Useful Resources For Solo Startups

screwdriver collection by Flickr user Evil Erin
"screwdriver collection" by Flickr user Evil Erin

As most of my readers know, my wife Andrea Jarrell and I are both “solopreneurs” — she has been at it a lot longer than me, but we are both quite accustomed to this way of working. Andrea is preparing for a panel where she will be talking about the trials, tribulations, and rewards of starting one’s own enterprise, and she asked me if I would be interested in pulling together a list of resources for folks who are starting their own effort.

As I thought about it, the exercise became quite fun — and I hope useful. Since 2003 I’ve been working in a home office and all this time I have been an early adopter of tools and techniques. I’ve got some setups that really work well for me. Maybe they will be useful for you too.

I’ve divided the list up into Infrastructure (things you need to physically or administratively set up), Tools (items you need to do your work, within the infrastructure), and Software and Services.

Infrastructure: Your entrepreneurial operating system

  • Internet Provider — This is perhaps the single most important piece of “infrastructure” you can set up. Make sure you have the fastest and most reliable Internet connection you can afford. If you have a choice between fast and reliable, go with the latter. We use a Verizon DSL line that is rock solid. I have experiment with Comcast, which in theory would have given me faster speeds, but it was abysmally erratic. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow.
  • Network — You will need a wireless router in your home. There is no need to use a “wired” system, wireless is fast enough and secure enough. Netgear is good. Make sure you change the password on the router so it is not “admin” or “password” which is what the default often is. And make sure you give it a unique name, too.
  • Wireless Phones — Again, my chief concern here is reliability. The network is more important than which phone you use. For all-across-the-nation coverage, Verizon is superior to all others. If you don’t travel a lot, and another carrier is better for you in your area, go with it. For instance, westerners may want to go with Sprint. Avoid T-Mobile.
  • Phones — Do not waste money or time installing a “new phone line” wires. Use a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone number like those available from Vonage (which I have used since they began, and very happily) or from your current phone provider. The advantage of having a VOIP line is that you have far more control over it. Vonage has a service where it will transcribe your voicemails and email them to you, and it is usually very accurate.
  • Web Site — Yes you need a web site. No it does not have to be fancy if that is not required for your business. But something is necessary. You are best served paying the money and buying a domain name (yourname.com) and setting up whatever you want there. I use GoDaddy, which is very easy to set up and has lots of free add-ons. For your web site, you can just create a blog with some key entries. WordPress and Blogger will let you do this, for free. Create a main entry, an “about” entry, a “products” or “services” entry, and a “contact” entry.
  • E-mail — This is probably the most used piece of infrastructure you will have. If you get a domain name, it will probably some with a number of email addresses. Go ahead and set one up. Now you have some choices. You can just go ahead and use Outlook or another email program to check your email, or you can do what I do which is use the far superior interface of Gmail for your email. (Gmail is Google’s mail product). You will need to create an account in Gmail, and then you can have your Gmail account check the “yourname.com” account on a regular basis. (Bonus for the tech-savvy: use Google Apps to do this for better branding.)

Tools: The things you use to get work done

  • Fax — As with phones, there is no need to set up a special fax landline. Use eFax, which will give you a fax number you can give out for a nominal monthly fee. When people fax to the number, you get a pdf emailed to you. Cool!!
  • Cell Phone — Of course you have one. It might be useful, since you’re solo and may need to be able to get more done remotely and without backup, for you to have a smartphone. That’s like the iPhone, the Blackberry, the Palm Pre, or the like. It is very frequent that I need web access while I am on the move. I could not work without a smartphone.
  • Laptop — I am an outlier on this. A lot of my friends love their MacBooks. I think it’s crazy to get a laptop so large. I am very happy with the Lenovo 3000 V200 series, which is a nice combination of size, power, and price. Make sure whatever
  • MiFi — This is a relatively new product that is great. It allows you to connect to the Internet using wifi, even where there isn’t any. You set it up through your cell service provider (we use Verizon’s and love it).
  • Backup — Make sure, make sure, make sure you have a backup system for your laptop. We use a “network connected storage” device by Iomega. It is basically a 1TB disk drive attached to our router. (A terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes.) The key is to remember to backup regularly. The single best solution I have yet found for this is to use a program called ViceVersa Pro. It runs in the background and continually checks my “My Documents” folder. If it changes, it updates the Iomega disk. This piece of software is a little tricky to set up but it is so worth the time that you are a fool if you do not do it. This piece of software is the chief reason I do not use a Mac — it only exists in Windows.

