You've got your brilliant entrepreneurial idea, your clear and concise business plan, and a place to set up shop. The electricity is turned on and the broadband connection is humming. So . what now? No matter what your line of business, there are 10 basic technological cornerstones no modern small business can function without. Here's the checklist of must-have hardware and software.
1. Desktop computer: The nexus of all business operations, regardless of who you are or what you do. It's easy to fall hard for the latest cutting-edge hardware, but don't lose sight of what's important--your computer is a business tool, not a gaming system or multimedia hub, so lean and mean is the way to go. That means keeping the focus squarely on the everyday workplace essentials like word processing, spreadsheets, Internet access and e-mail, none of which is particularly taxing for most modern PCs. Dual-core processors with at least 2GB of memory will meet the power and pricing requirements of most business users.
2. Laptop computer: Chances are you're going to take your work home with you--or to a meeting, to the coffee shop or even on vacation--so you need a laptop that's good to go, both literally and figuratively. Your laptop should do everything your desktop does to guarantee a seamless remote user experience, so look for comparable processing power and memory. But it's not just a desktop alternative, so performance isn't the only variable to consider: Size, weight, screen dimensions, battery life, wireless connectivity and durability are also critical components to factor into your purchase.
3. Office suite: Productivity and contact management tools are vital to managing any fledgling business, enabling startups to save time, remain organized and deliver superior customer service. In addition to producing documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations with a distinctly professional flair, a comprehensive office suite solution should integrate calendar, address book and e-mail management functions, simplifying communication with colleagues and clients alike while also streamlining your daily workflow.
4. Accounting software: Every penny counts, so it's imperative to keep close tabs on your income, expenditures and customers to figure out how much money is coming in--and how much is going out. Accounting software tracks all your financial data and provides the reports and tools necessary to more effectively manage billing, inventory and payroll. And unlike other SMB must-haves, most basic accounting programs are available for free. The average startup should find QuickBooks Simple Start or Microsoft Office Accounting Express more than sufficient to support its basic bookkeeping demands.
5. VoIP: While consumers were the first to embrace voice-over-Internet Protocol phone services like Vonage and Skype, businesses of all sizes are following suit, exploiting both the reduced pricing and expanded possibilities inherent in web-based communications. Broadband connections providing speeds of at least 256 kbps can translate to unified communications services encompassing voice and video calling, voice mail, faxing, e-mail, web conferencing, and related solutions. Add a laptop to the equation, and you can stay in touch with colleagues and customers from anywhere with web access.
6. Smartphone: Mobile handsets have all but replaced landline phones in every walk of contemporary life. But for entrepreneurs, mobile technology has evolved far beyond anywhere/anytime voice and data communications: Next-generation smartphones like iPhones and BlackBerry devices have opened up a vast new world of exec-friendly utilities, productivity tools, remote-access solutions and related software applications, enabling users to control all facets of their business from the palm of their hand. For road warriors, smartphones have even usurped traditional personal navigation devices--location-aware applications like the free Google Maps Navigation include turn-by-turn directions, real-time traffic views and voice-enabled search.
7. Managed IT services: Because few startups can afford to bring aboard a full-time IT administrator--and because fewer still can afford to suffer extended technological disruptions or outages--growing numbers of SMBs are turning to managed IT service providers to supervise a variety of day-to-day network requirements including data security, intrusion detection, virtual private networking and storage. Managed service providers monitor your network operations remotely, guaranteeing the expertise and efficiency to resolve performance problems before business operations are impacted. By letting someone else worry about technical support and security, you can focus on the bottom line.
8. Portable memory storage: Considered the floppy disk of the early 21st century, portable memory storage devices like USB flash drives and thumb drives enable businesses to manage and protect proprietary information on the go, promising secure transportation and storage of documents, presentations and related business data. Password-protected flash drives represent a cost-effective alternative to more expensive hard-disk encryption software. SMBs can efficiently transfer data between computers, copy information for employees, partners and customers, and store software and information for later access. Portable memory devices are now even part of some SMB backup solutions--at the close of business each night, a database backup is saved to the drive and carried offsite.
9. Website: Few consumers turn to the Yellow Pages for business information. Instead, they rely on search engines like Google, Yahoo or Microsoft, meaning if your company is not online, you don't really exist. Your website is a virtual business card: It not only supplies consumers with sought-after information like contacts, directions, hours of operation and areas of expertise, but it also conveys the image and spirit that sets you apart from the competition. Keep your site simple but sophisticated: Hire a web design firm, make certain all content is professional and relevant, and make it easy for visitors to quickly find what they're looking for. Also consider partnering with a search engine optimization consultant to improve the volume and quality of your website traffic.
10. Social media profile: In addition to your website, it's increasingly important to establish your firm's presence across social networking services like Facebook and Twitter. Social networks enable businesses to share information on upcoming deals, specials and events by communicating directly with customers already interested in what they do; according to a BIA/Kelsey study published in late 2009, 9 percent of SMBs now market their businesses via Twitter, exploiting the free microblogging platform to promote goods and services, and even to introduce direct sales initiatives. Short, direct messages work best, especially given Twitter's 140-character limit; talk about what your business is doing--new products and promotions, or anything else likely to pique the curiosity of your clientele. You could even share tips on launching a successful startup. People love to read about that sort of thing.
Tech for the Sake of Tech
Today's startup can't function without the right technological mix. But not all technologies are a comfortable fit, especially given how many other challenges a fledgling business faces in its first months. The following are three obstacles to avoid:
Open-source software: OSS--computer software for which the source code and related rights are offered under public-domain license--can offer significant cost savings over traditional proprietary software. But for newly minted SMBs who must learn to walk before they can run, the perils of open source far outweigh the potential. Few startups boast the technological savvy to create their own unique software configurations, let alone keep on top of new updates or vulnerabilities. Moreover, a customized software ecosystem comprised of disparate technologies can prove a nightmare to maintain in the event the original IT architect moves on to another organization.
Inkjet printers: All SMBs need a printer, but faced with the choice between less expensive inkjet models and pricier laser versions, most entrepreneurs opt for the cost savings of the former over the superior print quality of the latter. However, color laser printer price tags are plummeting, and now they retail for an average of about $300. Moreover, inkjet printers are often more expensive in the long run. Manufacturers expect to earn their revenue not on hardware sales but on replacement inkjet cartridges, and most analysts agree that over time, the per-page cost for inkjet machines grows far more substantial than that of laser printers.
Unnecessary purchases and upgrades. Seems obvious, but evaluating new technology and its value to your company can pose major headaches. New technologies are undeniably seductive, but with so much hardware and software to acquire, startups should focus squarely on the essentials and prioritize their wish list to make sure they maximize their investment. Assemble a multiyear roadmap outlining projected hardware and software maintenance and upgrades, but still pay attention to new innovations that can translate to even greater cost savings over the long haul. Keep in mind that shopping for technology is like shopping for anything else--compare prices and look for sales or discounts. And don't rule out used equipment: When companies fail, they often liquidate assets--their loss could be your gain.