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The No-Office Virtual Office

When is a virtual office not an office? When it has no server on site.

David J. Drucker, 02/16/2006

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Is the concept of a no-office virtual office confusing? Or maybe it seems redundant? Here's the idea. Suppose the computers in your office were merely workstations. That is, suppose they had little, if any, executable programs installed on them because all the software you needed was on someone else's server and all the data you created were there, as well.

That's what Chris Cooper does. If his name sounds familiar, it's because you might know Cooper, not as a visionary technology user, but as an elder-care specialist. "I began a health-care career well over 20 years ago with paramedic training and a degree in nursing, working in nursing homes and hospitals, which gave me the specialized knowledge I draw on now to serve my particular niche: persons preparing to retire and the very elderly."

Aside from his specialties, though, Cooper is a financial advisor just like the rest of us. Actually, he has two firms--his financial advisory firm, Chris Cooper & Company, Inc., and the firm he calls ElderCare Advocates, Inc., both located in Toledo, Ohio.

Within the context of these two companies, Cooper's operated under various configurations, but perhaps the best indicator of the changes he's made is the fact that he's down from the eight employees he maintained at his inefficiency peak to only two employees now: him and his wife. "Although some of the drop was related to my conversion from a commission to a fee-only business, most of it was technology-related," says Cooper.

What he's done that's so unique is he's moved his server and primary computer software, including his document management system, offsite. He works strictly from other companies' servers now.

"We started going to a paperless office via file imaging about eight years ago," says Cooper, whose idea at the time was to get rid of paper and file cabinets to save space. "But the conversion didn't really save any money," he says. "All we accomplished was to replace file clerks with scanning clerks."

One day, Cooper found himself sitting in a conference session in which I and Joel Bruckenstein, who is MorningstarAdvisor's technology editor, were speaking. After that, Cooper made the decision to take the process a step further. He was ready to get rid of not only paper, but people and office space, too. "Now that makes more sense," he thought to himself, "because it saves money."

Of course, that thought was followed up by, "Wait a minute. How will we get the work done?" Outsourcing entered the picture to solve that problem. But he still couldn't get away from the ball and chain of big computer servers, databases needing to be maintained, and backups needing to be performed--that is, until he discovered his main technology vendors: Creative Solutions and RIM Solutions. (Have you noticed how no one sells products or services anymore? They sell "solutions.")

What Cooper has accomplished is to move almost all of his systems to Creative's and RIM's servers. "This is what got me really saying, 'Wow! I don't have to have anything in my office at all.' I could literally work in a bathroom now if I wanted to," says Cooper, whose computers have all become "dumb" terminals now.

What Cooper has moved offsite to Creative and RIM are his document management system and his Outlook e-mail and other Microsoft Office Suite applications that he depends upon. Let's take a look at each of these companies and how they've helped transform Cooper's operation.

Creative Solutions is a Jackson, Mich., company that was purchased about five years ago by Thomson Financial, the company behind many of our industry's trade publications. Says Cooper, "They provide me a Windows Terminal Server application, which, in turn, provides me the full Microsoft Office Suite along with my tax software [Cooper's firm still does about 150 client tax returns each year] and a file cabinet program called Ultra Tax."

He adds, "What I find so amazing is that, after opening a Web browser and entering the address for my virtual office followed by the log-in and password, these software programs that I'm using on my own computer via third-party server all work and look identical to the local server system I once used. You can't tell you're using them over the Web and that you actually have no software loaded on your own computer."

And to think that Cooper invested more than $50,000 in servers and workstations 10 years ago when he employed a large staff. Creative Solutions prices its service by the number of log-ins required by a user. Do you need to own the licenses to the Microsoft software you use via Creative Solutions? Yes, but according to Cooper, the company takes you at your word.

Let's get back to the operational aspects of this setup. As long as Cooper has an Internet connection, he can use any computer anywhere to run his businesses. "I could be using a computer made available to me in an airline club at the airport, using my home computer, using my laptop outside the home. With any broadband connection, I never need to have any software loaded on the computer I'm using, nor any data."

"Wow!" (That's my wow, not Cooper's). That solves a big security dilemma too because one no longer has to fear losing a laptop or having one stolen while traveling. "Since there's nothing on my computer, if I lose it or it stops working, all I have to do is go get another computer, plug it in, connect to the Internet, and I'm right back in business."

Creative Solutions was originally a little accounting and tax software company with a product named Net Client, which would enable an accountant to set up a virtual private network and his clients to feed him their financial data so he could then prepare their taxes. As the firm has evolved, says Cooper, it has brought in new product areas. (What Cooper liked about its ASP tax service, by the way, was his ability to rent just those states and forms that he needed and pay by the number of returns he prepared.)

The company next came out with Virtual Office, the system Cooper now uses that gives him his Microsoft Office Suite. "In addition, I can buy their proprietary file cabinet and tax preparation software, as needed."

What does Creative's Virtual Office cost? There's a nifty calculator to help you compare the cost of its service with doing it yourself (i.e., buying and maintaining the necessary hardware and software). To cut to the bottom line, though, for a two-person operation like Cooper's, the cost is about $200 a month.

How does the e-mail work exactly? Cooper gets his e-mail via Outlook--the Outlook in the Creative Solutions Virtual Office system. "I'm still using my same ISP, but when I configure Outlook on Creative Solutions' system, I do so as if Outlook was resident on our own computers. The setup is no different." He also uses Outlook as his CRM.

Creative Solutions' File Cabinet is a program that integrates with its tax software so that when a financial advisor or accountant prints a return, instead of printing out a physical copy, she prints an image to the File Cabinet. But File Cabinet isn't just for tax returns. The user can also file Microsoft documents to a client's folder within File Cabinet.

"In addition to Creative Solutions, I needed a provider to house the data I have imaged over the past 10 years in a scanning program called Alchemy from IMR. This is the company that provides the federal government with its paperless systems and is used by most casinos in Las Vegas," says Cooper, attesting to Alchemy's excellent reputation in the field of document management systems.

RIM Solutions, a service provider out of the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, houses all 10 GB of Cooper's images, including client files, library and other documents he's converted from paper to "paperless-ness," as he calls it. "And recently, RIM added an upgrade that makes it easier for me to scan in documents," says Cooper. "I just scan a document to my desktop and then drag and drop it to Alchemy running on the Web, which, again, looks just like the software I have used for the past 10 years on my own servers." And which he once paid big license fees for every year. "Now, I only pay a monthly fee of about $400 to RIM."

Cooper has uploaded his entire database, that is, all his current clients' records. "Initially, we scanned everything here in our offices--paper that once filled up five lateral, four-drawer file cabinets." The scanning took him three years.

How secure is Cooper's setup? "I've talked to a lot to these companies about backups and security," says Cooper. "RIM will send us a DVD every month as a third backup." What are the first and second backups? The first is the original copy of Cooper's data on the RIM system. The second is RIM's own backup of that data. Cooper's data are "firewalled" off from other users' data within the RIM server.

In addition to Creative and RIM, Cooper outsources money management to outsiders, and he's about to port his QuickBooks to the Web.

What's particularly fascinating is that Cooper says he now handles clients of all sizes. "We've got our costs down so low now that we can serve middle-class clients on a fee-only basis. And we're handling more assets than ever but just don't labor like we used to. Furthermore, we don't need to take on more overhead to get bigger."

When Cooper first contacted me to tell me of these conversions, he said, "I wanted to share this with you as you gave me the desire to go from paperless to nothing-ness! And it's a lot easier than doing it the other way around!"

Indeed.

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