A bad business blames its tools

You've got an idea, now you need the gear, but without the right equipment you'll end up fighting a losing battle.
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The Independent Online

Starting up a company in your spare room, garage or garden shed is a daunting business, as anyone who has done so will wearily testify. It is, in most cases, a leap of faith – in yourself, in your business partners and in your prospective customers.

Starting up a company in your spare room, garage or garden shed is a daunting business, as anyone who has done so will wearily testify. It is, in most cases, a leap of faith – in yourself, in your business partners and in your prospective customers.

What many would-be entrepreneurs fail to take into account is the importance of getting good, reliable equipment: the right computer, software, internet service provider (ISP), printer, fax machine and so on. This is incredibly important. Starting a company is a steep learning curve. Every entrepreneur will make mistakes, but the clever ones will, like the Scouts, be prepared.

Look at fitting out your office in a series of stages. The first is buying a computer with a nice big screen – 17 inches and upward – which should have at least 64 megabytes (MB) of RAM but preferably 128 MB or more. RAM (Random Access Memory) is the computer's brain – the more it has, the more you can do with it.

Do you get a Personal Computer (PC) or an Apple Macintosh (Mac)? Both machines have benefits and drawbacks. PCs are generally cheaper: you can buy a well-equipped one for less than £500, whereas the cheapest Mac, the iMac, costs £800. New software is also targeted first at PC users; Mac owners usually have to wait for software to be converted for their own use. That said, Macs are less susceptible to computer viruses. Most viruses are designed to attack PCs. Macs can also be more easily connected or "networked" to one another.

This is useful as your company begins to grow, and Macs are also better at working with fiddly graphics and pictures. They are also, generally speaking, more reliable, though when a Mac goes wrong, personal experience suggests that they tend to go spectacularly wrong.

Although a laptop is tempting, go for a larger "desktop" computer if you can. They have fewer components crammed into a small volume, and are therefore more reliable.

The next question is where to buy your computer. Most people head straight for their nearest high-street electronics retailer, which has a wide choice of manufacturers in one shop, but there are drawbacks to this approach. If you want the cheapest deal, go either to a mail-order operation advertising in computer magazines, or maybe to a website such as QXL ( www.qxl.com), where you can buy reconditioned or even second-hand computers. But if you want good after-sales service, which given the complexity and volatile temperament of the modern computer you may well need, look for a supplier with a good reputation. Big manufacturers such as Dell ( www.dell.co.uk) will offer a competent, if rather impersonal and sometimes slow, telephone helpline. A UK manufacturer with a good reputation in this area is Dan ( www.dan.co.uk). You may pay a little more for the machine, but it should be made up for in lower blood pressure later. Alternatively, check out Which? ( www.which.net) or ask your friends. Recommendations are valuable in a field where so many products appear to be identical.

The next step is to load the software you need, unless your computer has arrived ready-loaded, that is. Most businesses will need word processing and a spreadsheet programme and will inevitably choose Microsoft Office. This software is expensive. The latest edition of Microsoft Office XP can cost up to £450 and many people borrow set-up disks. Tempting, but also illegal and not a good idea.

Now you will need to connect your computer, and therefore your office, to the internet, allowing you to send and receive emails. But what connection speed? And with which internet service provider (ISP)? If you simply plan to send text emails from your computer, the pragmatic choice would be a basic dial-up internet connection, either via a free ISP such as Freeserve, or from one charging a monthly flat-rate fee, such as AOL. Free ISPs may appear to make financial sense – you only pay for time you spend online and they are perfect if you need relatively little back-up help – but free ISPs are "bulk suppliers" and cannot be expected to provide a glitch-free service.

Anyone expecting to send and receive large files, such as pictures, music files or films, should seriously consider a broadband service. Broadband is not available to everyone. If you live within three kilometres of an appropriate exchange, you will be able to get ADSL, a BT system that squeezes the internet into your office at up to two megabytes (almost 40 times the speed of a normal modem). ADSL access is available from BT Openworld ( www.btopenworld.com) for around £45 per month and also from a number of resellers. Cable modem access, at similar speeds, is available to customers living within the NTL ( www.ntl.com) and Telewest (www.blueyonder.co.uk) regions.

A note of security caution for anyone looking to get broadband internet access: it is a good idea to install a virus checker such as McAfee ( www.mcafee.com). Broadband, being "always on", is more prone to getting computer viruses.

The computer is not the only essential item for small companies. Fax machines remain useful. A photocopier, by contrast, may not be essential. If you generate all your material on a computer, for instance, just print out more copies when you need them. You will definitely need a reliable printer. Unless you need colour, the best choice is a quality black-and-white laser printer that processes at least eight pages per minute. Ink-jet printers are cheaper, but go through print cartridges at a fearsome rate, and ink cartridges are not cheap.