Technology is not the answer to all small business problems. You must deal with employee theft, salaries, processes, credit, insurance, customer relations, cash flow and more. But in all of these areas the proper implementation of technology can save you time and money and enable you to work more efficiently. Remember, it is all about working smarter, not harder; information technology is supposed to serve that specific task. Here are some must have, low cost tools for your business:
This is a low cost and efficient means to give you 24/7 customer support, sales and communication, not just in your geographic area, but around the world. Your Web site can even be a tool of internal communication for your employees. The big hype of making tons of money “over the Internet” is exaggerated, but your Web site can be an excellent communications and advertising tool — which leads to indirect profits — and even a direct money making tool if developed properly. A good website explains your product or service and introducing perspective customers to your business. Remember to focus on the customer when designing your website, not yourself. Focus on benefits and advantages that you offer.
Neater and cheaper than faxing, faster then FEDEX or the Post Office. Email is the premier tool for communications. For example, one of my client companies had telephone bills that reached into the thousands of dollars per month; after implementing a simple email system their phone bill was $68.00. They actually communicate more frequently, but email has cut down on expensive faxing costs. The danger of email comes from junk mail, viruses and bad email etiquette.
Junk mail can be dealt with by using simple filters. For example, Microsoft Outlook comes with built in junk mail filters which work quite well. Leverage the systems you have before running out and spending money. Email etiquette is really up to your corporate culture. Some companies have no problem with employees CC’ing every one in the business and others regulate against it. Just figure out what works for you and then let people in your business know what you prefer. Email opens the doors to great advantages but equally dangerous threats. That is why you must, absolutely have the next item on this list.
Viruses will attack your computer systems. The only question is will you fight back. Protect your data! In the 21st century information is more valuable than cash! An Anti-Virus program will alert you to a possible virus infection, and be able to get rid of the virus before significant damage occurs. Most modern anti-virus software programs will also protect you from other types of malware, including spyware, bots, and other such internet dangers. Any anti-virus software from a reputable vendor will suffice. Be sure to turn on automatic updates as new viruses are created every day. Also, make sure to schedule a full virus scan every week; I schedule them for non-working hours.
Local Area Network (If You Have More Than 1 PC)
Increase productivity and communication within your company by networking all the computers in your office. With a network you only need one printer for multiple users, or one Internet connection. Collaboration and communication within your office is vital, and if you always have to get up and share disks or memory sticks with others, you’re wasting a portion of your day just walking from desk to desk. Even a small network of two or three computers requires maintaining. In order to decide whether your support provider is a good choice, you should assess their familiarity with the different types of computer network:
In this type of network, no single machine is more important than any other machine. Each person decides which files will be shared with the network by setting permissions on a folder-by-folder basis, and each user may limit others in the workgroup from accessing portions of his or her hard drive. While a peer-to-peer network can get the job done, especially in a small business, the main drawback is the volume of passwords and privileges that reside on each machine. In addition, having users access information off another user’s hard drive could slow down processing speeds. This type of network is only recommended for small, low traffic offices.
A server-based network contains one or more computers that have a central management role in the network. Servers can control file storage, e-mail, printer access, Internet access, security management and backups. There are software packages available that allow you to set up a server-based network, such as Windows Server, LINUX or UNIX. Ideally, a server should be a dedicated machine that is not used by any employee for any other purpose. For example, a server generally maintains a security database outlining who belongs to the network and what privileges each user has. Users can then access data from any networked machine, based on their individual passwords. Servers can also allow you to centralize your data, simplifying access and backup. Another server option is an “applications server,” which runs all the company software. This option can save money on software licensing by limiting the number of people who can use a single program at any given moment.
One question to consider when using a server-based network is how fast you can access any backups of the server if the system crashes and you need to restore data.
If your business catches fire, if your hard disk crashes, if your computer is stolen — where will your data be? Across the border? In 10 feet of water? Back it up, store it off-site and sleep soundly. A recent customer recently lost over 10,000 files (email, contracts, original artwork, etc.) none of which was backed up. We were hired to try to recover the missing information. Do you know what a headache it was to manually get back SOME of those lost files? Some businesses never recover all of their data and subsequently, go out of business.
Office Productivity Software
The most common software applications in all businesses are a word processor, spread sheet, desktop publishing, and presentation software. These basic business programs will enable you to create, edit and manage information, publish your own brochures, make your own newsletter, and make exciting presentations. There are numerous productivity suites on the market, including some excellent online editions, such as Google Apps, that are free.
Other must have products/services include:
Desktop Faxing: If you must fax, at least stay at your desk, instead of walking to a fax machine. And don’t print paper from your PC just to fax it. Fax right from your PC, it saves time and a few trees. A desktop faxing software installs a working fax machine as a printer on your computer so you never have to leave your desk.
Accounting Software: Save time, reduce mistakes and see instantly what your money is doing. Some accountants will give you a discount if you provide your financial information in computerized format. In selecting an accounting software, be sure to work closely with your accountant, your computer consultant and even your business bankers.
Contact Management: You used to rely on just a Rolodex but now you can track thousands of clients, potential customers, partners and associates with software. Also you can keep a record of every communication with clients to minimize mistakes.
None of this software does any good if you don’t have a good computer system. If your computer is old and not working efficiently then upgrade it or just buy a new one. An old computer that runs slower than your workers is more costly than upgrading or purchasing a new machine. Employees will always complain that they need a faster computer. Here is a simple test to determine if they genuinely need a new machine: Who waits for who? Does the worker wait for the computer, or does the computer wait for the worker? If the worker waits for the computer then (and only then) is it time to upgrade.
Where are you going to turn if you need technology help or advice? This is the million dollar question for many small businesses. In some cases, you might know someone that “knows computers.” While this can help in a pinch, your best bet is to rely on computer industry professionals. They can be more expensive than the kid next door but a reputable technology professional can save you much grief and aggravation in the future. Remember, your computer tech will have access to your precious business data so make sure it is someone professional that you can trust.
Hopefully, this article has given you an understanding of what technology investments your business will need. Remember, you don’t need to buy all of them immediately, but eventually you will need to invest some of your hard earned money into computer systems that will make your life, and your business, better.