Or almost nothing. Before you sign a lease (or buy a phone plan or make a hire), find out what's available for free.
You don't need a fancy telecom system and an office full of equipment to get your business off the ground. Hell, you don't even need an office, especially with the ever-growing array of virtual services at your disposal. --E.W.
Save the rent and work with your colleagues anywhere that has a Wi-Fi signal. Basecamp--a web-based project-management app--lets you assign tasks, send instant messages, collaboratively edit documents, create presentations and track projects with employees and clients. A good service for web design professionals and other creatives completing longer-term assignments. Plans start at $24 a month for as many as 15 projects and go up to $149 a month for unlimited use. But if you can find office space at that price, we suggest you take it.
Basecamphq.com: From $24 a month.
Setting up a conventional credit card payment system involves contracts, equipment rental and thousands in transaction fees. Ex-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has a new startup called Square that allows you to swipe plastic with your iPhone or iPod. Simply plug Square's, er, square, into the headphone jack and your customers can make a purchase from anywhere. With instant photo verification, on-screen signature technology and e-mail receipts, the system is paperless, too. It's still in beta testing, but expect Square to arrive this summer.
Squareup.com: $1 for the app, plus 2.9 percent of each transaction. Hardware will be free.
Telecom systems killed the receptionist. Now Google Voice is set to kill telecom. Voice gives you the local number of your choice and lets you forward it to as many landline or cell phones as you please, giving you an "office number" even if said office consists of nothing more than you and your cat. Voice kindly transcribes voicemails for access through text message or e-mail, and incoming calls can be recorded and played back on the web. Local calls are free; long distance starts at just 2 cents a minute.
Google.com/voice: Free, or close to it.
Buying a bulky fax machine is so 1993. And then there's the monthly cost of the dedicated landline needed to run the thing. With eFax, $16.95 a month gets you a local fax number of your choosing and 130 incoming pages each month. And eFax sends incoming faxes as e-mail attachments--very 2010, indeed.
Efax.com: $16.95 a month.
Get the perks of a corporate computer network with Dropbox's free downloadable software: Just drag and drop files into a desktop folder to sync them to computers and PDAs--no IT guy needed.
Freshbooks--an online invoicing, time-tracking and expense service--automates the accounting department with an easy web interface that sends documents (with your logo) to clients. Manage as many as three clients for free; a $19 monthly upgrade increases that to 25. Getting clients to pay on time? That's another matter.
Get Satisfaction--a startup that mint.com and Nike are already using--collects questions, complaints and feedback from throughout the social media universe and organizes it into a customer service platform that can be used on your website. Led by CEO Wendy Lea, Get Satisfaction has plans starting at $19.
Getsatisfaction.com: From $19 a month.
Make it legal
Create a simple LLC or trademark your business name with LegalZoom, a low-cost alternative to hiring counsel. LLC document preparation starts at $149 (about one-tenth of what an attorney would charge) and includes all filing fees and a custom operating agreement.
LegalZoom.com: $149 for an LLC document.
Ready to start your own business? Worried about the expenses?
This article has excellent tips for free or almost free services and tools to get you going when you are short on money.