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.