution!

  36. Free Fax Online says:

    GotFreeFax.com is another website that allows user to send free fax online to the US and Canada. User can either upload a PDF/Word file or enter text to fax. Plus, it does not add Ads to user’s fax, which makes it more suitable for faxing formal documents.

  37. Sunrocket went out of business and was taken over by Telebrand. You did not get a refund or credit for the remaining telephone service. As a consulation, they only charge $15 per month for the line.

  38. I remember SunRocket…it was like 3 years ago. I use Onesuite Fax for my online faxing needs, no plans, no contract and only $1/monthly if you just need a fax number with unlimited receiving.

    http://www.onesuite.com/products_OneSuiteFax.asp

  39. Hi Guys,

    A very interesting blog thread. The interest in VoIP numbers to use with a virtual office is growing all the time.

    If you are looking for real value, and flexability, then check us out at http://www.mydivert.com

    I think it is worth comparing the market before you decide where to buy.

    (sorry, if the post is a bit spammy – but I believe the info may well assist someone who comes accross the blog as I did when searching for ‘virtual office}

  40. Choosing a virtual office can lead to a great reduction in mental stress that would otherwise be caused within an office, and often provides individuals with more chances for physical activity throughout the day as well.

  41. One of the most outstanding benefits of using a virtual office Montreal is that it helps you communicate better with the consultant or employee who is working for you on a particular project, and what is even better, he or she would be able to access the large databases required for the project, even if he is at home looking after his children, while you, also sitting at home, would be able to oversee the work at every juncture, without even moving out of your favorite armchair.

  42. Well I think on that you guys are sleeping on is probably the Magic Jack.
    For 19.99 a year…1.65. You get a number that rings in and out, voicemail, caller ID, call forwarding, voicemail sent to email, call waiting with caller ID….and you can fax to it.

    If you really want to do this right I suggest going out and getting a super cheap laptop new or used and dedicate it to the MJ only. Also make sure you have good Upload band with, the Download really does not matter as much.

  43. The best way to operate a professional sounding phone service is this.

    1. Buy an old pc. Doesn’t have to be anything special, 1gb processor and 256mb ram will do. You can pick one up for about £20-25.

    2. Download a free copy of TrixBox and burn it onto CD

    3. Get a FREE VoIP phone line from Sipgate or similar

    4. Find some tutorials online for trixbox (there are many), and there you have it. A very cheap, automated IVR phone system(Press 1, press 2 etc) that can be used wherever you have an internet connection!

    I did this myself. Luckily I had an old PC laying around anyway, so the total cost to me was nil. Any outgoing calls I just made from my landline and made sure to withold my caller id.

    Have fun.

  44. A PO Box or UPS is not a good idea for a business. Especially if you plan on establishing credit and working with D&B.

  45. Michelle Nunes says:

    Why is it not a good idea to use a PO Box or UPS for business?

  46. I used to be an international Pastor over edufire.com. until the thing crashed. After reading this I think I could do most of it over Skype. But finding people internationally is tough. I used to use Message Magic for Skype messaging. Rather find something better. Still looking for way to hook up with people. Jim Cyr

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