Monday, August 14, 2006

my paperless office

One of my goals over the years has been to have a paperless office to match my concept of a truly digital life - ebook sales, automatic payment, and no paper ever... a fully digital business, all completely online.

But I haven't done it until last year for 2 reasons:

1. The equipment around wasn't easy or simple enough to use. Till the last year or so, paper automation was marginally effective. Scanners were primitive and slow, and they required several lengthy steps to get paper into a digital format.

2. Most people and organizations I researched in the past gave very good reasons for not doing it. These negative reasons included difficult access to files, poor reliability of backups, and lack of tactileness... something about wanting to "feel" the paper information source. Stupidly I took notice of them. (Note: If you want to do something badly enough, don't take notice of anyone. I found none of these reasons applied to me when I finally made the move).

Well, over the years I reviewed all these options regularly, but my latest reviews brought up some interesting case studies. A number of law firms who had taken the paperless route for a year or two and gained great benefits from it. Here's a bunch of people whose livelihood depends on the integrity of paper, and yet they were all moving towards full digital storage. Courts of law in many countries accept PDF files without any question. That had to be a big factor in my decision to go paperless.

And since I'm a strong advocate of paperless books, it seemed a bit silly not to extend that concept to the rest of my business life.

So I took the plunge early last year, and I'm happy to report my paperless office has been an overwhelming success from day 1.

It was easy, painless, quick and fun. Here's my equipment, and as you'll see - you really only need the scanner:

SCANNER: Fujitsu ScanSnap (see photo above):
This tiny desktop 600 dpi machine scans up to 15 sheets a minute, does both sides of the document automatically if I need it, and places the image directly to PDF, email or file. The automated PDF conversion is the secret to a truly paperless approach. Without it, any paperless approach would be seriously hobbled.

SHREDDER: Fellowes Home Office unit. This is an optional choice since you can get rid of paper in other ways. But it makes a very satisfying sound as it gobbles up your paperwork. It's a very permanent move too, making my transition a no-going-back move. Sometimes you need to burn your bridges to move forward!

BACKUP: iBackup A fully automated online backup service through dialup or broadband. I've never seen anything as simple to operate as this.

Here's what I do each day to win the paper war:

When paper of any kind...a magazine article I clip, an invoice, notice or bill... gets to my desk, I run it through the ScanSnap which is permanently on.

The item shows up on Windows Explorer in the supplied Adobe Acrobat 6.0 program as an untitled PDF file. I name it immediately in a COMPANY NAME - DOCUMENT NAME - ITEM - DATE format and drag it to the appropriate folder.

I have only 2 folders for all my files, marked BUSINESS and PERSONAL. The Business folder has sub-folders, each labeled as a financial year... 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003 etc. There is one other sub folder which I've labeled PROJECTS.

Since my scanned files are shown in alphabetical order in Explorer - and that's the way I retrieve them too - there's no need to get any more complicated than that.

The next important stage is backup. It's no good having everything on disk, on another hard drive or in a separate computer. That is too time-consuming and temperamental to retrieve. Disks die, PC's fail, you get burgled or your house goes up in smoke. And all at a time time that you least expect it.

So I have everything backed up to the online backup service. For a paltry $9.95 a month for a 5Gb storage, iBackup automatically backs up everything when I want it. I have set the backup options to daily at 2am.

For the first few days I used to keep the day's scanned paper copies in a tray and only shredded them the following day when I was sure the backup had been done. But it didn't take me long to ignore that step and go direct to the rubbish bin via the shredder! Since most filed documents can be retrieved one way of another (using the wind-back part of Windows XP), there's little chance of anything permanent occurring in the 12 hours prior to backup.

When I'm happy that the file has been scanned and filed correctly, I pop the paper into the shredder under my desk and it's gone for good.

Here's what happened in my very first day of using the paperless system. I had scanned and filed about 50 documents, and later that afternoon I had the need for one bill that I remembered I had already done.

In the past I would have done this to find a filed document:
- Gone to my file cabinet.
- Selected the year folder if I knew it.
- Found a space on my desk (usually not much free space there!), opened to the alphabetical section and searched through the paperwork until I found the right one.
- Unclipped it from the file folder, did the action - faxing, whatever - and reversed the steps to put it away again

Simple enough, it seems. But don't forget I had to file it in the first place, and that's no walk in the park. Like most other entrepreneurial types who seem to share a dislike for paperwork, I used to leave my paper filing for a week or two. Then the pile seemed too big to do all at once so I'd only do a part of it. So it grew incrementally, and I was never really up to date.

