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'Virtual Offices' Let Small Firms Act Much Bigger

by Joan Pryde

Running a business out of your garage—working in jeans and a sweatshirt—may be fine most of the time, but what if a client comes to call?

The "virtual office" is catching on in a big way, providing much-needed help for the home-based business owner who needs downtown digs or administrative help only once in a while. A professional office managed by someone else but available when needed gives an operation a more successful look and feel, without the cost of renting space full time or hiring a receptionist or administrative assistant.

The virtual office is actually a bundle of services that can include: a receptionist who answers and forwards calls and accepts package deliveries for you; an upscale downtown address; and use of office space and a conference room when needed. You can even have a sign in the lobby to give your clients the impression they're visiting your office and no other.

Companies selling these services charge fees ranging from $60 to $1000 or more a month, depending on the number and frequency of the services chosen. Finding a company that offers these services will become easier as more of them expand and try to cover a wider area in the U.S. For example, Davinci Virtual, headquartered in Salt Lake City, says it now has locations in more than 600 cities around the country, as well as overseas.

The concept is growing, not only because the number of home-based businesses keeps climbing, but also because the rise of the Internet and wireless communications is prompting a more diverse universe of professionals to hang out shingles and work from home. Dan Manheim, founder and president of Global Business Centers in Beverly Hills, Calif., says his clients run the gamut from attorneys and accountants to movie industry executives and even a Norwegian diplomat. The company has virtual-office locations in 12 other cities, many of them in Asia.

Using a virtual office isn't for every home-based business. If, for example, you're a freelance writer or medical transcriptionist and don't need more than a phone and a computer, you probably wouldn't need the extra services. But business owners who regularly meet clients will gravitate toward using a virtual office, especially if they're in an area with tough zoning rules. Many localities restrict home-office activities in residential neighborhoods. That leaves business owners at risk for having their operations shut down if their city or county gets complaints from neighbors upset by daily multiple package deliveries or lots of client visits to the home office.