Business Processes

Alternatives to Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office is an intrinsic part of my business. I use Outlook almost every minute of the day. Excel is open on my computer most of the time. Word is used daily. I develop all kinds of systems (and access to systems) using Access (no pun intended). I don’t know how I could run my business without these tools, but maybe that’s because I’m just so used to them. They are familiar. I’m comfortable with them. I know, almost without thinking, where to go to find something and do whatever task needs to be done.

That’s all wonderful until I need to upgrade. I’ll admit it, I’m still on Office 2003 (yes, really). Why? Well, besides being resistant to the new ‘ribbon’ features in Office 2007/2010 (why, oh why, did they move everything around, so that novices can find things, but experienced users get lost?), there is the $500 price tag (well, $499.99 to be accurate) to upgrade from something which is working perfectly well to something I’m going to have to re-learn (NOTE: There are versions of Office which run $279.99, but I have to have Access to do the work I need to do for my clients, and that comes in the $499.99 version). I’ll certainly upgrade, probably when I upgrade my computer, but in the meantime, I’m stretching my software dollars. If I amortize the cost of Office over the number of years I’ve used this version and the amount of time I’ve spent on the various programs, I’ve got nothing to complain about! For under $100/year, I’ve got an incredible tool.

…but I use Office ALL THE TIME! I get my ‘money’s worth’. That’s not true for everyone…

For a lot of people – business people and home users alike, there is just no way they can justify the investment. If you’re a more ‘casual’ desktop user and don’t need to be locked into the Office world, there are now a myriad of FREE alternatives available to you. I would strongly advise downloading and trying out the following FREE, FREE, FREE or low-cost software. Pick the one which suits you best. Depending upon whether you use more spreadsheet ‘stuff’ or document ‘stuff’ or presentation ‘stuff’, may determine which you prefer. It might also depend upon which software makes the most sense to you from a general navigation perspective.

So what are these ‘savior’ alternatives? Check them out below:

Open Office – – Free
Google Docs – – Free
Libre Office – – Free
SoftMaker Office – – $80
Zoho – – Free for individuals

Google Docs and Zoho are both web-based. That’s great if you want to access your information anywhere, but there are two drawbacks to consider to web-based software:

First, your data is stored completely on someone else’s server…make sure you back it up to your local machine regularly. Even the ‘big guys’ have accidentally deleted user data! Being in the ‘cloud’ does NOT mean ignoring backup procedures.
Second, if you don’t have a good internet connection, or you don’t have one at all, working on web-based software can be difficult to impossible.

Each of the softwares listed above has its own ‘character’ (although LibreOffice and OpenOffice are remarkably alike since LibreOffice grew out of a defection by OpenOffice users). All of the alternatives have free trial periods (or remain free), so feel free to try them all out. You decide which one might be better than the other for your particular uses!

What are your favorites…or do you stick with the familiar Microsoft Office environment?

What printer should I buy – Laser or Inkjet?

We all know that we can buy an inexpensive printer (maybe it is even thrown in with our computer purchase for ‘free’), but we end up spending a fortune on ink. Printers that use a single cartridge with all colors in it are typically more expensive to operate because you end up replacing ALL colors of ink, when the first color runs out. When the colors are stored in separate cartridges, you only need to replace the colors as they run out, thereby assuring that you empty every color before replacing them. So, while one printer might be quite inexpensive to purchase, it might be very expensive to operate over time.

Typically, I have purchased inkjet printers. My primary rule of thumb when purchasing a printer – make sure all the ink cartridges can be replaced separately. Beyond that, I look at the other features (I currently use an all-in-one), and determine if they are worth the money (beyond being a basic printer).

I have never totally understood why I would purchase a laser printer over an inkjet printer. I know that laser printers are typically higher volume, but that was my total understanding (admittedly, not much) of the difference…and that difference I understood only vaguely.

So, I took particular interest in an article in PC World titled “Should your office buy and inkjet or laser printer?“.

