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How productive can you be if you suddenly lose all your data from the past five years when your cocker spaniel knocks your laptop onto the floor and it shatters? Or if a power surge or lightning strike takes out your computer?

I've been horrified by the number of solo entrepreneurs who treat their kids' school photos with more respect and care than they treat their business data. If the rash of natural disasters including earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes has taught us anything, it should have taught us that bad things happen to good people, and you need to be prepared for the worst. Here's the minimum you need to keep your business and your data safe:
 
On-site Automatic Backup
An external hard drive for your computer, with a regularly scheduled automatic backup is critical. Do not rely on your memory to back up your computer every day. The best ones will run an automatic scan that will save anything that has been updated or changed since the last scan. Set this to scan on a weekly or daily basis, or more frequently if you deal in high volumes of information every hour. Mac users, you're in luck. The Apple Time Machine will automatically update the backup hard drive with the latest version of your files, every hour of every day.
 
Off-site Automatic Backup and Recovery Service
Having an external backup is great if your computer suddenly dies, but what if your house is flooded, or you're robbed? You'll need an off-site backup to get you up and running quickly. There are many services available, including online storage sites like Dropbox.com and Trueshare.com. But if you want a full-service, hands-off backup provider, check out LogMeIn.com, iBackup.com, Carbonite.com, and Mozy.com
 
Now, all these off-site backup programs have a recovery service. Otherwise, what good would they be, right? You'll want to ask about the recovery services that each provide before you decide. Some just download your data to you, while others will overnight you data CDs. Ask also about storage limits and the number of computers covered. Services are available for as little as $54.95 per year – a pittance if you should ever need it. Just think of it as an insurance policy for your business; you pay and pay and pay until you need it, and then you thank the Lord you were able to pay for this service.
 
Password management
It may seem funny to include password management in this category, but that's probably because you've never lost the file that included all your passwords, or accidentally shredded the piece of paper where you were writing them all down. Use a password manager like RoboForm.com, KeePass.info, or 1Password.com. Not only will these services keep track of all your passwords, they'll also help generate unique passwords for greater safety. Check the password management systems mentioned for prices. Some are free while others are reasonably priced.
 
No one likes to think about computer crashes, natural disasters, or other business-threatening events. But the truth is that computers crash, laptops fall out of cars, and coffee spills happen. The only true disaster is the one you're not prepared for. 

No business operates in a vacuum, and you can't be productive or relevant if you don't know what's going on in the world around you. That's why it's critical that you keep up on the latest news that can affect you and your industry. But how to keep track of the thousands of news sites? Well, you're in the right place. Instead of reading hundreds of newspapers, blogs, and other information sources, you can have the news delivered right to you and keep track of it all. Here are five ways to keep on top of all the news that's fit to print:

Set Google Alerts
By now, you already know that Google pretty much controls the world in front of you on your computer. Tell them what you want to know about, and they'll deliver the latest on the topic right to your email box. Set an alert for your competitor's name to find out what he or she is up to. Or monitor a keyword for your niche. And of course you'll want to keep tabs on your own name! You can set the number of alerts as well as the delivery frequence, and all this is for free! Find out more at Alerts.Google.com
 
Alltop Page
Alltop stands for “All the top stories.” The site, founded by former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki, allows you to choose from hundreds of news sources to create your own custom “newspaper.” Check out what other people are reading, too, for free. Find out more at My.Alltop.com.
 
Instapaper
How many bookmarked pages do you have on your web browser? How many of those sites do you actually get back to ever again? Fight the bookmark bulge by turning to this great system. You use a special “read later” bookmark to keep track of information you want to save for later. Then log in on your iPhone, computer, or iPad and check it out when you have a minute. This is all for free. Find out more at Instapaper.com
 
Google Reader
Track all those great blogs in Google Reader. See when they're updated, get the content delivered right to you, and consolidate all the updates in a single spot, for free. Easy-peasy! Find out more at Google.com/reader
 
Netvibes
Their mission; “All you care about. Now.” Sounds good to me! Create numerous dashboards so you can flip through and see what's going on, according to project or interest. Type in a topic get a dashboard for you, including news, videos, Tweets, conversations, and images, which you can then customize. You could have one for sports scores, one for finance, one for your competition, one for your Beanie Baby obsession. Whatever you want, all for free! Find out more at Netvibes.com
 
One word of advice: Be careful not to become an information junkie. It's great to spend time reading blogs, newspapers, and the like, but set a limit on your intake of information. You can go into info overload, and reading can become a distraction and procrastination technique, particularly if you are the type who likes to research and research and research some more before taking action. Instead, give yourself 30 minutes, once or twice a day, to read headlines and catch up on any big developments. Then stop and get back to work. That's where the money is – in action, not in information acquisition.

