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Electronic 'Staff' Makes Your Office Hum


Vaughn King of Fullerton had scarcely hooked up his new fax machine before he was organizing trade shows from his home.

"After being unable to reach an individual on the phone for two weeks, I faxed her a proposal for three shows and received a call the same day. We wrapped up the agreement that afternoon," he says.

David Ellis of Simi Valley uses a personal computer to look up policies, write proposals and send out mailings at his home-based insurance and financial services business.

"I'd be out of business without it," he says. "To get my work out in a timely fashion, I'd need two more people."

A new wave of low-cost, high-tech communications equipment is the key to being self-employed, says home-business expert Sarah Edwards.

"Today's equipment puts the power of the Fortune 500 in all our hands--the computer and modem and fax become your staff."

Computer, fax and copier prices continue to fall, and many experts say they should be part of any business' start up costs.

"You can get a perfectly fine computer and software for around $1,500, a perfectly serviceable fax for around $400 and a laser printer for about $550, a total of $2,450," says Jonathan Yormark, director of information resources for the USC's school of business.

Versatile computers, printers and fax machines can be packed in an attache case and activated from the seat of a car by a cellular phone and modem, Yormark says.

If buying is too costly, a budding entrepreneur can lease a computer, printer, fax and copier for about $250 a month, he says.

But potential buyers may not need all the equipment and may wonder how to calculate the cost effectiveness of investing in it.

Computer shoppers should balance the price and cost of labor on the new machine against the price of having the work done elsewhere, says Elaine Hagan, associate director of UCLA's Entrepreneurial Studies Center.

For computer buyers, one expert recommends choosing a heavy-duty laptop. "You take your files with you wherever you go," says Charles Morrissey, director of executive education at Pepperdine University. "Modern hotels provide phone jacks not only in rooms but in lobbies. You're never tied up by the fact that the computer is at home. You stay productive."

The printer you select depends on the work you do, says Hagan of UCLA.

"Do you need every bell and whistle?" she asks. Many businesses need to have printing that looks professional, but it doesn't need to be first class for paperwork such as invoices, she says. "Someone doing desktop publishing and providing newsletters, on the other hand, might need greater graphic capabilities."

Like computers, fax machines can pay for themselves quickly, particularly if a business regularly spends $10 on overnight mail or $1 per fax at copying services.

A business without a machine must also arrange to pick up faxes elsewhere, risking a poor impression with clients.

"Your customers want to feel they have access to you immediately," says Cynthia Brower of the National Assn. of Home Based Businesses in Baltimore. "Once someone sends you the fax, they feel you have it and are working on it.

"And if you're in international business, most people don't take you seriously if you don't have a fax number. Almost everything overseas takes place at night (U.S. time). So they may want to send you faxes between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m."

Copiers can be convenient, but may be the easiest purchase to delay because outside copies can cost five cents a page or less.

"You can use your fax and your printer as a substitute and really live stripped down," says Morrissey.

Barbara Miksic, a home-based rehabilitation counselor in Culver City, makes single copies on her fax and multiple versions at a 24-hour service five blocks away.

But Miksic is ecstatic about her computer. When she learned she could write letters on her new machine faster than she could dictate, she saved the salary of a secretary. The equipment soon paid for itself.

A copier and computer enabled Colleen Koller of Pasadena to start a home bookkeeping service. She copies bank statements and other documents that are returned to clients; the computer does profit and loss and balance sheets and general ledgers.

"Without the copy machine my work would be very difficult," she says. "And I wouldn't even be attempting it without the computer."

King, who started his trade-show business last month, is pricing personal computers and printers so he can become more efficient.

"It's amazing how much prices have dropped," he says. He's considering a computer and laser printer for $1,399.

Equipment in the Home Office *A 1992 survey by Home Office Computing magazine reported the percentage of small businesses owning the following electronic devices:

Desktop computer near 100%

Answering machine 83%

Mouse or track ball 70%

Dot-matrix printer 66%

Cordless phone 44%

Laser printer 40%

Modem 40%

Fax board or modem 35%

Fax machine 29%

Copier 29%

Multiline phone 27%

Cellular phone 20%

Scanner 17%

Notebook or laptop computer 15% *

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