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Running a Business Out of a Backpack


Mike Michalowicz is the well-known author of business books The Pumpkin Plan and The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur magazine and American Express’s “Open Forum” blog series, and has appeared as an entrepreneurship expert on a number of television news programs.

It was a dark and stormy night.  For real.  I’m not making this up.  I’d rented a car at the Atlanta airport and was en route to my hotel to catch a few hours of sleep before my speaking engagement the next morning.  On my way into some little town I’d only vaguely heard of before the Chamber of Commerce contacted me to speak, I’d stopped to get a cup of coffee in the deepest valley I’d ever seen apart from the Grand Canyon.  I checked my email and discovered an urgent request from a client who needed expert testimony in a trial that involved data forensics, one of my areas of expertise.

My cell phone service was spotty – probably a combination of the lousy weather and the fact that I was practically in a cavern, but the coffee shop I was in miraculously had great wifi.  I grabbed my backpack (waterproof, of course) from my rental car, set up my laptop in the shop, retrieved the information I needed, reviewed the files, and used Skype to discuss the case with my client and record my video deposition.  Later, as I drove through the wind and rain I reflected on how efficient and mobile my business had become.

Traditional vs. mobile offices

Traditional, office-based businesses are dying.  Why?  Because we can kill them, and killing them makes us stronger.  Think about it – the main reasons we had offices to begin with were to facilitate communication and collaboration, to permit customers to find us, and to store the information and tools we needed to accomplish a job.  Today, which one of those tasks can’t be accomplished with a laptop, a smaller staff, and established measures and procedures designed to get business done?  Answer: none.

Before you object, hear me out.  Are there aspects of business that should – and will always need to be – done in person?  Absolutely.  The ultimate goal of running your business out of a backpack, though, isn’t to eliminate jobs or to make everything automated or impersonal.  The goal of becoming a backpack entrepreneur is to facilitate, to enable you to do those important hands-on parts of your business while still keeping that business moving.  You need to go to Pittsburgh to persuade an investor?  Need to visit San Diego to smooth over a major misunderstanding?  If you’re effective while you’re mobile, then your business doesn’t miss a beat while you’re out making those critically important face-to-face connections.

I’ve been mobile for quite a few years now, and I’ve compiled a few tips and suggestions to help you become more mobile and more efficient.

1. The single most important component of working out of your backpack is ensuring that you can communicate effectively.  You need to be able to share information, ideas, and files with every single critical member of your team, and you need an absolutely reliable method of communication.  What works best for my company is Skype.  It’s reasonably priced and lets us talk by phone or video, lets us share text and data, and it even has an instant message function.  Communication lets you work together despite differences in location, time zone, and even work schedules.  You want to get this component right.

2. Another important element you’ll need to set up is some form of cloud storage. Cloud storage lets you and your team share and edit the same document, regardless of your location. Perhaps most importantly, cloud storage also gives you redundancy in case of equipment failure. If your laptop falls into a puddle during a Georgia thunderstorm, you do not want the only copy of an essential document to be housed only on that soggy computer.

3. One final piece of advice:  it can be hard for an entrepreneur to make the break from office-based to backpack-based.  You may be reluctant to leave your Herman Miller Aeron chair, your Keurig coffeemaker, and your plant that you remember to water most of the time.  The tip here is to force yourself to go mobile.  Do it.  Schedule yourself out of the office for a week.  If you make yourself work from a backpack, you’ll be able to iron out all of the kinks in your equipment and contingency plans – things like backup sources of power and reliable wifi – before you actually need them.

An anecdote to close: when Superstorm Sandy walloped the East Coast in late 2012, my home and my office were the bullseye of her trajectory.  Both were flooded – completely uninhabitable.  My family and I spent 12 days in an emergency shelter.  It wasn’t fun, or comfortable, or even remotely pleasant, but here’s the key: my business didn’t miss a beat.   I shared power outlets with my new friends at the shelter, and my clients couldn’t tell I was operating under less than ideal circumstances.  Clients don’t want excuses; they want results.  Since I had already implemented and tested all of the moving parts to work out of my backpack, I could offer the same excellent service that my clients expected, even from an emergency shelter.

Already a backpack entrepreneur? Add your tips in the comments.

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