One of the beauties of running an internet business is the ability to work from anywhere. Additionally, recent reviews of the 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris, has created renewed interest in the idea of being able to run a business from anywhere. One of the things he talks about in his book is the ability to not only reduce your work time, but to travel a lot and run the business from afar. So, get a laptop and an internet connection, you’re good to go, right? Well, not always.
Running a business means you need to use a lot of different types of software. And sometimes it is hard to make the data completely portable. Many of us have more than one computer and that leads to issues with synching data between multiple machines. Myself, I have a desktop machine in my home office. I also have a notebook computer. I like to be able to work as much as possible on either computer without really having to pay attention to where my data is and if I have the most up-to-date version of a particular file on the computer than I’m using. You try to multiply that problem out among hundreds or thousands of computer files – and you’re screwed. Sooner or later, you’re going to overwrite something and lose some of your work. It sucks. I’ve done it.
So, we want to live on the go. Not necessarily “on the run”, but definitely not tied to a particular location. Or even a particular computer. The great news is that the technology is there today to make this really easy. In some cases you might need to fork over a little scratch. However in many cases, you don’t. So, read on…
Email is usually top priority for getting portable. Using offline email programs like Outlook or Thunderbird make being portable a little more difficult. You either need to make one of your computers the “lead” computer and remotely access it or you need to move the data file around. For quite some time, I have used Outlook as my email program. When I wanted to check my email from another computer, I would use Logmein.com to remotely access my desktop and deal with email. There are a couple of drawbacks here:
- I had to leave the desktop on all the time.
- If something happened to the desktop (as happened recently with a hard drive crash), I had no email.
I am now experimenting with Gmail, from Google. The ultimate in portability is to use a web-based email service. Google’s Gmail is very good. Some prefer Yahoo Mail. I am really digging Gmail right now. I can check my email from literally any computer. I don’t have to worry about losing my email because its on the web. And Google’s interface is pretty slick. Also, you don’t have to convert to a Gmail.com address by any means. You can continue to use your own domain and still use Gmail. You have two options:
- Google Apps. With this, you can actually route traffic from your own domain to Google services, allowing you to use Google services on your own domain.
- Use Gmail as an email client. Any standard Gmail account will allow you to access other POP3 accounts and bring the email into Google. You will be setting up a Gmail account, but it doesn’t mean you need to use it to receive your email. Set up Gmail to check your POP3 accounts on your own domain and bring the messages over to Gmail. Then, set up those same email accounts in Gmail so that your outgoing email uses those other accounts as FROM addresses. In effect, you’re using Gmail as an email client, and nobody will ever know you’re using Gmail.
Your documents are also an important part of going mobile. You don’t want to have all your documents on one machine. It’s the same problem as you have with your email. There are two options to check out here to make your documents portable. You can use a web-based service like Google Documents & Spreadsheets. With this, you actually write your documents or create your spreadsheets in your web browser. You can even organize your documents into folders. You can easily save your documents to your computer if you choose, but having them on the web makes them accessible from anywhere. Google also provides some great document sharing capabilities to allow team collaboration with your documents. This blog post is being written with Google Docs. I use it all the time.
The other option is to set up online backup for your files so that you can easily pull down your files from other machines. I use the online backup service Mozy.com. It’s a nice backup service. They give you 2 gigabytes of storage for free and you can set it up on more than one machine so that you can use Mozy as a go-between. The program on the computer automates the backup so you don’t need to worry about remembering it.
Finance is an important part of running your business. Most of us probably use Quickbooks. I do. Right now, I am using Mozy.com to automatically backup my Quickbooks file. Then, I can pull the file down to another computer if I need to. It’s not the essence of portability. To be completely portable, I would probably switch over to Quickbooks Online. They’ll give you a 30-day free trial and it is purported to have all the capabilities of the Windows-based software.
To be truly portable, you cannot be tied to a traditional land-line phone. Sure, you can use call forwarding to make the calls follow you around, but that can be a hassle. The alternative is to turn to the Internet for your voice communications. Getting a VOIP line is usually a good idea for the portable business. I personally use Vonage for my home office. When somebody leaves me a voice mail, I get the message in my email box as a WAV file. I can therefore check my email from anywhere (using Gmail). By using the Vonage V-Phone, you can have your Vonage line follow you anywhere by turning your PC into your phone.
If you want to go even cheaper, you can turn to Skype. You can get a landline phone number to route calls into your Skype line for hardly anything. The current cost (as of this writing) is $18 for 3 months or $60 for a year. Skype is not as dependable as Vonage, but its much cheaper.
If you do have a land line and don’t want to switch, you can investigate services to grab your voice mail and email it to you. Services like Gotvoice.com or GrandCentral can get the job done for you. They can check your standard voice mail and email you the messages. And you can use them to centralize multiple phone lines.
What about fax? Using a fax machine is not conducive to the mobile life. Instead, use a service which will give you a VOIP based fax line and email you the faxes as PDFs. EFAX is a pretty popular online fax service. I have been using MaxEmail.com for some time now and am quite happy with it.
Another aspect of mobile business is being able to access your contacts from anywhere. The clear winner as far as online CRM is Salesforce.com. You can get a free, personal account to try it out. It is like ACT!, but you run it in your web browser. It is also highly customizable and a large library called the AppExchange makes it even more so.
Google Calendar is a great online calendar tool. Its free and has a nice interface. It also allows you to share out your schedule with others, similar to what you could do in a Microsoft Exchange environment. It can also be set up to automatically email you your daily agenda each morning or send notifications to your mobile phone. One drawback, in my eyes, is the lack of a task list in the Calendar tool. I hope that Google enhances their calendar tool to include a task list as well. That would make Google into an Outlook killer. Until then, you can explore other avenues for your todo list. I sometimes just use a simple document on Google Docs. But, you can go other routes as well, such as Tadalist or Blablalist.
When you use more than one computer, you want your bookmarks to follow you. If you use Firefox, I HIGHLY recommend you get the FoxMarks add-on. You will sign up for a free account and install the add-on. Do so on multiple computers and your bookmarks will stay in synch among all of them. I love this add-on. I can bookmark something on my notebook regardless of where I am and it will automatically appear on my desktop at home. That rules.
RSS Feed Reader
Google Reader all the way. It’s a great reader for your RSS feeds, but you can access it from any computer. Even your cell phone.
Random Online Storage
Sometimes you just want to store files in a virtual drive that you can access from anywhere. Xdrive is a good way to go. They’ll give you 5 gigabytes for free, and you can access your files via the web, your own file explorer, or via a wireless device.
I could go on and on if I wanted to. The amount and variety of online applications available today is stunning. I’ve seen online mind map tools, online image editing, and others. It all comes down to convenience and portability. We are moving fast toward a distributed computing environment with the web being the computer. As time goes on, we will likely move more toward distributed storage and access-from-anywhere computing and less dependence on our individual computers to store everything. For those of us who just don’t want to be tied down, there are already many services out there which allow you to operate from any computer with an internet connection, regardless of where you are in the world.
Google is a major player in making this so easy. There are some security concerns that come to mind when you think about it. None of the Google services are using SSL encryption. At the same time, I can’t say I’ve heard of any incidents of data loss or account breaches with Google. Part of me is slightly wary of putting so much of my information on Google’s servers, but I have to say I am turning into a huge Google whore. Their offerings are slick and convenient. And the lack of a price tag is awesome.
On that note, happy travels!