The MacGyver approach to starting a financial business

By Steve Adams

Back in the 1980s, a popular television show named MacGyver gave rise to a whole new term. Essentially, the cleverness of his ability to extricate himself from life-or-death situations by making something out of practically nothing led to the use of his name as a verb, as in, "I locked myself out of the house, but I managed to MacGyver a paper clip onto a popsicle stick with some chewing gum and use it to unlock a window so I could get in." MacGyvering (being in the process of building something) and MacGyvered (telling the story of your triumph afterward) also became quite popular.

Entrepreneurs who are starting their own accounting or finance business in the current economy – whether by choice or circumstances – could learn a lot from our friend Mr. MacGyver. Because while starting a business using conventional methods can be expensive, there are things you can do to severely reduce costs without reducing your ability to do the work or service your clients properly. Here are a few ideas on how to MacGyver your seed money to make it go farther.

Opt for used computers instead of new

Yes, everyone loves a bright, shiny, new PC with all its bells and whistles. The thing is, most small business owners really don't need all that processing power. Take a look at what you want the computer to do. If you're planning to use it with basic office applications such as word processors and spreadsheets, send and receive e-mail, and surf the Internet, a used or refurbished PC will likely work just fine.

You can purchase used or refurbished computers online for as little as $99. Many of these computers are units that have come off-lease from large corporations, so you know they should have the core capabilities and speed you need.
If you need to share files or resources with one or more co-workers, you can build simple file and print sharing networks with used wireless routers or low-cost devices available at local retailers (as long as you have a little MacGyver in you to put the network together). As a bonus, by purchasing used technology you'll also be helping the environment by keeping those PCs out of landfills.

Create a business phone system using mobile phones

Mobile phones and PDAs are rapidly displacing the old land line phones among consumers. In fact, the latest figures show that roughly 20 percent of all American households are wireless-only. Now the technology exists to move business phones in the same direction.

Virtual phone services for small businesses allow you to overlay an entire business phone system on top of any working phone number – including a mobile number. Here's how they work: when you sign up for a virtual phone service, you are assigned a phone number (which will become your "business" number). Usually you can choose between a toll-free or local phone number, although "local" is a loose term since you can choose the area code you want. The service provides business-oriented features such as an auto-attendant to greet callers and direct them to the right people, the ability to assign extensions to different people in the company (even if those people don't work at the main office, which is becoming more popular in the financial industry), voicemail, call forwarding, and more.

Calls to the business phone service number go to the service provider, and then are routed to the phones you identify as being part of your phone system. Here's where it really gets good.

Each of the extensions can be forwarded to your employees' own mobile and/or home phones, saving on the cost of phone equipment. Users can receive notifications that they have a voicemail message in their e-mail, or even receive a file with voicemail message in their e-mail so they don't have to call in to retrieve it. Anyone on the system can initiate a conference call, and in some cases bring in as many people as they want, whenever they want. All of this functionality (and more) comes for a monthly fee that's often less than the price of one land line – and with no added cost for equipment or technicians to run it.

As for your personal mobile phone becoming your business phone, not to worry. Your old mobile number will still work too, so it's easy to distinguish between business and personal calls. The phone number is just the peg on which to MacGyver the service.

Skip leasing office space

The first two ideas enable this third one. There is something thrilling about having an actual office to go to; nothing says "legitimate" like a separate office. But if you're trying to conserve cash in a tight economy, consider passing on leasing one office space for your financial organization in favor of some thrifty alternatives.

An obvious alternative is to have everyone work from home. There's no cost for the space, and you can use an online service to store and share documents, creating a de facto network for the organization. You'll also save on many of the things you don't think of at first, such as office furniture, decorating expenses, coffee for the office (along with a coffee maker), a common copier, and more.

If you feel you personally need an office that's separate from your home, see if you can sublet space from another company in your area. With all the downsizing that's occurred recently, especially in service-oriented businesses, many companies are probably paying for empty space. If you can sublet one of those empty offices you'll both win. And with the virtual phone service you won't even have an impact on their phone bills.

You can also look into common office space – the type where several organizations share certain resources, such as a common lobby, conference rooms, and admin support – while occupying different offices. Often they come equipped with furniture and other office equipment, helping you keep your costs lower. Shop around a little and you may find a great bargain.

Shopping around also applies to traditional office space. The down economy has created a lot of empty spaces that are costing commercial real estate companies money. Lots of it. Nationally, a little more than 13 percent of office space is unoccupied now. In some regions, though, the figure is almost double that.

Ask around to see where space has been empty for a long time and put on your negotiating hat. Right now commercial real estate companies may figure some income is better than none, and you can move in to space you normally couldn't afford as a startup.

Beat the odds

The key to MacGyver's genius (and popularity) was how creative his solutions were. He didn't have James Bond's Q Branch creating devices for him. He simply improvised using whatever he thought would work.

Remember that most small accounting and finance businesses fail within the first year because their spending outpaces their income. The best way to beat those odds is to keep your spending to a minimum. With a little creativity (and a little help from the right technologies) you can MacGyver together an office that is both fully functional and economical. And one that will serve as a launching pad for when the economy gets better.

About the author
Steve Adams is vice president of marketing for Protus, a provider of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) communication tools for small-to-medium businesses (SMB) and enterprise organizations, including my1voice, the cost-effective, feature-rich virtual phone service that travels with the user from phone to Web, award-winning MyFax, the fastest growing Internet fax service and Campaigner, an e-mail marketing solution with advanced automation features. Steve can be reached at sadams@protus.com.

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