Setting up cheap and professional technology for a home-based small business: networking, laptops, web, and software issues

You may have just been made redundant, or you’ve always wanted to work part-time from home, or you want to run a small business from home. Photo by robertnelson from Flickr - licensed under Creative Commons

You want to:

  1.  use the technology that you know is out there to have a professional small home office setup, and
  2. you don’t have the information technology safety net of a large corporation at home, and,
  3. you want to do it in the most cost-effective way possible.

This article looks at what you need to get, how you need to set it up, and why.

We wrote it because we wish someone had told us this stuff in advance of our learning the hard way over the last few years!

Use Ebay to acquire your computer equipment

For the particular kinds of equipment we’re recommending there are links below to custom searches on Ebay. If you don’t use it and you are a small business start using it.

It is a misnomer that Ebay is just for secondhand equipment (there are a huge amount of real world storefronts selling brand new stuff through it), buy from someone with a high feedback score, and use Paypal to pay (because Ebay insures the transaction if you do). Much of the equipment comes with good support from the seller (often better than in the bricks and mortar world!) and warranties from manufacturers.

Don’t waste your time on auctions (unless you’ve got a lot of time to waste and the cost of your time is low), use the ‘Buy It Now’ option in your searches (as is the case in the below sections). Specify ‘New’ or ‘Refurbished’ in your search. 

Even listing on Ebay puts most businesses under pressure to match the competitive pricing that is being offered by amateurs and other small businesses, so just by using it you will save a lot of money (sellers usually have to match their ‘Buy It Now’ prices to what items have recently sold for).  If you want to get a very good idea of pricing apply your search to ‘Completed Items’ only which will tell you what that item sold in the last month for.

The small home business laptop / notebook

If you don’t already have one buy a notebook PC. If you do, you may have to think about upgrading it to run a business from it. You mainly need a notebook because you need to be able to run your business from wherever  you are – you probably don’t have an assistant you can delegate to.

Get a notebook or laptop that has the following characteristics:

  1. Windows XP (you need reliability so put off going Vista until it’s been out for several years!). In addition you may find some software is cheaper for XP.
  2. 2 gigabytes of RAM (this machine will be running everything including the kitchen sink and this also makes it a little bit future proof)
  3. 2 gigahertz processor or better (it will be running your phones – see Skype section below – and doing other stuff at the same time – it needs to be able to do all of this without degradation)
  4. 120 gig hard disk or better (it will probably end up with your music, photos etc on it)
  5. a 14″ inch or better screen (you’re going to want to switch between applications on the screen and have it all up at once – a big screen is a must – in addition it’s often worth buying a flat screen and extending your desktop using XP’s builtin function to do this so you can have two screens running at once, great for example when you want to copy sections from one document to a web page)
  6. we’d suggest buying something relatively boring like a Dell or Toshiba machine (their support websites will have had a ton of money spent on them, you will be able to buy add-ins like new memory or other components easily, and drivers will be pretty bulletproof and regularly updated with bugfixes because of the sheer number of users)
  7. try to avoid mixing and matching (e.g. Macs and PCs in the same environment, or if you’re buying smartphones for a couple in the business buy the same ones – just makes support and research easier)

Here’s a custom Ebay search for a notebook that meets these sort of specifications for memory, disk, processor, and screen. Change the country as appropriate.

Software: get Microsoft Office

Ok I know there are lots of other solutions out there, open source etc. But in a startup small business you’re running from home familiarity is number 1 and cost is equally important (Office aint free but the upfront cost is dwarfed when it comes to training, patch maintenance etc). If you’re used to something else by all means get that.

Here’s a custom Ebay search for Microsoft Office disks (this search avoids you getting things like training disks and academic versions in the results). It’s not expensive. And even better if you can an older version, say Office 2003, it will still do everything you need it to do. Change the country as appropriate.

Home networks and WiFi (wireless networks) for small business

Wireless (802.11G/B) shouldn’t really be a critical component for your small home based business – it’s fine to have it but it’s only really adequate for casual home users.

