Certified public accountant Sheryl Brown hasn’t bought any new filing cabinets for a year, but don’t blame her.
Blame her computer.
After all, it’s the thing letting her 5-year-old accounting firm – Taking Care of Business – get closer and closer to the Albuquerque businesswoman’s dream: a paperless office.
Brown’s computer is just one soldier in an army of advancing technology that is changing the way she and a growing number of other small businesses, from restaurants to physician offices, get through the day.
Many other allies are inside her sunny office on Louisiana Boulevard Southeast. There’s a wireless router. There are printer and scanner all-in-ones. There’s a Web site that lets her use an Internet-connected computer miles away as though it were sitting right in front of her.
“It’s great,” she says. “You can consolidate your whole office down to minimum.”
Brown’s liberation began in 2003. The catalyst? A seminar put on by Gear Up Inc., an accounting technology consulting and educational firm out of Vancouver, Wash.
One of the topics concerned the power of using scanners to turn documents into digital files. Once digitized, they can be stored on a computer’s hard drive or any number of media including CDs and DVDs.
“We started this summer scanning and shredding. So that brought back one drawer worth of stuff,” she says, jokingly adding: “We looked like Arthur Andersen, with bags and bags of shredded materials.”
“Now,” she says, standing and pulling a drawer open, “this one holds nothing but software.”
Storing documents as digital files on CDs is a simple but significant evolution of the office. One file drawer could hold up to 10 years of documents if they were put on CD, Brown says, a massively more efficient use of space.
The same rings true for J. Michael Moye, owner of Moye Tax Service in Albuquerque.
“I’ve actually been able to downsize . . . my space,” he says. “I’ve lowered my rent costs, lowered my storage costs.”
Despite the advantages, Brown admits it was a bit of a challenge to switch from tangible paper to a computer’s bits and bytes.
“I’m so used to making copies of stuff and printing things out,” she says. “It’s mainly . . . new habits.”
Doing her homework
One of Brown’s new habits that didn’t take too much getting used to was working from home.
She usually doesn’t come into the office until 11 a.m. If it’s sunny out, she’ll be on her patio with a laptop (with umbrella and sunscreen, she notes). If it’s not, she might be typing away in the kitchen. Or maybe the couch. Wherever.
It doesn’t really matter because of two things: wireless Internet and a Web site called GoToMyPC.com.
Wireless Internet is just what it sounds like: access to the Web without wires. You still have a subscription to an Internet service provider, but instead of wires feeding from the wall into the modem or computer, they go from the wall to another device that sends out a signal much like a radio. A wireless connection is commonly known as a hotspot.
The wireless signal shoots out about 100 feet. The computer – laptop or desktop – can connect to it as long as it has another device called a wi-fi card. Once connected, you’re surfing the Web.
Brown set up a wireless network in her home and business offices shortly after the last Gear Up session in October. Although she enjoys the convenience, having a hotspot comes with a caveat: Set up a firewall and encrypt your data.
A firewall is a piece of hardware or a software program designed to detect and stop nefarious information coming into a network, much like a mosquito net might save you from malaria-bearing bugs while on a jungle vacation.
Encryption, a way to scramble data that require a password to descramble them, protects against roving computer users – say someone in a car with a wi-fi-equipped laptop – looking to piggyback onto a wireless network. Once on, they can surf the Web at your expense, or far worse, dive into sensitive files.
“It’d be very easy to get confidential information; so we have extreme firewall and encryption,” Brown says. “That was something they really emphasized in the class.”
But by far the biggest change in Brown’s workday arose from GoToMyPC.com.
The site lets Brown connect to specified computers – no matter where they are – as long as she and they have an Internet connection.
So while she’s at home working in the sun, she can use her wireless Internet connection to log into her account at GoToMyPC.com, which costs $15 to $20 per computer per month, and from there connect to her computer at work or to clients’ computers on her personal network.
Once a link is established, an exact image of the remote computer’s screen appears on the computer Brown is working on. She can use its programs. She can save files on it. Because it’s as though the remote computer is right in front of her, she can do a company’s books from wherever she happens to be surfing the Web.
“We used to go off site for all the clients,” she says. “Now . . . it doesn’t make any sense.”
Brown’s clients agree.
“It saves us the inconvenience of having to be here when she comes in,” says Louis Kolker, executive director of the Greater Albuquerque Housing Partnership.
Brown costs less too. The housing nonprofit’s former bookkeeper – who came in a few hours a month – charged more for the work and charged for parking and travel costs of getting to the office, Kolker says.
By avoiding trips to a client, Brown says she has eliminated or reduced travel expenses, insurance costs and, because of closer contact with employees doing a remote client’s books, accounting mistakes.
“That has been an extremely good selling point,” she says.