 

Steno pads. Spiral notebooks. Legal pads. The back of an envelope. A cocktail napkin. Receipts. The corner of a newspaper. If you're like most entrepreneurs, you've got ideas striking you every hour of the day and night, and you grab the nearest writing implement and snippet of paper to scrawl a few words on. But how often do those pieces of paper make it into something more permanent?

With today's variety of note-taking and idea-gathering software, there's no excuse for stealing your kids' crayons anymore. Take a look at these multimedia opportunities for storing your thoughts, ideas, photos, blog posts, and more… and best yet, they're all free!
 
Evernote
Collect, sort, tag, and annotate a variety of notes and other information. Log in online or access it via your iPhone. Store your web clips, text clips, videos, audios, and more in a single file. You can even snap a photo with your mobile phone and save it. Oh yeah, you can share it with others! Find out more at Evernote.com
 
OneNote
This is Microsoft's version of a note book that lets you capture text, images, video, and audio notes and take and edit notes with other people in other locations. View and edit your notes from virtually any computer with an Internet connection or your Windows phone. Available with Microsoft Office. Find out more at Office.Microsoft.com/en-us/onenote/
 
Springnote
This is a free, online notebook based on wiki. You can create pages, keep them in your Personal Notebook or create a Group Notebook to share with friends. Store up to 2GB online. Add photos, comments, and more. Springnote for the iPhone is also available. Find out more at Springnote.com
 
Tumblr
If you're the visual type, you might want to take a look at this note book. Billed as “the easiest way to blog,” it's a fun way to create your own virtual bulletin board with pictures, photos, quotes, audio, video, and more. You can set your privacy level and collaborators, creating a bulletin board just for yourself, or one to share with a team or the public. There's also a free iPhone app. Find out more at Tumblr.com
 
After perusing these sites, you've probably come up with a dozen or more ideas that you quickly jotted down on a scrap of paper somewhere. Don't waste them – choose a note-taking solution and get your thoughts and goals down safely and permanently. You can't act on your ideas if you don't remember where you put those notes!

 

Sending email attachments has certainly evolved from the days when anything over a few megabytes clogged up the phone line and was rejected by AOL and Earthlink. But even with the advent of high-speed internet, sending large files can still bog down your email service. Add to that the concerns over security and you may be in the market for a safe file transfer solution.

In the past, the solution was to use an FTP (file transfer protocol) site, or burn the files to a CD or DVD and transfer them manually. FTP sites could be expensive and cumbersome, and transferring manually was not very efficient. Now, you have plenty of possibilities for sharing files safely and easily.
 
When selecting a file transfer service, there are some criteria to consider first:
  • Do I want a free service, or do I mind paying? Free services may be more limited in size of files, storage, or number of users.
  • How secure a service do I need?
  • How large are the files I'm sharing?
  • Am I sharing with the same people over and over, or am I constantly sending files to new people?
  • How easy is it to download and upload the files?
  • How dependable is the service?
  • Will the site store my files? If so, how much storage space will I have, and how long will they store them?
Once you've answered the questions above, take a look at the following file sharing options:
 
Dropbox.com
Free service, with upgrades available for inviting new members, usage, or for a fee. You can install software on your computer, which allows you to access files from any Internet browser. The files are stored safely off site. It also synchs your files across computers.
 
YouSendIt.com
Send large files as quickly and easily as sending an email. No software to install. Free service offers sending of files up to 100MB. Keep in mind this is with no online storage. Monthly plans start at $9.95 for an individual, with a 2GB maximum file size.
 
