A bootstrapper's guide to saving money on office furniture, phone service, computers, business travel, and more.
A bootstrapper's guide to saving money on office furniture, phone service, computers, business travel, and more.
For self-funded entrepreneurs, there are few skills more crucial than the ability to do more with less. That could be why many business owners take pride in hunting down deals and driving hard bargains. In that spirit, we have compiled tips to help you save big on a variety of office necessities. You might even earn bragging rights.
Jump down to one the following sections:
Your morning caffeine fix | Computers | Chairs, desks, and cubicles | Office art | Business cards | Cheap (even free) calls | Creating a website | Throwing a party | Munchies for the break room | A free perk for employees | Help with computer problems | Team-building activities | A cleaning crew | Software | Payroll-processing services | Smart employees who work for cheap | A posh place to work | Custom company logos | Cheap flights and makıng the most of your miles | Hotel rooms
Because of poor harvests and growing demand, coffee is at its highest price in 14 years. But you can find bargains online for brands such as Starbucks and Seattle's Best Coffee at DiscountCoffee.com. A box with enough Starbucks coffee to brew 18 pots was recently selling for $36, compared with $43 on Starbucks.com. DiscountCoffee.com offers free shipping on orders over $50, and there's no sales tax outside of Missouri. Plus, if you find a lower price online after you order, the company will refund 110 percent of the difference. For discounts on coffee machines, head to restaurant supply stores. Sites such as KaTom and the Webstaurant Store offer wholesale prices on a large selection of coffeemakers, from big commercial brewers to single-cup machines. Machines from brands such as Bunn and Cecilware typically cost about $100 less than they do at other outlets.
Before you buy a new computer, check out sites such as TechBargains and BradsDeals, which list recent coupon codes from manufacturers and retailers. For instance, TechBargains recently published a code for 25 percent off a new Dell Inspiron 570 desktop. Of course, if you are in the market for new computers, chances are you have some old ones to get rid of. Gazelle.com buys used electronics, for an average of $130 for used PC desktops and $450 for Macs. Other sites, such as SmallDog.com and Tekserve.com, buy and sell used computers. If you are looking for deals, steer clear of the Apple Store, says Brad Wilson, editor in chief of BradsDeals. "Amazon, MacMall, and Mac Connection routinely beat Apple's prices and sales tax," he says.
If you want new furniture, there is a wide selection of discounted desk chairs and other items on Overstock.com. The site charges just $3 for shipping for every order in the continental U.S. If used furniture will do, Craigslist is a great place to snatch up cheap items from local companies that have gone out of business. You can also find discount office furniture at Cort, a furniture rental company. It has a large inventory of clearance furniture—shelves, file cabinets, and desks for 40 percent to 70 percent off—that the federal government rented when it was conducting the 2010 census.
"We bought $30,000 worth of cubicles for $500 from an ad on Craigslist. Later, we realized that we had more than twice as many workstations as we needed. We put an ad on Craigslist and sold the excess for $500."
—Alex Edelstein, CEO of Servio, San Francisco
Many online services help you spruce up bare office walls inexpensively. 20x200.com offers low-cost prints of limited-edition artwork and photography. Prices vary by size. Any 8- by 10-inch print costs just $20. Pictopia.com charges similar prices for prints from its selection of 500,000 archival photographs from the New York Public Library, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and other sources. You can also rent art. For $10 a month, TurningArt.com will send you a different framed print of your choice every three months. You add prints to your queue, like you add movies on Netflix. For every dollar you spend on the service, you earn credits toward the purchase of an original work. (Prices range from $500 to $5,000.)
At Vistaprint, an order of 250 color business cards costs less than $26, including shipping, and the site frequently runs promotions that can save you an additional 50 percent to 80 percent. One recent offer included 500 one-sided, standard-stock business cards for $10, including shipping. (Vistaprint charges extra for double-sided printing and nicer paper stock.) Just be sure to order your cards well in advance: The cheapest shipping option is 21 days.
