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Ten Steps to Becoming a Virtual Success
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By Chris Ogburn

Being virtual is simply a great way to start a company, especially if you can work from a home office or out in the field. I lead a team at HP that has met with nearly 8,000 small business owners around the globe through our work with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s National Business Matchmaking initiative. It's a program designed to give that sector access to key decision-makers in local, state and federal government agencies.

One trend that really stands out among small businesses is the rise in virtual workers. It's up by 800 percent in just the past five years, according to Nemertes Research. After sharing many discussions with business-owners who are going virtual, I've developed the following tips for starting a virtual business. With some thoughtful planning, operating a business out of your home could open you up to the joys of self-employment without all the overhead!

Make sure your business can operate “virtually.” First things first: Some professions simply lend themselves to virtual operation more than others. It's important to think about this before making the virtual commitment. Some key questions: Do you meet with contacts at your place of business, or theirs? Do you spend most of your time outside the office?

Good candidates for a virtual business include architects, interior designers, home builders, computer professionals, accountants and other service professionals. These are businesses in which most of the work actually is done in other people's homes or businesses. Poor candidates for a virtual business are physicians, mental health professionals and manufacturing businesses that rely on a warehouse.

Consider your personality. Are you a self-starter, or do you need inspiration from others to get things done? Do you prefer quiet time to work, or do you thrive around other people who can provide reinforcement and support? Are your management skills suited to a phone-based relationship with your remote team?

Hire the right people. Do you have trustworthy employees who can get the job done, even if they are not physically in the same office? How much of their work is actually done outside the office? Can you trust your existing staff to work independently from a home office? Do you have access to a mature talent pool of potential employees if you are just starting out or planning to expand?

Leverage technology. Do you have the technology in place to support a virtual business, or a good technology advisor who can help wire your business for success? Did you know that with voice-over-Internet (VoIP), you can place a call anywhere in the world from an Internet connection without incurring long-distance fees? Have you considered streamlining your office with all-in-one fax-printer-copier equipment, notebooks, and a wireless LAN network? What about instant messaging and the latest Skype technology to stay connected with employees? Thanks to technology, many virtual companies have the face of a traditional company – yet operate with lower overhead and greater flexibility to stay competitive.

Create an online storefront and take advantage of ecommerce. An online presence can give your business the appearance of a traditional brick-and-mortar company. Companies such as eBay and JetBlue have proven that virtual offices work. Small companies can grow into larger companies with an effective virtual business strategy.

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Chris Ogburn is the director of SMB Sales for HP.
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