Small Business Technology - What You Really Need

Louis Rosas-Guyon
 


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Overview
Technology is not the answer to all small business problems. You must deal with employee theft, salaries, credit, insurance, customer relations, cash flow and more. But in all of these areas and others 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:

Web Site
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.

Email
Neater and cheaper than faxing, faster then FEDEX or the Post Office. Email is the premier tool for communications. For example, one of our client companies had telephone bills that reached into the thousands of dollars per month; their bill after implementing a simple email system was $68.00. They actually communicate more frequently, but email has cut down on expensive faxing costs.

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 10 users, or one Internet connection for all; the days of a modem and printer at each PC are gone. Collaboration and communication within your office is vital, and if you always have to get up and share diskettes 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:

Peer-to-Peer 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.

Server-based Network
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 agreements 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.

Anti-Virus Software
Viruses will attack your computer systems. The only question is will you fight back. Protect your data! In the 21st century information 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.

Back-Up System
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, database, 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.

Other must have software products 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.

Computer Hardware
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.

Technical Support
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.

Hopefully, this article has given you a basis for understand 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.

Louis Rosas-Guyon is a business and technology consultant for R-Squared Computing, Inc . He is based in Miami, Florida.

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