Opening and maintaining an office is one of the costliest moves a new business can make. The obvious expense is the monthly rent, but the financial investment in running an office far exceeds the rent. At minimum, you will need desks and chairs. Most companies eventually want filing cabinets and a water cooler (plus scheduled delivery.) Of course, an office also needs its own Internet connection.

All these costs (and others) are why veteran entrepreneurs advise going without an office early on. That said, some businesses objectively need things like a professional mailing address, a business phone system and meeting areas.

Virtual Receptionists & Assistants

Entrepreneurs frequently take on loaded schedules and find themselves shoving repetitive tasks to the back burner. Traditionally, the solution has been hiring assistants whose sole jobs are to complete those tasks. However, it is actually not necessary for an assistant to physically work beside you in an office. A growing number of entrepreneurs are hiring virtual assistants instead.

For about $15 per hour, a virtual assistant will complete from home a list of assigned tasks each day or week. If your company operates primarily over the web, virtual assistants become an even better deal. Since the bulk of their tasks will be web-based, the incremental benefit of managing them face to face is far less than the extra cost.

The same is true of virtual receptionists. Phone systems can re-route business calls to a virtual receptionist who is trained to process calls in a manner of your choosing. As far as callers are concerned, it is as though you have a real office with a receptionist sitting in the front lobby. Best of all, most virtual receptionist providers charge by how many minutes you need a receptionist for - a substantial savings over hiring someone full-time. Plus, you can scale up or down as circumstances dictate without any personal conflicts.

Virtual Answering Services & Call Centers

Let's face it - nothing advertises the fact that you have a 'real' company like an automated answering service. It's an efficient way to process incoming calls, and any customer-facing business would be foolish to go without one. But you don't need to pay thousands of dollars to have an elaborate phone system installed. Grasshopper, for example, sells virtual phone systems that enable businesses of any size to use a real, professional answering service that is 100% web-based. You choose a corporate phone number, record a main greeting, add departments and employees, and get your business calls instantly, from anywhere. Customers can leave voice mails, and the entire caller experience is indistinguishable from that of an in-house answering service.

Virtual call centers can also be seamlessly plugged into your company's infrastructure in a way that is invisible to callers. Customers calling for tech support will dial a number provided by your company and be helped by a remote agent who, as far as the caller is concerned, is in your office and on your payroll. The only substantive difference will be a smaller hit to your company's bottom line for call center services.

Professional Addresses & Meeting Space

New businesses work hard early on to project a professional image to the world. Of course, it's hard for outsiders to take a business seriously if their mailing address is clearly a personal residence. It can also be a serious security risk. More cost-effective than opening an office, however, is to simply get a professional mailing address.

Various services will accept your incoming mail at a prestigious, official location and then forward it to you at home. You can even arrange for receptionists at the business address to sign for incoming overnights, deliveries or packages. Document drop-off and pick-up services are available, and some providers offer notaries.

Perhaps you need to hold meetings with customers or partners, but not often enough to justify having a permanent office. Luckily, physical meeting space can be purchased and used in the same on-demand fashion as the other services. Whether you need conference rooms for an hour, a day or a week, business space providers maintain facilities for use whenever your schedule dictates. You can also rent what is known as a 'casual workspace', which is office space available for occasional use whenever you feel the need to work away from home.

The Case For a Virtual Office

If cash is tight and a lack of office amenities is throttling your company, a virtual office is a viable alternative. In addition to the cost savings, consider the often gigantic amount of time that accompanies setting up some of these systems.

To get up and running with an assistant, a receptionist, a business phone system and a call center could realistically take months. Beyond that, the maintenance, upgrading and troubleshooting of this infrastructure would forever be your responsibility. In all likelihood, a new employee or two would be needed for exactly that purpose.

A virtual office, on the other hand, allows you to revel in the fact that you're paying someone else to do those things and wash your hands of them entirely. And if you have ever run a real office, you know first-hand what a relief that is.