You can read the details if you’re interested, but here’s what I took away from the discussion:

Inkjets work well for printing photos, and other items that are not ‘plain paper’.
Inkjets are easier to maintain (for mere mortals!)
Inkjets are s-l-o-w (you don’t need to tell me that!)
Inkjet print quality isn’t the greatest on plain paper
Inkjets don’t handle alot of paper at one time (small tray size)

Laserjets print clear, crisp text on plain paper
Laserjets print quickly
Laserjets print high volume (larger tray sizes)
Laserjets are larger/heavier than their Inkjet brethren
Laserjets don’t print photos well
Laserjets (particularly color ones) tend to have more maintenance costs associated with them

I had always heard that the cost of ink was far more economical in Laserjets than in Inkjets, but apparently, that line is blurring (why not help to further confuse me!?!). Lower-end cost Laserjets may actually have more expensive ink cartridges, making the cost savings on the printer itself less attractive when you have to purchase more expensive ink for the life of the printer.

My take-away from this is that it is best to buy the right printer for the type of printing that you typically do. If you need speed, buy a laserjet. If you like printing up photos of the grandkids, stick to the inkjet. I’m sure that, with time, the line will actually get blurrier with the cost of laserjets and LCD printers coming down, while some lovely, higher-end inkjets appear on the market.

And another note: I ABSOLUTELY recycle every ink cartridge that I empty. It is the right thing to do. That said, Ana Fernandez-Parmet, a friend of mine who owns Parmetech, an office technology provider, says that there are now printers which are ‘green’ and print using cartridge-less ink! As I understand it, these are Laserjets, and the ink simply ‘melts’! Now THAT is a technology that I can get behind :-). I hope that that concept is adopted by some of the lower-volume printers out there.

Lessons a Phila Biz Learned Updating Its Old Website – Tips for Hiring a Web Developer

One of my clients, Ellen Fisher (Publisher of the Women’s Yellow Pages of Greater Philadelphia) and I had the pleasure of speaking with Joseph Mutidjo, a reporter for The following is a reprint of the article he wrote describing the process we went through when updating Ellen’s website.

Lessons A Phila Biz Learned Updating Its Old Web Site: Tips for Hiring A Web Developer

March 24, 2011 by Joseph Mutidjo
Originally published here:

New Women's Yellow Pages SiteChange can be hard, even when you have to let go of that faithful 10 year-old website.

Ellen Fisher, the founder and publisher of the Women’s Yellow Pages of Greater Philadelphia, knew she had to update the 3,000-page website she first launched in 1999. That was back when she saw the Internet as the way of the future for her print directory of women-owned businesses and women’s organizations.

“If I wanted to stay in business I had to make certain changes. Our database was working fine, but our website was in frames and not good for search engine optimization,” explained Fisher. “We didn’t want to redo everything, since our data collection processes worked well, but our clients wanted to be able to advertise online (in addition to listings), so we needed to create that real estate on our website and be able to manage this new offering.”

Fisher hired Sandra Clitter, owner of SLC Consulting, as the project manager and technical lead for the job. The two ladies first met at a small networking event hosted by the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).

“We hired her to do a few little tweaks to the database and then realized we were in love—with the way she worked with us,” Fisher said.

Fisher emphasized that when looking for an IT consultant or web developer to partner with, small business owners should not just look for a good programmer (or someone with good technical skills), but someone “who is interested in learning about your business in detail.”

Original Women's Yellow Pages SiteClitter was surprised Fisher had kept her site running for so long as they did with decade-old technology. The two had several brainstorming sessions to define the site’s purpose, outline the problems and craft effective solutions. Clitter presented Fisher with several solutions at varying price points, and discussed the pros and cons to each solution.

“Careful consideration has to be given to the purpose of the website—who is visiting, why are they there, are they conducting transactions, or simply getting information, is the information updated frequently or only occasionally. Answers to each of those questions should determine a different path for the technology underlying the website,” Clitter said.

