Setting up a business

Anthony Caruana
29 December, 2015
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Small to medium businesses, or SMBs, are the lifeblood of the Australian economy. SMBs are defined by most as businesses with fewer than 200 employees or a turnover under $100 million. There are over two million of these businesses in Australia and they are the main employers in our workforce.

For many of us, running your own business is the dream. Flexible work hours doing something you love with no one to answer to. The reality is quite different. Most small business owners work long hours and spend a lot of time on administrative tasks rather than the work they’re passionate about. However, creating the right setup can make a huge difference to productivity. And it can also make work far less of a chore.

Start with a space

Many small businesses start at home. It’s relatively inexpensive as there’s no rent to think about and almost everyone can find a space on the kitchen table or some other place to work.

The first thing you need to do is set aside a dedicated workspace. In some cases, it may be easy as your house may have a separate study or spare bedroom. In others, it may be trickier, but some creativity can convert a corner or alcove into a comfortable workspace.

It may be tempting to simply work from the kitchen table. Unless you live alone this can be tricky as a communal space rarely makes for a distraction-free workspace. Having a place with a door or some other clear boundary sends a signal to the people you live with that you’re working.

The other benefit of a door is that it creates a boundary between your work time and personal time. A physical boundary creates a psychological break between your business and private lives.


The type of work you do will dictate the amount of desk space you’ll need. In my experience, the more space you have, the more you’ll use. Unless you really like to spread out an area of up to 1.5 metres wide will probably be enough. And don’t skimp on depth. A shallow desk can be a pain, as you may not be able to get your screen far enough back to be comfortable.

If you spend a lot of time at your desk, a good chair should be seen as an investment in your well-being. It’s tempting to simply buy something that looks good or is cheap, but the right chair is important. Spend time researching the right chair for your body and posture. It may be that a cheap chair is OK for you, but be prepared to set aside a reasonable sum for the right one.

Make sure you have enough storage space. Bookcases and cupboards aren’t too expensive these days, so getting furniture that is fit for purpose doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

It’s worth investigating second-hand dealers. You can pick up great bargains. Many companies refit their offices and sell off gear that’s in good condition at a fraction of the new price. If you’re handy with tools, it quite straightforward to remodel open plan desks into benches.

Light and power

If possible, set your workspace up with a combination of both natural and artificial light. Ideally, the lights will be positioned so that any shadows you throw don’t interfere with your workspace. If you can establish a space with a window that provides good light, but doesn’t create glare on your computer’s screen, then a decent desk lamp will probably fill the breach with whatever other lighting is in your room.

There are some guides about the lighting levels you need to ensure that your workspace is suitable for different types of work. In general, the more detailed the work, the brighter the required light. There’s an Australian Standard (AS 1680) that describes the right brightness for interior lighting, so you can get the lowdown on the accepted levels.

Being able to heat and/or cool your workspace is critical. There’s also a lot of research and opinion about what colours are best for your work environment. Soft pastel colours are most often favoured, with strong colours usually eschewed.

Unless you’re setting up a space from scratch and have set aside a significant budget, then there may not be much you can do about the number and placement of power outlets. If possible, have some placed at desk level so that you don’t need to crawl under the desk whenever you need to plug something in. Ideally, you’ll have a mixture of some points above and below your main work surface.

An uninterruptible power supply, or UPS, is handy as well. Routers and some other equipment are particularly susceptible to fluctuations in the power supply and a UPS will protect your important equipment from spikes and surges. It will also keep things running in the event of a short blackout.

Computers for the office

iMac with Retina 5K display

The iMac helps deliver a clutter-free desk.

When it comes to choosing the right computer, the key things to consider are what you’re going to do, where you’re going to work and what budget you will have.

If you’re planning to do most of your work in the office, then a desktop system like an iMac, Mac mini or Mac Pro will be what you’re after.

The iMac is great, as it’s the most clutter-free option. Paired with a wireless keyboard and mouse or trackpad, the iMac looks great and will fulfil the needs of almost any user.

If an iMac suits you, you simply need to choose between a 21.5in or 27in model. But, be warned, once you’ve worked with a 27in model, particularly the high-end Retina 5K display unit, going to a smaller screen will be quite challenging. Prices for the iMac start $1549 for 21.5in models, $2499 for 27in and $2799 for 27in iMac with Retina 5K display.

If you’ve already got a screen lying around – you may be a switcher from Windows or some other platform – then a Mac mini may suit. With prices ranging from $699 to $1399, they are a much less expensive investment and offer enough memory, storage and processing power for most tasks.

