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:
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).
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).
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 email@example.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