Contrast that with my situation now, where every item of paper gets filed immediately it hits the desk... mainly because it is so quick to do - but also, I have to admit - because there is a fun factor involved. It's easy, and meets my futuristic plan. With every paper I file, I get closer to my nirvana of a fully featured and accessible paperless office!

OK, now to find the same file in the paperless setting today, under the new system, I do only this:

- Go to Windows Explorer,
- Open the Folder required,
- Click the document to open it, and read it onscreen.

All this sitting in one place, moving only the mouse and small parts of my brain! :)

In practice the process is far simpler. I can quickly do a search for the document since my file naming system will identify most of what I need to find it in the name.

How have I benefited from the move away from paper?

- Space! My paper mountain is dwindling rapidly, and so are the boxes and files I use to keep them in. That means more free office space and clutter. That can't be underestimated.

- Order. Ever wondered where in your office a document is filed? Even the best paper file system won't get it quicker than a keyword search on your PC. Takes just seconds.

- Time. That's not much of a saving right now, but as more of my paper gets digitized there will be huge savings in locating and tracking paperwork.

- Convenience. In the past if I had a query with an account, I would phone and fax the information with a letter. It took 10 minutes including the search and faxing. Today I did the same thing, except I sent a 2-line email with the file as a PDF attachment. Took barely a minute all up.

- Security. Anyone can enter a paper office and take files in an instant. All files are stored identically the world over. But a digital file is different. It is near impossible to get without knowing passwords and location.

- Backup. This hasn't been tested yet for me, online or off. My house hasn't burnt down, nor my computers stolen or crashed. But it may happen yet, and I'll be whistling Dixie when it does because getting it all back again from its distant server will be a breeze. And changing computers won't be the onerous task it has been in the past. I still have files on my laptop that I haven't transferred to my year-old PC because of numerous problems with cables, disks and internet connections. Now I can simply select files from the backup server and make a coffee while it swaps them over for me.

Of course there are a few paper items I haven't chosen to digitize. Equipment manuals, books and some magazines are still better in old-fashioned paper and ink. However, if I buy an ebook, I tend to read it online without printing it out. Most people prefer to have a paper copy. I'm different in that respect I guess, taking the paperless option to its extreme.

Overall I have taken a long time to join the completely digital age - longer than a closet futurist like myself should have taken. But the wait has been worth it, the rewards are numerous, and the whole enterprise is just so much fun than before!

December 2007 update here


Anonymous said...

It sounds like you're well on your way to a complete digital life. I think the only thing that you missed was having a good digital document shredder like Digital File Shredder Pro, that way you can make sure that all of those personal electronic files that you need to get rid of are gone for good too. :)

Robin said...

After reading Ken's blog I researched and ended up buying a ScanSnap scanner like Ken's. It's an absolute delight to use and includes a copy of Adobe 7 Standard which I had been contemplating upgrading to as well.

I killed two birds with one stone and have been scanning my tax-related documentation. It's great.

Paul said...

Hi, you are true. IBackup is a great service to safely backup and restore your critical data. While PC World recently rated it as the `best all-round backup service’ in a review of online backup services, UK’s best selling Internet magazine has selected IBackup for the ‘webuser gold award’.

With IBackup for Windows the backup and restores of files and folders are fast, easy and reliable. IBackup also has easy-to-use wizards for interactive backups, restores and backup/restore scheduling. There is automatic selection of most common user data and the most common application data types.

IBackup for Windows is compatible with Windows 98 and above. IBackup accounts are compatible with most FTP clients on most platforms thus providing a powerful flexible tool to transfer files. You can access your data in IBackup with ILite using handhelds such as Blackberry, PocketPC and Treo. IDrive for Mac is an excellent desktop interface for working with your IBackup account and Mac.

A good thing about IBackup is that the online account can be mapped as a local drive onto your computer with IDrive. Then you can work on the files and folders stored in your account, edit and save them. You can also drag and drop files to the IBackup account from the Windows explorer. It also allows users to open and save files stored in their IBackup online backup or storage accounts directly from their associated applications like Microsoft Office.

IDrive Multimedia is an advanced drive mapping technology, which can stream multimedia content using a media player. IDrive Multimedia supports all multimedia formats that your PC applications support. IDrive and IDrive Multimedia, the network mapping applications, do have SSL encryption enabled by default.

You can also try the browser-based application Web-Manager. Create folders, upload, webload files, delete and share files or folders with others with Web-Manager. Web-Manager also has account maintenance features for managing your account. It also allows `private sharing of data’ instantly with another IBackup user.

Anonymous said...

I just hope you never need your backups at the same time a LOT of others do.

During a widespread blackout, and subsequent hassles with electricity and component failures that resulted (including my UPS), I really needed my backups. Everyone else did, too, so it was almost a full week before I could get to the head of the line and get my backups.

