Q&A: How to create a virtual office business

how to set up a virtual office
How to create a virtual office business

How we can work from anywhere


A question – if technology can’t be used to improve your lot then what is the point of it? And if it can improve things, how can you create a virtual office business around the idea?

When we decided to start a new business it was a chance for a clean slate. An opportunity to make real changes to our lives. It wasn’t a new thought – I guess I have long dreamed of having real freedom in life, to not be tied to the set routine (well, not too much). And with a 7-year old and all the flexibility school demands it really would be handy to have that bit more flexibility.

Retro-fitting changes into an existing business with all its software and systems and ways of working is surprisingly hard, even a small business like we had before. But starting a new one offered the opportunity to get it right from the beginning. So I took my notebook out and sketched what systems I thought we would need to allow us to work fully independently. We wanted a totally flexible business, since we would be attempting to do this without an office. Our base would be our homes, or wherever we found ourselves that day.

It actually proved harder to achieve in the mind than in reality. Shaking off years of habits overnight is a tricky feat to pull off. A good example was how long I spent looking for lever-arch file to keep our paperwork in, only to then wonder why I had bought a lever-arch file for paperwork I would never print. Years of old habits die hard. And yes, you can keep all your paperwork electronically.

We have achieved a fair degree of success in getting to where we want to be (we still have no office, and we seem to manage to work wherever we are, together that day or not). Are we yet to create a virtual office business? Possibly so, and I thought I would share what we have done to get there. It is a work in progress and I am fully aware that there are free versions for some of what we choose to pay for, but in most or even all cases it is a decision taken because it offered something worth paying for.

dropbox business

Storage - Dropbox

I knew we needed somewhere we could access anything and everything anywhere at all times. The beating heart of how to create a virtual office business. So an invoice from a year ago? Easy – it’s here. Dropbox Business offered a simple solution that worked, that we could create an effective filing system and that would only use up local memory if we wanted it to thanks to Smart Sync. If you organise your files sensibly then it is an amazingly efficient system.

If we have an issue it is file conflict – both of us trying to share the same file. Dropbox is not good at always warning of a conflict, and it is so annoying having to unpick the results of two people saving different versions. I guess Dropbox is good for storage, less good for live working. Oh, and they have a minimum of 3 users which is annoying when we are a team of two. Seems unfair. That said, we rely on it and we couldn’t achieve what we do without it. I didn’t see a better option out there but others may disagree.

Costs – we pay £39 a month for the privilege. The biggest software expense we have but worth every penny for the flexibility it allows. This is what saves us rent! Click here to see more

How to create a virtual office business - office 365

Basics - Office 365

Yes, there are free alternatives out there, but as someone who relies on those two staples Word and Excel I just don’t want to use Google Drive or something else. There is a reason why they are so popular – they work and work well. For not a lot of money either.

Costs – It is only £4.99 a month, so no great shakes. Click here to see more

How to create a virtual office business - g suite

Email - Google / G-Suite

Our old email was run by a horrific combination of BT and Microsoft. Has there ever been a worse combination of companies? Truly awful. So a new start led me to Google, and again it just does the job. All emails available anywhere, anytime. We use the paid-for business version which goes under the name of G-Suite. This as the name would suggest is a suite of software and something I need to get my head round. I’m sure we could do so much more with this.

Costs – we pay a mere £4 a month for the pleasure. Click here to see more

How to create a virtual office business - slack

Ideas - Slack

One key aspect of being able to create a virtual office business was how best to share ideas, and plan ahead. I use Slack socially with my cycling club, and it works really well at allowing us to plan, discuss a topic, and keep a record of things in one place. It struck me that Slack could be the answer to us sharing ideas for planning ahead when we work apart.

It’s all about how you organise it (and keep it organised) but if you can manage that feat then it allows you to share and store ideas, even between just two people. It is a work in progress but I am confident we will come to rely on it more and more.

Costs – we use the free version. Nice. Click here to see more

How to create a virtual office business - mailchimp

Email Newsletters - Mailchimp

We previously used other email systems, and the fresh start led me to Mailchimp. I wouldn’t go back now. If you are looking for email marketing software then I say go to Mailchimp. It is more reliable and more intuitive, and I prefer the way they bill (one monthly fee based on subscribers, no need to buy credits).

Costs – depends on how many people you have on your list/s. Up to a certain level it is even free. Click here to see more

How to create a virtual office business - xero

Accounts & Payroll - Xero

Again, for far too many years we were stuck on a system I didn’t like. In our case it was Sage. But the thought of switching was too big a headache. A new start made it easy to switch to Xero. I had wanted to give this one a go, and our accountants had recommended it when I asked. Maybe it depends on the size of your business, but it is so much easier to use than Sage. Since I do the bookkeeping I need something simple to use and this is part of my simple daily routine. I almost love bookkeeping now…

I don’t touch payroll, so I asked Jo for her comments on Xero Payroll.

I don’t especially like it because it is all so hidden. It is a simple process but that means you have no understanding of what you are doing. Sage is more complex but, perhaps having started in the days of manual payrolls with paper forms and calculation tables, I like to have some input. I can’t see how I will really learn to be any better at using it when I only have to click a button to process.

Costs – less than £3 a month (we get a discount through our accountants). Click here to see more

How to create a virtual office business - adobe

Creative – Adobe

Another of the big costs and yes there are alternatives. However with our photography for Nanosphere and our artwork for the branding with Ferrotype we need software we know and that works. I wince when I see the costs but it is a necessary evil and does actually pay its way. That said, if and when I have the time I will consider looking for a cheaper alternative.