The problem is usually interference from other wireless LANs around you or neighbours who are using cordless phones or other devices transmitting on the WiFi frequency. This can result in your connection dropping out. When you’re using critical apps that rely on the internet like IP telephony / VOIP calls for your small business you need better reliability.

“Doesn’t happen to me when I’m using it so far,” you might respond, well when you’re using it 8 hours a day you might notice things could be different … still don’t believe me stick some software on your PC and monitor the uptime of your connection continously for day or so. You can even find that it’s only unreliable on certain days, depending on when your neighbours with the interfering device are home and using it…

In addition to a wifi network get ‘power over ethernet’ connections based on the ‘HomePlug’standard which you plug into your router at one end and a power socket, and then transmit the network traffic through the electrical cables in your house (the other network connection plugs from the power socket at the other end to your PC’s RJ45 network port). You will then have a full hardwired network connection to the internet that you can move around the house (at around 80 mpbs) and, which, doesn’t involve an expensive electrician.

Here’s a custom Ebay search for these type of devices to give you computer network connections by using your house’s wiring. Change country as appropriate.

Choosing an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for a small business 

Again, don’t get a wireless connection e.g. 3G card or something of that nature. Make sure your connection uses DSL and the phone line or possibly cable.

Four things are worth bearing in mind about chosing an internet service provider for a SOHO business:

  1. It’s not just download speed that matters. It’s upload. A single VOIP call is about 40k of bandwidth. Couple that with say an online-demo running or a conference call with a couple of other parties and say another user in the house and a 256k uplink can be maxed out (most network connections start to degrade at about 50% utilization).  Make sure  you have 1MBPs upload speed and for download you want 4MBPs or better. Often cable systems give you really fast download but considerably slower upload where ADSL is not affected by this. 
  2. Get a router that knows something about Quality of Service (QOS) so that it can prioritize voice traffic over say video downloads. This is not expensive (say $100 or so).
  3. You need a router at home (this will have its own hardware based firewall and will allow you to get access from multiple machines at the same time to the web)
  4. Maybe think about using a smaller ISP and check out the performance of that ISP in your neighbourhood if you can by Googling something like ‘review’ and the name of the ISP you plan to use.

Get a Skype ‘Unlimited’ Plan so you can make virtually unlimited global calls for any length of time at a fixed cost

This enables you to make and receive calls from normal phones at a fixed cost per month of $10 or so at the time of writing. And when I say ‘fixed’ I mean it. You can call most major countries under this plan for as long as you like and it’s free (i.e. covered by the subscription). Set up a Skype Business Control Panel account so you allocate credit between you and other users.

Oh yeah – and download Skype from because you’ll need that to get Skype in the first place!

You can cancel your unlimited sub at any time e.g. no yearly subscriptions or whatever.

These accounts come with voicemail, calls through Skype through your mobile/cellphone, and the ability to record calls and quickly and easily set up conference calls between multiple parties.

The really neat part if you have international clients is that you also get 3-4 phone numbers in different countries. In other words you can have a ‘US number’, a ‘Hong Kong’ and a ‘UK number’ and pretend you are a lot bigger than you are by listing these on your website to imply you have offices in each country…

All of these are rerouted behind the scenes to your Skype voicemail and main Skype user a/c. In addition you can pick up your Skype voicemail from your mobile and you can get an SMS and/or email every time someone leaves a message. You can even have your mobile/cellphone number voicemail redirect to your Skype number so everything comes in the same way to one place.

Here’s a link to some info on Skype for business. Voice quality will not be as good as in a normal phone call but with a headset it works fine. Where voice quality is poor we have generally found this is because of connectivity issues as hinted at in the above sections on choosing an ISP and implementing a home network, rather than because of Skype itself.

Skype is also valuable when collaborating with suppliers if they’re using it: you can actually see when they’re available by the Skype status icon (less wasted calls), it’s free, and you can easily drag and drop large (i.e. too large for email) files to them, and download the free Skype Outlook toolbar so that you can one-click dial or SMS people straight from your address book (no more typing text messages into handheld devices, just use your keyboard).

Install MX Skype Recorder from and now you can record any of your calls or conference calls.

