Traditionally, one of the benefits of working for a large brokerage like Alain Pinel (my broker) was the technology infrastructure they provided — email service, fax machines, web sites, photocopiers, a PABX, desktop computers, servers, perhaps even cell phones — and discounts for third party services like graphics design, mailer printing, and office supplies. These days, however, even a one-person shop has much of this functionality at his fingertips…for a fraction of the “desk fees” charged by many of the brokerages.
Let’s look at how a small brokerage might tackle its technology needs in three categories: communication, marketing, and administration.
We start with a computer, which will end up being your primary tool in all three categories. Some folks prefer a desktop for their main office and a laptop on the road, but I prefer having only a laptop. Be sure you get one with a good-feeling keyboard, and you might want to spring for a large monitor to plug the laptop into when you’re at your office. You may also want to invest in a high-speed Internet access service for your laptop, such as that offered by Verizon.
- Phone — Get a VOIP (Voice Over IP) phone service from a company like Vonage or Skype, and give out that number. When you’re in your office (which for a small company could be at home), use that as your primary phone. Configure it so that if you don’t pick it up in 3 rings, it forwards to your cell phone. Get a cell phone with a generous plan and possibly with high-speed Internet access, depending on whether you’ll also get high-speed service for your laptop.
- Internet access — If you work from home and already have high-speed Internet access, set up an (encrypted) wireless router so you can work on your laptop from anywhere. If you have a dedicated office, you may have to spring for an Internet connection plan — especially if there are several people in the office. If you’re literally a one-person shop, you might get away with having only the high-speed Internet connection on your laptop.
- Fax machine — Skip it and save some serious bank. Get a $9.95/month Internet fax service plan which enables others to send you a fax to a dedicated number and forwards that fax as an attachment in your email, and be sure it also has an outgoing email-to-fax service. That way, you can send and receive faxes from anywhere you have Internet access. Two options to check out are Onebox and Greenfax.
- Email — Lots of folks use an Exchange hosted solution; some are beginning to migrate to Google Apps for Your Domain, though there’s some privacy concerns re. the latter. Loren Nason has a good explanation about setting up Google Apps. Your web site provider may well have an email service as well.
- Web site — If you prefer a low-hassle solution, and you’re not terribly interested in getting involved in the nuts and bolts of it, you’ll probably want to stick with one of the many, many real estate web site solutions. If you feel like getting your hands dirty, you may want a hosted solution that gives you complete control. I use Bluehost, which for less than $10/month gives me several domain names, a ton of free apps, and pretty good performance.
- Fliers/brochures/postcards — If you’re reasonably handy with Powerpoint or Publisher, you can design most of what you need yourself. Alternatively, you could hire a graphics artist to come up with a couple of neat templates for you, and then edit for each use accordingly. If you’re well-organized, you can save a lot of money by getting your mailings and open house fliers ready a week in advance, since you can use one of the Internet printing services like VistaPrint or OvernightPrints, which gives you good quality on full-color double-sided 4X6 postcards for something ridiculous like 15 cents each. Some of the services will even bulk mail them for you — but that adds up pretty quickly at 20 cents a card. If you’re not as well organized, you can probably get them done overnight at a local
- Printer — I personally wouldn’t recommend investing in an expensive, high-end printer. What’s often more cost-effective — again if you’re well-organized — is to get a $300 color printer that you use when you need, say, 10 copies or less. For more than that, and especially if you’re printing out 10 copies of a 100 page listing disclosure, you might want to check out FedExKinko’s online print service.
- Photocopier — Again, give it a miss and save some money, or get a cheap one (preferably the same gizmo as your printer) for doing 10 copies or less.
- Scanner — This is something still not found in most of the traditional brokerages, but I highly recommend it for any small business. I’d get one that’s reasonably fast — say, 15 pages per minute — and it becomes your defacto photocopier and fax machine. Say you get one of those annoying old-fashioned paper (shudder!) 100-page disclosure packets from a listing agent. Scan it in and forward it to your clients by email — they’ll have a much crisper copy and be duly impressed with your tech skills.
- Signature service — Ditch the old routine of print, fax to client, wait for fax to come back, etc. Try one of the electronic signature packages — provided, of course, that electronic signatures are legal for real estate transactions in your state — and you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. I use Docusign, but I’ve heard good things about Suredocs as well.
- Backup — If your whole business is on your laptop, you need to protect that data. I use Carbonite, a neat online service which backs up whatever you want it to for something like $5/month. Whenever you have an Internet connection, it scans your laptop for new or changed files and then quietly uploads them to Carbonite’s servers in the background. (Actually, I believe Carbonite uses Amazon’s S3 data service.)
Tags: Alain Pinel Realtors, Brokerages, Docusign, Real estate, Suredocs, Technology