When space is at a premium and you need to run your business from your home on wheels, you must make tough decisions regarding downsizing your office.
The most challenging one for me but the one that has yielded the most benefits has been going paperless.
This post will address the benefits, timing, and challenges of transitioning to a paperless office and provide a list of the resources I use to reduce the physical footprint of my business while increasing reach and profitability.
Four Questions About Going Paperless
This post will answer four questions:
- What does "going paperless" mean?
- How does going paperless make a nomadic lifestyle possible?
- What financial benefits are associated with going paperless?
- How will my personal and professional relationships benefit from going paperless?
I'm sure there is a business owner out there somewhere who can boast that they do not use a single Post-it Note, index card, journal, or envelope. I am not that person nor do I want to be. When I use that term, I do not mean doing without paper but adopting a less paper way of living and working.
Going Paperless Supports the Digital Nomad Lifestyle
Living in small spaces and moving around means we can't take everything with us. Adopting a minimalist mindset is a prerequisite for successfully transitioning to a lifestyle that allows us to integrate our work and lives by traveling and adventuring while operating sustainable, customer-oriented businesses.
Going paperless allows us to shed bulky, expensive office equipment and supplies and operate more efficiently and effectively and make room and money for paddle boards, climbing gear, snow shoe equipment, wet suits--the fun stuff that attracted us to this lifestyle in the first place.
Timing Is Everything
The best time to do this is before you make the move from your "bricks and sticks" home or office to your tiny home/office on wheels.
The Milk Crate Method
Knowing how much working and storage space you'll have in your new setup (tiny home, RV, van, motor home, etc.) will help during this process, but that's not required. Using my milk crate method will encourage you to work into a small space before you're forced to work from one.
Establish four areas in your office.
- Must Keep
- Don't Need
Sort everything in your office. Everything. Unplug your printers, computer, monitor(s), cameras, and other gear and set it in the milk crate area. This will be stressful, but it'll be worth it because you'll get from where you are now to where you want to be faster.
Put everything you deem a must keep in and around the milk crate.
If you're like me, most must keeps are client files, financial documents, and reference material. That's a lot of paper.
- Set up an electronic filing system on your computer with a folder for each client or project (whatever works best for you).
- Scan anything you can, name the files, and file them in the appropriate electronic folders.
- Place all client-related documents, financial information, and anything you consider proprietary into the Shred pile.
- Place all Must Keep paper and office supplies in your milk crate.
Sort the remaining contents of your office into the Maybe, Don't Need, and Shred piles.
Toss or donate any Don't Need items.
Shred your Shred pile. (Professional shedding services are inexpensive. Do not take shortcuts here.)
At this stage, I felt empowered and demoralized. Empowered because I was taking big steps toward my goal but demoralized because the reality of living and running a business in a tiny space (with another person and his stuff) was right there in front of me. This was going to be a challenge.
#2 Create. Refine. Repeat.
Entrepreneurs put a lot of pressure on themselves. We can't help it. It's part of who we are and why we're able to do what we do. But, it can work against us by causing unnecessary stress. And let's be honest, living and working with us can be challenging for those closest to us, so I'll tell you what I told and continue to tell myself and my authors clients: Create. Refine. Repeat.
Life is a process of creation and refinement. We don't have to get it right the first time. We just have to get the first draft done and then figure out what we need to do to shape it into something that works for us and for our customers.
Once you set up systems that reduce your current paper buildup, tackle the job of reducing the physical objects in your office. At the end of your first day, you'll most likely end up in the same place I did. You'll have made tremendous progress but still have a long way to go. You'll be sure you must reduce even more but unsure how you'll ever get to where you need to be.
That's okay, especially if you aren't moving into your new, small space immediately. Put your Must Keep office back together with one exception.
With the exception of my Yeti microphone, this is the extent of my office equipment. My milk crate with must-have papers and office supplies is not pictured.
#3 Box and Put Away Your Printer(s)
Commit by removing your ability to generate paper documents. This will force you to use your new systems and highlight challenges you'll face on the road. This leads to innovation.
My printer was a huge, scanner-printer-copier unit. I miss the scanner function most, but not having access to it has forced me to maximize the value of the resources I purchased to reduce my use of paper. When I changed my physical environment and made the mental shift, my life became easier. I'm saving and making more money as a direct result of making this change.
Resources I Use to Reduce Paper and Make more Money
Now that you've reduced the build up of paper in your office, take steps to avoid future accumulation.
