Managing technology comes last on the to-do list for many small companies. You want to focus on front-end business while hardware and software magically work behind the scenes. Many mom-and-pop or home-based ventures rely on family and friends for tech help. "The main trend we're seeing for small businesses is to use as little IT help as possible, says Joslyn Faust, an analyst at Gartner research.
For your tech backbone to function, however, it needs steady support. Finding the right IT expert can save money over the long run, and can make the difference between merely surviving an emergency or powering ahead for growth.
Web-based services, mobile computing, and virtualization provide flexibility and cost savings that make it easier for entrepreneurs to get the tech help they need.
Finding Outside Help
The time may come when tech growing pains can interfere with basic business functions. Nobody wants to learn the hard way, for example, that the lack of a backup strategy has led to a wipeout of client records.
The breaking point at which you need professional help depends on your company. A five-person startup may need nothing more than occasional tune-ups, or yearly guidance to draw up a long-term tech blueprint. If you have close to 100 computer users on the payroll, on the other hand, you're probably in the market for a full-time technician.
No matter the scale of assistance you need, think of it as you would any other relationship. First, get to know each other. Then, make plans for the future.
"One of the biggest things we do is to try to become part of their environment," says Jeremy Hayward, who provides small-business tech support with SNS Technologists in Edmonton, Alberta. "I try to look at what's going to happen in six months, what's projected for sales and staffing levels. It's not all technical. We try to translate day-to-day business needs into technology that will help you do better."
Where to Look
Word-of-mouth networking is a start. Just ask clients and vendors with tech needs similar to your own about who they use for IT advice.
You won't find a dedicated online reviews directory of IT pros, but searching for "tech support" on local-reviews services such as Yelp.com can help. For $29 a year, you can use AngiesList.com, which specializes in user-rated construction and home-repair pros but also includes a "Computer Repair & Services" category. Or, if you prefer, try posting a free ad on Craigslist in the "Gigs Offered" section under "Computers" to invite replies from professionals to your inbox.
If you tend to have a lot of gear from a certain brand, check the maker's website for local partners or resellers that might also offer business support services, such as on HP's Partner Locator page. Some electronics companies, such as Dell, provide support and consulting within their small-business guides.
What to Look For
Seek a professional who observes your operations and asks questions about how your business works overall, not just the technologies it uses.
Your IT contact should feel the pulse of your network and pay special attention to data security and backup. Some important questions include: "Where is your business's e-mail hosted," and "what operating systems, software, antivirus tools, desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones do your employees use?"
Ideally, the professional you select should provide a three- or five-year plan that takes your budgeting and forecasting into account. A monthly or quarterly check-in is a good idea.
An IT pro should translate geek-speak into user-friendly language you understand. This task may be tough for a helplessly left-brained technician, but they should at least try.
Someone who provides choices and a range of price levels has done their research to keep you informed. The most expensive products aren't always the best option.
Make sure the consultant looks for tools that fit the size and type of your business. If your family runs an antique shop, your accounting data may fit neatly on a secure USB key that you take home nightly. If you're in charge of an investment firm or medical office, on the other hand, your data must have extra layers of protection to comply with privacy regulations and other laws.
A savvy IT technician keeps up with tech-industry news. The pro doesn't have to be a news fiend, but you should assess their knowledge by asking them about something cool you spotted recently in a tech magazine or news site.
Look for credentials. Certifications that matter include Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) and Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP). For networking, look for CompTIA Network+ or A+ accreditation. An Apple Certified Support Professional (ACSP) could be good for Mac shops with complex needs, such as multiple departments.
Get a sense of the IT pro's customer-support experience by reading between the lines of their résumé and having a real conversation.
What to Avoid
When the consultant speaks in buzzwords and acronyms, don't be intimidated. But be ready to let that person go if they won't explain; efforts to bewilder you with jargon reflect arrogance or fear, not expertise.
Stay away from fly-by-night, crisis-based services that try to sell you the tech flavor of the month. They're not equipped to look at your operations as a whole for the long term.
Be wary of consultants who present a particular technology or a single brand as the end-all, be-all solution. It's fine to favor a brand that works for you, but no individual manufacturer makes the best of everything.
Before you follow an IT know-it-all who insists that you need to wipe your hard drives and throw out most of the equipment you own, get a second opinion.
Watch out when someone tries to sell you top-of-the-line, enterprise-level gear.
If you're determined to use something that your IT support person refuses to consider -- such as equipping your sales team with smartphones -- the professional had better explain why it's not in your best interest.
Avoid dangerous shortcuts. Someone who installs 50 black-market copies of Office 2010 may not be around when Microsoft comes knocking. A tech professional should help you comply.
Multitasking may be a talent, but it's also a warning sign. A staff engineer doing double duty as your IT pro probably has their hands too full.
Lastly, if you already have a full-time IT staffer but they're reluctant to explain what it is that they're "managing" all day, you can bet they're struggling to look busy and afraid to lose their job. Maybe it's time to outsource to a part-timer.