You can spot us anywhere: We are the self-employed, the soloists, the office temps, the e-lancers, the independent contractors. Numbering about 25 million strong, we are members of Free Agent Nation.
We head up micro-businesses, and our staff usually consists of the face we greet in the mirror each morning. We do everything from running the shop to cleaning up when the day is done. But the hardest role for many of us to fill is that of being our own IT person -- that of dealing with all of our high-tech business tools while juggling myriad other roles. People who survive as free agents know how to find the tools that let them soar and how to avoid the ones that bog them in quicksand.
I declared my free agency in 1978, when I left behind the trappings of an associate professorship (in the art department at East Tennessee State University) and launched a pottery business in Chicago. Two years later, after realizing that my marketing and communications skills were stronger than my talent for creating porcelain dinnerware, I plunked down $1,795 for an Osborne computer that had dual floppy-disk drives, a pre-DOS operating system, and a teeny four-inch monitor -- and found myself captivated by the nascent personal-computer industry.
Over the past 21 years, I've crafted several successful businesses. In my current venture, I play a dual role: helping people to start and grow their own companies, and advising corporations on how to connect with this booming entrepreneurial market.
I've learned, through trial by fire and through countless conversations with other free agents, that what separates the wanna-bes from the power players is the ability to master three key areas: performing like a pro, leveraging time, and staying connected. Free agents -- as well as independent spirits who reside behind corporate walls -- know that choosing the right tools and the right support structure is critical to success.
VP of Look & Feel
In the world of free agency, small details telegraph big messages. Stripped of organizational support and the cachet of an impressive title, free agents must prove on their own that they're pros. If you are a free agent or aspire to become one, no one will think you're a pro if you look like an amateur.
Business cards printed on predesigned stock used to confer instant professionalism. Not anymore. This canned approach now reeks of home-grown bootstrapping. By using iPrint.com, a leading online print shop, you can create high-quality business cards. The site is open for business around the clock, and it's fully automated: With the click of a mouse, you choose from various typefaces, graphic elements, paper stocks, and ink colors.
The site's interactive desktop-publishing capabilities let you easily tweak a design, proofread changes -- even incorporate your company's logo. Once you've designed a card, it's a snap to extend the image you've created to other items, such as letterhead and labels. Your order will be printed by one of iPrint.com's commercial partners and delivered to your office within a few days.
Coordinates: $15.99 for 250 cards. iPrint.com, www.iprint.com
You'll still need a laser printer for day-to-day work. To conserve office space, some free agents opt for an all-in-one machine that can not only print but also fax, copy, and scan. But that's a risky tack to pursue: If the unit goes down, all of your productivity goes down with it. In my office, I use stand-alone machines for everyday use and a so-called multifunction device as a backup.
The HP LaserJet 2100 is a solo printer that can grow as your business grows. Designed for individual users and for small groups, the 2100 delivers acutely readable images at a fast-forward speed (10 pages per minute). As your output increases, you can upgrade the printer's memory from 4 MB to 8 MB ($56); add a second, 250-sheet paper tray to achieve a total capacity of 600 sheets ($149); and expand the machine's networking capabilities by adding an internal print server ($239). Just beware of the hidden cost of consumables, such as toner. A toner cartridge for the HP LaserJet 2100 costs $83 and prints up to 5,000 pages.
Coordinates: $699. HP LaserJet 2100, Hewlett-Packard Co., www.hp.com
Director of Multitasking
All-star free agents are masters at multitasking. They know how to squeeze productivity out of every waking hour and how to leverage technology to make the most of their time.
Free-agent multitaskers expect their software to work as hard as they do. One of the most durable tools in my software kit is FileMaker Pro 4.1, an easy-to-use database program that can handle the heavy lifting when I'm organizing reports, contact lists, invoices, and other projects that come with working solo. FileMaker combines modern database power (including full relational capabilities, scripting, cross-platform support, and more) with page-layout and formatting tools. After entering a batch of customer profiles, I can adapt that information in any of several ways -- as a project-status report, as a checklist, as a mail-merge letter.
FileMaker helps jump-start the filing by bundling in more than 50 prebuilt templates. Free agents will find these templates -- which generate invoices, expense reports, purchase orders, and other documents -- to be critical time-savers.
Coordinates: $199. FileMaker Pro 4.1, FileMaker Inc., www.filemaker.com
There's nothing more frustrating than brain-storming the idea of the year -- only to get swept up in another task and lose your thought. That's why another can't-live-without-it device in my free-agent tool kit is a microcassette recorder. I use it to capture my big ideas -- as well as items on my To Do list and other day-to-day minutiae.
Lately I've been thinking of upgrading to a digital recorder. Sony's ICD-80 Digital Voice Recorder looks like a good pick. Smaller than a microcassette recorder, the device slips easily into a coat pocket or purse, so it can go anywhere you go. The ICD-80 handles up to 48 minutes of recording and includes a feature that flags high-priority items. The device also allows you to make message files, so you can separate voice messages into categories such as "memos" or "meetings." Using the Sony ICKIT-W1 accessory kit, you can even connect the recorder to your computer, upload voice files, and then email the files to customers or colleagues.
Coordinates: $249.95. ICD-80 Digital Voice Recorder; $69.95. ICKIT-W1 -- both from Sony Electronics Inc., www.sony.com
Real-deal multitaskers hate being tethered to their desk. They want the freedom to roam when they're on the phone, so that they can grab a spreadsheet or enter notes from a conversation into their computer. Using the speakerphone option on a desk unit is not much of a solution: Most speakerphones have the acoustic finesse of a Fisher-Price toy.
