THE OFFICE: Virtual or not: It's all A-OK
If you call Broker Outpost Chief Executive Officer Darin Ferraro on his office phone, a cheery-voiced receptionist will answer, ask why you're calling, and route you to Ferraro or his voice mail. You might imagine Ferraro working in a big office where a headset-wearing assistant juggles incessant calls and a task-laden staff scurries through cubicles. You'd be wrong.
Ferraro has neither full-time staff nor full-time commercial office space. He's the lone worker for his 2-year-old business, a Web portal for mortgage brokers. He works from home. His receptionist is "virtual." Some local businesspeople, for convenience or money savings or both, are using virtual office services such as a local phone number and mailing address, phone-answering, mail collection, or shared office space, which can include executive suites or conference rooms.
Several companies offer virtual office services in Southern Nevada, including Intelligent Office, Davinci Executive Suites, Alliance Business Centers and Regus Group. Observers say virtual services may appeal to entrepreneurs who would rather work from home or oft-traveling professionals who never stay anyplace long. The services may also appeal, observers add, to businesses that are young, on low budgets and unsure of their fates.
"For a startup, a nice thing is that there's no long-term commitment," said Jeff Strum, who operates the local holdings of Intelligent Office, which include a building in Summerlin and a planned one in Centennial Hills.
As for cost, Intelligent Office rival Davinci Suites, for example, offers virtual office attendant services, which include a toll-free number for automated call routing, and e-mail and fax forwarding, starting at $59 monthly. The virtual receptionist package, which uses a live receptionist, starts at $149 a month.
Space is relatively cheap, too. Davinci's "local business identity" package, which includes a business address, use of conference rooms in local Davinci offices and a directory listing in the building lobby, starts at $95 monthly. Furthermore, because Davinci's offices are rentable by the day ($150) or the hour ($20) they can accommodate someone who, like Ferraro, needs an outside office only temporarily. Also, Davinci and other suppliers note, executive suites come with Internet infrastructure such as T-1 lines; telephones; lights; and office furniture already installed.
Leasing space long-term would be pricier. Davinci Vice President of Product Development Martin Senn said his company's offices range from 100 to 400 square feet. Applied Analysis, a Las Vegas financial consulting firm, reported that asking monthly rents for top-line Class A office space was $2.79 per square foot during the first quarter. Using the largest offering, 400 square feet, a Class A rental would be $1,116 per month. Applied Analysis partner Brian Gordon said the total cost could be higher because office use includes expenses not included in rent such as janitorial services and maintenance.A receptionist would cost, too. The Web site salaryexpert.com reports that the average annual salary for a Las Vegas Valley receptionist is $21,475. So paying a receptionist would cost $1,879.58 per month. Therefore, a receptionist and office space would together cost $2,995.58 per month.
Beyond cost savings, executive suites and virtual offices afford a sense of polish and professionalism that can help young businesses impress, Davinci Suites President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Grodnik said. Client meetings at coffee shops or restaurants project instability, he said Answering the phone oneself suggests you're in business alone. "If you have a receptionist and an office, the impression is the opposite; it's that the person has a staff, he must be doing well," said Grodnik, whose company has an office building in Las Vegas and another in Henderson. "We have a guy using our suites who's fresh out of law school and he's green as green can be, but because he uses our service he doesn't look that way." J
effrey Landers, founder of Offices2share.com, a New York-based online service helping small companies find virtual or short-term space said there's nothing wrong with working from home; Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia founder Martha Stewart all started there. Nevertheless, Landers said working from home can still carry a stigma. "When you have a business meeting in your living room, there's still a perception that it's not very professional," he said. No one knows what may disrupt a home meeting, Landers said; roaring lawnmowers, chugging leaf blowers and barking dogs can create startling distractions. No one knows who may disrupt meetings, either, he said.
In addition to minimizing distractions and keeping up appearances, virtual services can help businesses expand, suggested Frank Cottle, chairman of Alliance Business Centers, which operates seven office centers in Southern Nevada.
Many virtual office providers offer office use wherever they own space, Cottle said. So, if a Las Vegas-based Alliance office customer needed to meet a client in New York City, he could use the company's offices on the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan. Office Business Center Association International told The Wall Street Journal there are about 4,000 shared office business centers in North America and some 5,500 worldwide. Alliance, Cottle said, operates 700 business centers worldwide.
This meet-anywhere ability could particularly appeal to companies started by Las Vegans looking to go national, Cottle said. "If I'm a Las Vegas businessperson with a contract in Amsterdam, I want that contracted client to be able to call a number and have the phone answered in Dutch. I want him to be able to call county code 31, not area code 702," Cottle said.
Cottle said virtual-office arrangements appeal mostly to business professionals: insurers, real estate agents, and finance company representatives. But use can also reflect business trends, he said. In the late 1990s, for example, many dot-com startups and venture capitalists were using executive suites and virtual services. The recent housing boom put more housing-business people, including mortgage lenders, in the executive suites, he said.
Now that the housing bubble has burst, more mortgage-saving companies, those helping overextended home borrowers, use the suites, Cottle added. "Virtual offices are the fastest, easiest place to start a business," Cottle said. "And the fastest, easiest place to change one." Reading "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century," inspired Joe Tegano, president of health insurance broker Health Quotes of Nevada, to use Intelligent Office's virtual receptionist. In the book, written by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Tegano learned of how computer maker Dell and credit-card issuer American Express had outsourced phone answering. "After reading how those companies outsourced calls, I figured it would work for me," he said.
He said the system, which he started using in December, saves his three-person staff time. About 50 calls a day come into the office, he said, and though some callers want to conduct long business conversations, some want something as simple as a fax number. Before the virtual receptionist, he said, what's-your-fax calls would rob time from weightier calls. "You'd have to interrupt the call with the person you were already dealing with," Tegano said. "And if it happens three times, the person on the other end is just going to be ticked off."
Fred Brooks, who operates Titan Funding, a mortgage business and Titan Realty, a real estate business, in Henderson, said he switched to Davinci's virtual receptionist services recently because 250 to 300 daily incoming calls were overwhelming the lines."Some calls would come in and land in a spot in a queue, and after a while of waiting, people would give up and hang up," Brooks said. "This way, the calls get through and a live person answers them with a pleasant greeting."
Broker Outpost's Ferraro said using the virtual receptionist frees him to focus on business. And though he doesn't use Intelligent Offices' executive suites now, he has before and likes knowing he can."They're right up the road from my house," he said. "And it's a brand-new building."