With the uncertainty of the economy and people worried about their jobs, some individuals may be looking at starting a small business using a home office. These businesses can be anything these days from: writing, to consulting, to selling stuff online, to telecommuting (and a wide variety of other types of occupations).
The technology that is currently available allows you to do things less expensively, then it was possible only a few years ago. Below is a list of the things you will need to get you started.
What you will need:
Since we are talking about a home based business you can use your current physical address. Although if you want privacy, or a way to separate your personal mail from your business mail. You should consider using a PO Box from your local post office or use some type of private mailbox service.
You have to have some type of virtual presence these days, such as a web site and email address with a domain that has your business's name in it. You might be able to get away with using Gmail or Hotmail account for your email, but its not recommended. Check out domain name registrars like GoDaddy or any of the other ones that are out there.
Tip: If you still need advice on how to select a domain name, check out the following article (Choosing a Great Domain Name).
Setting up a web site these days is easier then ever, but making it look professional will be the hard part. Several web service hosting providers have ready made web site templates that you can leverage. Although, sometimes the hardest part is creating the business copy for your web site/services/products that you're offering, you might need to hire a professional to help you.
Virtual Store Front
Depending on what you're selling and how you choose to sell it, you might need a store front. Both eBay and Amazon offer a hosting solution, with the ability to create a product catalog, a shopping cart, and a secure payment infrastructure to accept credit cards. One of the other advantages of using one of the larger service providers (such as: eBay and Amazon) is that already have a lot of traffic on their sites that might be able help increase your sales.
If you need to send packages, all the major package carriers (US Postal service (USPS), UPS, and FedEx) offer free home and business pickup services. USPS offers a service called Click-N-Ship for printing postage and labels, then you can request a pickup for the following day.
Tip: You also might want to consider purchasing a scale to avoid overpaying postage.
Marketing using Search Engines and Social Networking
Marketing is one those necessities of any business, it also comes in several forms these days. There are the traditional forms like using print and Internet advertising. A good place to start with Internet advertising can be Google's Adwords program.
There is also search engine marketing, which basically consists of getting high quality links (i.e.: hyperlinks from popular web sites) pointing back to your site. Generally the more high quality links you have pointing to you the higher your ranking will be in the search results (for more information here, you can read about Google's PageRank technology). I am over generalizing how this works, but that is the basics (because I didn't really discuss how to get these links or touch on the importance of keyword optimization).
Note: There are a lot of companies out there calling themselves SEO (Search Engine Optimization) experts that might promise to get you on the first page of search results from Google, Bing or Yahoo. Check out their claims before hiring a company like this. There are several tactics that they can use to get you band from the search engines if you're detected.
One of the newest form of Internet marketing that you need use is social media (see the follow article for more information) site, like Facebook and Twitter. I am not going to get into too much detail here, there are several articles out there written by others on this subject.
Also don't forget to leverage older Internet marketing mediums like, blogs, posting video about your products or services, RSS feeds, and email newsletters. You should also consider ordering letterhead and business cards with your contact information (check out VistaPrint if you want to do this online).
Tip: Include your contact information and web site address in the signature line of your emails.
Video Conference Calling
Sometimes its nice to talk to the customer face-to-face. Although travel is expensive, so more people are leveraging video conferencing in place of traveling to the customer site. Also traveling to attend seminars, seems slowly being replaced by the webinars. There are services like GoToMeeting that you can leverage to host virtual presentations about your latest products.
If you only need to do one-on-one video conferences, Skype will allow you to do this for free. Both you and the person you're meeting with will need to have the Skype client installed and have an account with them to use this service.
Update: Check out a companion article, called "Free Video and Telephone Conferencing Services"
Virtual Computing Infrastructure
If you need office tools (such as an office suite, email, and collaboration tools), both Google and Microsoft offer solutions. Google calls their service Google Apps (free and paid services available), and Microsoft calls their services Microsoft Online (for free versions of these services check out Office Live). As you would except the free tools are very basic, while the paid version are more robust.
Tip: If you can afford it Microsoft Office is still the best office suite (i.e.: word processor, spreadsheet, etc.) available in my opinion. Although, If you need something free that is good, check out OpenOffice.
If you're small business doing application development and need servers, and storage, but don't have the budget to do what you need in-house (i.e.: hardware/personnel), then you might want to look at Microsoft Windows Azure or Amazon EC2 (Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud). The architectural differences between these two platforms is vast, but can serve different purposes depending on the needs of your application.
Legal, Insurance, Financial and Tax Advice
This is an area where I will refer you to a professional. So my best advice is find a lawyer and/or an accountant that you can trust.