They settled on a solution that cost $10,000, and started the 6-month renovation project—together. Clitter points out that building or rebuilding a website should be a close collaboration between client and provider.

“Clients often don’t realize that they need to participate in the project themselves in order to make sure that their substantial knowledge of their business are accommodated and incorporated as appropriate. Additionally, because we’re dealing with technology, an area that’s very uncomfortable for many people, there is an ongoing education process required. . . . The owner of the site should understand how/why the various components of technology have been chosen, even if they can’t understand the specific technology itself,” she said.

Many small business owners “hang on to their old site for longer than its useful life” because of their unfamiliarity with and fear of new technology, noted Clitter. A website, as with anything else, has a lifespan. She explained a “plain ol’ HTML page really never stops working,” but a website can have its visual component as well as functional underpinnings become obsolete.

“Make the website maintenance a part of the business budget each and every year—updating various parts that are ‘worn,’ or have better solutions can help it run longer. Like any other technology, websites need ‘tune-ups,’ just as a piece of hardware or other software does. Like hardware, organizations need to have a website replacement period and build it into the budget. It is unlikely that many computers of five years or older are still in place, functioning efficiently—and it is likely that websites of that age or older should also not be in place,” Clitter said.

Fisher said the updated website is a “stellar product,” and impressions have increased significantly. Five years from now, here’s looking forward to the roll out of another stellar website.

By Joseph Mutidjo, Reporter,

Do you misplace files on your computer? Google Desktop to the rescue!

The other day, I had to locate a file on my computer that had been sent to me over a year ago. Really!?!? How am I supposed to remember where I put it?

I don’t know about you, but just as I am likely to misfile my paper records, I can just as easily (perhaps more easily) misfile my virtual files and records. While Windows has a weak file finding feature (say ‘file finding feature’ three times fast!), I find it clunky and slow. Likewise, Outlook has what I feel is a weak search feature for finding ‘stuff’ in e-mails. What if I don’t know whether the information I’m looking for is an e-mail or a document? What if I don’t remember who sent it or where I stored it?

When I had to locate that file, it was no big deal. Google, the defacto king of all things ‘Search’ allows you to search the information on your computer – just as you would search the web. After all, if Google can find thousands of search results across the entire World Wide Web in nano-seconds, it should be capable of finding one document on my computer. It is.

You’re already used to Google’s search features. If you go to, you can read about Google Desktop’s features. To activate it on your computer, download and install the Google Desktop application. Once installed, Google Desktop will scan and index your computer, just as it does the internet. You don’t need to do anything…it does it automatically, and continues to do it as files are added/changed. The information and indexing never leaves your computer. It is not transmitted back to Google, so it remains private.

Once indexed, you can search your desktop quickly and accurately – just as you would perform a search on the web. Search results will tell you how many files were found containing the search string – and in what types of files. I find this particularly useful because sometimes the item I’m looking for is in an e-mail, sometimes it is in a Word document. Yet other times, it is in an image, or in a Powerpoint. I don’t necessarily know where my information is located.

To give you a quick idea of what Google Desktop looks like, this is the ‘main’ search page:

Google Desktop

Looks remarkably like the ‘regular’ Google, doesn’t it? Makes me feel nice and comfortable.

Now, enter a search and check out the results:

Google Desktop search results

The results are listed below (just as web results would be, but I cut them out of this image for brevity’s sake), but what I love is the fact that it separates the results by type of file. Therefore, I can narrow down the results quickly and easily. “Finding” a file on my computer now usually takes only a second or two, rather than a huge *sigh* and the beginning of a manual search (or Windows Search) that may take me, at best, several minutes, and at worst, never allow me to find what I’m looking for. If Google Desktop finds an e-mail stored in my Outlook, there is a link which allows me to go directly to the original e-mail.

If you click on ‘files’, then Google Desktop allows you to further filter by type of file quickly and easily:

Google Desktop search file types

Oh…and did I mention the price? Free!

