Tips and tools for running a successful virtual business

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No bricks, just clicks

If you’re looking to start or run a lean, agile company on a tight budget, becoming a virtual business might be the right fit for you. A virtual business is one without brick-and-mortar offices and only a few physical assets. Most of the work is done remotely using digital technology, with little need for face-to-face meetings or commercial office space.

The benefits include saving money on rent and office infrastructure, as well as becoming more flexible in how you work. You and your team will generally collaborate using cloud applications and digital technology, giving each person the ability to work from home, a coffee shop, or any other venue that meets their needs.

Most owners of virtual companies can get going with little more than fibre internet or a mobile data SIM, a good notebook computer, a smartphone and cloud software. There’s no need to sign a lease for a building or to purchase a lot of equipment. This enables you to minimise start-up costs for a new business or trim costs for an existing company.

Here are some tips for setting up a successful virtual business:

  1. Get your web presence in place
  2. Choose appropriate tools for collaboration
  3. Organise your virtual team
  4. Consider the customer’s perspective

Let’s go through these ideas in more detail.

1. Get your web presence in place

As a virtual business, you probably won’t have a physical store or a sales team knocking on doors and calling prospects. Your digital presence, including your social media accounts, blog and website will become your storefront and salesforce. If you don’t already have a website in place, you should register an appropriate domain for your company and start building one ASAP.

With tools like the GoDaddy Website Builder, you can build a professional website right from your smartphone in under an hour. Start with a simple site now and add new capabilities, like e-mail marketing, social media integration or an online store when you’re ready. Check out our simple guide to find out how easy it is to get going.

Already have a website? Then ask yourself how hard it works for you and what you can do to improve it. Here are a few things you can look at:

  • Is it easy to find info on your website?
  • Is there a Contact Us link on every page of your website?
  • Is all site content up to date, does it reflect your company’s brand, is it easy to read, and is it accurate and free of grammatical and spelling errors?
  • Does the site work well on smartphones and mobile devices?
  • Are you satisfied with the look and feel?
  • Could you do more to improve search engine optimisation? Check out our easy SEO tips
  • Is it time to start an e-mail list? Find out where to start.
  • Is it worth starting a blog to share expertise and engage with customers?

2. Choose appropriate tools for your virtual business

The combination of ubiquitous internet access and affordable cloud business applications has made it easier than ever for people to work together without being in the same place. Messaging and conferencing apps like Webex, Skype for Business and Zoom allow you to hold voice and video conferences with people across the web. You should investigate which is best for your business. Zoom offers slick video calls, while Skype for Business is a more rounded collaboration tool, for example.

Solutions such as DropBox, GoogleDrive or Office 365 which includes OneDrive make it easy to share files with each other via the internet. Slack or Microsoft Teams offer collaborative hubs. Trello or Basecamp are useful project management solutions for virtual teams. When you’re working together via the cloud, the great thing is that all team members have access to the same files, data and applications and can work on them together in real-time.

Some of these tools offer free, basic packages that are good enough for many small businesses. Most can be bought on an affordable monthly or annual subscription plan. In general, you can try most tools before you need to start paying, so you can experiment until you find the ones that work best for your team.

Most of the software is designed to run on any modern notebook or mobile device, but it is still worth investing in a computer, tablet or smartphone you find responsive, reliable and easy to use. Also be sure to look at your internet connectivity options carefully since you will need a stable and relatively fast connection for applications such as video conferencing.

3. Organise your virtual team

If you are running a virtual business, you probably want to take a more fluid approach to sourcing talent and skills than hiring people to come into an office each day. Rather than hiring a full-time marketer, salesperson or accountant, for example, you could outsource to someone who is effectively running a little virtual business of their own.

You may also use sub-contractors and freelancers for some of your billable work. The good news is this approach enables you to seek talent from across the country or even from around the world. The bad news is that you will need to think carefully about how you manage your relationships with people without face-to-face interaction every day.

Look for people who have a track record working remotely, or who at least show they have the adaptability and motivation to work without the structure of an office. Put in place structures like morning update calls or weekly reports to ensure you always know what the team is doing. Use tech to track project progress and hours worked.

Always set clear expectations when you engage someone to work with you, whether as a partner, part-time remote worker or freelancer. Outline their deliverables, remuneration, working hours and other conditions of their engagement with your business before you start working together.

4. Consider the customer’s perspective

Some customers are conservative and worry about buying services from someone who appears to run their business out of their garage. A strong list of contactable references can often overcome their scepticism. Also, speak openly to clients about the technology you use, your vision for your business, and how you do things to reassure them that where you work matters less than your expertise and professionalism.

If it is important in your industry to project a more corporate image, you can purchase virtual office services from the likes of Regus and The Business Centre. They can, for example, give you boardrooms in prime city locations for meeting clients, as well as a receptionist to answer calls in your company’s name and take messages.

Shift towards virtual services

There is still a perception that the virtual business approach is best suited to creative types like writers and graphic designers. But today’s technology and a growing acceptance of mobile and remote working means many services businesses are a perfect fit for virtual. Among them, many marketing, sales, accounting, tax, legal, consulting and e-commerce businesses. As traffic gets worse, rental gets more expensive and we all look for better work-life balance, the trend towards virtual business will only grow.