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A Soloist's Blueprint

An architect relies on good old-fashioned word of mouth to outfit his high-tech office in the woods.
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CEO's Start-Up Toolkit: CEO Profile

An architect relies on good old-fashioned word of mouth to outfit his high-tech office in the woods

Tony Fallon resisted the computer revolution for as long as he possibly could. Sole proprietor of Tony Fallon Architecture, the firm he founded in 1992, Fallon prepared his drawings and did other work entirely by hand until 1996. That's when he had to face the fact that -- as much as he hated the idea -- a computer could significantly increase his productivity. Plus he was in danger of losing business without one. So he held his nose and bought an Apple Macintosh outfitted with MiniCAD drafting software. Even then, the system sat untouched for a year until Fallon -- who had rarely used a computer -- decided that it was finally time to get on with it. You could call Fallon a classic antigeek (he still thinks sledgehammers should come standard with every computer), but he has ramped up rapidly. Today he couldn't run his Strafford, N.H., office without computers. Inc. Technology asked Fallon to imagine his office as a tabula rasa waiting to be filled with computer equipment. We invited him to draw up a list of the machinery he would need if he were starting from scratch, set a realistic budget, and then hit the stores -- both online and off. Fallon's needs assessment and shopping experience were very real -- and instructive to any soloist just starting out or contemplating a technology refresh. What wasn't real was the budget -- Fallon hasn't yet purchased any equipment on his wish list.

Little office in the woods
Fallon designs summer houses, home additions, and affordable housing, in addition to planning public buildings such as libraries, theaters, and churches. He had worked in architectural firms for many years but struck out on his own nearly eight years ago. For a time, Fallon's company was known as Aeropera (pronounced air opera), which is loosely translated as spatial compositions. His professional tag line was "composure for your space."

"I compose my designs like music or writing," says Fallon. "I try to put it all together so the total assembly has value in itself. It's not just that you've got the $10,000 Jacuzzi and the $3,000 fancy windows. It's that the space is proportional."

Fallon, 43, physically embodies the composure he strives for in his designs. With a shock of white hair and light blue eyes, he has an imperturbable air. Used to soothing high-strung clients all day long, he can -- and does -- talk to anyone. Not that there are all that many people to talk to where Fallon lives and works.


One robust system can be more cost-effective than two or more cheaper ones used for different tasks.


Indeed, tiny Strafford is so rural that there's no cable of any kind; broadband is a distant dream. Fallon accesses the Internet at the pedestrian rate of 28.8Mbps, courtesy of the local phone company. Still, his profession requires a robust set of gear. Fallon needs the fastest chip, the most RAM, and the roomiest hard disk he can afford for storing his massive drawings (each comprising several megabytes) and running VectorWorks, his architectural software package. In keeping with his original platform choice, Fallon will stick with the Mac, because he doesn't want the hassle of porting his files to a PC format. He needs a laptop so he can access his files when he's visiting client sites. He also thinks he needs two cheaper desktop machines: one to function as a server and one for accounting tasks. One unessential but seductive option he'd like to add: the ability to send digital pictures -- even video clips -- by E-mail to show clients the progress on their homes. He also needs a costly plotter to print his blueprints (using a plotter service would be less money up front but not timely enough). Other items on his wish list: a multifunction scanner-printer-copier machine, an uninterruptible power supply, a surge protector, a personal digital assistant, an external backup drive, and a cell phone.

But, as for any soloist, money is tight. Fallon figures a bare-minimum office setup based on the Mac platform will cost about $11,000, which he plans to finance through a combination of cash and an equipment lease.

Exploring the options
When it comes to researching computer equipment, Fallon defines the word methodical (just what you'd expect from someone who reads the dictionary for fun). His information sources include the Dogpile.com search engine, Consumer Reports, MacMall.com, CNet, the MacWarehouse catalog, and the advice of a Mac-savvy land surveyor with whom Fallon works. He spends a week or two mulling information from those sources and then hits the stores.

For Fallon, human interaction -- not price or convenience -- is paramount. "I can rattle off the right buzzwords," he says. "I know just enough to be dangerous. But it is great to have someone geeky help you." When Fallon needed equipment in the past, he paid Scott Drummey, an Apple consultant based in Dover, N.H., $60 per hour to devise a list, which Fallon took to his favorite store, Computer Town in Salem, N.H.


Skip all-in-one machines that fax, copy, print, and scan. Buy separate systems that do one thing well.


Fallon haunts the smaller, Mac-oriented computer stores at off-peak hours, when he can get to know the salespeople by name. He has an Irishman's love of dialogue. (Once he even sent a salesperson a $100 check because he'd bent the guy's ear for so long and left without buying anything.)

On this shopping trip, salespeople offer up a number of pointers, which Fallon either uses or ignores. For instance, salespeople at three stores all advise him not to buy a multifunction machine. (He had been eyeing the Epson Stylus Scan 2000, which included fax, copier, scanner, and printer functions for an attractive $250.) Jon Claflin, a salesman at Computer Town, calls multifunction machines "the bottom of the barrel for all the different elements." Due to the overwhelming consensus, Fallon agrees that he'll have to spend some extra money and split up the printing, scanning, and copying functions into separate machines.