Getting the word out: Economical e-mail blasting

Whew!!! First, I want to thank everyone who has given me such phenomenal feedback on this nascent blog. You have been wonderful in your reception. Your enthusiasm encourages me to make sure that I keep doing what I thought you wanted me to do – share my experiences and tidbits that I come across as I go through my days with the ‘rest’ of the world. Well, OK…you all may not exactly be the entire ‘rest’ of the world, but you’re a mighty bunch, and you’re ‘my bunch’!

For many of you, this blog is one of the first that you’ve subscribed to. For others, it seems to sit apart in your mind from others for the style and simplicity. Yeah! That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.

Naturally, a lot of questions have resulted from the how’s and why’s of getting this blog off the ground. I’ve addressed much of that in the last three posts, but now, I’m getting questions about ‘how much did the initial e-mail blast cost’, or ‘how did you do the initial e-mail blast’, or ‘can I use something like this in my business?’

The answer: IT WAS FREE and EASY and FUN TO DO!!! Don’t believe me? Just go to to find out. As to the question ‘Can you use it?’ the answer is: If you want an easy, inexpensive (‘free’ counts as ‘inexpensive’ to me) way to communicate on a regular basis with your customers, then ‘yes’, you can use it. There aren’t too many people who do NOT want an effective way to communicate with their clients and prospects.

MailChimp is a tool that I found when trying to find an e-mail blast system for a volunteer organization to which I belong. We were looking for a way to reach small groups of people (100 or so people in a bunch of different lists). Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon MailChimp. MailChimp allows up to 1,000 subscribers in your list for FREE. You can send up to 6,000 e-mails per month for FREE. There is a little MailChimp logo at the bottom of the e-mail, but even the paid e-mail blasting systems put their logo in the footer. It’s not intrusive, and informs recipients that the e-mail is not ‘spam’, but part of an organized email campaign or delivery system, and allows the users the appropriate subscribe and opt-out alternatives.

What does all that mean? First, tools like this allow you to compose an e-mail once, then send it to a longgggg list of recipients of your choosing. E-mail services tend to view these e-mails as ‘good’ e-mails (not spam). You need to allow mass e-mail blast recipients to ‘opt out’ (i.e. not receive) e-mails from you any more, and services such as MailChimp offer that opportunity to the recipients, making you a ‘good’ e-mail blaster (rather than a ‘spammer’).

Within the 1,000 person, 6,000 e-mail limits of your free account (you can pay for larger lists, or for more e-mails per month), you can send 6 e-mails to 1,000 people, or 12 e-mails to 500 people, etc. The two counts are the maximums, but you can break it down in whatever fashion you want. I have a few clients who each send blasts to about 500 people, once a week or so. The ‘free’ version of MailChimp accommodates those needs perfectly!

Once you get by the cost (or lack thereof), comes the question: But how hard is it to use? I find it easier to use than other contact management systems with which I have worked. First, there is the little monkey dude (I’ve named him ‘George’ in my mind after ‘Curious George’ from the books by the same title) who is always helping you out. He’s a friendly sort! Corny, but friendly. Second, there are great tutorials available. Third, the screens are relatively uncluttered, so working your way through the steps is pretty easy.

If you have a format you want to use, you can copy/paste the HTML code into the screens, and create your e-mails from there. If you don’t have a pre-designed format (or you don’t have access/knowledge of HTML code), MailChimp has templates that you can use and customize to suit your needs. You can even set up e-mail blasts for your RSS feed. I haven’t tried that one yet, but I might sometime down the road…just to see how it functions.

The reports are beyond belief!! You can track the growth of your list, and you can track the activity of your campaigns (e-mail blasts). Yes, you can even see exactly WHO read your e-mail (and how many times). You can push your e-mail to the Social Sites, if that’s part of your marketing plan. You can ‘set it and forget it’. What?!?! Create the campaign/e-mail blast when you have time to do it, then set the time that it is to be sent. Whenever you set the ‘send’ time, the e-mail will go, allowing you to work ahead without bunching up the e-mails and annoying the recipients.

