Don't waste downtime

How about cleaning up your hard disk or buy a scanner to put your paper files into electronic format? These and more house-cleaning tips to shape up your business for the new year.

I love this time of year - the busy holiday season's behind me, and with a lull in business, for once I'm able to concentrate on the mundane chores that always seem to get pushed down to the bottom of my to-do list.

I also hate this time of year, because I've put off those tasks for good reason: they're house-keeping jobs that don't generate income, always take more time than I think they will, and make me more of a high-tech janitor than a pseudo-successful businessman. Ah, the life of a sole proprietor.

If your business, like mine, slows down at some time of the year, use the opportunity to make the place ship-shape. That means doing more than just vacuuming the floor and dusting behind the monitor.

My list includes five clean-up, freshen-up chores, from clearing hard drives and paper files to updating business forms and getting prepped for taxes. Prioritize them according to your businesses' needs.

Clean up

Now's the time to do some housecleaning of your company's computers. It's one way to start the new year right, since your machines probably harbor unwanted files, unnecessary applications, and other junk that you don't need, and that drag down your PC's performance.

Cleaning out a computer's hard drive is a tedious, manual chore that requires you to sift through folders looking for ancient files and applications, but there are some tools that speed up the job. Uninstall utilities like CleanSweep, which is included in Norton SystemWorks, do the trick, or you can steer to the Web for an online cleaner. McAfee.com Clinic, a $30 per year PC maintenance service, includes UnInstaller Online, a tool that reclaims hard drive space by eliminating unwanted applications.

I recommend that you back up files before you delete them, just to be on the safe side. (The Keizer Conundrum applies here: "As soon as you toss something, you'll need it.") Local backup is the most expedient and inexpensive option -- low-tech backup devices like Zip drives cost less than $100. You can also upload these files to a free online storage service such as Xdrive Express (which gives you 100MB of space) and Driveway (25MB of storage).

Flushing PC files isn't the only clean-up chore around my office. I've been meaning to root through my paper files, too, with an eye on reducing the clutter in the filing cabinets and getting rid of the stacks on my desk. Read on for my ideas.

In a crowded small business or home office, filing space is at a premium. (In a home-based business, you simply try to keep the clutter from overwhelming the rest of the house.)

The first impulse is to thumb through your paper files and clean out stuff you no longer need. You can purge inactive files, or if you think you'll need them at some undetermined future date, box them up and move them into storage off-site. An alternative is to transfer those paper files into electronic format. That way they won't take up more space than it takes to store a backup disk or cartridge.

The absurdly low prices of scanners helps here. For around $100, you can buy a scanner and turn paper into bits. UMAX's Astra 3400 is a good pick -- ZDNet gives it a Best Buy award -- for it costs under $100, and includes an optical character recognition (OCR) program for translating text on paper to electronic format.The problem here is one of organization and retrieval: how do you later locate an e-document?

To reduce my paper files I've been trying out askSam 4.0, a free-form database that lets you quickly set up fields tagged to documents (even just scanned images of paper pages) and conducts fast searches on keywords. You can also use OCR software -- the Astra 3400 comes with OmniPage LE, for example -- to transmute turn paper documents into electronic files , then do a full-text search of any word using askSam. A free 30-day trial download is available at the askSam Systems site.

Don't want to play maid? How about spending downtime freshening some of the materials that help you operate, like forms? I'll give you a tip or two in the next section.

When was the last time you updated the materials you use to run your business? I thought so.

Paper forms, from invoices to product lists, are excellent candidates for freshening up. Modifying forms can be a difficult and time-consuming task, however, if your business relies on stock forms rather than ones specifically created for your company.

You can change all that if you translate paper into electronic documents. Take the time to do this now, and you can easily update forms at any later date, such as a year from now when these house-keeping chores comes up again.

Software like EZ-Forms lets you scan paper forms (another good reason to have a scanner in your small business), customize and edit the electronic results, then save them for any-time printing. When you need to adjust a form -- say, an order form after you've added new products to inventory -- you can pull it up on the screen, make changes, then print.

So far my ideas haven't saved you a dime. That changes in my fourth downtime job: evaluating ISP services. It's time to balance what you're getting versus what you're paying for critical business services like phone and Internet access.

Even if you're satisfied with what you're getting, it pays to regularly evaluate such services as your ISP, phone, and Web host. With scores of companies competing for your organization's business, you may be able to cut costs or upgrade your quality of service.

Changing ISPs isn't a trivial matter, especially if your business relies on your provider for e-mail and Web site hosting, but you should at least check out alternatives. A good place to start is ZDNet's "How to Choose a Business ISP," which walks you through the process, from considering price to knowing how to judge performance. You should also check out ZDNet's Web Hosting Resource Center, where you'll find details on scores of hosting plans.

Any hours you spend now getting your paperwork into shape are hours you don't have to burn later, when business may be pressing -- especially at tax time. I always use part of my first-of-the-year slow-down to get ready for April. Up next are a couple of tax tool tips.

The most pressing tax job is to produce W2 statements for employees and 1099s for outside contractors and freelancers. Your deadline is January 31, 2001. If you're using small business accounting software like QuickBooks or Peachtree Accounting, this job's a snap: these programs pump out W2s and 1099s based on payroll and payments during 2000. Don't use accounting software? You can, of course, fill out the statements by hand, but a better solution for small business owners who must generate scads of statements is EASITax, a $33 shareware program available at ZDNet Downloads.

Once that chore is out of the way, start gathering your business records. Accounting software helps tremendously here, of course. QuickBooks users, for instance, can simply generate reports that lay out expenses and income by tax form and return line.

Another approach: download one of the many tax organizers available on the Web, then use it to collate the numbers. I found several worthwhile for sole proprietors, including this 2000 Tax Return Questionnaire (you'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view and print this organizer).

Don't waste downtime by staring at the phone, waiting for orders to come in. Like they say, "time to lean, time to clean." Grab a broom, digital or otherwise, and get to work.

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