Mark Fritch, owner of Fritch Custom Log Homes in Sandy, Ore., has a problem: The office of his firm's engineer is far from his own. A face-to-face meeting, Fritch says, takes "three or four hours out of my day and 50 miles of driving." At today's gas prices, that's also a big drain on Fritch's wallet.
But the small-business owner has a solution that saves him time and money: He uses a Web-conferencing program to set up a virtual meeting with his engineer. Using their individual computers, they can view all the documents and photos of their latest home-building project as if the materials were spread out in front of them on a table. Fritch says such virtual meetings over the past three years have slashed his travel costs. "When I look at dollars and cents, I'm saving time, I'm saving fuel—it's a win," he says.
Web-conferencing software is one way technology has made staying in the office work for more and more business people. And the technology has become increasingly affordable for the small-fry firm.
Brett Caine, the president of Citrix Online, a designer of Web-conferencing software, says that large companies with information-technology staffs and deep pockets could "buy pretty much anything that meets their needs." Indeed, many Fortune 500 companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on sophisticated "telepresence" sites that make it seem as if you are in the same room with off-site coworkers. But entrepreneurs can buy effective technology for way less. Citrix's GoToMeeting program, for example, is available for $49 a month, or $468 a year, which puts it within the reach of small businesses, too. Adobe Acrobat Connect, Microsoft Live Meeting, Convenos Meeting Center, and WebEx Meeting Center are other examples of conferencing software.
Impressed. Rick Albiero, president of Telecommuting Advantage, a consulting group that helps companies design programs that reduce travel costs, says that precisely because of their size, small businesses are probably in the best position to judge which customers need to be dealt with in person and what can be done remotely. Fritch says virtual meetings have helped him impress existing customers. "I have to create a sense of professionalism," he says. "When I can do an online meeting, [customers] know I'm an equal."
Here are two main factors to weigh when picking conferencing software.
First, the quality of a product's customer support is key. Try to gauge it yourself by asking for references of other users and then thoroughly checking them. Of course, the vendor will probably point you only toward references who like its products. Ask pointed questions to get around that bias, and "ferret out where the weaknesses are and whether those things are important to your installation," says Donna Garfield of the Telework Consortium, a consulting group.
Second, figure out exactly how many bells and whistles you need, and eliminate software packages that try to throw in features you won't use. For example, if you just want to talk with partners or clients about documents that you can view together, having video features might be unnecessarily costly. Don't get suckered by car salesman tactics. "There's actually one company that will sell you the video feature with really low quality and then say, 'Oh, well, good video costs more,'" Albiero says.
For his part, Fritch keeps it simple. Just being able to conduct a useful, long-distance meeting works for him. He recently, for instance, had a computer confab with a guy in New York City. No one would mistake sitting in Fritch's office for dinner at Le Bernardin and the bright lights of Broadway. But it is much cheaper.