Best advice: don't depend upon ONLY online backups...keep other backups off-site as in a safe deposit box or some such...just in case.

Edward said...

I just got a fujitsu scanner and am excited about going paperless, or more paperless. One question though--is there some way to complete forms-such as an application-that has been scanned? That is one document I currently see as needing to be in hardcopy. Hopefully that is no longer true. Any advice is much appreciated. Thanks, Ed

Ken Silver said...


Do you mean filling in a form online or on-screen instead of handwriting... then scanning it? I believe Acrobat 8.0 can do that, but I haven't researched how in any detail.


Adam said...

great post!

quick question - how big (in megabytes) are the scanned files?

I would mostly be scanning the regular 2 or 3 page bills but I may also need to scan 100 pages of magazine articles from time to time.

any info on this would be great, thanks

Ken SIlver said...

Hi Adam,

Scansnap does a great job of compression. As an example, 35 standard invoices of 1-3 pages each, full color, both sides, came to just under 7Mb total.

Typically a 2 page color brochure with full illustrations comes well under 400kb. You'll have plenty of room for 20 years worth on a typical 200Gb disk I'd imagine!

Adam said...


thanks so much Ken

it really sounds fantastic, now all I need to do is find one for sale in Australia :)

Vernon said...

One other free application you should try is a Desktop Search Engine. I highly recommend Copernic Desktop Search. Sometimes you may not remember the location of a digital file, but this app will find it instantly .. and it's free!

Dave Mauder said...


I'm curious to know if you're still using IBackup. I've just started to go paperless, and I'm pretty concerned about making sure all my PDF files are protected from disaster. It seems like there are much cheaper services out there that offer more (and some unlimited) storage. One I'm looking at is Mozy, but I don't have much experience with them.


Ken Silver said...

Hi Dave,

No, I'm not using online backup at the moment. A year ago I bought a dual drive PC and am relying on the spare disk to solve any physical backup problems if the disk crashes. Of course I'll be stuck if the PC is stolen or catches on fire, but enough of my important material is in online storage by default... photos, email, stored by vendors etc. The good thing is that any storage now is dirt cheap - as well as being very competitively priced - so I'd be inclined to go for the biggest name in the business.

Dave Mauder said...

Thanks for the fast response Ken! So, are you still living mostly paper-free? Aren't you concerned about losing all the scanned documents for which you no longer have a paper copy?

Which online backup service do you consider to be the biggest name in the business? Mozy has to be close since they are owned by EMC - one of the largest storage vendors in the world.

Ken Silver said...

Hi Dave,

You pose a couple of interesting questions that I haven't successfully resolved yet.

Yes, most of my paperwork goes to PDF. But one of the problems with iBackup - when I came to recover some information I'd lost on the last crash - was that it simply wasn't available to recover. I was over quota and they hadn't automatically increased the quota as I expected. I had assumed it was OK. So the advantage of online storage was sabotaged by my lack of regular checking.

The information is still on a crashed drive which I can have forensically recovered at a cost of under $2,000. But so far, nearly a year later, I haven't needed it, and don't expect to.

So I'm now questioning the usefulness of the information I need to store. That's probably the biggest much do I really need? My accountants do all my tax and keep all my records. My bank and credit card statements are all available online going back 2 yrs or more. All payments are made online and leave a digital trail.

The only requirement I can see right now is for keeping tax receipts, and these are unlikely to be called on unless I get a tax audit.

We may need less than we think.

Anonymous said...

To open a file , no need to go to Explorer. Install Search Everything from and see the magic. Arun

DixieK said...

It is not advertised for pictures, but I do slideshows for tributes, etc and through a recommendation of a friend in Canada I bought this scanner four years ago for scanning pictures and it works like a charm. The price then was 432.00 and it has been worth every penny. It has consistently received a five star rating on Amazon. I am reading the article today , because my goal for 2014 is to unclutter all the paperwork. It just scanned our trust document of 79 pages in under two minutes. Both sides! It decreased my time for scanning pictures for the slide shows over 50 percent! It does not work well on new pictures as those have a tendency to stick together, however most of the photos for my tributes are older and it works great. I would not be without it. It is by far the best money I have ever spent. An attorney loved his so much he bought one for each person/ desk in his office , all 14 of them. I did not even try the "neat receipts" ... does anyone have a comparison on that vs this scanner. I love this one. It is a little dynamo.!!!!

Also: Hint. I created a free shutterfly site and made the permissions page private and scan and house some important documents there ... for all my family. copies of Drivers License, birth certs, etc. It sure came in handy when one member lost his id and was on the other side of the US and was able to go to our shutterfly page and get a copy for the rental car company.