Businesses existed before there were computers, fax machines, telephones and copiers, but few entrepreneurs these days would want to try to grow a company without the advantages modern information technology can bring. Merely having access to the internet--with its myriad opportunities for finding customers, building brands, researching suppliers and communicating with employees and others--can easily justify updating the technology in your office. For many companies, having the appropriate office technology can mean the difference between a successful expansion and one that falls flat on its face.

Managing technology and taking advantage of the opportunities it provides can prove daunting--particularly for small-business owners who lack an extensive budget and a dedicated IT department. After all, achieving success in this technology-dominant era is far more complicated than putting a personal computer and a printer on a desk. You now have to understand how to take advantage of an IT infrastructure, including a robust network, to compete more effectively. Ultimately, it's as much about vision--and developing a viable strategy--as it is about actual computing.

Too often, companies jump from one system or application to another but never realize the full benefit of their technology. Without a defined strategy, they make poor buying decisions, adopt ineffective tools, and often experience a high level of frustration. Businesses that excel typically establish technology strategies that help them gain a competitive advantage through cost savings, process improvements, faster time to market, and improved quality and service levels. These firms often exceed the expectations of customers, business partners and employees.

Developing a Tech Strategy
The smartest companies embrace a process for evaluating their technology goals and requirements before implementation. Your first step is to conduct an IT/network audit to document the technologies you already have in place and how they match your goals. You'll want to determine the strengths and shortcomings of your current systems and their relative importance to your business objectives. The audit should cover the following areas:

  • Your company's business requirements paired with the corresponding technology hardware/software/services solutions that address them.
  • A timeline for investment and deployment, showing how the timeline tracks to the priorities in the overall company business plan.
  • A design for a robust network architecture, which should include a network map of where your company is today technically--and how you plan to build your network in an evolutionary way.
  • Metrics and ways to measure the success of the IT investments.

Technology is vital to your business, but that doesn't mean you always have to have the latest, greatest piece of equipment or software. Here's how to evaluate your current technology to see whether it's time to upgrade:

Computers are most likely to need upgrading as a result of a software update. If you've recently begun using a new version of an important software package and your computers' performance seems unsatisfactorily slow, it may be time to buy new hardware. Otherwise, you can--and probably should--make do with what you have. Don't delay buying new computers just because the ones you have are only a few years old, though. During that span of time, performance of the models on the market typically doubles. Forcing customers and employees to wait on slow computers can cost you far more than a new system would.

Telephone systems should be upgraded quickly if a problem develops because they're your lifeline to customers and suppliers. If customers complain about being kept on hold, about phones not ringing or calls not being answered, you may need to add lines, improve your answering system, or perhaps hire more telephone operators. If you expect your call volume to surge sharply--perhaps because of an upcoming new product launch or seasonal buying--you may want to upgrade your phone system before trouble starts, making sure you have enough time to implement a new system, train employees and work out all the bugs.

High-end copiers can cost more than a whole office full of computers. Today's models are increasingly interchangeable with printers, thanks to the new generation of digital, network-ready copiers. Some late-model digital copiers will also scan documents and send faxes. But fancy features don't mean you need one of these costly machines. Upgrade your copiers when you experience or foresee a significant increase in the volume of copies you produce. Adding extras such as automatic document feeders and staplers are nice but probably don't justify an upgrade.

The great thing about the march of technology is not so much that the equipment keeps getting cheaper, it's that it keeps getting better. And while you don't want to be on the bleeding edge of technology adoption, one exception is when you absolutely need a specific technology that has been introduced very recently. Most new gadgets go through a steep price decline after an initial phase of high pricing. If you need something that's currently the latest thing but you can live without it for a while, you can save significant amounts of money by waiting to purchase until several months after it debuts.

What About Upgrading?
Even when you can't justify purchasing new equipment, that doesn't mean your old tech has to languish. You can always improve your office computers by making upgrades--adding memory or purchasing external storage devices or faster processors. Many people would rather prolong the lives of their computers than get rid of them, and upgrading piece by piece can also eliminate the learning curve needed to adjust to a new machine. You'll need to be somewhat tech-savvy to take care of these upgrades yourself--or have access to a tech savvy employee or friend.

