These days, you either own a computer or you don’t. And within the group of
people who own computers, there are more subgroups. One group could tie ropes
to their computers and use them as expensive boat anchors for all the good they
do. Another group might use the contraption to play a mean game of solitaire.
But one group actually uses their computers to the full potential of the
machine. I want to encourage the rest of you to join this group.
With the right software you can do all sorts of things with computers. You can
edit videotapes (see the desktop video column), create 3D animation, or if you
own the appropriate hardware (such as a Saturn V rocket), you could control a
manned expedition to the moon. But this column is about business, so that’s
where we’ll concentrate. Those of you wanting to go to the moon will have to
figure it out for yourselves.
Open the Pod Bay Doors, HAL
Computers are tools. You can use them as word processors, spreadsheets,
schedulers, presentation programs, and expensive calculators. These programs
can improve your life by checking your spelling or your math, and they can
speed processes up by eliminating duplicated effort. In the old days, if you
had to make some changes to a document, you had to retype the whole thing. But
with a computer, you can just call it up onscreen, make the changes, and have
the printer do the work for you.=
Unfortunately, a computer is not a magic wand. It can’t write a letter for
you (although it can give you a fill-in-the-blank template) and it won’t
balance your books, but it can make many tasks easier. Just don’t expect
Some people fall in love with their computers. Many Apple Macintosh users
become enamored with these spiffy machines (with good reason). I happen to use
PCs (IBM clones). I have no more strong emotion for my PC than I do for my
dishwasher. Both machines have a job to do and they do it. That’s all I care
The Need For Speed
What do you need in a computer? Most of us want the hottest, hippest,
screaming machine going, which means we are constantly upgrading (386, Quadra,
PowerPC, Pentium, Silicon Graphics workstation, etc.). And if you plan to edit
or create animation, you will want the fastest machine you can afford. But if
you are only using the computer for writing letters and accounting purposes,
you don’t need that much muscle.
These days, you can get a very nice machine already loaded with much of the
software you need for about $1000. This machine will probably be about eight
times more powerful than the one I bought a few years ago for twice as much
Here is a decent configuration for a business computer: 486 processor, 33 MHz
clock speed, 4 Megabytes RAM (or more), 200 Megabyte hard drive (or more), SVGA
monitor, keyboard, mouse, MS-DOS 6.2 and Microsoft Windows 3.1 preloaded.
A comparable Macintosh machine would be an Apple 6100 PowerMac. For about
$1600, this comes with a 250 meg hard drive, 8 megs of RAM, and system
You can ask your salesman what all that means or buy a book on the basics of
computers if you’re curious.
From the outside, most computers look alike. It’s all too tempting to simply
look for the lowest price. This may mean buying a “no-name” computer from a
vendor of similar anonymity. For a little more money, you can go with one of
the big boys like Dell, Compaq, Gateway 2000 or even IBM. If your machine ever
has a problem, big companies will take care of it with the least amount of
Mac shoppers, on the other hand, may be tempted to buy less computer than they
need to save a buck. Don’t–if the next model of Mac costs a few hundred more,
it may be the best way to go. Not only will you have a more powerful machine,
but it will hold its resale value better.
In the last few years, I have bought three computers for my business. The
first I bought at a wholesale club (I can’t tell you which one, but the owner’s
first name was Sam). This machine has worked like a champ for about five years.
The second computer I purchased through a service and it was literally a
“no-name” brand–there was no logo, no lettering, no nothing on the case.
Although I’ve had this computer for a little more than two years, the monitor
has already died (and been replaced at my expense). Also, the motherboard had a
major problem early on, which meant I had to send the machine back to the
factory. In lost work time and aggravation, I spent far more than I saved by
the lower purchase price.
My newest machine is a top-of-the-line model from one of the major brands
listed earlier. It has worked flawlessly, it came packaged with useful
software, and I don’t have to worry about it.
Now you might find a perfectly good “no-name” machine. You may already own
one. You may have put it together from kitchen utensils like McGyver. Good for
you. Personally, I don’t want to do that. I just want the darn thing to work
when I turn it on.
Mac folks don’t have to worry about this, since an Apple is an Apple. Still,
they should consider convenient support and repairs when choosing a
The Soft Sell
Many computers come bundled with software, which is a good thing because
without software the computer is useless. In the bad old days, you turned on a
PC and you got a black screen and this message, C: (and a blinking
cursor). If you didn’t know the commands for the computer’s disk operating
system (DOS), you were in trouble.
Then came Macintosh and the Graphical User Interface (GUI). With a GUI,
you can perform many functions without typing a word. You simply click your
mouse (a pointing device) on the pictures on the screen.
PC owners felt left out, so Microsoft developed Windows–a Mac-style GUI–to
run on the IBM platform The next version of Windows (4.0) promises to be even
easier and more useful than earlier versions, and it will also run programs
faster. You don’t have to have Windows to run programs on an IBM, but it does
make the task easier for beginners.
For a business, I would recommend a good word processing program as a bare
minimum. A spreadsheet program is handy for crunching numbers and doing graphs
and charts, and I also use an accounting program to keep my books.