I’ve found that the free MailChimp has very few restrictions over the paid version – only the quantities of number of e-mails sent and size of list determine if you should/can remain on the free version. If your business supports more e-mails or a larger list, then you can pay by EITHER the number of e-mails sent OR the size of the list. Your pick. The charges, based upon my experience, seem very reasonable.

At any rate, MailChimp is a marvelous way to gain experience with managing your e-mail blasts without having to spend a fortune. Check it out! Give it a whirl! E-mail lists are ‘importable’ from any number of programs, so you don’t even have to key/re-key the contact information.

When you sign up, just tell ‘George’ hello for me…you’ll soon be ready for a banana break (you’ll know what I mean once you’ve tried it)!

Backing up your Outlook files

The other day, we had a tip for the group of users who do NOT use Outlook as their primary mail program. Today, we have a helpful hint for those who DO use Outlook (as I do).

I don’t know about you, but I could lose a lot of files on my computer and still be OK – AS LONG AS I still had my Outlook file(s). Most every important document that I work on is e-mailed to someone at some point in time. I can probably count on one hand the other ‘critical’ files I have (those which don’t get e-mailed ever): Quickbooks would be #1, then my timesheet and a couple of Access databases. After that, the level of importance drops radically. I would be devastated if I lost my 5000+ songs for my iPod (I could probably restore those from the iPod itself), but my business wouldn’t come to a screeching halt – the plane rides would just get ALOT longer :-).

My ‘other’ critical files (i.e. those which are NOT Outlook) can fit on a flash drive – no problem. I can copy them to an external drive in seconds. My Outlook file (and archives) on the other hand are humongous. They are many GB…not just a few MB. And trust me, if those files went ‘poof’, I would be beyond devastated. So, it makes it all the more important for me to copy/copy/copy!!! How about you?

Luckily, I have a pretty good backup system. I test restoring files on occasion (probably not as often as I should, but I do test it out). Many people, however, do not have a good backup system, or want to keep a copy of their Outlook files for their own safekeeping. It is easy to do (no more difficult that copying/pasting from Windows Explorer to whatever external storage you would like to use)…as long as you can locate the actual Outlook file on your computer (or server). Aha! That’s the problem!!! Where is the file?

I ran across this article which has a great description of how to locate/copy/restore your Outlook.

I BEG OF YOU!!! Save copies of your Outlook files elsewhere (out of your office/house). You’ll be amazed if you ever have to use them in a catastrophic circumstance…your Outlook contains a vast array of your work history. As you can see from this article, it only takes a second to do.

I’m published?!?!

As it happens, I love to write.  I’m not necessarily terrific at it, but I love to do it.  I love telling stories.  I wouldn’t mind writing a book, but I have no idea what the subject would be.  I guess that blogs may help the frustrated writer in some respects.  You don’t have an editor redlining you.  You get instant gratification.  The WORLD can see what you’ve written.  That’s all well and good, but no one is necessarily clamoring for my ‘pearls of wisdom’.

Well, imagine my surprise when an article that I’d written on the annoyingly critical, but boring, subject of Cash Flow actually made it to print this month in the November issue of “Construction Business Owner”.  I am thrilled that they thought my musings were worthy of valuable page space.  While I do want to start writing more for ‘real’ publications, I hope that some of the topics about which I get asked to write can be a bit more ‘funner’.

As many of my dear friends and clients who are in the Construction trades know, you can win some of the seemingly best contracts, or get sales on a remarkable number of houses with fabulous upgrades, but unless you can actually finance that construction, you’ll soon be wishing that you had never heard of that job (or those jobs).

Knowing what ‘good’ Cash Management is can be critical to the health and continuity of any business…it doesn’t have to be in the construction trades (though those work with some mighty hefty numbers).  Thinking about it BEFORE accepting a job or a contract is vital.  Make sure before you make that commitment that you’ve thought through how you’re going to pay for it BEFORE YOU GET PAID!!!

These were my thoughts on this scintillating subject as published by “Construction Business Owner” magazine: