Virtual office gives companies the illusion of prestige
A growing popularity in non-traditional office structures is allowing businesses to operate without requiring that employees show up for a day of work.
This emerging trend towards virtual offices depends on outsourcing basic office amenities to a central company.
Intelligent Office Ottawa is the city’s only virtual office centre and is the fifth Canadian location of Intelligent Office, one of North America’s largest virtual officing companies.
The Ottawa branch, located in the World Exchange Plaza, provides telephone reception, mailing services, boardroom and office room rentals to businesses in the service, finance, design and technology industries. Founded in 2008, Intelligent Office Ottawa already has 115 businesses as clients.
Additional branches have opened in Washington, Cincinnati, Denver, Las Vegas and Toronto.
Part of the appeal of Intelligent Office is having the name of a well-known building attached to the company without the heavy price, says Sarah Walters, sales manager of Intelligent Office Ottawa.
“It’s more than 50 per cent cheaper than what it would cost for a normal office in the World Exchange Plaza with the reception, hydro, heating, phone bills, mailing and courier fees,” she says.
Pricing depends on the exact services the business requires but Walters says $200 to $300 a month can cover basic telephone reception, office amenities and temporary office space. She even points out that some businesses with Intelligent Office Ottawa pay less than $100 a month to maintain their virtual office.
What makes virtual officing unique from traditional offices is the flexibility in work schedules, says Walters.
“I find that a lot of people don’t want to work full business hours. Everyone’s trying to find the new economical way to save money and this allows people to be their own boss and work within their own hours.”
Silicon Valley Computers, a computer sales and repair shop, has been operating from Intelligent Office Ottawa for slightly more than one year.
Jim Cooper, the company’s sales manager, says one of the main benefits of a virtual office is being able to save on hiring a full-time receptionist, which isn’t always the most cost-effective solution. For nine years, the now 10-year-old business operated from a traditional office, which Cooper describes the experience as a fluctuating rollercoaster.
“It seemed like either we weren’t busy and had employees standing around with nothing to do, or we had too much going on and the phone was always ringing off the hook,” he says.
This is a problem for service contractors, such as Silicon Valley Computers, because it is especially important that clients be able to reach the business as quickly as possible at any time, he says.
“But now with Intelligent Office, our employees don’t need to be sitting around the office the entire day.”
“It’s a great concept,” says David Martinek, vice-president of marketing and communications at Recycle Frog, a gold recycling company that has been with Intelligent Office Ottawa for eight months. “They offer a full-service package and you literally look like a huge prestigious company without having to spend the money to create that impression for customers.”
Martinek says it was the high rent of traditional offices that pushed Recycle Frog into becoming a virtual office, a move he says has paid off.
“Our overhead fees are lower so it allows us to be much more competitive in our field. Unless we can maintain this advantage in a fixed location of our own, there’s no reason to move out,” he says.
Martinek says Recycle Frog has no plans to move from the virtual office operation.
“Right now, we’re looking at a ‘pay as you need’ model. Maybe in a couple of years, we’ll be large enough to own a bigger space, who knows,” he says.
Top SMBs find ways to prosper in economic uncertainty
Whenever there are economic challenges such as the current downturn, SMBs need to focus on three things: cash flow, core competency, and customers. That was the message presented at an industry roundtable hosted by Microsoft Canada that explored ways for SMBs to not only weather the economic storm, but seize on the opportunities it has created. From an IT perspective, panellists agreed that technology is able to help businesses in various ways, including improving processes; reducing the cost of managing infrastructure, people and activities; getting more out of existing resources; realizing new business opportunities; and improving productivity in the broadest sense with tasks such as decision making, communication, and task delegation.
"Many Small businesses say they'll invest in technology when they grow, when in my experience companies should invest in technologies to grow. And we're encouraging business to invest in technology now," said Eric Gales, vice-president, Small Business and Midmarket Solutions & Partners, Microsoft Canada.
The panel acknowledged that making investment decisions in times of economic uncertainty can be tough, and during such times it's fundamental for businesses to focus on cash flow. However, according to Christianne Parris, vice-president of Client and Business Strategy at RBC, certain businesses shouldn't rule out investment.
"Companies now should be aware of what's happening in the market, look at their plans and make sure that what they were going to do for 2009 is still relevant," Parris said. "Small companies have the benefit of being agile and able to react quickly. For the companies and entrepreneurs that have that mindset, it can be a tremendous time to invest."
Parris also dispelled the myth that SMBs no longer have access to credit. "Actually, they do," she explained. "Where the access to credit has dried up is the capital market side, or wherever you had captive leasing companies... Yes, that market has dried up unless you're leasing directly from your bank."
One business that is thriving in the current economic climate is homebuilding company Fusion Homes, which has experienced 430 per cent growth since 2003. According to Fusion Homes president Lee Piccoli, the company's slowdown plan involves not compromising its competitive position, keeping its talent, and investing in things that would allow it to take a dominant position in the marketplace after the slowdown is over.
"I think it's natural to fear the unknown, but we're looking at this slowdown as a time of incredible opportunity," said Piccoli. "In any slowdown you're going to see a levelling of the playing field, a cleansing of the industry, some of your competitors weakened -- and that creates an opportunity for some of the smaller companies to take a more dominant position."
Piccoli suggested software implementation as an example of a project that companies could undertake during the slowdown: "My experience with software implementation, is that it's really time consuming for your managers," he said. "There's no better time than now, when things are slow, to take on projects like that."
Brian Monteith, master franchisor of small business and mobile professionals service provider Intelligent Office, said that it will always be an SMB's responsibility to cut costs. One of the ways he suggests doing so is by promoting the idea of working from home.
"With the economy now, people are getting away from the idea that the office is somewhere you have to drive to every day, which is something that is very stressful in the day to day business. Work is something you do, it's not a place you have to be at," Monteith said.
Harry Rosen, the executive chairman of Harry Rosen Inc., stressed the importance of cultivating customer relationships and loyalty. Working in the menswear industry since 1952, Rosen developed a system early on of keeping records of everything customers purchased, as well as details about their hobbies, families and peer groups so that he could recommend clothing based on their lifestyles.
During the recession of the early 1980s, when many clothing merchants "traded down" and introduced lower priced lines, Rosen instead put out a manual called "The Complete Guide to Dressing for Men", designed to help men look good as they searched for new jobs.
"I reversed the trend happening with other merchants and capitalized in a down market," Rosen said, adding that he believed in spending money to send his managers and top sales staff to trade shows and educational trips overseas. "It's very expensive, but it makes career people out of them; it makes them fully informed about their customers."
In times of economic uncertainty, it's essential for companies to keep their business plan relevant and up to date, stressed Parris.
"A business plan isn't a static document that you prepare once a year for your banker just to please him or her," Parris said. "It should be part of the company's DNA, and it should be re-evaluated at least quarterly, or if there's something that happens in the market that warrants re-evaluation."
According to Parris, these are the pieces of business plan information that companies should be scrutinizing:
Managing overhead -- Cash is king. What can be trimmed or delayed? Where are the big costs and what can the company do about them? Getting close to your client -- Drill down and see who your most important clients are. Are they paying well? If not, why not? Maintain your banking relationships -- "There's nothing worse than a surprised banker," Parris said. "If you're seeing cracks, or opportunities, involved your banker. Stay close to your banker and your advisors, because it will guarantee future success." Invest in your company's reputation -- "Your company's reputation is gold, and it will help you in the future because if you let your reputation fall, it's very hard to get it back." If you can afford it, invest in technology. Look at your talent and expand it -- "Six months ago it was really hard to recruit good people because they were all taken up and expensive. Now there are people available, and they might be cheaper, and they might have skills that SMBs can capitalize on."
Visa Small Business Success Story
By Entrepreneurship Expert Roger Pierce, www.BizLaunch.ca
Brian Monteith is looking for convenience and rewards from his Visa Business card.When small businesses need presence in major centres - but can't justify the overhead - a virtual office is often the preferred workplace solution. Virtual offices are shared spaces available for temporary use, with all the amenities of a real office. With premium locations and à la carte services, Intelligent Office (www.intelligentoffice.com) offers small businesses, consultancies, and start-ups a prime address and all the services they need - in an easy, cost-efficient, 24/7 solution.
Intelligent Office is a prestigious franchise of virtual offices with locations across North America. Brian Monteith, president of Intelligent Office in Canada, purchased one franchise in 2005, saw the success, and purchased the master rights to sell Intelligent Office franchises throughout Canada in 2006.
To promote the business, Brian advertises extensively on radio. He buys radio time with his Visa® Business Card. "It's more convenient than writing cheques. I earn points and defer the payment to the end of my card's invoice cycle. There is a huge upside to using my Visa Business card," says Brian.
Brian also uses his Visa Business Card for traditional expenses such as travel. "Because we're selling franchises across Canada I travel a lot. The card makes it easy to book hotels, travel, and entertainment." Then, when the statement arrives at the end of the month, it's used to reconcile the books. "The organization of the statement into categories like restaurants, entertainment, and travel shows me where I'm spending my money and helps with accounting."
Intelligent Office started in Boulder, Colorado in 1995. Clients can use Intelligent Office locations at over 50 locations across North America. With a complete menu of services and anytime-access to their offices, clients enjoy a complete office solution customized to their needs.
The remote reception services are particularly popular. Intelligent Office has up to 8 receptionists working at their call center at one time so that clients and their customers always get personal service. Receptionists will answer and screen a call, announce the call, and direct it anywhere in the world. If you're a home-based business, reception services give callers the appearance of a fully staffed office.
Intelligent Office helps small business avoid leases, equipment, and staff with a quality location and support at a fraction of the cost. The virtual office is an alternative to consider.