A. Armstrong Roberts/Corbis
If you have an Internet connection and a headset, you can make low-priced calls using your computer. It's free to call numbers in the U.S. using Google Voice and about 2 cents a minute with Skype. Both services have low rates for international calls. (China is 2 cents a minute with either.) If you want a professional phone system, you can save thousands a year with a virtual service, such as Grasshopper or RingCentral. These online systems let you set up phone extensions, an employee directory, and an automated receptionist for your company. Instead of paying to wire every phone in your office, you can route calls to existing lines, such as cell phones. At Grasshopper, plans range from $10 to $199 a month, based on the company's total talk time. RingCentral charges a monthly fee of $20 to $50 per user.
Many companies—including iPage and HostGator—will host your website for less than $5 a month, but not all of them make it simple to design a basic site. Weebly does. The site offers professionally designed templates that you can customize with a simple drag-and-drop interface. Plus, Weebly will host a basic site for free. When it comes to buying your Web address, it's cheaper to go elsewhere, however. You can buy a domain name for less than $10 a year at Namecheap, Name.com, and 1&1.
Whether you are hosting a launch party or an office shindig, you can get discounts by booking venues on slow nights. That's how Her Campus, a Cambridge, Massachusetts—based publisher of an online magazine for college students, scored free space and appetizers for its anniversary party last September. Co-founder Windsor Hanger approached a local bar that was hosting a 10 p.m. concert in the middle of the week. "I said, 'If we pack the place between 8 and 10 p.m., chances are those people will stick around for the show,' " Hanger says. You can also cut costs by getting sponsors to donate alcohol, door prizes, and other items. At another Her Campus event last year, Jack Wills, a British clothing maker, picked up the cost of the venue, DJ, and open bar in exchange for equal billing at the event.
You may not think of Amazon as your go-to destination for office snacks, but the site has a large selection of cheap bulk items such as Nature Valley Granola Bars ($27 for 72 bars) and SunChips ($15 for a box of 30 small bags). Many items qualify for free shipping. Another cheap option for office snacks is the discount club Costco, which has a delivery service for businesses. The online selection is much smaller than Amazon's, but shipping is free for many items. Costco membership is $50 or $100 a year (the latter includes 2 percent cash back on all purchases). Nonmembers can use the online service, too, but there's a 5 percent surcharge.
Here is one employee benefit that won't cost you a thing: discounts on sporting events, movies, plays, theme-park admission, and the like. Sign up for free at Plum Benefits or Working Advantage, and you will get a monthly e-mail with discounts for your employees.
Hiring a full-time IT staff is costly—the average IT employee's salary is about $80,000 a year, according to Global Knowledge, an IT training company. Some companies save money by outsourcing their IT departments to local managed services firms, which can charge as little as $30,000 a year to remotely monitor a company's servers and look after its e-mail and phone systems. If all you really need is someone to call when your computer is on the fritz or you can't get the printer to work, a few services offer low-cost tech support. For $15 to $30 a month, PlumChoice will provide unlimited support for one Mac or PC as well as any connected devices such as scanners and printers. Explain your problem to a rep over the phone, and he or she will log in to your computer remotely while you are on the line. For $15 a month, Office Depot provides a similar service for PC users. If the technician can't fix your problem over the phone, you can bring your computer to a store for an evaluation.
Courtesy DOW Chemical
Outings like corporate ski trips are great for morale, but between transportation, lodging, food, and ski passes, they can set you back thousands of dollars, even for a small group. Instead, volunteer together at a local charity. It's certainly not as glamorous or relaxing, but rallying around a cause helps employees bond—and feel good about giving back. Many local food banks allow corporate groups to sort and stock food as well as serve meals to the needy. Or employees can work together to build a home for Habitat for Humanity, which has some 1,600 chapters nationwide. (It's free to volunteer at many chapters, but some of them charge businesses a sponsorship fee.) Visit 1-800-Volunteer.org to find more group volunteering opportunities in your area.
The key to getting a good deal on janitorial services is knowing what you need before you sign a contract. Choose a service with a 30- to 60-day trial period, which will give you the chance to scale back on services you may not need—such as carpet cleaning or light-fixture dusting. The average cost to clean small offices (less than 2,500 square feet) is about $34 a visit, according to BuyerZone.com. For more than 10,000 square feet of office space, the average cost per visit is about $103. Make sure the cleaning service is bonded and insured in case of damage or theft.
