Productivity-Boosting, Money-Saving Biz Gadgets

Some weeks back, someone gave me a book called The Long Walk.

If there ever were an apt metaphor for small-business life in these waning hours of 2008, it is this memoir of Polish officer Slavomir Rawicz. In 1939, Rawicz -- after being arrested and shipped off to a Siberian labor camp -- escaped and managed to walk south well over a thousand miles through the Siberian wilderness into Mongolia, through the Gobi Desert and the Himalayan foothills, and finally into freedom in northern India.

Rawicz' method was simple: Hang in there. Make the best choices you can and keep moving: ice blisters, sand shivers, lots of walking and what may have been -- for real -- a 90-minute audience with two abominable snow people. But the part that got me was the tools. He and the seven other prisoners he trekked with basically lived and died on the things they had or had not: The ax head that was slipped to Rawicz by the wife of the camp commandant. The deer skin moccasins they fashioned. The wraps of wire they found. Or the disasters they suffered when, with no rope, compass or a way to carry water, events overwhelmed them and four never got home.

So, then. What would today's life-saving techno tools be? In these lean times, in this holiday season, in this 21st century, here are my picks for cheap, simple, durable techno items to have on hand so you will live to tell your tale of survival.

Memory up the phone: Take out that smart phone of yours. There on the side you will probably find a little casket with the word "MiniSD" or "xD" or "MicroSD" or something like that on it. That's a memory slot a lot like the one on your computer, only smaller. Pretty much every major maker -- Motorola (MOT), Samsung, Nokia (NOK), LG, you know the names -- makes powerful portable data devices with expandable memory. Companies like SanDisk (SNDK) or Fuji or Kingston will be more than happy to sell you just such a card. And they are dirt cheap. MicroSD cards with 8GB of storage run, like, $14 at Amazon. And these chips will simply turbocharge that phone of yours. Making it run faster, handle more tasks and generally be easier to use.

Get tethered: The "secret" to staying in the game in these dark days is no secret: You've got to want it more than the other guy. One trick is to stay as comfortable as possible with your nose to that grindstone. Wireless connectivity is a great way to soften the blow of the 14-hour day; you can mix family and work with ease. But many small shops hate the cost. A wireless data connection you want from carriers like AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) and Sprint (S) can touch $60 a month. Here's a better idea: Take that smart phone you already have and turn it into a modem. This is called tethered mode -- basically you attach your phone to your computer as you would to sync data, but instead you set up the connection to pass data directly to your computer. It takes a bit of tinkering -- you will need to consult the phone manuals or in-store support -- but you can get a close to broadband wireless data connection for your computer. It's very slick. Now, beware, data plans come with usage limits. And costs can mount. But carriers discount combined data and voice plans heavily. Sprint, in particular, can offer very nice value here.

Smarten up that car: Nothing is worse than spending a 90-minute commute doing nothing but stressing about how bad business is. Instead, pump some productivity into that car. The cheap way to the smart vehicle is through a power inverter. Most major car parts makers sell these things -- Sears (SHLD), Granger and a flock of small makers like Vector and others. Inverters turn your car's power into juice that your wall-powered gadgets can use. So your laptop, cell phone and anything else that needs to stay charged can live in the car next to you. Now things can get pretty spaghetti-like with this method -- that mess of transformers on the floor in the office winds up in the passenger seat. And you have to know the power needs of your laptop, your GPS, cell phone or whatever. You can burn things out. But done right, most of the office can travel with you. Please, though, no driving as you surf the Web after powering up that PC.

In the end, these tools may not save you if you find yourself hoofing it through the Gobi Desert. But they should give you a palpable productivity gain. And these days, that can make all the difference.

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