Business connectivity on the cheap

11 Mar
Office and retail to go (from left): The wireless credit and debit card processor is portable and affordable; the Samsung Ultrabook is only slightly larger than an iPad and offers real computing muscle; the iPhone 5 provides email and Internet access, and doubles as a tether to send files from the Ultrabook; the external DVD player enables disc reading and burning. (Geoff Meeker photo)

Office and retail to go (from left): The wireless credit and debit card processor is portable and affordable; the Samsung Ultrabook is only slightly larger than an iPad and offers real computing muscle; the iPhone 5 provides email and Internet access, and doubles as a tether to send files from the Ultrabook; the external DVD player enables disc reading and burning. (Geoff Meeker photo)

I operate a small business and recently graduated from a home-based gallery to a store in downtown St. John’s. Immediately I faced the challenge of phone and Internet access.

I serve retail customers so the ability to offer credit and debit card transactions is essential. I also work as an independent public relations consultant and the gallery serves as my office, so access to email during the business day is a must.

Controlling costs is important when opening a new business location. Did I want to install a telephone line and high-speed Internet? I looked into these and other options and eventually settled on a lower cost solution. A sizable number of readers also operate small businesses, so there may be some value in sharing this information.

A telephone line made some sense, as it would enable voice calling as well as credit and debit card processing. However, a quick call to the phone company shows that this isn’t cheap – even with one of those sign-up specials. A single telephone line costs $53.50 per month, including voice mail, call display, call forwarding and three-way calling. If you bundle the phone with high speed Internet, it’s just $76.95 for the first year – $116.95 per month after that. Not bad, but still a bit rich for my tastes.

After all, I am paying a pretty penny every month for cellular and data services on my iPhone 5, which is already equipped with email. Why bother to install a phone line when my cell works just fine? The iPhone receives business email and I’m quite comfortable typing basic messages on its touchpad. The web browser is certainly adequate whenever research is required. Yeah, I could make the iPhone work at least for the first year of my lease, after which I would know whether I was moving on up, down or staying put.

I will be doing some writing at the gallery, on my super-slim Samsung Ultrabook computer (reviewed on September 24, 2012). Mostly I work offline. However, when I need to send and receive files from clients I enable the “Personal Hotspot” function on my iPhone. I connect, send the file, then disconnect. To do any more is to flirt with phone bill disaster, as it’s easy to exceed the monthly data limit if you get into casual surfing.

Because of its small size, the Ultrabook doesn’t have an internal CD/DVD drive. I work around that with the Pioneer CD/DVD burner (Best Buy, $135), which allows me to read or burn, as necessary. It even has a Blu-ray DVD player, for those slow days.

That leaves one outstanding issue: credit and debit card processing. I experimented at first with the Intuit GoPayment application for my iPhone, which comes with a free app and card scanner that connects to the earphone input. The system worked fine for credit card transactions, but couldn’t process debit cards – a dealbreaker for me. As well, I wasn’t fussed about the 2.7 percent transaction fee, which is slightly more than the norm.

As a Costco member, I receive their bi-monthly “Connection” magazine and recently noticed an ad for their in-house Elavon credit card processing service. In addition to a competitive fee of 1.72 percent on credit cards and a startlingly low flat rate of six cents for debit card transactions, they also offer a wireless terminal. I called the 1-800 number and learned that the only additional charge is a $20 monthly wireless fee (paid to Rogers) plus $23 rental for the wireless terminal, for a total of $43 per month. (I could have purchased the terminal for $945, but that’s too much of a commitment right now – I can buy the terminal any time if it makes sense to do so.)

There is no contract – I can return the terminal and cancel the service at any time, without penalty. And there is the added bonus of portability. I occasionally display at craft fairs and the terminal will be a real boon in these situations. (Sometimes, if you can’t do debit or credit you lose the sale, simple as that.)

To summarize, by using existing contracts and equipment, the only additional cost I am incurring is $43 per month – for a communications and transaction processing solution that is portable, reliable and easy to use. I’m quite pleased with it.

One other thing. Part of my work involves recording telephone interviews for story research. I have a system for this on my land line at home, but recording cell phone calls presents a new problem. Here’s my solution: I run a standard audio connector cord from the earphone jack of my iPhone to the microphone input of my digital recorder, then plug my earbuds into the earphone output on the recorder. I insert the buds into my ear, hit record and make (or receive) the call. It works like a charm – what you hear is exactly what your device is recording.

Correction

An alert reader pointed out an error in my last column. I said that the Blackberry Z10 was unique, in that it allowed more secure password protection through the use of numbers, symbols and upper and lower case letters. On Twitter, Colin noted that the iPhone can do this as well. I checked and he is right. Unlike the Z10, the feature is not available by default – it has to be enabled in the phone’s settings – but still, it’s there and easily accessible.Intui

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