Here are some of the most effective and least expensive items you may want to buy to bring your older computers back up to speed:

  • Hard Drives. One of the most important features of any computer is its ability to store large amounts of data. Many systems today come standard with 20 to 40 gigabytes (GB) of storage, but with the growing interest in digital music and digital video, even 40GB may not be enough.
  • Whether you need desktop drives to back up your primary hard drives or store your digital video files, or a portable large-capacity drive to carry a hefty business presentation, there are several solutions that may help meet your needs. Consumer hard drives, such as FireWire and FireWire/USB combo hard drives, offer anywhere from an extra 20GB to upwards of more than 300GB of storage capacity. Such external drives allow for quick transfer rates between systems and other drives. Most come with accessories and are easy to install, making the upgrade process quick and painless. And when you're ready to invest in new computers for the office, you'll always have the extra digital storage space on hand should you need it.

  • CD-ROM/R/RW and DVD-ROM/R/RW Drives. If you regularly use your computer's original CD drive to install or run software, listen to music and so on, you've probably noticed that it isn't as fast as it used to be. You'll find that CD-R/RW and DVD-R/RW drives are a good option because they allow you to burn large amounts of data, making them an ideal storage solution.
  • Processor Upgrades and Accelerators. Perhaps you're simply looking for a little more "zoom." Processor upgrades and accelerators allow you to increase the overall performance of a computer by allowing it to process information faster. Accelerators do this by shifting operational functionality and providing additional cache memory, thereby freeing up the computer's main processor so it can do its real job--running software applications. And with recently released processor upgrades available at great values that enable older computers to perform at faster clock speeds, anyone planning to replace office computers simply because "new ones are faster" should seriously reconsider.
  • Memory. While everything that's already been mentioned can help increase the usability of your current computers, one of the most tried-and-true ways to improve performance is to simply install more random access memory (RAM). If your office is running applications that require large portions of system resources, upgrading the amount and/or type of memory can speed up those applications and allow you to run more programs with less strain on your hardware. And with memory prices currently near bargain-basement levels, upgrading a computer's RAM is one of the most affordable options you have to prolong its life.

The bottom line is that even with computer prices dropping, the more you can do to upgrade your existing machines, the more money you're going to save until you're ready to purchase the new machines. In the long run, upgrading one piece at a time allows you to further extend the effective lives of your computers without cutting out chunks of your bottom line.

Purchasing New Technology

If you've absolutely decided that you need to do more than upgrade your current equipment and software, however, it's important to answer a few questions when considering making a new technology purchase:

  • Can my business achieve an immediate gain from the technology?
  • What benefits are possible and how long will it take us to achieve success?
  • What resources are required to implement and manage the technology?
  • Does the hardware or application support a foundation for future growth?

Once you know what you really need, you can start shopping around. One of the most common tech products entrepreneurs consider purchasing is new software. But before you rush off to buy any new programs, keep in mind that you have several factors to consider other than just the capabilities and costs of the software. Your selections should be based on your company's size, industry, internal organization, computing environment, technical expertise and, of course, the ever-important user interface. Even a great product can end up being a nuisance if it's not intuitive to you as a user.

Before you go shopping, be sure to evaluate your company's staple software. For each program, draw up a wish list of features or enhancements that would make using the package easier. Often, the solution may be as simple as an upgrade to the latest version available. Consider hiring an IT professional to examine your system and business needs and tell you whether you even need to upgrade. Getting an expert opinion can be a money-saving move for small-business owners who would prefer to spend time keeping up on the latest developments in their industries than on the latest in software.

Once you decide you need something new, try it before you buy it: Check out software company websites for downloadable demos that can help you better gauge how easy their products are to use. If a demo version isn't available, there's usually a detailed online tour that gives you a lot more information than a paper brochure. And before you buy the package outright, check with the software company to see if it's bundled with other software or equipment that you might be in the market to buy anyway. If you're shopping for a new accounting package or other critical software, consider doing a "scripted demo," where you enter your data and run through test scenarios specific to your business's transactions. It may be time-consuming, but if you buy the wrong software, it will be more costly later.

Take a good look at your business and pinpoint those activities that take more time than you'd like--the ones that make you mutter to yourself "There must be something out there that can do this quicker than I can." No doubt, there probably is. For that matter, think about those activities you never seem to have time to do. From tools for creating websites to time-billing software, new products could provide brilliant solutions to problems you haven't yet resolved. Make sure, though, that the solutions are worth the money and time you'll have to spend to implement them successfully.

A customer relationship management (CRM) solution can help you streamline customer service, simplify sales and marketing efforts, find new customers and generate more revenue from existing customers. You can record customer interactions with sales and customer service personnel and keep a centralized database with current customer information that everyone in your company can access. This will allow your entire organization to understand what each customer wants and needs and give you a 360-degree view of your business 24/7, which will help you keep customers happy and boost your bottom line.