Costs – £16.64 a month for Photoshop. Same again for Illustrator. Click here to see more

How to create a virtual office business - squarespace
How to create a virtual office business - wordpress

Website – Squarespace & WordPress

We use Squarespace for Ferrotype and WordPress for Nanosphere. Why the different choices? Ferrotype was always going to be more of a glossy brochure site, minimal updating, high on sleek looks. Nanosphere was essentially a blog and WordPress feels set up for this better than Squarespace. So many plugins to do so many things you might need as you go on on WordPress. It can be a nightmare on some tasks, but as with anything once you use it regularly it becomes easier.

Costs – Squarespace £21 a month, WordPress about £6 a month. That is an unfair comparison though as Squarespace gets you everything. WordPress is a constant need to add more bits on and many of those are charged. Overall it is about the same, plus we will likely need to upgrade our hosting on WordPress soon enough. Click here to see more on Squarespace and click here to see more on WordPress

And finally…some notable absentees.

Over the years you build up mental lists of software you don’t like. I mean really dislike. Maybe even actual lists for some people. I guess it is personal in the end. After all, someone must be producing this software and testing it and thinking wow, this is great. People will love it. Maybe software is marmite, but I still feel that good software is just well designed software. (Disclaimer alert – I used to work in software development in a former life so I can speak from experience of both sides).

So high on my list of bad software would be the BT-Office 365 tie up we had for our email at Bureau Direct. Awful, truly awful. Everything that email is not meant to be. And that’s if you could access it in the first place. Just finding the right login page could take half a day. Microsoft and BT made accessing their sites like a walking blindfold through a labyrinth.

Another one that mystified me was Trello. Never got it despite many people over the years trying to rope me in to collaborating on it. Nope, not for me.

And lastly, the big one. Am I the only person in the world that finds Facebook the most badly designed site? Ever? It is so un-intuitive that I go round in circles with no idea where I am. And this for a website that depending on which report you read, it is certainly top 3 most visited sites in the world. How? And did I just write this whole blog post so that I could finally vent this frustration in public? Er, no. But it was good to do so!

So please do share any comments on the above you have – what software are we missing out on? How am I so wrong on the ones I chose? Am I that lone voice on Facebook? Have you managed to create a virtual office business yourself with any success?

  1. This is a great post, thank you!

    For storage, backup and syncing, if you have are using G suite then just use Google drive, even with Word and Excel. You can see the files online and on your hard drive as well – just choose which folders to sync. I also use Spideroak One – it is reasonably priced and very secure and very easy to use for syncing, backup and file sharing . I do use Dropbox as well because some of my clients use that.

    For email I use Spark which saves me a lot of time and effort. However, that does not work on Wndows, only on iOS / macOS and Android.

    I also use a VPN – Tunnel Bear – when I am travelling, I would not even think about connecting my laptop or my phone to a wifi network without it.

    As for Facebook – it is meant to be like that! It’s built to keep you in, wandering around in circles, distracted by bright shiny things. Bit like IKEA… 😉

  2. Interesting insight into some behind-the-scenes facets of your new ventures. I’m not entrepreneurial so I don’t have much input to make on the best software side, but I have been delving in social media and I actually think Facebook is the best of a bad bunch. One caveat: it’s good for personal interaction between me and my actual friends but I’m not so convinced on the business side. I cannot stand Twitter, I find it so bewildering I don’t even feel inclined to open it up and look at it. Pinterest is just a time-suck with no particular benefits but I love how easy it is to put in a photo that links to a blog post or web page. Instagram is okay, but I hate that you have to jump through hoops to put in a photo with a link, if indeed you can. I just want to publish a photo with a bit of text and a link to my blog – why make that hard? I’m at the place now where I find the frustrations of modern technology combined with the extraordinary cost of it all are pushing me to do more and more on on paper.

    1. Maybe therein lies our best truth – for all the technology we end up wanting paper and pen more and more. I find it the ultimate double-edged sword – I couldn’t do what I do without it, yet stop for 24 hours like I have just done and it becomes overwhelming. Thanks for the comments – Dominic

  3. In someways I think you’re using products that duplicate each other, Office 365, GSuite, Dropbox and Slack all seem a bit overkill. Standardising on just O365 or GSuite would let you get rid of the other three. None of them would be a like-for-like replacement but O365 or GSuite could cover all your needs. Dropbox’s problem going forward is that cloud storage was not as front and centre as it was 10 years ago when storing stuff online was a comparative novelty. Since then Microsoft and Google have made storage a key offering with storage and document editing wholly integrated. I’ve moved between the two a fair bit and although I’d say there is no outright winner, I’m edging more towards OneDrive since Google no longer integrates Google Photos and GDrive which I find a pain.

    1. Hi Kevin – thanks for the comments. I totally agree about the overlap, but the problem I find is that none of them do what the other does very well. Office 365 is a killer (IMHO) at word, excel etc but OneDrive sucks at storage. I don’t like Google docs so I use O365 and so on and so on. I just wish one of them would cover it all. And none of it solves Adobe which is such a massive cost (relatively speaking). Still, food for thought I and I will think about this as I go on.

  4. Hi. What do you use for planning/organising your thoughts – all analogue or something digital?

    1. Hi – I guess at present we don’t use any particular software for this. It would (certainly in my case) be pen and paper, although we have tried to use Slack as a central point for thoughts/ideas. I use Slack elsewhere (a cycling club) and it is a really good way of sharing ideas, thoughts, plans, links, files etc between people which is why I am keen it should work for us with Nanosphere. However it only works as well as the people using it, following the same process of keeping related comments etc in the same channels and threads. With lots of people this can be hard to make happen.

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