Basic Computer Skills for Business Owners

If you are starting a home business, you need to have basic computer skills to make things easier.


| April/May 1995



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If you plan on starting a home business, you need to know the basics of using a computer.


PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

Recently a letter told us of a small dilemma:
"I've worked for six years in Charleston, SC, though I live many miles away, and like millions of other people, I'm sick and tired of the hassle of daily commutes. I have this idea for a little business of my own and want to get a computer to operate it out of my home. Though a little embarrassed to admit it, I haven't the faintest idea how computers work, or how they'll speed up the operation of a home business. Would MOTHER consider writing an article on how to outfit a home office?" 

We've had similar conversations with dozens of readers over the past few months. In 1987, MOTHER began using desktop computers to lay text out on each magazine page, a revolution in capability compared to the hundreds of hours of cutting paper copy into blocks and pasting them onto aboard. Those first small Macintoshes are just ornaments today, when MOTHER uses computers to edit, typeset and scan in every photograph and illustration. Though at times we catch ourselves in wide eyed confusion, the tremendous time savings of giving the dull, repetitive work to that beeping marvel on the desk is always plain. After referring Jennifer's question to country-business expert J. Presley, who lives in a town near St. Louis, MO and works out of his home office as a business writer and consultant, he jumped at the chance to demystify the computer "revolution" in home business. "J.P." has worked with computers for over 20 years ("since they were steam driven," he jokes) and will author part two of this series in the next issue.  

Living in the peace and clean air of the country on a little place of your own is the American dream. And the single best way I know to finance that dream is to operate a home-based business. And please be assured that modern electronics—far from being something that is difficult to understand, is actually making country-located business more and more doable every day. High-speed computers let a single person process words, numbers, and images (all of it called data, in computerese) that once required a whole building full of clerks, artists, and bookkeepers. From even the most remote country location (so long as roads, electricity, and phone lines are in—and soon, even if they aren't) business can be conducted around the globe using modern communication technologies including Federal Express, UPS, and other computerized delivery services, the phone company's 800 and 900 numbers, faxes, computer-to-computer "modems," and cellular and hard-wired phones sending voice and data via fiber optics, microwaves, and satellites. Anyone with a good business idea, the courage to take a risk, confidence to make mistakes and learn from them, willingness to work hard plus determination and energy can do it. You don't need a lot of education or a lot of money—and you don't need to know a thing about electronics. You do have to be willing to work harder and longer-for less pay than you'd earn working for someone else.

But, "It can't be done" was what two young engineers heard when they wanted their Fortune 500 employer to develop a small, easy-to-use personal-sized computer. So, Stephen Jobs and Steve Wozniak "hacked" one together in Jobs' parent's garage using parts you can get from Radio Shack. Thus was born Apple Computer, the PC (personal computer), the Information Age, and "user-friendly" electronic devices of all kinds that can be operated by anybody with one good eye and a pointing finger. Come to think of it, you don't even need the eye or hand any more. Braille keypads and talking computers are available if you need them, and "voice recognition" that converts the spoken word to computer printing is near to being an everyday practical reality.

Still, the technology is so new, so powerful and complicated, and changes so rapidly that computer phobia haunts us all from time to time. Many techno jerks think they can intimidate novices by tossing around such jargon as 66MHz 1486 DX2 CPU or MosFet thyristor. The sidebar "Computer Jargon" on page 70 contains definitions of the major buzzwords and we've put others in italics throughout this article. But, you don't need to understand one of them to run a computer or a business.

What Can't You Do In The Country?  

I can't think of any enterprise other than heavy, rail-transport-dependent manufacturing that can't thrive in a rural location. Lower property values, labor rates, and taxes can more than offset the disadvantage of being far from city markets. In my part of the back country and working out of home, barn, and perhaps a small Butler-Building-style prefab factory are: one fairly large and two small food products factories; a gourmet kitchen supplies distributor; a caterer and restaurateur (hours from any major city); a data-processing forms maker; an international travel agency (operated by a shut-in using her phone, a FAX and Federal Express); two specialty auto-parts distributors; several academic and government researchers; a goat milk/cheese dairy; two sheep-farmer/ wool dyer/weaver-knitters; a bill collection agency; several business and technical consultants; newsletter publishers, writers, and editors; one or two computer bulletin board and 1900-information services, telemarketers/1-800-answering services, and dozens of fine and commercial artists, woodworkers, jewelry makers and other craftspeople. Oh yes ...a few of my country neighbors even make a living as farmers, but the most successful maximize productivity with computers and extend their marketing reach through electronic communications.





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