Fallon also heeds consultant Drummey's advice that there's no need to buy three separate computers (a laptop, a desktop for accounting functions, and a desktop to function as a server). Fallon needs a server to provide extra horsepower so he can print blueprints on the plotter without hanging up his main workstation for hours. Drummey points out that Fallon could use one desktop computer -- he recommends an iMac DV series machine (400MHz with 64MB of RAM) for about $1,300 -- for both functions. Fallon is quickly persuaded. (That decision will help bring him in more than $2,000 under budget, for a final sum of $8,881.)

On the other hand, Fallon is unmoved by Claflin's argument that an Iomega Zip 250 USB drive (about $180) would not be adequate for backup. Claflin recommends VST Technologies' FireWire external hard drive (which will connect through the PowerBook's FireWire drive) with 14GB of memory for $429. After consulting with Drummey, Fallon decides to save nearly $250 by going with the Zip drive. And if he loses files, well, he can always go back to the drawing board.

Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer based in Waban, Mass.


The Gear He Picked

MAIN WORKSTATION: Fallon likes to beat computer makers at their own game by buying models that have just become obsolete. So he was in the market for a 333MHz PowerBook notebook (about $1,900). But Fallon's advisers urged him to spend about $600 extra on a PowerBook G3 with a 400MHz chip, a 6GB hard drive, and 64MB of RAM (about $2,500). The extra money translated into a faster chip, more RAM, and two FireWire ports (which allow high-speed data transfer between the machine and peripherals such as digital cameras).
Final Choice: PowerBook G3, $2,494, from Computer Town

COLLATERAL WORKSTATION: Since he needs a desktop machine only to perform some accounting tasks and to function as a print server, Fallon economized as much as possible on this choice. Luckily for him, now is a good time to buy an iMac. With a 400MHz G3 processor, 64MB of RAM, a 10GB hard disk, and dual 400Mbps FireWire ports, the iMac DV is a bargain at just over $1,300.
Final Choice: iMac DV series, $1,323, from Computer Town

PLOTTER: The Achilles' heel of Fallon's budget -- and the bane of his crowded office -- the plotter was the most expensive and heftiest piece of equipment on his shopping list. Because this is mission-critical equipment, it made sense for Fallon to drop some dough on this machine. Fallon bypassed several cheaper models and opted for a 36-inch (E-size) Hewlett-Packard DesignJet with 300-dpi color capability (600 dpi for black).
Final Choice: HP DesignJet 488CA, $3,534, from Hewlett-Packard

PRINTER: Fallon needed a printer that could handle 17-by-22-inch color output. He decided to purchase a stand-alone model rather than an all-in-one printer-scanner-copier-fax machine.
Final Choice: Epson Stylus 1520, $590 (with PostScript add-on), from Computer Town

SCANNER: Once he made the decision to split up the scanning, printing, faxing, and copying functions, Fallon wasn't much interested in researching each choice to death. He took the advice of a Mac adviser and picked a relatively inexpensive scanner model from Umax.
Final Choice: Umax Astra 2200, $199, from MacMall.com

CELL PHONE: Fallon chose this model for Nokia's reputed reliability. Service: SunCom.
Final Choice: Nokia 5160, $99 (plus activation fee and a $35 service charge per month that includes 300 minutes)

DIGITAL CAMERA: Fallon was sorely tempted by Epson PhotoPC 850Z (about $800), which can handle panoramic views and has a microphone capability for documenting each photo. Though that would be useful when sending site photos to clients, Fallon couldn't justify the expense. He went for a cheaper model.
Final Choice: Epson PhotoPC 650, $300, from Computer Town


The Gear He Skipped

COMBINATION MOUSE-TRACKBALL: The Kensington Orbit mouse-trackball is easier to position and more precise than a conventional mouse -- a real temptation for an architect -- but Fallon stuck with the mouse that came with his PowerBook G3. Saved: $50

FLAT-PANEL MONITOR: Fallon wanted the 15-inch flat-panel Apple Studio Display, but he knew he could get by without it. Saved: $1,299

COPIER Fallon regretfully knocked the Sharp AL-1220 off his list; it put too much of a strain on the budget. Fallon will visit the local Kinko's for copies, though that will mean driving and gas expenses. Saved: about $850

HANDHELD DEVICE: Fallon's wife bought him a Casio electronic organizer for Christmas many years ago, and it's been collecting dust ever since. Although he realizes both the functionality and the size of handhelds have improved greatly, Fallon prefers to carry a tiny calendar and a notebook in his pocket, a trick he learned at the knee of his businessman father. Saved: about $200

STAND-ALONE FAX: Fallon felt that he maxed out his budget on the stand-alone printer and scanner, so he didn't want to cough up extra for the fax machine. He decided to use the software fax capabilities that come standard on the Mac. Saved: about $250


For more on the gear you really need to start and grow your small business, see our CEO's Start-Up Toolkit.


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