With all the hustle and bustle of running a business, you may have fallen out of touch with what's hot in technology and which of the latest and greatest gadgets can help you in your business. But never fear--from hardware to tech services, we've compiled these tips to bring you up to speed.
Start Controlling Your Tech--Before It Controls You
1. Increase Communication With Far-Flung Employees
It sounds basic, but the first step in setting up a technology solution for working with offsite employees is to figure out just what you need to do with your extended work force. Most growing businesses with multiple work sites will have two particular needs at the top of their list: the ability for employees to talk with each other on a minute-by-minute basis and the ability to have access to files away from the office. To add to the challenge, these needs have to be met at a price point that won't strain the budget.
Meeting these requirements doesn't require deep secrets or complex technology. Basically, it's about e-mail, telephones and IM. For e-mail, outsourcing can provide extra features, higher security and web access. For IM, you can use the many free solutions offered online. And if you want access to customers no matter what IM platform they're using, try chat clients like Trillian that allow you to cross platforms. And for that pesky file-sharing problem? Look for in-house servers that offer secure web access and online file sharing.
2. Use Wiki to Ease Collaboration
Chances are, you may be familiar with wiki by way of Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia fed by contributions from thousands of people. A wiki is a web page that multiple users can collaborate on--it's generally basic in design and easy to use. Now, like the blogging phenomenon, wikis are starting to work their way into the business arena.
Ross Mayfield, CEO and co-founder of Palo Alto, California-based Socialtext, a group productivity and wiki solution provider, says wikis have two main benefits: They boost group productivity and also act as a business knowledge base where information is logged and easily accessible. The constantly-changing nature of wiki means it may never be completely finished, but it does remain up-to-date. Mayfield says candidates for wiki use include companies that generate a lot of documentation through groups, are team-project-oriented or seek a collaborative writing environment. Just freeing your inbox from the heaps of cc'ed e-mails and boosting productivity can be worth the investment.
3. Create a Continuity Strategy
You never know how much you depend on technology until you don't have access to it anymore. If a disaster strikes, you may not only suffer direct losses of data and hardware, but indirect losses due to downtime. But with some foresight and planning, you can avoid sustained downtime--and lost profits.
First, create a broad, holistic plan to ensure business continuity, not just disaster recovery. This plan should involve every part of your business, such as processes, operations, assets, employees and so on. Your overall goal: to prevent business disruption--then minimize it if it does occur. To this end, you should:
- Conduct an impact analysis. How much downtime, loss of productivity, loss of data, loss of revenues and so on can your company sustain? For how long?
- Develop a plan for dealing with mission-critical (revenue-impacting, customer-facing) functions and business-critical (back office, supply chain, e-mail) functions under various disruptive scenarios. Determine which business technologies to employ.
- Educate your workers about the plan before a crisis occurs.
- From time to time, revisit the plan to make sure it remains practicable and viable.
4. Do You Really Need That Tech?
Before you make a large tech expenditure, make sure you actually need whatever new technology you want to buy. Inventory all your current PCs, printers and software, and look for opportunities to consolidate purchases, standardize configurations and root out duplication. A recent study of IT purchasing by New York City consulting firm McKinsey & Co. included one example company that had 30 percent more printers than it needed. The company was also able to reduce PC configurations from 10 to three. To continue spending smart, pick a team of people--be sure to include at least one IT expert--and meet with them regularly to discuss what they need and how to save on it.
Protecting Your Business and Your Data
5. No More Passwords
Biometrics is the use of body measurements to identify people. These technologies rely on the uniqueness of the human body to identify individuals, literally measuring your biological features and behaviors. The technology can scan your fingertips, hands, face, iris, retina, voice pattern or even behavioral characteristics. Eventually, passwords may become unnecessary since biometrics provide a convenient replacement and don't require memorizing obscure combinations of letters and numbers.
Fingerprint identification is making its way into portable devices like cell phones, PDAs and laptops--hardware that's vulnerable when lost or stolen. Since businesses can't afford to lose their data, fingerprint readers make more sense than password protection. The appearance of fingerprint readers in cell phones is the most recent development (coming soon to the US), but they already exist on some laptops and PDAs. External fingerprint scanners have been available for a while, and are growing in popularity.
6. Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
What can you do to make sure your business information isn't stolen? How can you make sure that no one charges personal purchases to your accounts and ruins your business credit history? Limit the employees who have access to sensitive information, screen outsourcing companies thoroughly, and always encrypt sensitive data on your computer network. One form of business ID theft happens when criminals forge payroll checks against your business accounts, so always guard check stock like cash. And don't use preprinted check stock; instead, encourage direct deposit, and shred sensitive documents on a regular basis.
7. Catch 'Em on Camera
Wherever you need an extra set of eyes, a wireless video surveillance camera can help. Don't expect to see sharp details, especially in poor lighting situations, but do expect cameras you can monitor remotely via internet. Just plug them in wherever there's a power supply (although cameras without power cords are on the horizon). Just don't forget to enable your Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and password protection to keep your video signal away from wireless snoops.
8. Don't Let Power Surges Wipe You Out
A power conditioner is a device that hooks up between an electrical outlet and your electronic equipment to keep the flow of electricity constant. A UPS device, or uninterruptible power supply, is basically a battery back-up. It buys you time in case of a catastrophe because if the power goes down completely, the UPS kicks in and gives you a few precious minutes to save your work and shut down your computer. Higher-end UPS devices often come with handy software that automatically saves your work and shuts the computer down as needed.
Besides protecting you against full power outages, a UPS also acts as a surge protector, guarding against the sags and spikes that can cause equipment headaches. For added protection, look for a UPS with a phone jack. Running your modem line through a UPS protects your computer from "back door" damage. Don't forget that lightning strikes that cause sudden electrical spikes can travel through phone lines as well as electrical lines.
9. Back It Up Daily
It's crucial that you back up your business data every day. If you have a small amount of data (less than 1 Gigabyte), recordable CDs are inexpensive--you should be able to buy a year's supply for less than $200 at most office supply stores. You can save even more money by buying CD-RWs that can be erased and re-recorded over and over again.
Regularly check to make sure that you can actually recover data from your backup disk, tape or CD-ROM. Try downloading specific files from the disk onto your home PC or a computer that is configured differently from your office server. And make at least two backup disks, tapes or CD-ROMs, and keep one in a secure offsite location, protected from natural disasters and theft.
One more thing: Don't forget that whomever hosts your website may also suffer a disaster. If the computer server on which your website is located is destroyed, your site is gone. Make sure that your ISP or web hosting service gives you a CD-ROM containing all the HTML, Java scripts and other software code for your site. Whenever you update or change your site, be sure to get an updated CD-ROM for the entire site.
Ditch the Wires
10. Say No to Dead Spots
Antennas and repeaters are the two most popular ways to stretch your signal on the cheap. Directional and omnidirectional are two terms you'll hear a lot. The omni-directional antenna boosts the signal for 360 degrees, while the directional antenna focuses the extended signal in one direction. There are also Wireless PC Cards with antennas for laptops and desktop antennas that attach to a desktop wireless network card. When selecting range-extending hardware, check with your hardware's manufacturer to avoid compatibility snags.
Repeaters are usually more expensive than antennas. A repeater acts as a relay station to pick up your wireless signal and bounce it along into those hard-to-reach corners and dead spots. Keep in mind that repeaters effectively cut bandwidth while expanding range, so use them sparingly.
11. Mesh Networks
The next step in wireless networking may be mesh networking. Also called multihop networking, it extends the range and strength of a network by using multiple access points. The more nodes you have interconnecting, the better. Each node acts as a router and can talk to other nodes instead of having them all talk back to a main base station. That's a boon for flexibility and reliability: If one node goes down or is too busy, the rest can reroute the traffic. Mesh networking can be used to cover big areas, like an entire city, or older office buildings that give regular Wi-Fi setups fits. It can also extend networks without setting up new base stations.
12. Use Wi-Jacks
While Wi-Fi is a convenient advance, installing a large wireless network can be costly. Large offices and older buildings require special care to extend the network to every nook and cranny. Wi-Jacks are the latest hardware offering aimed at making Wi-Fi easier and cheaper for businesses. Wi-Jacks are Wi-Fi wall outlets that fit an access point into a standard data wall outlet (the kind you're familiar with for Ethernet use) so you avoid installing costly access points on the ceiling. Lower installation costs permit more of a grid approach to building out a wireless network--good news for larger networks, where getting adequate coverage is an issue. Small businesses will still be content with standard hardware, but if you're considering upgrading to wireless or moving into a new building, check into Wi-Jacks.
