By David H. Ringstrom, CPA
As the economy continues to contract, more and more accountants are considering striking out on their own. A benefit to providing accounting services is that you can often ease your way into your own business, as long as you don't run afoul of any non-compete agreements with your primary employer. I'm sure you've read a million articles about how to establish a separate workspace that's all your own and how to organize your files, so instead I'm going to focus on elements of my own home office that I've found particularly effective.
Computer - I've always used a laptop as my primary machine, and I always purchase machines that can be snapped into a docking station, also commonly referred to as a port replicator. Doing so ensures that I don't have to take my power cord out of my bag, nor do I have to touch any other cables. If you choose a laptop, it's simple to connect an external monitor and expand your desktop across both monitors. I've gone a step further, and use Toshiba's DynaDock to have three screens. This allows me to have a dedicated e-mail monitor, as well as two others for whatever project I'm working on.
Printer – Laser printers offer far lower cost-per-page and crisper output. Indeed, if you're able to put your hands on a second-hand HP LaserJet IV or equivalent, you'll have a workhorse of a printer that will last for years — my LaserJet survived a lightning strike that took out all other equipment around it.
Scanner – I consider a scanner to be like a chainsaw…I don't use it very often, but when I need it, nothing else will do.
Shredder – Keep your shredder within an arms length of your desk so that you can immediately dispose of unneeded documents. Also, make sure to buy a heavy-duty version, as few things are more frustrating than trying to unjam a balky shredder, as you'll invariably end up with confetti on the floor.
Fax machine – Although I rarely use it, I keep a fax machine around for sending outgoing faxes. For years I've relied on the eFax service for incoming documents. Not only do my faxes appear in my inbox, my employees get copied on faxes automatically so I never have to forward a fax on.
eFax tip: If you already use eFax, be sure to log into the control panel and change the setting so that your faxes arrive as PDFs, instead of the proprietary eFax format. This can be a huge timesaver.
Separate telephone line with a headset – I've used my cell phone as my office number, which freed me up from checking two voice mailboxes. However, since I often have to walk outside to get a clear signal, I pay for a basic, no-frills landline that I use with a headset. Internet-based phone service, often referred to as VOIP, is an obvious alternative.
Back-up – I recommend a four-pronged approach:
- I back up highly critical data like my own accounting records, on flash drives. I recommend alternating between at least two.
- I also alternate backing up my entire hard drive between two external hard drives. I try to keep one drive as a far away from my desk as possible in the event of fire or other disaster. I use a program called SmartSync Pro to back-up my data, but many other alternatives are available.
- I also recommend using an online back-up service like Carbonite, Jungle Disk, or other services.
- I also use the free Windows Live Sync service to automatically replicate files from my primary computer onto a secondary computer. At one point my laptop hard drive crashed, but everything I was working on was immediately available for use on the second computer.
Accounting Software – You could purchase retail versions of these programs, but consider these respective professional accountant programs instead:
Tip: Not only is Microsoft's program free, it also qualifies you to apply for a Microsoft ActionPack subscription, which provides a staggering amount of Microsoft software for just a few hundred dollars — think 10 Office 2007 Enterprise licenses, 10 Office 2003 Professional licenses, and on and on.
Tax Preparation Software - Tax preparers should consider a package such as ATX 1040, which starts at $410/year. You'll be able to do far more with it than consumer-grade products like TurboTax or TaxCut.
Remote access – Many folks are aware of GoToMyPC, but there are other players, like LogMeIn, that provide free or low-cost remote access to your clients' computers. This allows you to assist clients directly during the business day, or use their computers to carry out work after hours.
Screen capture program – As a freelance writer, SnagIt is an indispensible tool, but I often use it for my clients, too. When someone e-mails me a question about Excel, Peachtree, or QuickBooks, I'll often make a quick screen capture of the window in question, drop a word balloon with some text on the image, and e-mail it on. With regard to tech support, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.
Security Software – In the good old days security software pretty much meant anti-virus protection, but these days you must now have firewall, anti-malware, and even encryption. Symantec and Trend Micro, among others, offer Internet security packages. Encryption is easier than you might think, as Jeff Cherrington, vice president of product management for PKWARE notes: "A home worker should be aware that it is critical to consider measures above and beyond firewalls and virus protection software to ensure security of sensitive data. Security that remains with data is needed now more than ever as more sophisticated means of cyber threats and identity theft emerge. Sensitive business or customer information is vulnerable to compromise as it travels across home wireless networks and over the Internet or as it is stored on computers, DVDs, or USB drives. Many home workers are familiar with using .zip to compress documents. Now, it is possible to .zip and encrypt all types of data such as e-mail, e-mail attachments, pdf files, .jpg files, and even Microsoft Office documents. The information assets are sealed in secured virtual containers while the data is in transit or is being stored. It is even possible to protect files that are sent or stored on such email and storage services offered by AOL, Yahoo, or Google, provided that the files are zipped and encrypted before they are sent or stored. Home workers wishing to send large e-mail attachments will be pleased to learn that usage of .zip compression together with encryption helps to avoid the problem of exceeding mail size limits that often result in bounce back messages or delays in getting necessary information to business contacts. Zipping and encrypting sensitive data renders it useless to cyber criminals or thieves, while enabling home workers to securely engage in necessary business interactions. SecureZIP enables users to secure files and folders with strong passphrase or digital certificate-based encryption. It also supports digital signatures to ensure data integrity SecureZIP saves and sends files securely directly from Microsoft Office applications, including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. PKWAREs SecureZIP is available for a 30-day trial at www.pkware.com."
David H. Ringstrom, CPA heads up Accounting Advisors, Inc., an Atlanta-based software and database consulting firm providing training and consulting services nationwide. Contact David at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter. David speaks at conferences about Microsoft Excel, and presents webcasts for several CPE providers, including AccountingWEB partner CPE Link.