I've been shopping for something that will let me keep my hands off the phone and on my work, and I think I've found what I need in Polycom's SoundPoint audioconferencing speaker. The beehive-shaped speaker takes up about as much space as a typical desktop phone, and it connects easily to your telephone receiver.
The speaker delivers full-duplex audio: Unlike an ordinary speakerphone, SoundPoint won't leave you sounding as if you're calling from a cave. The speaker also makes it easier to distinguish between multiple voices, so you're less likely to miss words when people speak simultaneously. Best of all, you can roam up to nine feet away from SoundPoint -- and the person on the other end of the line will never know that you're moving around while you talk.
Coordinates: $299. SoundPoint, Polycom Inc., www.polycom.com
Chief Connecting Officer
One of the biggest myths about free agency is that working solo is the same as working alone. Savvy free agents know better. They recognize the value of connecting with other people, and they're always on the hunt for tools that will help them do so.
Web sites catering to free agents are springing up almost as fast as free-agent businesses. One such site is DigitalWork, which has assembled an array of business-support applications under one virtual roof. Free agents can use DigitalWork to locate and hire temporary employees, to sell their wares via the Net, to purchase goods and services at a discount, and to access reports on competitors, customers, and vendors. Members can even issue news releases at a discount by taking advantage of DigitalWork's partnership with BusinessWire, an electronic news-distribution service.
Coordinates: Free. DigitalWork, www.digitalwork.com
The Web is the ultimate networking tool, but don't overlook the plain old telephone. While doing research for this article, I tested Siemens's digital Gigaset 2420 Cordless Communication System. I was looking for a way to escape to an upstairs room -- away from the distractions of my main office -- and still stay connected with clients and with my assistant. The Siemens system provided a handy solution.
In its basic form, the Gigaset 2420 consists of a desk station; a cordless, battery-powered handset; and a docking station. The system comes with an integrated digital answering machine, a speakerphone, a phone-number directory, four speed-dial settings, and caller-ID display.
The Siemens system can grow along with your company. As your office team expands, you can add up to seven handsets (each with its own docking station), thereby gaining walkie-talkie capabilities while maintaining ultraclear voice quality. You can also incorporate both business- and home-phone lines. That way, you can pass off personal calls to family members and still keep the desk station free for business calls.
Coordinates: $399 (full system, including one handset). Gigaset 2420 Cordless Communication System, Siemens AG, www.siemens-wireless.com
As we close this peek inside a free agent's tool kit, remember that the kit is never complete. Successful independent contractors know how to find the tools that will help them redefine the value that they bring to the marketplace -- regardless of whether those tools are high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech.
Action Item: Shop Here
Any way you look at it, shopping for office equipment and business supplies chews through your time and your money. But you can cut your losses at BuyersZone, an online resource for finding goods and services that will keep your business humming.
A compelling mix of a shopping club, an online library, and a community bulletin board, BuyersZone can be explored using three options: Hit "Learn" to read up on a product. Hit "Compare" to discover what other business shoppers have to say about their purchases. Or hit "Shop" to be linked to vendors that will take your credit-card number, sell you a product, and let you return to the real work of running your business.
Coordinates: Free. BuyersZone, www.buyerszone.com
Sidebar: Soloists on Call
I might be working solo, but I can still tap into the collective brainpower that comes with belonging to a group of talented businesspeople.
Every two weeks, I dial into a teleconference with a group of veteran free agents. This group includes a professional speaker from Minneapolis, a financial planner from Little Rock, and a copywriter from San Francisco. We help one another negotiate business contracts, to deal with troublesome clients, and to overcome free-agent burnout. Here's how we do it.
At an agreed-upon time, all members dial into a telephone-bridge number that links us into a teleconference. Several companies offer this service; we use one called Telephone Bridge Line Savers.
Each person is given about 10 minutes to share news, to ask for advice, and to set one goal (to be completed before the next session).
Soon after each session, a designated scribe emails a brief summary to the rest of the group. The views of my fellow free agents are always stimulating; their encouragement is a tonic; their advice is priceless.
Coordinates: About $1,000 per year for flat-rate service. Telephone Bridge Line Savers, 800-345-3325
Sidebar: Tiger Tamer
After years of fighting data overload, I've learned how to wage war against paper. And I've found a weapon that blends the simplicity of numerical filing with the power of database technology.
Kiplinger's Taming the Paper Tiger software features an easy-to-track system of numerical file folders. Each folder corresponds to a set of keywords. When I need to access a folder, I just type in the first keyword that comes to mind; the folder's number pops up onscreen -- and voilà, I know which folder to pull from my filing cabinet.
Developed with Barbara Hemphill, author of the Taming the Paper Tiger books (Kiplinger Books, 1992), the multimedia CD-ROM aims to help you "find anything in your office in five seconds," she says. Once I had Paper Tiger up and running on my computer -- which took about an hour -- I found that Hemphill was right.
Coordinates: $79.95. Taming the Paper Tiger, the Monticello Corp., www.thepapertiger.com
Sidebar: Solo Support
Every free agent needs a personal tech-support team. Here are three online resources that offer high-quality help.
SupportHelp.com catalogs more than 17,000 personal-technology products and offers contact information for more than 5,100 manufacturers. You can search the database by company name, keyword, or product name.
Coordinates: Free. SupportHelp.com, www.supporthelp.com
PC Crisis Line is a round-the-clock service that provides prompt support to PC owners. Charges apply only if the service can answer a user's question. Coordinates: $3 per minute for the first 10 minutes; $1 for each additional minute (there's a 2-minute minimum). PC Crisis Line, www.pccrisis.com
Rent-A-Geek is a directory of more than 2,000 independent computer consultants -- all of whom make house calls. To find a geek near you, enter your location and list which technical skills you need your geek to have.
Coordinates: Free. Rent-A-Geek, www.rentageek.com