Great Data Storage Solutions for Your Business
13. Increasing Memory the Easy Way
If you're running a one-person show, your network probably consists of just your computer and printer. If you're hitting memory capacity on that one PC, your best storage solution is an external hard drive that connects via USB or Firewire cable. Installation is a snap since most USB cables now install themselves, and they're easy to use since they just appear on your computer as another drive. You can use your new external hard drive to back up your files or simply to save memory-intensive files and graphics. And at less than $200 bucks for 200GB, they're a bargain.
14. DVDs--Not Just for Movies Anymore
Want a quick and easy way to store data? For periodic backups, DVDs are still cost effective. DVDs with DL (double layer) technology allow you to burn up to 8.5GB of data on each disk, up from the standard 4.7GB. And while double-layer DVDs may be slightly more expensive and have lower burn speeds, they make up for it in capacity.
15. Access Stored Documents Online
Web-based storage services allow business users to store their documents and other digital files on third-party servers and are usually subscription-based. This helps businesses continue to operate if there are any outages, crises or disasters at the main office. It also allows convenient sharing of large files and real-time collaboration between a business and its partners without clogging company e-mail systems and servers. Online storage services also provide access to content from anywhere there's an Internet connection. They reduce the cost of maintaining, storing and managing hard-copy documents on-site and reduce the risk of lost or misfiled paper documents. They are also scalable as your business grows. One important caveat: Your business must use a broadband connection to take advantage of these online solutions.
16. Share--and Protect--Data
Network attached storage (NAS) devices are dedicated storage that hook up to any available Ethernet port, so they're on a LAN rather than a server. It's an easily scalable solution for storing, organizing and sharing data among users on one or several interconnected networks. A big portion of NAS hardware is made up of hard drives so they're ideal for backing up data. And if they're RAID-ready (Redundant Array of Independent Disks), that's a plus because RAID management software allows you to share and/or duplicate your data across multiple disks, so if one goes down, you can make a quick recovery.
17. Memory on the Go
External flash memory comes in all shapes and sizes, one of the most popular being mini USB drives that are about the size of a thumb and plug into your computer's USB port. Their small size makes them extremely convenient for transferring data and files from one computer to another and they can even be attached to your keychain. For these devices, memory capacity averages 512 megabytes, but can scale all the way to 16 gigabytes. Other flash memory formats include SmartMedia, Compact Flash, Memory Stick and Secure Digital cards.
Communicate Better With Technology
18. Automate Your Customer Communications
In a world where fewer and fewer customer interactions actually take place in person, implementing CRM technology can be an excellent way to provide a more personalized touch when working with your customers.
Sales force automation tools help track your pool of prospects as they move from interested leads to paying customers. Customer support automation improves the process of handling customers so you can better satisfy them while minimizing your costs. Whether you support your customers through a call center, in-person or online, applications range from live online help, searchable knowledge bases where customers can look up answers to previously asked questions, and case tracking to ensure no inquiry gets lost.
19. Reduce Your Phone Bills
VoIp (Voice over Internet Protocol) allows you to make phone calls over the internet. It's an increasingly popular tool that can help growing businesses save on their communications bills and it offers some enticing features. Find me/follow me services can forward phone calls to wherever your are and employees located in home offices can be hooked up with in-office extensions, so dialing is the same as if you're calling somebody two doors down in the same building. For frequent travelers, IP softphones can allow you to call from your hotel room.
Choose a provider based on call features, its experience with growing businesses, network quality and price. Check in with your in-house IT person or IT consultant about getting all your various offices onto the same VoIP page.
20. Simplify Your Life With One Inbox
Getting your voice mails, faxes, e-mails and instant messages in one inbox is now possible through unified messaging (UM), also known as unified communications (UC). You may already get e-mail forwarded to your handheld or smartphone, as well as use these devices to access your voice mail and to send text messages. But vendors are also now offering services that combine your voice, e-mail and fax inboxes into one account, accessible via a mobile phone or internet-connected computer. You can listen to your voice mail on your computer or your faxes and e-mails via telephone using text-to-speech technology. All this functionality costs around $10 a month depending on where you live and your messaging needs.
21. Choosing the Right E-Mail Provider
E-mail is considered the number-one productivity application for business owners, so choosing the right e-mail provider for your business is crucial. Like any other technology acquisition, e-mail must enable the specific goals of your business. So before approaching e-mail providers, first understand your business objectives and internal capabilities by considering the following issues:
- The number of employees you have
- Whether your business has a centralized or distributed structure (i.e., do you have any telecommuters or satellite offices?)