If you need a super-powerful computer, then the Mac Pro, starting at $4399, is for you. With its futuristic cylindrical body, the Mac Pro looks like it belongs on the bridge of a spaceship.

Notebook computers

If you need a portable computer as you travel or need to take your work to client sites, then there’s a portable Mac for you.

With portable Macs, the key factors are screen size, weight and budget. Although there are differences in the technical specs across different models, you can take advantage of Apple’s build-to-order service to upgrade the processor, memory and storage to a suitable configuration.

The easiest way to look at Apple’s portable computers is to list them by screen size.

Screen size Model Basic specs (weight, CPU, RAM, Storage) Price
11in MacBook Air 1.08kg, 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, 4GB or 8GB, up to 512GB From $1399
12in MacBook 0.92kg, 1.1GHz, dual-core Intel Core M, 8GB, up to 512GB From $1999
13in MacBook Air 1.35kg, 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, 4GB or 8GB, up to 512GB From $1549
13in MacBook Pro 2.06kg, 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, 4GB or 8GB, up to 512GB or 1TB hard drive From $1699
13in MacBook Pro Retina 1.58kg, 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, 8GB or 16GB, up to 1TB flash storage From $1999
15in MacBook Pro 2.04kg, 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB, up to 1TB flash storage From $3099

From there, all you need to do is see what fits into your budget.

Choosing an iPad

While an iPad is great entertainment device, its application in your business will very much depend on what you do. If you sell products from a stall, an iPad connected to the internet can be used as a point of sale (POS) terminal. Coupled with tools such as the Mint Payments’ mPOS, mobile EFTPOS unit, MYOB’s PayDirect card reader or PayPal Here app and card reader, you can complete transactions right from your iPad.

For creative professionals, being able to display your work or do design work with your client is a great use of the iPad.

And, if you spend a lot of time travelling, an iPad can be a great distraction on long-haul flights for watching movies, playing games and other activities.

Choosing an iPad involves balancing three main variables: size, storage capacity and whether you need in-built cellular communications. If you have an iPhone with a reasonable data allowance, you can use the Portable Hotspot feature to share that data with your iPad rather than establishing another data account with your preferred carrier.

Storage capacity is probably the most difficult decision. Knowing how much space you’ll need for your books, movies, magazines and work files is very difficult to predict. The way we see it is no one ever complains about having too much space, but we often bemoan running out of room for files.

Buy your iPad with the most space you can afford. We’ve found 64GB to be adequate for us. That holds the last few issues of the magazines we subscribe to in Newsstand, a bunch of books in iBooks and a couple of movies along with several gigabytes of data we need for work.

From there, it’s a matter of deciding what screen size will suit. If portability is key and you’ll almost exclusively use the iPad as a reading device, then an iPad mini will most likely suffice. For content creation, we prefer an iPad Air 2, paired with a decent keyboard case, to be a great combination.

Once you’ve picked the size, storage and communications options that suit, all you need to decide is the colour – silver, space grey or gold.

Which iPhone?

Your iPhone choice will be made on similar criteria to an iPad, although we’d see a smartphone as an essential tool, whereas an iPad is more of a discretionary one.

The iPhone has the same colour choices as the iPad – silver, space grey or gold – and the same capacities of 16GB, 64GB and 128GB to choose from. But you will need to decide between the iPhone 6 with a 4.7in display or the larger iPhone 6 Plus with a 5.5in display.

We find the iPhone 6 is comfortable in the hand, whereas the iPhone 6 Plus is little unwieldy. However, your experience will vary. We recommend visiting an Apple Store or carrier shop to play with both models before making a choice.

Once you’ve chosen which size suits your needs, you’ll need to decide whether to buy the iPhone outright or enter into a contract with a carrier. There was a time when paying upfront made the phone a lot cheaper, but a survey of carrier plans suggests that’s not the case these days.

Choosing a phone plan is tricky. If you’ve been using a smartphone for some time, you probably have a good idea of your usage patterns. If you’re moving to a new plan or getting your first iPhone, we suggest going to a lower capacity, less expensive plan initially. Carriers will general let you upgrade your plan at no cost. But if you’ve overestimated your use, dropping to a less expensive plan will often incur some sort of penalty payment.


It’s easy to be tempted by the latest shiny gadgets, but we’ve found a few devices that fulfil specific needs are all we need to keep the office clutter-free and productive.

Despite rumours of a paperless office being just around the corner, a printer is still a very handy device.

When shopping for a printer, it may be tempting to buy the cheapest one you can get, but that can be false economy. When buying a printer, look at the cost of consumables, as well the printer. When looking at consumables, such as ink and toner cartridges, research how many pages you can expect from each cartridge. While one brand may offer $25 cartridges and another $50 ones, you may find the dearer one prints four times as many pages, making it more economical.