On CNET's Download.com, you can find countless free desktop applications to handle things such as e-mail (Mozilla Thunderbird) and word processing (OpenOffice). Many Web-based applications also offer free editions. Google Apps, which includes applications for e-mail, word processing, and spreadsheets, is free for groups of 10 or fewer. (It's $5 a month per user for larger businesses.) For discounts on software, check out AppSumo, a Groupon-style site for Web-based programs. Or go to SoftwareMedia.com or Newegg.com for discounts on software out of the box.
"We never buy anything without looking for a special offer. For example, we use Grasshopper for our phone service. We got the service for $25 instead of $100 by using a coupon from AppSumo."
—Tracy Sigler, co-founder of AVL Marketing, Asheville, North Carolina
Some of the larger banks, including Citibank and Bank of America, offer low rates on payroll services to their business customers. For a 50-person company, Citibank charges $85 a month and Bank of America charges $96 for services that include direct deposit and electronic filing of federal and state taxes. (Some payroll providers charge up to $300 a month for these services.) If your bank doesn't offer payroll processing, try Intuit Online Payroll, which charges $112.50 a month for 50 employees. One catch: Intuit charges extra to process payroll for employees and contractors in multiple states ($12 for each additional state).
An internship program is a great source of educated, enthusiastic, and inexpensive workers. It's also a cost-effective way to recruit and check out potential full-time hires. You can find interns through career centers at universities or through sites such as Internships.com and Urban Interns. Keep in mind, though, that interns usually can't work for free. (Go to www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm to read the legal requirements for unpaid interns.) For occasional tasks that require specialized skills, you can save by using freelancers. Sites like Elance, Guru, and oDesk let you post positions for free and search through databases of freelance designers, programmers, and other workers.
The average cost for primo office space varies widely by city, from $17 a square foot in Boise, Idaho, to $66 per square foot in New York City. Some of the best bargains on Class A space can be found in Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston, says Robert Bach, chief economist at Grubb & Ellis, a commercial real estate firm. Though these cities have growing populations, vacancy rates for commercial space are high (Atlanta's is 22.8 percent, compared with the national average of 17.7 percent), which means that landlords are more willing to offer concessions, such as a free month of rent and generous tenant improvement allowances.
Some business owners maintain that it's worth ponying up thousands of dollars for a logo from a professional design firm. But if you don't have that kind of budget, you can get one for less by holding a logo contest. On sites such as 99designs and HatchWise, you describe what you are looking for, and designers submit entries over a few days. (Most contests receive from 20 to 100 submissions.) You give constructive feedback and select a winner. At HatchWise, it costs $29 to post a project, plus a prize of at least $100 for the winning designer. At 99designs, the cheapest logo package is $295, which includes the winning designer's prize. Typically, the larger your prize, the more design submissions you receive.
Often, the key to finding better airfares is being flexible. Sites like Kayak let you search airfares by a range of dates. If you have frequent-flier miles, UsingMiles.com will help you make the most of them to
get the lowest fare. While researching prices, sign up for Yapta, a site that sends you an e-mail alert when fares drop. It's also useful after you have booked your flight. If there is a big drop in price ($150 or more), many airlines, including American Airlines and Delta, will refund you the difference in the form of a travel voucher.
"We accrue points on our Amex card and use them to pay for travel and equipment, as well as gift cards to thank our clients for referring us."
—Bibby Gignilliat, founder of Parties That Cook, San Francisco
Frequent travelers have long tapped hotel loyalty programs to lower travel costs (and earn free vacations). InterContinental Hotels Group, which has 4,400 properties in more than 100 countries, has one of the best, with no blackout dates and points that never expire. Before booking any hotel room, check out PointMaven.com, a site that lists various promotions for earning bonus points at some 30,000 hotels. In big cities with high hotel prices, you can sometimes save by renting an apartment. On HomeAway, a vacation rental site, a furnished two-bedroom in San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood recently listed for $125 a night or $750 for the week. And the owners offered free rides to and from the airport.