Improving Your Network
While setting up a traditional wired network for your computers and peripherals is still a viable option, wireless networks are becoming faster, more affordable and easier to adopt than ever. Growing small businesses that have adopted a wireless solution are already reporting immediate paybacks in higher productivity, flexible application mobility and greater worker satisfaction.

A wireless infrastructure can make it easier to reconfigure your office space as your company grows and changes. Also, the total cost of a wireless local area network (LAN) is relatively inexpensive--it's become very affordable in the past few years and prices are continuing to drop. And a wireless network can help you improve your productivity: Multiple computers can share printers and a single broadband internet connection without the hassle of running cables through walls. You can access your customer database whether you're in your office or meeting clients in a conference room. Employees in the stockroom can update your inventory database in real-time using wireless PDAs. When you take into account productivity gains, both inside the office and at public "hot spots," going wireless is an obvious choice, especially when compared to the cost of running a Cat 5 network LAN cable throughout a building.

However, since wireless networks transmit data over radio waves, which can potentially be intercepted, it's important to have a security strategy for your wireless network. An unprotected wireless network is like an unlocked door--and too many small businesses are leaving their doors wide open.

Below are some steps small businesses can take to make their wireless connection more secure:

  • Change your device's default password. Wireless access points/routers come with default passwords set by the factory. Once entered, the password gives you access to change the device's settings. Hackers know these default passwords and can use them to access your wireless access point/router and change its settings, for instance, turning off security features. To prevent unauthorized access to your wireless network equipment, change the device's password to something difficult to guess. This password should preferably be an alphanumeric combination longer than 10 characters.
  • Change the default SSID. A service set identifier (SSID) is the name used to identify your wireless network. Your wireless access point/router came with a default, preset SSID. Hackers often look specifically for these preset SSIDs when scanning for networks, because they're considered easy targets. As soon as possible, change the default SSID to something unique and, for extra security, change it regularly.
  • Don't broadcast the SSID. By default, wireless access points/routers broadcast SSIDs, making it easy for legitimate users--as well as hackers--to find and join a wireless network. However, you can choose not to broadcast your network's SSID. Devices such as wireless computers and PDAs that require access to the network can be configured to automatically connect to your network's SSID, so they don't need the SSID to be broadcast to hook up.
  • Keep your wireless hardware's firmware updated. The software that enables access points/routers to operate properly, called firmware, is frequently updated by the device manufacturer. Often, updates include enhanced security. Updated firmware is available for free downloading online. Check your device manufacturer's website support area regularly to ensure you have the most current firmware version installed.
  • Enable MAC address filtering. A media access control (MAC) address is a unique series of numbers and letters assigned to every network device. You can configure your wireless access point/router to only allow access to specified MAC addresses (such as the addresses of each wireless computer on your network). MAC address filtering makes it much more difficult for hackers to access your network. The downside: It's also more difficult to give wireless network access to clients, partners or others visiting your offices or locations. But protecting your system may be worth it.
  • Set a wireless policy. Create a clear but simple wireless network usage policy for all your employees to follow. The policy should include guidelines on the use of passwords, personal devices, such as wireless PDAs, and public Wi-Fi hot spots.

Disposing of Old Tech

Old PCs don't die, and they don't fade away, either. The average PC will run almost forever, and the harmful chemicals inside it will survive in your local landfill for even longer. How many long-lived-but-obsolete computers is your company moving around among staffers? There's definitely a point of diminishing returns in holding on to PCs past their prime, as well as hidden costs in just about any disposal method you choose. Recycling, selling them to employees or giving them to charity are all viable options, but they all have costs attached--many of which may surprise you. It's a good idea to have an exit strategy for your old hardware--and it should be in place long before the intrinsic value of your PCs hits zero.

Complete depreciation is often here before you know it, but there's good news in that respect: The average middle-of-the-road PC now has a useful life of about three years; a high-end desktop, about four years. But be careful: Nurse an old PC along for too long, and productivity suffers--for low-level staffers as well as managers. Worker efficiency declines along with equipment efficiency, so when software takes longer to load, screens take longer to redraw and incompatibilities start to occur, memory upgrades need to be deployed. Most old PCs have years of utility left in them--just not for you. There are tons of schools, community groups, senior homes and other needy institutions that would be happy to take them off your hands. Unfortunately, donation is another of the more costly disposal options. By the time you get done with moving, temporarily storing, shipping, tax record-keeping, making contractual arrangements with the beneficiary, possible testing and repair, and, of course, facing the ever-present legal exposure, IDC figures it will cost you $344 for each PC donated.

And the legal exposure is real. You could get sued for donating a defective or virus-infected computer, or you may be asked to defend the tax deduction. On the upside, the infrastructure for charitable donations is well-advanced, making this option less time-consuming.

One popular option for PC disposal is selling them. IDC says your net out-of-pocket per PC is $272 if you can sell it to an employee for $100, and $119 if you sell it to a third-party broker for $200. (Remember, costs vary among disposal options and you'll still need to scrub the machines of company information.) The good news is, the PC is gone. But in both cases, you have to sell the PC before its value reaches zero. And those three years for a mid-range PC and four years for a high-end box go by quickly. Of course, brands vary. You can look up the residual value of your PC in the Orion Computer Blue Book. You can purchase the latest version of the Blue Book with the most recent prices from the Orion Research website. You also can look up prices for individual PCs online at $3.99 per shot.

In general, a lot of PC disposal costs are realized in soft dollars, and a certain amount of those are fixed. IDC says it will cost companies at least $150 for every PC taken out of service. First, there's the labor involved in physically removing a system and its network components, disconnecting peripherals and scrubbing the hard drive of software, passwords and sensitive company files. Then there's the downtime for employees during the move. After that, your costs will vary depending on how you choose to dispose of the old PC and may include payment for things like testing and repair or, in many cases, contractual or other legal costs.

And don't even think about tossing them in the trash. Old PCs have chlorinated and brominated substances, Poly Chlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC), heavy metals, gases, acids and plastic additives--and that's just for starters. All those chemicals have incredibly long half-lives. You want your new house sitting on top of this stuff? Not to mention, the EPA will be all over you if you're discovered throwing PCs in the trash.

Training
Buying new technology is usually just the beginning. If employees aren't trained on how to use the new equipment, your business won't get the full benefit of your investment. You can get employees trained in almost any technology, at any level and any subject. Even highly experienced users may need training to use the latest programming and networking tools.

Start your search for training by quizzing the company that sold you the technology. Many vendors have on-staff professional trainers who can come to your site to train employees on using new technologies. If not, they can probably refer you to a local firm that offers appropriate training. You can also look in the business Yellow Pages under "Training Programs" and "Training Consultants." You can choose from various types of training: Classroom training with a live instructor can be done at your business or off-site, in the form of a short tutorial or continuing series of classroom lessons. Having an instructor on hand helps learners get questions answered.

If you can do without a live teacher, check out video-based training. Class starts when you insert a pre-recorded tape or DVD into a VCR or DVD player. Students take notes and follow along in workbooks, just like with live teachers. Video courses can be repeated any time and are low in cost. Computerized training can be delivered in a classroom with PCs, or via the web. Internet classes let students choose the time, place and pace of learning. Some are taught by an instructor who communicates over the internet. Students can mix, mingle and discuss lessons in online chat rooms.

Managing Your Technology Costs
Many business owners today tend to set their tech budgets without having done adequate research--and therefore have unrealistic expectations about how much technology really costs. In fact, many businesses don't have a good understanding of the total cost of ownership of their technology. When making decisions about technology budgets, businesses should focus less on the technology itself and make decisions about how technology complements other areas of the business. Figure out what you need to do to run your business better, and then go find the tools to support it.

Steps you can take to lower technology cost include timely purchases, clever negotiation and internal controls can help businesses save megabucks. You can renegotiate existing contracts for services such as network support and consulting. Telecom is especially ripe for bargains. You can start by setting bench marks for rates and auditing bills to ensure you're not overpaying. And instead of buying all long-distance, local phone and other telecom services from one vendor, dual-source it.

You should also make sure you need whatever new technology you do buy. Inventory all PCs, printers and software. Look for opportunities to consolidate purchases, standardize configurations and root out duplication. Set up a system to keep doing it. Pick a team of people from IT and other departments, and meet with them regularly to discuss what they need and how to save on it.

Another way to save money on tech purchases is buying refurbished hardware. Many online manufacturers and retailers have sections of their websites devoted to clearance outlets. You may have to poke around the site to find them, but it's worth checking into when you're on a tight budget. Refurbished items are usually returns that have been looked over and checked for functionality. As with auctions, check to see if all documentation and software is included. Compare prices to what is normally charged to see if the savings is worthwhile. Often warranties are shortened. What might have originally come with a one-year warranty may only include a 90-day warranty when it's sold as refurbished. If you're comfortable with that, go ahead and save some money.