Software and Services: What you work on, and with

  • Accounting — If you are in business, you need to manage your money. That means you probably need Quickbooks. Even if you have an accountant, she or he will probably still tell you to get Quickbooks. So get it. There is a definite learning curve so set aside a weekend to figure it out. You do not have to go hog wild — just set up the bare minimum you need. But do it. It’s like Quicken . . . only better.
  • Office Programs — Yes, you can get free office software, all of which is highly compatible with Microsoft Office. If you do not share documents too frequently with colleagues, this can work very well. The product is Open Office. But most people get Microsoft Office. You probably should, too.
  • Calendar — If you get Microsoft Office, you will have a calendar and email program (Outlook). This is fine. But I travel a lot and I sometimes travel without my computer. This is the main reason I have migrated just about everything I can over to Google tools: Gmail, calendar, tasks, contacts. They are free. If you use Google Apps (see above, and it’s not free) it is more secure.
  • Collaboration — To collaborate with clients and colleagues, I routinely use Google’s collaboration tools — especially Google Docs. These are essentially documents you create online. You can give other people access to them on a password basis, and they can make changes to the document too. A record is kept of all changes so you can roll back mistakes. It is a great way to work on any number of things.
  • Notes — As a solopreneur, you will spend a lot of time working on your computer. A note taking program is very useful. I use Evernote, which automatically syncs up with the web, so I can actually access my notes from anywhere.
  • Virtual Assistant — A lot of people are nervous about leaving an employer, in part because they have gotten used to having backup for administrative tasks. There are a number of people who are jumping in to fill this need.
  • Twitter and Facebook — This may seem funny to have as a “business tool,” but I firmly believe Facebook and Twitter belong here. I am not thinking of them as marketing tools — though they can be, and reams have been written about how best to do and not do that. But I am thinking of them as supports for your solopreneur efforts. If you cultivate decent networks on these services, you will have a group of people you can turn to for help, advice, and troubleshooting on a moment’s notice. For instance, need a virtual assistant? Ask your Twitter network whom they recommend!

There, I hope that’s helpful. Once I hit “publish” I am sure I will think of some more ideas. Maybe I will do an “intermediate” post sometime in the future!

Bridget Donnell Newton, 51, a city resident since 1981, has become an official candidate for the Rockville City Council. “We received a call Friday afternoon from the City Clerk and my signatures have been validated. I look forward to campaigning and hopefully serving the citizens of Rockville come November 3rd.”

Newton has long been active as a community leader, serving on the West End Traffic and Transportation Commission and as Chair of the Compensation Commission and the Town Center Action Team.. She was appointed to the County Committee tasked with choosing the location for the new Rockville Library and was instrumental in keeping the library in the town center. She is a former President of the West End Citizen’s Association and Beall Elementary PTA .

Known for her willingness to listen and her ability to bring people together to reach a consensus decision, Newton is passionate about allowing the process of good government to work.. “Politics is the art of the possible”, says Newton, “and I firmly believe that when civil people have an open and frank discussion, the final result will be a combination of the best ideas that are on the table.”.

As for the role she sees herself playing if elected, Newton says :“Rockville has always been known for our wonderful neighborhoods, public services and amenities. I see the role of the council as setting policies that reinforce and support these assets. In this economic climate, we must be vigilant about protecting our resources and that includes our citizens. I look forward to continuing my efforts in making Rockville the best it can be – for all her residents.”

The campaign will hold their Kickoff at 5:00pm on Friday September 4th in the Town Square.

Will You Support Me In Running For Annie?

Me in last year's Marine Corps Marathon
Me in last year's Marine Corps Marathon

As you may know, the Marine Corps Marathon is coming up in October — October 25, to be exact. I plan to run in it again this year. I am excited! Last year I came very close to my goal (I finished at 4:13:58). This year I hope at least to beat last year’s time, with a stretch goal of cracking four hours.

As I did last year, I am once again running with the Organization for Autism Research charity team.

My friend, Annie Corr, has autism. Her parents, Nancy and Ed, have honored me by asking me to do very small things to support her once in a while. Little things like a drive to the caregiver’s, or staying over a few hours into the night when they need to be away. I have come to know Annie and she always makes me smile.

Donating to the Organization for Autism Research will help that organization make practical research available to the field, to improve the lives of all people with autism, like Annie.

If you are willing and interested, you can donate here at this page.

There is no lower limit. Last year friends and family helped me raise $1,770. Let’s beat that!!

