Five ways to build a virtual office

When it comes to running a business, our feet are firmly on the ground but our data and software are increasingly in the cloud. My burgeoning media empire consists of two people (my lovely wife and me), but to the outside world we seem a lot bigger, thanks to online applications.

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Admittedly, such online applications aren't as powerful as those that come with "Microsoft" on the box (or even the free ones from OpenOffice)...yet. But they are handy when we're away from our primary computers and we need to access files, or when we're working with people spread across different time zones.

Google Docs can even send an e-mail alert if anyone has made changes to a file. Better yet, both Google and Zoho offer offline access. Download and install Google Gears, and you'll be able to open files you've created when a Net connection isn't available, and then sync them back up when you reconnect.

Want more? The Web is bursting with other collaborative apps, but most of them charge you for the privilege of using them. So far, Google Docs and Zoho Office are 100 percent free.

Get a robotic personal assistant

We can't afford to hire an administrative assistant, which is why we use Highrise. Nominally an online CRM tool, 37signals' clever Web app does nearly everything a personal secretary might do except go out for coffee and pick up our dry cleaning.

Of course, the last thing you need is yet another address book to populate. Fortunately, Highrise makes the job easy: Just bcc e-mail messages to a special 'dropbox' address, and your recipient's address joins your contacts database automatically. You can then copy and paste their phone number, physical address, and other info at your leisure. (You can also upload V-cards or import whole address books from Outlook and other contact managers.)

But Highrise is really more about organizing your work life and keeping you on track. You can create a "case" for each project, associate contacts with each case, add notes and upload documents, share the case with colleagues, and add tasks for each person to perform. Highrise is free for two users and up to 250 contacts; paid plans that allow multiple users to swap files, collaborate on cases, and share thousands of contacts range from $24 to $99 a month.

When we need full-on project management, we also use 37signals' Basecamp, which lets us create milestones, view them on a calendar, track successive versions of the same document, and do a whole lot more. You can manage one project with unlimited users for free; for multiple projects, prices start at $24 a month.

Outsource your calendars

It was a happy day here at TynanWood when we finally ditched Microsoft Outlook for handling our schedules and went with Google Calendar.

We set up calendars for everyone in our organization (including our kids and their schools) and shared them; now we can view everyone's appointments in one screen by clicking a few boxes. Google sends alerts to my e-mail inbox and my cell phone when I'm about to miss an appointment, and even synchronizes with the calendar on my Windows Smart Phone (via a free third-party utility called GooSync).

The downside? Unlike Google Docs, the calendar service has no offline capability yet, so we can't access our schedules when we're flying or when the Net connection goes kablooey.

Fortunately, there's a groovy alternative in Scrybe, which lets you update your calendar even when you're offline, and then sync up when you reconnect. Scrybe offers some extremely cool-looking features, such as the ability to zoom in and out on particular days or time slots and produce miniature calendars on actual paper! The bad news: Like Google GrandCentral, Scrybe has closed its public beta for now, so you'll need to find a sympathetic Scrybe user to invite you.

Do the virtual meet and greet

These days, most of our meetings are virtual. And while plenty of tools can help you trot out a dog-and-pony show without leaving your desk, most of them cost more than we want to spend.

If you only occasionally need to meet and greet the outside world, FreeConference.com is a reasonable alternative. The standard free service lets you schedule phone briefings up to 4 hours long for as many as 150 of your closest friends. If you want to record the sessions, you'll need to pony up $9 a month; goodies such as a toll-free number or a dedicated bridge line cost 10 cents per user per minute. Want to do live demos or foist PowerPoint slides upon your audience? At press time, FreeConference was offering the SharePlus desktop-sharing beta for no charge--a price that's hard to beat.

Dan Tynan is the lesser half of TynanWood. Catch up with his blog, Tynan on Technology.

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