Looking online for deals is also a great way to save money on your tech budget. And bargain hunting over the Internet doesn't have to be time-consuming. Web sites such as PriceGrabber.com, PriceSCAN.comand MySimon.comare hubs for price comparisons. They're especially handy if you already know what you want and are just looking for the lowest price. Don't be blinded by what seem to be incredible bargains. Always check into an online retailer's reputation if you're not already familiar with it. You probably know this already, but always use a credit card for your purchases in case you have to dispute charges later.

Another great resource for hardware is eBay. You can pick up a wide array of products--from extra cell phone batteries to monitors and ink cartridges--at prices that would make some retailers blush. But eBay is no utopia. You still have to check into the seller's reputation. Also check to see if the product you're buying is refurbished, if it comes with an original warranty or tech support, and if all documentation and pieces are included. Some entrepreneurs may decide that the savings are worth living without some or all of those things. It's not good or bad, it's just a matter of deciding what you feel comfortable with.

If you're the type of person who likes to "handle the merchandise" before you buy, find a local retailer you can visit in person. Prices may be a little higher when you just walk into a store, but you also have the security of having a physical location to return the product to in case of a problem. The Sunday ads are a good place to compare prices, and you should keep an eye out for specials and rebates at your local stores.

Buy or Lease?

As quickly as technology becomes obsolete, it sometimes makes sense to rent instead of buy your next round of upgrades. You can rent or lease most kinds of office technology, including computers, printers, copiers and phone systems. Here's how your options stack up:

Leasing
If you're like many small businesses, you're willing to lease costly technology that's likely to become quickly outdated. Leasing lets you get higher-end, more costly gear while reducing upfront outlays. Monthly payments will also usually be lower than those for credit-purchased equipment. Maybe most important, however, you're transferring the risk of obsolescence to somebody else. If that high-end PC is a clunker by lease's end, just hand it back to the owner and get a new model. Check the terms of your lease carefully. Scrutinize your options for the end of the lease. You may be able to buy the equipment for a small additional fee if you want to.

The ability to have the latest equipment is leasing's number-one perceived benefit and you'll have predictable monthly expenses. With a lease, you have a pre-determined monthly line item, which can help you budget more effectively. Many small businesses struggle with cash flow and must keep their coffers as full as possible, and leasing means you won't have to invest cash up front. Because leases rarely require a down payment, you can acquire new equipment without tapping much-needed funds.

The downside of leasing is that you'll pay more in the long run. Ultimately, leasing is almost always more expensive than purchasing. For example, a $4,000 computer would cost a total of $5,760 if leased for three years at $160 per month, but only $4,000 (plus sales tax) if purchased outright.

And you're obligated to keep paying even if you stop using the equipment. Depending on the lease terms, you may have to make payments for the entire lease period, even if you no longer need the equipment, which can happen if your business changes.

Buying
Buying your equipment costs more upfront. If you're buying on an installment plan rather than paying cash, monthly payments are usually higher. It may be comforting to know you own your equipment rather than rent it, but you may find yourself with an out-of-date machine right as you put the last check in the mail. One of the benefits of buying is that it's easier than leasing. Buying equipment is easy--you decide what you need, then go out and buy it. Taking out a lease, however, involves at least some paperwork, as leasing companies often ask for detailed, updated financial information. They may also ask how and where the leased equipment will be used. Also, lease terms can be complicated to negotiate. And if you don't negotiate properly, you could end up paying more than you should or receive unfavorable terms.

When you purchase equipment, you call the shots regarding maintenance. Equipment leases often require you to maintain equipment according to the leasing company's specifications, and that can get expensive. When you buy the equipment outright, you determine the maintenance schedule yourself. Buying equipment is also tax deductible. Section 179 of the IRS code lets you deduct the full cost of newly purchased assets, such as computer equipment, in the first year. With most leases favored by small businesses--called operating leases--you can only deduct the monthly payment.

The disadvantages of buying equipment is that the initial outlay may be too much. Your business may have to tie up lines of credit or cough up a hefty sum to acquire the equipment it needs. Those lines of credit and funds could be used elsewhere for marketing, advertising or other functions that can help grow your business.

And eventually, you're stuck with outdated equipment. As mentioned earlier, computer technology becomes outdated quickly. A growing small business may need to refresh its technology in some areas every 18 months. That means you're eventually stuck with outdated equipment that you must donate, sell or recycle.

Contingency Plan
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.