Remote computing through GoToMyPC.com offers so many advantages to Brown that she generally won’t accept new clients unless they agree to use the Web site’s service.
Moye has used GoToMyPC.com – and the easy access to tax information provided by the Internet – to compete for business all over the country. He has clients from states including California, Alaska and New York.
Even when Moye charges clients from New York more than he would charge a client from New Mexico, New Yorkers still think it’s a good deal because his prices beat what their in-state accountant would charge, he says.
Out-of-state business accounts for about 6 percent of his current business, and he’d like to see it grow to 50 percent.
“Now you don’t have to drive across town or across the state,” he says. “It increases your revenue.”
There’s a lot more people like Moye and Brown to come.
Spending on the worldwide information technology industry – from software and services like GoToMyPC to hardware such as wireless routers – is expected to reach about $1.5 trillion in 2006, up from about $1 trillion in 2002, according to IDC, an international information technology and telecommunications consulting firm headquartered in Massachusetts.
More with less
Technology, Moye estimates, has increased his productivity by about 25 percent. Primarily by doing research on and downloading tax forms from the Internet, he was able to go from employing four people in 2001 to two in 2002.
Even as his staff has shrunk, his number of clients has grown from 150 in 2001 – where it had been since 1995 – to 225 today.
Moye’s story echoes nationwide. A 2001 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that for about 20 years preceding 1995, worker productivity grew roughly 1.5 percent per year. But from 1995 to 2000, productivity grew 2.5 percent per year, a surge the report partly attributes to technological advances. And from 2000 to 2010, productivity is predicted to grow at 2.8 percent a year.
For Moye and Brown, more productivity, which they both attribute to technology, means the freedom to tackle the more creative and complex problems of their profession.
“I think the technology is getting rid of the humdrum type of everyday redundant work that used to take up a lot of time,” Moye says. “Now we’re able to really analyze what our clients’ needs are.”
Brown echoes that observation. “For me when I see clients now it’s going to be consulting with their business,” she says. “It’s not going to be about bookkeeping.”
Getting on board
Businesses looking to integrate new technologies into their offices should do extensive planning before taking the tech trip, says Steve Jones, professor of communications at the University of Illinois Chicago and senior research fellow for the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
“You have to take into consideration the individual viewpoints of all of your employees,” he says. “Just because the Internet is the big thing, doesn’t mean everybody’s going to be happy by virtue of getting a new computer or Internet access at their desktop.”
But for companies trying to attract and keep young employees, getting a tech upgrade might be just the right move, Jones says.
“Younger people are happier having the use of some this technology in their office,” he says. “A computer upgrade can go a long way toward improving their opinion or feeling about the workplace.”
Still, high-tech does not a good office make. The latest tech toys are still just tools, Jones points out.
“Just about any technology we can think of has the potential for both good and bad,” he says. “It really depends on what uses people put it to.”
OFFICE WITH ZIP
So you’re ready to amp up your office with some of the latest and greatest gizmos and goodies? Here’s a quick list to get started.
Voice Over Internet Protocol
If your business regularly makes long-distance calls, VOIP is a fancy way to say you’re making phone calls over the Internet.
For as little as $20 a month with a service such Lingo, you can ring western Europe, Canada and the United States as much as you like.
AT&T offers the service as well. Lesser versions are available for free from Web sites such as Skype.com.
Although not fully implemented, WiMAX will offer wireless, high-speed Internet access the likes of which hasn’t been seen.
One WiMAX transmitting station will send out a signal with a maximum reach of roughly 30 miles. Connecting – cable free, just as on a smaller wi-fi network – will be a matter of signing up for service with a WiMAX provider.
Tired of burning all your files onto awkwardly sized CDs?
A jump drive is typically about as big as a pack of gum and can hold anywhere from 32 megabytes to 2.2 gigabytes of data.
Plug it into the USB slot, drag and drop files, slip it into your pocket and take your data wherever they need to go.
Price range: $30 to $230.
Business card scanner
For those of you with an overworked Rolodex that looks like a bloated burrito, consider digitizing your business cards with a scanner custom-made for the job.
A click here, a click there, and, voilÃ, your colleagues’ contact information is instantly entered into a database, ready to be sorted, altered, copied and pasted.
Many of the scanners’ producers, such as Targus and Cores, have wisely made the devices compatible with Microsoft Outlook.
Price range: $40 to $250.
As spending on information technology has grown, so has worker productivity, research shows.
Spending on the information technology industry worldwide:
2002: $1 trillion
2006 projected: $1.5 trillion
Annual worker productivity growth nationwide:
1975-95: 1.5 percent
1995-2000: 2.5 percent
2000-10 projected: 2.8 percent
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; IDC