I want to talk about this first because a sustainable business starts with risk management, and I won't engage with any project until I have a signed contract that includes a scope of work. Before I went paperless, I'd draft the contract, print it, sign it, scan it, and email it to the prospective client. They would print it, sign it, scan it, and email the final version back to me. I'd print and file it in a hanging file and save a PDF version.
Often, I wouldn't get fully executed contracts back for weeks. That meant weeks of not knowing if a project was going to stick and cash flow issues because in the meantime I was having to push off decisions about taking other projects. And, because clients pay a retainer fee to reserve time on my calendar, invoicing for those was delayed too.
Boxing up my printer meant finding a new way to send contracts. Adobe Sign solved that problem perfectly and for only $119.88/year. The first time I used it, the client e-signed the document within one hour--one hour! I immediately sent him an invoice from my financial management system, which he also paid that day.
I spent less than an hour setting up my account and learning how to use the program, the result of which was embracing a process that's efficient for both parties and builds my brand.
Electronic Invoicing and Financial Management System
As I mentioned, I'd already been using an electronic invoicing system. I experimented with several before, with the help of Julie Babcock-Hyde at Spark Accounting Solutions, I found the right fit for my business.
I use QuickBooks Essentials and the QuickBooks app. (I highly recommend talking to an expert like Julie about your needs. I wasted money and time by DIYing this decision.)
QuickBooks allows me to send branded invoices to my clients. They can pay directly from their checking account or by credit card. QuickBooks is linked to my business bank accounts, reducing my need to "touch" my money at every stage. The $17.00 I pay every month more than pays for itself by saving me and my clients time and energy.
Now that I use systems that reduces friction for my clients, receiving PDF contracts and invoices that I must print and scan or mail back to a contractor frustrates me as does writing and mailing paper checks because I'm acutely aware of how much time, energy, and physical resources that costs, something that wasn't on my radar before my decision to go paperless forced me to change my processes.
Solving One Problem Often Creates Others, But ...
You no doubt noticed that by solving one problem, I created another. So, how, without a printer and scanner, do I deal with incoming contracts that must be signed and returned?
I bumbled around for weeks before remembering that Adobe Sign solves that problem too. I can upload someone else's contract (PDF), e-sign it, and send it back to them with a few clicks of my mouse. Easy-peasy.
The first time I did it, the vendor sent me an email thanking me for introducing her to that system. She said she's always looking for ways to streamline her processes and better serve her clients.
The irritation I originally felt when I had to find new ways of getting contracts signed and returned and my desire to better track payments eventually led me to two excellent products, and this new irritation of working with vendors who aren't using these systems is an opportunity for me to share these time and money-saving (and, therefore, money-making) systems with some of my favorite strategic partners. Everyone benefits.
Project Management/Task Tracking Software
As open minded as I try to be, I am resistant about some things. The idea of giving up my paper calendar, sticky notes, and note-taking journal truly made me pause. My Google calendar with reminders and my journal with its lists was mostly fine. I didn't want to have to develop a new process.
But, I recognized that my business was near a tipping point. If I didn't adopt a more sophisticated form of project management and with it an all-on-one-page to-do list, I was going to start dropping balls and living in a constant state of fear and frustration. So, I started testing options.
I ended up purchasing a subscription to Taskworld. This system appeals to my style of learning and remembering things (visual) and allows me to set up project templates, shaving several hours of calendar set up and list making on every project. The time I saved on just one project more than covered the $131/year fee, and the smart phone app means I don't need a paper calendar or paper to-do lists.
My journal stayed, but I only use it for brainstorming and jotting notes during meetings. I no longer have to rummage through page after page looking for the list I need.
Rather than focusing on what I needed to get rid of, I focused (and continue to focus) on ways to improve my business while reducing paper. Going paper-less has helped me do more in less time, improving my customers' experiences and increasing my profits.
At the time of this writing, Jim and I are in a transitional phase. We purchased an RV and sold our home but are living in a small condo until spring. For more about that, read Winter RV Living Challenge: Finding Space in an RV Park. The process outlined above is the one I used to reduce my office before we sold our home. I still have too much stuff. The condo has less space than our former home but more than our RV. As I refine my systems and determine my true needs and how to meet and exceed the expectations of my clients, I'm eliminating even more.
I'm sure that when we move into our RV in a few months, I'll be surprised by how much more I need to cut, but because I've gotten used to the idea and am experiencing tremendous benefits from the changes I've already made, I am not afraid of the editing to come. As a professional writer, editor, and business person, I know that simplicity and strength go hand in hand and that building sustainable, portable businesses requires finding experts and apps that help make transitions easier.