- The applications you plan to operate with e-mail, including the size and types of anticipated attachments
- The volume of interaction expected with customers, partners and suppliers
- The frequency of use, time-of-day usage and other expectations
- Whether you have enough in-house expertise to implement and manage an internal system or if you need to outsource that function
Finding the Best Tech Consultants and Service Providers
22. Finding an E-Mail Service Provider
Every business needs e-mail, but there are a wide variety of offerings on the market. So take your time, ask the right questions and conduct a thorough investigation of what's available. It's worth the extra effort to select the e-mail provider that's right for your business.
When searching, you'll want to interview several potential providers. Although the questions you'll ask them will be specific to the needs of your business, this list should provide a good starting point:
- How long have you been in business?
- What features do you support beyond basic send, receive, reply and forward?
- What kinds of security do you offer?
- What is your pricing structure?
- How are backups and restores handled?
- What kind of service level agreement (SLA) do you offer to ensure e-mail reliability and availability?
- Can e-mail be accessed remotely?
- Is live customer support available?
23. Choosing a Web Host
Selecting a web host can be tricky. Thousands of services charge countless fees, make all sorts of promises and raise seemingly endless questions. To help choose one that'll get the job done, here are key questions to ask:
- How reliable is your service?
- What kind of performance do you offer?
- How good is your support?
- What will it cost?
- How do you handle security?
- How much control do I have?
- Can you handle the technology I'm using?
Actually comparing hosts can be difficult, so a good policy is to quietly set up an account and test the host--kick the tires, so to speak--for several weeks before announcing your presence to the world. Isn't that expensive? You bet, when setup fees are factored in. But more expensive--and embarrassing--is to make a big push for traffic, only to have your host drop the ball and leave you with cranky visitors who can't quite make it in. Better to know your host is operating smoothly before inviting guests to the party.
24. Doing Due Diligence
Here's a word of caution: Finding a website consultant can be tricky. Although the web continues to grow at a rapid pace and has become a useful tool for both buyers and sellers, it's also quite unwieldy. As a result, very few organized associations or websites exist to help people find reputable web design firms. So when you do locate a potential design partner, make sure the company you want to work with is reputable. Just how can you do this? Check out a list of sites the company's worked on and look closely at its own site. Ask about arrangements for maintaining the site, and make sure your new designer is interested in your company and its goals.
25. Getting Your Website Built
Countless small businesses rely on web consultants every day to design and build their websites, enhance existing sites, and put together the pieces of each company's distinctive e-commerce strategy. If you're trying to get your company's site up and running, you can choose among independent site developers, web design shops, technology consulting firms, system integrators, traditional advertising and PR firms, and interactive agencies. Some of these outsource the website hosting and site promotion functions, while others keep these functions in-house. In addition, web design and strategic consulting are often provided by web hosting companies.
And like the web consultants themselves, the variety of prices that consultants charge for their services are extreme: They can charge several hundred dollars for a simple site consisting of a few pages to $1 million or more for a more sophisticated e-commerce site with such features as easily updated product databases, search engines, animated product demonstrations, secure online transactions, and audio and video enhancements. In addition, web consultants vary in how they price their services: Some consultants, typically individual designers, charge by the hour; others, usually web design firms, charge by the project. In general, however, experts say that consultants or web hosting companies can put together a basic, professional-looking website for $1,500 to $5,000 (not including monthly hosting charges), and an e-commerce site for about $10,000 to $50,000.
26. Hiring IT Consultants
You wouldn't dream of tackling your accounting on your own, so why take on your IT strategy by yourself? Fortunately, there are thousands of service companies dedicated to helping with that problem. IT consultants, or technology solutions providers, can decide which hardware and software you should use, where to host your website, or how to protect yourself from hackers or viruses.
How much can you expect to pay a solutions provider? It depends. An electrical contractor asked one consulting firm to troubleshoot problems with its billing system. The firm found that the contractor's tape backup wasn't working, its antivirus software was outdated and its network printer was not set up efficiently. The proposed solution cost $3,000. Another small company, a seven-person firm that helps larger companies outsource HR functions, invested in three high-powered servers with a firewall with the same IT consultant. Such solutions can start at $5,000.