As small-business owners, many of you act as your own information technology (IT) departments. That's fine--as long your business is truly small, such as a sole proprietorship with no employees.
But what happens when your business grows and you add employees? Does it still make sense for you to expend energy on IT issues?
In most cases, the answer is a definitive "no." Your time is much better spent focused on differentiating your business from competitors, creating customer loyalty, and developing new products or services to keep your business growing.
There's no hard-and-set rule in determining when it's time to get IT help, of course. But if your business is adding new employees and new computers on a fairly regular basis, or if IT demands are consuming more of your day, it's time.
Outsource or Hire?
Once you've decided you need IT help, the next question is whether to outsource to an IT service provider or hire one or more IT staffers.
Outsourcing has several advantages over hiring. For one, outsourcing to an IT service provider can provide you with more flexibility. Depending upon the contract and/or the outsourcing provider, you can get extra help when it's needed--such as when transitioning to a new software application or technology. Similarly, you can reduce the level of IT help when the need diminishes.
Another advantage: Because an outsourced IT provider has multiple clients, you may get a wider perspective on how to solve a particular problem than an IT staff person might provide.
Also, outsourcing can be less expensive than hiring because you don't have to pay for benefits, training and other employee costs.
On the other hand, a staff IT person is dedicated to your business alone. Ideally, he or she develops a deep understanding of your company's culture, goals and challenges, and may be in a better position to apply that knowledge to your short- and long-term IT needs. Also, barring sick leave, vacation or other situation, an IT employee on the premises may be able to more quickly react to an emergency or other critical situation.
Still can't decide? Consider outsourcing your IT needs for a while before hiring. As mentioned earlier, outsourcing is more flexible. Also, outsourcing might help you better understand what you'll eventually need from an IT staff person. Another option: Hire a lean IT staff and augment it with an IT service provider as needed.
How to Outsource
If you've decided to outsource, there are several things you should do:
- Shop around. Ask friends, colleagues, business partners and technology providers for recommendations of IT outsourcing firms.
- Look for a reliable long-term partner. Don't choose an IT service provider based on price alone. Pick one that can map the best technology solutions to your specific business challenges and become your trusted IT advisor. The key is to choose a knowledgeable, trusted business partner, not a cut-rate tech-support operation.
- Think like a boss. Interview a potential IT service provider just as you would a prospective employee (more on that topic in the next section). Ask for recent references, preferably from someone in your industry. Negotiate with the provider to ensure you get a service-level agreement that best meets your business needs. Also, set goals and consider performing annual performance reviews to ensure the IT service provider lives up to those goals.
How to Hire
Ready to hire? Follow these steps to help you get the right person for the job:
- Write a job description. Before you begin your search, develop a clear, realistic job description that includes a list of must-have certifications, qualifications and experience. Be as specific as possible, listing technical requirements as well as "soft" skills, such as the ability to communicate clearly. If you need help, review the IT job descriptions posted on online job sites or IT trade association websites.
- Develop a process for evaluating candidates. The more consistent you are in evaluating potential hires, the easier it'll be to make a decision. For example, consider ranking each candidate on a scale of one to 10 in different areas, such as technical knowledge or people skills, then compare the candidates' rankings.
- Don't overlook anyone based on assumptions. You may already have an employee who, with a little training, would be the ideal person for the job.
- Don't look exclusively for technical skills. Ideally, your IT hire should be a well-rounded individual, with technical competencies as well as good interpersonal skills and an understanding of your industry.
The Bottom Line
Admittedly, finding the IT help your growing business needs can be a challenge. But it's a challenge that forces you to think strategically and tactically about your business's IT needs, which is something every small business should do periodically.
Once you have the IT help needed, you can spend more time doing the things you do best, the things you love to do. Isn't that why you're a small-business owner in the first place?
Peter Alexander is vice president of worldwide commercial marketing at Cisco Systems Inc., the leading supplier of networking equipment and network management for the internet.