Some companies put several programs together (word processor, spreadsheet,
electronic mail, presentation program, database) and sell them as an “office”
package. This package is a good deal, but it may include some software that you
will never need.
What’s the Good Word?
A word processor will help you create professional-looking documents to send to
clients and vendors. This is important. Everything that comes out of your
office reflects on you, whether it is a finished video or a thank you letter.
What if you scribble your invoices on a stained, ratty napkin? This will send a
different message than an invoice clearly printed on letterhead.
The napkin will say, “I’m either too busy or too lazy to create a clean
invoice and my business is so small and unprofessional that I don’t need
letterhead.” The clear invoice will say, “I run a business in a professional
manner. You can expect this level of quality on your project as well.”
High-end word processors come with templates for creating business letters,
brochures, fax sheets and other documents. You can use these templates and just
plug in your information, or you can build your own.
Another handy thing about word processors is that they can check your spelling
and even give you grammatical help. These functions won’t make you a better
writer, but they can catch mistakes that you might miss. Remember, a potential
client might not hire you if he or she finds a misspelled word in your cover
letter. If you aren’t careful enough to make sure your letter is flawless, how
careful will you be when you shoot your video?
Once you create documents, you need to get them on paper. Two types of printers
that can do this for you are dot matrix and laser. Dot matrix printers create
letters out of many tiny dots. If you look closely you can see them. Laser
printers have a higher resolution (more dots per inch) and therefore look
“cleaner”. For most purposes, however, a dot matrix printer is fine.
To me, one of the most exciting possibilities of computing was the accounting
program. It’s not that I find accounting exciting; quite the opposite. What
excited me was the possibility that there was a program that would do my
accounting for me so I wouldn’t have to. Unfortunately, this isn’t how it
Most accounting programs are broken up into modules, such as accounts payable,
accounts receivable, general journal and so forth. If you buy some blank
videotape on credit from a supplier, you can enter this bill into accounts
payable. Then when you get around to paying the bill, you enter the check
number and date into the computer. The program automatically posts the entry
into the general journal.
The program keeps an eye on you and makes sure that your debits always equal
your credits (which accountants feel is an important feature). The program can
also tell you when your bills have been around for more than 30 days (time
to pay!) and when your invoices to your clients have also been out for this
length of time (prompting you to send out a statement or call on the phone and
demand payment–depending on your personal style).
So yes, accounting programs are handy, but they still rely on your input. As
the old computer saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” This means that if you
put in the wrong numbers, post a cost as income, or otherwise screw up, your
accounting program will let you. It’s then up to you (or your accountant) to
clean up the mess.
You also need a balanced set of books to input when you first start using the
program (if this concept is foreign to you, join the club) and you have to
assign numbers to your accounts. You have to structure these account numbers so
that expenses go in one column and revenues go in another and… well, let me
put it this way: I hired a bookkeeper to come in and set up my accounting
program. I also send all my bank statements, checks and a printout of my books
to a CPA to be checked and corrected every three months. This is not the
cheapest solution, but it was either that or learn accounting myself. No thank
As your business grows, you will probably need more than one computer. You
might have a salesperson on staff or another producer who will need to write
letters or scripts or whatever. To be more productive, these people will want
their own computers. But at some point you may need to access one of the
documents that your employees created. Maybe the salesperson is out on a call
and you need to see what they promised a client in a letter, or you need to
make a change in a script. Where the heck did they put that document?
Implement a system early unless you want total confusion. Create a directory
for each client and make sure to save that client’s documents in that
directory. Assign job numbers to every project as it comes in and use this
number in your filenames. For example, 9401est.doc would be the cost estimate
on job # 9401, 9401scpt.doc would be the script. Mac owners get to use nice,
long names, but for the moment all us PC users must stick to the eight
What if you want to work on a document at your own computer but the document
exists on a different computer? You have two options. The first is
sneakernet. This is a cute computer term meaning you run to the other
machine (presumably in sneakers), save the document on a floppy disk, run back
to your machine, load it and work on it.
Your second option is a local area network (or LAN). In this type of setup,
your computers are connected so that you can access files between hard drives,
share printers and modems, etc. With a network, you can access your
salesperson’s computer (from your computer), find the file you need,
open it, work on it, and then save it back to your salesperson’s computer.
Setting up a network can be difficult. It involves special cards or cables for
each computer, and special software for the computers to talk to each other. I
hate to sound like a commercial for Microsoft (Bill Gates has enough money),
but my computers are networked using Windows for Workgroups. The installation
was simple and I did it myself. It works very well. End of commercial. There
are plenty of other good network solutions out there, both PC and Mac, and not
enough room here to list them all.
As business tools, computers are excellent. You format an invoice once, save
it and it is ready to fill in with new information every time you send out a
bill. You create a great cover letter about your business and then print it out
personally addressed to your prospective client. You can even merge a list of
prospective clients to such a letter and print any number at the same time,
identical except for the client’s name. (You, John Smith, may have already won
a million dollars!)
And you might as well get used to computers now, because it won’t be long
before you will be using one to produce video right on your desktop. Operation
of these beasts keeps getting easier, the hardware keeps getting cheaper, and
the list of excuses for not buying one keeps getting shorter. So quit
Data’s all, folks.