Backups for your home / small business network

You don’t have to back up data. As the saying goes you only need to backup things it is too costly to lose…

For each PC/laptop that you value data on on your home network (e.g. if you can’t afford to lose certain emails etc) buy an external $75 USB connecting hard drive.

Here’s a custom search on Ebay for this type of equipment (plug and play hard drives that sit in external enclosures and connect to your laptop’s USB port). Change countries as appropriate.

Then, and this is a critical point, install Norton Ghost or equivalent and set it to automatically backup once a week.

The difference between Ghost and say copying files or a normal backup is that Ghost ‘images’ your whole hard drive (Oops! Turns out that a critical spreadsheet file that was on my desktop or some other ‘temporary’ place wasn’t in my ‘directories to back up’ list)….

You can take the USB drive plug it into another laptop, hit restore, and the whole laptop including operating system and applications will be as before (in say, under an hour). If you can afford for your small business to be offline for a couple of days with no access to your email archive etc then don’t worry about buying Ghost!

If you want to even more bullet proof (at low cost) buy a cheap secondhand laptop of the same brand and model, pre-load it with XP and Ghost and then if your whole laptop blows up (the memory on mine went fubar in a client demo last week and wouldn’t even switch on afterwards) you are ready to go immediately. I swapped in the memory from my standby machine and was back up and running immediately.

Virus protection

Unless you know what you’re doing (i.e. you know exactly what attachments are safe and which are not), you rarely visit dodgy websites, and assuming you have a notebook that has the spec to handle the load that antivirus programs put on it, get virus protection.

Consider ignoring the entreaties to upgrade to the paid version and get the free antivirus sofware from AVG. You can’t do better than that (or get the paid version).

Turn off the signature on the paid version in the option (which tells your email recipients that you’re using it).

Spam protection

If you have a website which your email address is listed on (and by definition that means most small businesses) you need it, even if it’s already provided by your ISP to some extent.

Get the free Spambayes plugin for Outlook here.

As a ‘Bayesian’ filter, it learns what you think is spam. As such it never gets out of date. And the price is pretty good too…!

Also importantly it looks far more professional than spam filters which insist on applying a ‘signature’ to the bottom of all your outgoing emails…

Email is going to be critical to your business and by having multiple email addresses that all come to you, you can seem bigger than you are. Take a look at this article on advanced email tips and email privacy for more info.

Install local text search on your machine

Install Windows Search or equivalent for free. This indexes the full text of all your documents and emails and understands their properties e.g. author fields in Word documents or the difference between an Outlook Task and a Contact.

You can type a few Words in or much more sophisticated searches (full boolean search is offered) and then execute the same search on the web as well with one click using your favourite web search engine.

Don’t waste any more time running the built-in search offered through Outlook or combing through directories looking for files (and BTW when you save files or send emails use sensible filenames and subjects).

More information and download links for Windows Search here.

Web 2.0: For collaborating with suppliers use Google Docs or Windows Live

Google Docs or Windows Live enables you to share things like spreadsheets so that you and other partners out there on the web can both view and update them at the same time. Very handy for instance if you’re trying to track inventory, commissions etc. Easy to use and free.

Go further if you like to full web based CRM with something like which is a totally web based customer relationship management system. Great if you work with a couple of other people at different locations. All it requires is a web browser and you ‘rent’ the web based software rather than having to buy it and install it (about $2000 per year for licenses for a couple people).

Also get to know Google Adwords, or preferably find someone else who does.

Have your web developer install Google Analytics on your website so you start to know where you are losing prospects.

If you don’t have a web developer use a website like to find one by specifying a project and getting people to competitively quote on it.

Find someone who will provide you remote PC support if you need them

By using free software like WinVNC or XP’s built in remote desktop support you can have a lot of your technical problems solved by a remote technician. Best to find them before you need them…

Find a company that is more than a one man band but charges less than a Logica or Siemens or whatever.

Google something like “remote (computer OR PC) support for homes or small businesses” and check out the sponsored links in your area.

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Article posted by @Drivelry on April 19, 2009

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