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Tools for the self-employed: how two people got computers

If you run your own small business, small enough so that you or maybe you and some family members are the only workers, you may have wondered whether it's worth it to invest in a computer. Rather than detailing all the models now in the stores, the Monitor interviewed two people who have made this very decision. Here, they share the delights - and frustrations - of computer ownership. Donald Brown: It pays to shop around.

For a living, Donald Brown sells dry-cleaning services. For a profession, he plays the drums. Last December Mr. Brown started The Jazz Affair, a musicians'-agent business he runs out of his one-bedroom apartment in Boston on evenings and weekends. You throw the party, he'll provide people to play trumpet , sax, piano ... whatever.

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From the beginning, this entrepreneur decided he wanted a computer to help him. The main point was to turn out mass mailings of his music brochures, but he also wanted to write letters, do budgeting, file, and keep the company accounts. In May, he bought the Apple IIe, but not before six months of researching computers, shopping among several retailers, and haggling on price.

''I started out so green,'' he exclaims; ''... so I set aside a goal of educating myself for a while.'' He began with an appointment at Computerland, a major retailer. He told the saleswoman what he needed a computer for and what he wanted it to do. She went ''real fast'' through a demonstration of the Texas Instruments Professional Computer, he says. ''I got nothing out of it,'' he recalls. He then heard John Bear on a radio talk show. Mr. Bear is the author of ''Computer Wimp'' (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif., $9.95). Brown bought the book and read it through. (He still refers to it and recommends it highly for beginners.)

After this, he followed up with consistent reading of Personal Computing magazine, which cost him $12 for a one-year subscription, and many more visits to various computer stores. Brown said he ''fell in love'' with Apple when one salesman left him alone with the machine for half an hour. Then, ''Apple presents Appleworks,'' the self-running program designed to introduce Apple's latest software, won him over. It was ''the simple things'' about the computer that appealed to him: the feel of the keyboard, the look of the machine, the manual that makes Apple ''truly user friendly.'' But the price was wrong: $6,000 for the computer and the accessories he needed.

Getting the money was not easy, either. Because he had no business credit history, Brown was not eligible for a business loan, so he had to take out a four-year personal loan for $5,600 at 18 percent.

He wanted this loan to pay for the computer and office furniture. To cover both, Brown decided to settle for the Radio Shack TRS 80 Model 4, selling for $5 ,100. But with a couple of weeks to wait for his loan to come through, Brown used this time to call around to see if a better price on the Apple was available.

His calling helped uncover a complete Apple package, including keyboard, duo disk drive, monitor, a separate hard disk drive, printer, hookup cables, paper, a box of spare floppy disks, and software for $5,000. Also, he says, the salesman at the Computer Store in Cambridge, Mass., where he bought the machine, came to his apartment to set it up. The salesman even treated him to dinner to make up for some parts being late.

With the money he saved, Brown was still able to buy a memory phone, answering machine, desk, and burglar alarm ($200, from Radio Shack). His annual insurance premium went up a mere $7.

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Even though he spent two weeks learning to use the IIe, Brown says he has already made up that time in productivity savings. He bought a new software program from Apple, called Appleworks, that can do all the functions he wants, and includes word processing, filing, and a financial spreadsheet. Because Apple is so easy to use, he says, he now has more time to develop his business. He adds, though, that if he were starting to shop now, he'd start his bargaining at Helen Healy: When it's just you and the computer, service is important.

''We put your words in order,'' says Helen Healy's business card. Mrs. Healy's business is words. Last September she bought a computer to set up Lincolntext, a word processing business in her home in Lincoln, Mass. There, in a corner room with a view of tall, cool pines, she types and prints documents and letters for local lawyers, businesses, and writers. Because she uses a computer, she can turn out hundreds of copies, or just a few. And because she uses a computer, she can erase mistakes, move words around, and put words in all kinds of typefaces with the touch of a button.

But Mrs. Healy does not own what's commonly called a personal computer. She purposely stayed away from them. Instead, she bought a Syntrex computer, built especially for word processing.

Anyway, she says, ''I was going nuts'' trying to decide which of the many word processing programs to buy for a personal computer. Since she wanted to do word processing, and nothing else, she got a machine designed to do it well.

''You could do all this on a (personal computer), but it's more cumbersome,'' she explains. ''You have to use more keys vs. pressing one to accomplish what you want.'' Besides, the cost difference between a fully equipped home computer and a dedicated word processor was small.

Because she had taken a word processing class and worked on word processing computers, she was already fairly educated about her needs and the equipment on the market. Still, she talked to friends, read magazines, and spoke with people in the word processing business, spending six weeks gathering information.

Mrs. Healy considered major word processor-makers, such as Wang, Digital Equipment, IBM, and CPI Corporation, and drew up her own checklist for comparison shopping. She also visited sales representatives. But she found some companies did not prepare for her visit, were not totally familiar with their machines - especially the latest models, and were inattentive to her needs. She wanted service and performance. ''Cost was not that important,'' as she did not need to arrange special financing for the purchase.

Even though Syntrex was recommended to her by users and a salesman whom she had come to trust in a local computer store, Mrs. Healy was reluctant to hand over $9,000 to a company she hadn't heard of. But after two visits to try the computer and a look at the client list (which included some major companies), she felt secure.

Now, she says, the service at Syntrex ''is worth its weight in gold.'' The purchase included three days of training, and she likes knowing she can call the Syntrex help-line in Boston with questions, which she has done frequently. There is also a toll-free number in New Jersey for after business hours and a newsletter that all owners receive. Once, she needed a service call and the technician came to her home to take care of the problem. Some features, or rather missing features, ''are a nuisance,'' she says, but they are not major problems.

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