The days when you could run a home office or a small business with a desk, hat rack and manual typewriter are long gone. To be competitive and efficient in this age of electronics a small business needs sophisticated tools -- computers, copiers, facsimile machines and telephone answering and switching equipment, for instance.
All these tools come with a price tag that strains the financial resources of budding entrepreneurs. Yet, that is not the core problem. Basic office equipment is changing so rapidly that it is almost certain you can get more advanced tools for less money (( next month or next year.
Today's hammer is not appreciably different from yesterday's. For a time this was true also of office equipment. The changes were slow in coming. Electric typewriters replaced manual ones. Copies were made with carbon paper, mimeograph machines or spirit duplicators. The early copying machines used chemically treated, heat-sensitive paper. The first facsimile machines required you to wrap each page around a cylinder. You could transmit only to an identical machine at the receiving end. That was about it. All this less than two decades ago.
Then everything changed. Let's look at one example: the original IBM personal computer of the early 1980s. It was a miracle when introduced at a cost of $5,000 or so, yet it will not run many of today's most popular business programs. You can buy, for less than $400, a more powerful computer that runs on three penlight batteries and fits in your pocket. Today's small computers combine the functions of adding machines, calculators, typewriters and the like, all once essential separate office machines.
Fax machines of recent years printed on foul-smelling paper, and the image, like that of the early copiers, faded rapidly if exposed to heat or light. Today's top-quality versions print with a laser on plain paper. And the copy machines of today do tricks that would have been hard to imagine a couple of decades ago.
It's alarming to think that office equipment purchased today will be superseded, and therefore rendered less valuable, by newer models in a matter of weeks or months. The near future will bring us units that combine the functions of fax machines, high quality copiers and computer laser printers.
What can you do?
Here's advice from several office equipment and computer consultants in the New York City area:
* Consider the actual needs of your business. Many people try to fit office procedures to new technology simply because it is available. This overly complicates things and is a losing effort. Technology is growing so rapidly it is impossible to keep up with it.
* Think of your business' future, but don't become a slave to these anticipated needs. It's impossible to anticipate everything, and you can spend many thousands of dollars on "just in case" purchases.
* Don't invest in either the newest or oldest technology. You'll pay a premium for the former that exceeds the gains in performance. With the latter, you'll find supplies and software more difficult to get, and there will be more and more compatibility problems. Choose the middle road, where the value for money is highest.
* Stick to established standards. The path of technology is strewn with "orphan" products that set their own standards, but that are now useless because supplies for them are no longer available.
* Consider used equipment from a reputable dealer. If you believe you will need to remain on the cutting edge of technology, look into leasing plans.
* Don't sell your old equipment. You will be unlikely to realize much for it. Better that you use it elsewhere in your business. If that fails, donate it to a church group, charity office or school, and take a tax deduction for it.
* Before you do anything, determine if you really need the new equipment. This is a simple thing. Calculate realistically your productivity gains. Be aware: include the time it will take you to become adept at using the new equipment or software. Then calculate the total cost of the new equipment. How long will it be before the extra money you make from increased productivity overtakes the cost of the new equipment?