If you are able to make an estimate of your monthly printing, you can carry out a simple calculation that will give you an indication of your printing costs.

If you print 1000 pages per month and choose a $1000 printer you could end up with the following to consider.

  • Printer cost: $1000
  • Toner: $400 per 5000 pages ($0.08 per page)
  • Paper $6 per 500 sheets ($0.012 per sheet)

Three-year cost: $1000 + $2880 + $432 = $3312

In other words, in this scenario, the printer hardware is less than a third of the cost over three years.

A multifunction printer is also handy as it can double up as a photocopier if your needs are modest. If you’re planning to do a lot of copying, consider a model with an automatic document feeder, or ADF.

These days, colour printing is not too expensive and can help make business proposals and other documents very attractive.

Although flatbed scanners have been all but been killed off by multifunction devices, we’re big fans of document scanners like the Fujitsu ScanSnap. These enable us to quickly scan multi-page, double-sided documents, so we can file documents electronically and dispose of the paper.

As well as saving lots of office space – we don’t need to store folders or boxes of papers – coupled with the right software, documents are much easier to find. Many of the applications that work with document scanners carry out optical character recognition, or OCR, so the content of scanned documents is stored and indexed as text. That means you can easily search.

For example, if we scan a receipt for a new printer and need to later retrieve it for a warranty claim, simply searching our repository for the word ‘printer’ or the name of the store we bought it from allows us to retrieve the invoice. We can either print it or show the electronic copy at the store.

One other low-tech device we’d suggest is a document shredder. If you decide to scan all of your incoming paper, you’ll want a shredder so that documents containing private information, such as bank statements or letters, can’t be read by someone who happens to wander past the paper recycler.

Our experience is cheap shredders tend to have short lives if you go down the scan and shred road. We’ve invested in a slightly more expensive model that can also destroy old credit cards as well as documents, as we burned out the motor on a cheap model.

There are lots of other accessories you can consider. Speakers, docking stations and other devices can be useful, but we suggest holding back on those unless you really need them. Our experience is that a clear workspace makes it easier to get to work faster each morning.

Buying software

Business software has undergone a massive revolution over the last few years. In the old days, we’d go to the local office supply store, hand over a few hundred dollars and buy a box with a CD or DVD that we’d load onto our Macs.

These days, boxed software has almost gone the way of the dodo, replaced with some new ways to buy the applications we rely on. There are three main ways to access applications these days.

You can still buy software like you always have, although you’re more likely to buy it online and download it.

The purchase price gets you a specific version of the application and a licence to use it on a prescribed number of computers.

When a new version of the software is released, you buy the new application, usually as an upgrade at a reduced price.

A new model has emerged recently where you pay a smaller monthly or annual fee for access to software. That fee lets you download the software as it is currently released and, while you keep paying the subscription fee, you keep getting new versions.

Where this significantly differs to simply buying the software is version numbers are irrelevant. As developers add new features to an application, those new features are automatically made available to you at no extra charge.

The advantage to this approach is you no longer need to upgrade when a new version appears, as the new features have been trickled out as they have become available.

More ubiquitous, faster internet access means we can now use web browsers as an operating system through which we can use software. For example, accounting applications such as Saasu and Xero don’t install anything to your computer. For an annual fee, you simply log in and use the software through a secure session via your browser.

Like subscription software, new features are automatically deployed, as they are available. However, with Software as a Service, or SaaS, your data is also stored with that service provider. So, when you choose a SaaS provider, you’re not just trusting its software, you’re also putting your trust in its care.

Like subscription software, SaaS means there are no more software upgrades to worry about. However, as your data is with the provider, switching to a different application in future can be tricky.

Some suggested apps

Making suggestions about what software you’ll need can be a little fraught, as everyone’s needs are different. However, we thought we’d share which applications we rely on.

For office productivity, we use Office 365, Microsoft’s subscription software service. That gives us Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook (which we don’t use), as well as access to webmail and online storage through OneDrive. It costs $119 per year, but lets us install the applications to five Macs or PCs.

We’ve also got Apple’s Pages, Numbers and Keynote. We prefer Keynote over PowerPoint, but Pages and Numbers are rarely used.

For accounts, we rely on the cloud-based Saasu although there are lots of viable alternatives such as Xero, MYOB and others.

Finally, while Adobe’s suite of media editing and management applications are generally considered the lingua franca of creative professionals, we prefer the far cheaper Pixelmator for image editing.

There are lots of other smaller apps we use from time to time, but the above are the apps that are constantly open and in use every day.

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