I do understand that there are many causes. My cause may not be your cause. I understand that! So, please, do not feel any pressure with this. Simply give if you feel so moved.

If you are the head of an organization and interested in gift matching in return for sponsorship (you know, like if I wore a logo t-shirt during the race or something like that), please get in touch with me.

The Social Media Backlash And What I Had For Lunch

Yesterday an article titled “How Facebook Ruins Friendships” predictably made the rounds of social media as people debated its pros and cons. The article’s argument hinges on three points: 1) that people say inappropriate things on social sites; 2) that much of it is trivia; and 3) this is annoying because no one wants to read all that.

Gartner Hype Cycle
Gartner Hype Cycle

This is another example of an overall social media backlash that is building steam. This is natural, as many of the shiny new social tools move along the Hype Cycle (pictured at right). After the initial glow, there’s a deep crash as disillusionment sets in, and finally technologies even out.

As people slide down into the Trough of Disillusionment, it’s useful to point out where criticism has merit and where it’s just froth. Much criticism at the moment is the latter.

In another article, I’ve pointed out how social media is very similar to the telephone when it was spreading through society. Similar criticisms abounded then — especially that inappropriate things were being shared, that it was all trivia, and who wants to hear that stuff anyway?

The thing that today’s criticisms do not appear to understand is that there is nothing inherently intrusive about social media. It’s opt-in. That is why it is a superior carrier of ephemera and trivia, and can foster a better connection between people than many other forms of at-a-distance communication. People can be free to share a wider variety of things (yes, including what they may be eating) and others have the option of tuning in or not.

Compare that to cute cat emails forwarded by Cousin Edna — which cannot be avoided in the same way. To Edna, she’s doing you a favor by sending you some positivity. To you (if you don’t like it), she’s cluttering your inbox. But if Edna were instead using social media (like Twitter or Facebook) you would not need to get cranky about the cat-mail. Just “hide” her feed in Facebook, or “unfollow” her on Twitter.

(I apologize to my friends named Edna for grabbing the name as an example. Uncle Horace is just as susceptible to such behavior.)

If you are like me, you have probably heard a number of friends complain bitterly about Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook status updates) by saying something like: “Why do you think I care what you had for lunch?” It’s a fair enough question if you discount the opt-in nature of most social media. That is, if your analogy is “Why would I want an email about what you had for lunch?”

But that’s a false analogy — I’m not emailing you, and if I were, I would definitely not email you my lunch menu. It would be rude. But, there may be some people who might find it interesting that I am eating at a particular restaurant, or eating a particular dish, or just that I’m having lunch. The transaction cost of letting them know is near zero, and the burden on others’ attention is near zero too.

The analogy, then, is not to email or the telephone — but to a public social event. In that situation, ephemera and trivia are welcome and tolerated. Some people will only want to talk business, and others will only want to talk cute cats. People at the event can gravitate to the people who interest them and contribute in ways that work for them, and everyone can get along.

So I tend to discount angry diatribes against Facebook and Twitter as just crankiness. Sure, there are good guidelines for effective use, but hard and fast rules make little sense and one person’s best practices are another person’s worst practices. So there’s room for all.

In case you wondered, I just had a container of cottage cheese for lunch.

How To Be A Nice Person Online

Club Choices by Flickr user Daquella manera
"Club Choices" by Flickr user Daquella manera

Humans are social beasts. They are driven to form groups. Every group has its own set of rules — its etiquette.

Social media is no exception. A stable set of norms is emerging that governs online behavior. Some of it is adopted from the etiquette of early online environments — like DON’T USE ALL CAPS is a long-standing norm from email.

Other norms are new and may or may not be stable. I wanted to try to write a few of the emerging norms down, especially ones that govern how people with lots of connections behave toward those with fewer connections.

Think of it as a “how to be nice” list. You’ll notice that a lot of it is just common sense from the “real” world transferred into the social media space.

  • Don’t just use your Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote your own stuff. Promote others’ work!
  • Share credit generously. If you find a link through someone else and share it, try to give credit to as many people in the chain. If you have to cut off someone in the chain (for space reasons, for example), make sure you keep the original.
  • If someone shares a post by you (by “retweeting” a link, sharing a FaceBook link, or sharing one of your original blog posts) it’s nice to thank them publicly. So, for instance, in Twitter if I share a link and then you say “RT @bradrourke Fighting panda video http://is.gd/1nbqJ” the correct response from ME is “@you Thanks for the RT!”. That way others know that I noticed your original sharing of my link.
  • Make sure it’s clear who’s saying what. If you comment on a link, make sure it doesn’t look like part of the original. Like this: “(Me: blah blah blah.)”
  • In FaceBook, if you are sharing something that another FaceBook friend originally brought to your attention, mention that person. It’s nice!
  • In your blog, if you use a photo from the Web, make sure you have permission to do so! If it’s a Creative Commons photo (like the one on this post) that requires attribution, make sure you give it fully and include a link to the original.
  • If you are commenting in a blog, avoid criticizing people by name so the thread does not devolve into a flame war. When people feel attacked they fight back.
  • Don’t be afraid to use goofy punctuation, as it softens the harshness of typed communication and makes you seem more human.

I am sure there are more good tips, these are just a few. Add to them in the comments!

The Value Of Focusing On Something Else

Last night, on vacation with extended family, a few of us stayed up late playing Risk. As players of this game know, these episodes can go on for hours and hours. We laughed harder than I had laughed in a long time.

Board Game Meetup #1 @ Firenze by Flickr user katsuma
"Board Game Meetup #1 @ Firenze" by Flickr user katsuma

As I went to bed (of course the game is not finished, it is likely to last for another day at least), I remarked to myself on what a good time we had talking. It’s not often people spend such extended time together in conversation. It seemed to me that one of the functions of board games and card games is to create a diversion for people, so that when conversation ebbs we can focus on something else. Then, renewed, we can focus again on the conversation. Without this alternative focus, the conversation might burn out.

The game also provides a constant stream  of fodder for conversation, adding in new minor events on which to comment.

It felt good and this morning I am thankful for the role board games play in our lives. It makes me wonder how we can translate that second focus into other things too — it’s helpful to be able to take a break within the intensity of conversation, to be able to keep it rolling. For instance, in a very intense project, how could we use an alternate focus to create the opportunity for a little rest, to help maintain intensity?

Cash For Clunkers: When Paces Collide

Tortoise and the hare by Flickr user Bad Rabbit, Inc.
"Tortoise and the hare" by Flickr user Bad Rabbit, Inc.

The White House has announced that it will divulge details shortly about how it will wind down the seemingly successful Cash for Clunkers program. As of July, car dealers nationwide had done $1.8 billion in deals under the program, and are on track to exhaust the $3 billion available for the program. The initiative has been held up as an unmitigated success, burning through its initial capital quickly and needing more because it’s just so popular.

But there are cracks showing. Car dealers are complaining about slow reimbursements from the government. In some states, half of the car dealers have ceased offering Clunker deals because they can’t afford to wait for the funds anymore. Automobile manufacturer financing arms have stepped in to offer short term loans to dealers who are in trouble.

These difficulties show what can happen when two cultures that operate at fundamentally different paces have to work together. These are the same kinds of problems that can get in the way when any two organizations hook up as partners.

On the one hand, you’ve got the car dealer world, where things operate on a monthly basis but where deals need to get sewn up within days. Dealers operate on very slim margins and need to stay afloat from month to month. They’ve got payroll and debts to service.

On the other hand, you’ve got government, which has to make sure it does the right things and doesn’t make rash actions that can’t be undone. Government has to take the long view. It also is hard to get it moving. There aren’t many (any) mechanisms to get money flowing into the commercial sector easily or quickly.

These are two worlds that just operate on a fundamentally different pace. Each one must see the other as behaving unreasonably.

Sometimes, when organizations are planning to work together, they come from worlds that operate at different paces. For instance, foundations and service organizations have wildly different time horizons. This isn’t something that can just be papered over, but there may be some ways to plan ahead and mitigate troubles:

  • Be honest about comparing your timelines. Often, organizations will like to say they are “responsive” when their default rhythms are 60 or 90 days and more. Other organizations operate to the rhythms of their semiannual board meetings. Still others look at the end of each week as a make-or-break deadline. Compare these — honestly.
  • Recognize there may be pace-related problems. Once you see the different paces involved, you can see if there may be problems. If you recognize this ahead of time, it will be easier to handle them with equanimity. That way if trouble brews it won’t be seen immediately as failure.
  • Acknowledge the need to change course if need be. There may need to be creative solutions to problems that crop up (for instance, short term loans from auto financing arms). There needs to be room to make these happen.
  • Create a no-hard-feelings exit path. Sometimes it just doesn’t work for organizations with different paces to work together. That doesn’t mean it’s anyone’s fault that the plan failed — it’s just the way things are. If there’s an easy way for organizations to get out of the deal without engendering ill will, maybe they can come back around later.

What is your experience when organizations with different paces collide?