Business Management

How to set up a business for nothing

As technology has become cheaper, so the cost of setting up a new office-based business has dropped. Barriers to entry have fallen or disappeared altogether. Economies around the world have benefited from new small businesses springing up in all sorts of market sectors; some of which weren't even market sectors before.

These changes have happened so quickly that it can be hard to keep track of how far we've come. So here's a selection of ways in which technology has removed the barriers to setting up in business with a small office.

Fax machine

Remember these? If you're older than 30 you probably do. Once a key – and expensive – part of any new office, they are now anachronistic relics of a bygone era.

Faxes offered an effective way of sending documents down a phone line. That's assuming you were prepared to wait several minutes for each page to emerge, and didn't mind the fact that the quality was so poor that the content was barely legible. Plus the thermal print would fade in sunlight, sometimes within hours.

Email attachments and digitally signed documents killed fax machines stone dead. Well, almost. Today they're still used by football transfer agents and conveyancing solicitors. Why? Only they know.

Desktop computer

Got a couple of thousands dollars or pounds to spare? Luckily you don't need it today, but to get a good quality desktop business PC might have cost you that much just a couple of decades ago. Given the pace of technological change at the time, that machine would still have been cutting-edge for... ooh... months. Maybe even six.

Today many new businesses would skip this purchase altogether. There are some applications for which desktop computers still make sense, but for everything else a laptop is more practical. That's especially true if you connect it to a full-sized monitor, keyboard and mouse while you're at your desk.

But if you did want a good quality desktop PC today, you wouldn't need to spend £2,000. You'd be unlikely to spend much more than a quarter of that. And it should still be providing good service three or more years from now.

Laptop computer

Speaking of laptops, they were even more expensive than desktops. It wasn't unusual to see price tags of over £3,000 for a cramped machine that had an uncomfortable keyboard, a small, blurry screen and barely half the processing power of its desktop equivalent.

Now you can get something powerful, sleek and elegant for less than £250. It will do just about everything most business users could want, with the bonus that it'll let you spend much of the day away from a mains power supply while doing so.

More than almost any other area of technology, laptops have evolved in leaps and bounds: upwards in capability, downwards in price.


"A new copy of Microsoft Office Professional Edition, madam? That will be many hundreds of pounds, thank you."

And the competing products weren't much cheaper. Software was expensive for new businesses, sometimes cripplingly so. That helped explain why so many office suites, and even operating systems, were pirated copies. Some business owners felt they had no choice.

Today they do. I'm writing this feature using LibreOffice, which has far more features than I could ever require. It even does a good job of importing and exporting in Microsoft's Office formats, though today that's less of an issue than it once was.

The open source development model has helped force down prices of commercial software. LibreOffice is free. My laptop is running Linux, which is also free. And the browser, email software and countless other utilities running on it are free. Not pirated or stolen. Free.

Of course, you don't have to use Linux. Office suites are still central to many businesses' operations, but you can now access them online too. They aren't always free, but some are. The rest can be used for peanuts, a few dollars per month. Read our recent group test of cloud office suites for more information.

Portable devices

Mobile phones were brick-like things used by yuppies. Tablets were blocks of stone with commandments carved into them.

How far we've come. We carry the connected information of almost everyone on the planet via devices that cost barely more than a meal for two at a nice restaurant.

Only the battery life has deteriorated, but then we expect so much more of our phones these days. In fact they aren't really phones at all: they're powerful pocket computers. But that's another story.

The internet

This has been the real driving force. Faster and better connectivity has created new business models and opened up new markets, real and virtual. Businesses have moved in: small businesses that are nimble, savvy and technology-driven.

It was always going to be hard to run an internet-based business while paying tens of dollars or euros a month for dial-up access. It's much easier when you can saunter into your local library or café and use their Wi-Fi for free.

The monthly price for home-office broadband might have risen in the intervening years from that original figure, but what you now get in return is simply incomparable.

And the rest

Cheap printers and clone consumables will get you through the few times you actually need to print something. Business cards can be had for peanuts from web-based services. Marketing? Get yourself on social media and all the other communications channels available to you these days. And so the list goes on.

It may not be easy to run a successful business these days, but then that's never been easy. What has changed is that it's now much easier to get started.

The technology required to start a new business used to be a real barrier to entry. That's no longer the case. So what's stopping you?


See also:

Football needs to kick out the fax

Simply Tested: Google, Microsoft and Zoho office suites


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Top Tips: Protecting your business against cyber-attacks »
Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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