FilesDirect.com
For $18 per month, transfer up to 300MB per month, and store up to 10GB of data. Your recipient doesn't need to have any special software, though you do need to download and install the software on your computer. Plans available for up to 2.5GB of transferred data per month.
 
TrueShare.com
Upload, access, and share files via a web browser, desktop application, or mobile device for $6 per month for 3GB, and $15 per month for 10GB. Team plans available.
 
SendThisFile.com
If security isn't a primary concern, check this out. With no software or attachments, and no file size limits or number of files, this system is a great solution if you're sending many files to a lot of different recipients. The free plan offers unlimited file sends and sizes, with a three-day window for downloads. Plans are available for up to 90GB of storage, with a 14-day download period for $69.95/month.
 
Google Docs
Upload to Google Docs any file up to 250 MB, for free, with 1GB of free storage of files saved as non-Google Docs. You'll have 1 GB of free storage for files you don't convert into one of the Google Docs formats (i.e. Google documents, spreadsheets, and presentations). You also may have additional storage available for $0.25 per GB per year. Find out more at Docs.Google.com
 
You simply don't have to email documents back and forth any longer. Start using one of these remote access systems and easily bounce the written word around to your clients and partners in a flash.

 

The backbone of any business is communication, and it's even more true for a solo business owner who works remotely with contractors and clients around the globe. One of the most exciting things about the Internet is the way it enables us to talk with people on the other side of the world. No longer are we tethered to a certain office, or even a certain continent.

I would venture to say that the old saying about time being money may be true, but equally as true is the statement that communication is money. Good communication leads to greater productivity and efficiency, and a lot more fun! Here are some free technology tools that will keep you and your team feeling like you're working across the hall from each other, not across the globe:
 
Skype
Skype is a software program that allows users to make voice calls over the Internet. But it doesn't stop there; you can chat, share screens, send files, and more. It's great for group chats or calls, but the quality can be a bit sketchy, so don't use it for mission-critical calls with clients, or for calls you want to record for future distribution, if quality is an issue. Find out more at Skype.com
 
Twitter
It may seem strange to consider Twitter as a communication hub, but it has a lot of benefits. Its 140-character limit ensures that everyone is brief and to the point, and its 24/7 availability from mobile phone, computer, or iPad means most people are within reach at all times. You can create lists or follow specific terms or hashtags (#). It's fairly reliable and free. The drawback: Your conversations are public, but it's great for quick check-ins when email may not be an option. Find out more at Twitter.com
 
Email groups
Yahoo and Google both provide free email-based groups. Set your privacy level and invite members. Members can read messages via email or online, and you can share images and documents in a private web-based hub. Email groups are terrific for ongoing communication. Find out more at Groups.Yahoo.com and at Groups.Google.com)
 
Flickr
Creating a group via Flickr may not be your first thought, as the site is known for sharing photos, but it's much more than that. You can “friend” people and create private groups, complete with message boards. If you need to share video or photos, you're in the perfect spot! Basic membership is free. Find out more at Flickr.com
 
Google Buzz
Another entry in the Google suite of applications, Google Buzz is a social networking and messaging tool that works with Gmail. You can share links, photos, videos, status messages and comments from Twitter, Picasa, Flickr, and Google Reader. “Conversations" are sent to your Gmail inbox. Some people are bothered by the world domination of Google, while others enjoy the integration. Google Buzz is great for brainstorming and sharing of visual information and content. Find out more when you sign up for a Google account.
 
FreeConferenceCall
If all you want is a basic conference call service with recording capabilities, look no further than FreeConferenceCall. No reservations are required, and you can accommodate up to 96 callers. One recording is held at a time. Find out more at FreeConferenceCall.com
 
Instant Teleseminar
If you're looking for a solution with customer support and a lot of advanced features then you'll want to check out Instant Teleseminar. With this paid program you can host basic conference calls, allow up to 2000 listeners via online webcast, host live powerpoint presentations online, have live chats, monitor incoming feedback and more! Check it out at InstantTeleseminar.com
 
Now that you've seen this assortment of ways to talk, write, chat, IM, and hooks up, you have no excuse for staying out of the loop. Get connected, and get profitable!