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A homebased business is usually a one-person show. In exchange for the freedom of running a business out of your home, you have to wear a number of hats: CEO, CFO, human resources guy, even office manager. But when it comes to purchasing new computer hardware, wiring small networks or troubleshooting printer jams, you don't have to go it alone. An Information Technology Consultant (ITC) can serve as a "virtual MIS department" for your business, evaluating technology needs, implementing solutions and maintaining systems already in place.
Even if you are tech-savvy enough to do it all by yourself, hiring an ITC to look after your technology needs can free you up to pursue other interests, like building a successful business or having a family life.
So how does a homebased business owner with a layperson's knowledge of computers hire, pay and intelligently discuss problems with an ITC? Read on to figure out exactly what you need, when you need it, how to get the most from your ITC and how to get the most for your money.
Finding Your Dream ITC
The Internet can be an invaluable resource for finding a competent, reliable ITC in your area, but like most products and services advertised in cyberspace, you shouldn't take what you see at face value, according to Ramon Ray, small-business technology analyst and consultant, founder and CEO of Family Computer Consulting Services in New York City and publisher of the online newsletter Smallbiztechnology.com. "There are a lot of places on the Net where you can find consultants, but just because they have a nice-looking Web site, that doesn't tell you if the guy is a scam artist or if he just got out of jail," says Ray. "That's where word of mouth comes into play. If [an ITC] can provide you with the name of a client you've heard of, or if your own network of friends can say good things about this guy, I would rely on that. You should also ask for references. If [the ITC] is good, they'll be prepared to give you some. And if they don't have references, that can also be a good indicator."
When it comes to complex projects like designing a small network or programming a database, an ITC should have some certification, or at least some verifiable experience with these types of projects, says Andy Chang, vice president of sales and marketing at NDC Communications Inc., a Sunnyvale, California-based maker of SOHO networking products. "Certification, whether it's a MCSE (Microsoft Certified Software Engineer) or a CNE (Certified Novell Engineer) can tell you something about the person's level of knowledge, but there is really no substitute for hands-on experience," Chang explains. "Before hiring for a big project, you need to find out what kind of projects the ITC has been involved in, whether it's networking, installing software or writing software applications for specific kinds of businesses. You should know exactly what applications they worked with, or what role they played in their previous job."
Once you've decided on an ITC, the next step is to work with the professional to produce a proposal, which spells out the services the consultant will provide, the equipment needed for the job, the time frame for completion and the amount and method of payment. "The written agreement is the core of the whole relationship," says Chang. "How closely the ITC adheres to the provisions of the proposal also tells you a great deal about their professionalism. If they're not meeting the schedule or goals they mapped out in the proposal, or are coming to you for more money above the agreed upon amount, that can be a bad sign."
For a homebased business owner unfamiliar with computer terminology, discussing technology needs with your ITC can be a frustrating experience. Still, you don't need to be fluent in technospeak to express yourself clearly.
Chang suggests describing your technology needs to the ITC in terms of applications, rather than specific brands or model numbers. "Tell them your objectives, what you want the technology to help you achieve," says Chang. "If you prepare an itemized list, the ITC should be able to translate those objectives into a series of project goals, software and hardware requirements that will accomplish those objectives."
Ramon Ray agrees that the burden of clear communication lies on the shoulders of the consultant. "If the ITC is good, he'll keep his mouth shut and eyes open, listen to the business owner and figure out what the technology needs of the business are, because oftentimes business owners can't say what products they need, but they can say what problems they're having that may be solvable with technology. Don't try to give the ITC all the tech talk, and say we need this and that, because you really may not need what you think. Tell that person where you want to end up at, and see what solutions he can come up with."
What To Pay?
The next part of the proposal should lay out the billing arrangement, and whether it's on an hourly or per project basis. The payment methods you specify should depend on the type and size of the job the ITC will be doing, says Chang. "If you're looking at a very small project, like troubleshooting, which should take no more than half an hour to an hour, you should pay at an hourly rate. If the consultant is any good, it should take no more than three hours to solve a problem, assuming you're a small business with less than five or 10 PCs. But if you want them to build an e-commerce site or a Web page, I would suggest asking for an overall proposal with a one-time project cost. That would be much more economical."
Ramon Ray warns entrepreneurs to use hourly rates very cautiously. "An hourly project should really be something you can quantify. If they're helping you enter 100 names into a database, you can kind of quantify that, but if you pay hourly for something like installing printers, watch out! If something happens, and the installation takes longer than it should, you're going to be shelling out a pile of money for something you should have paid a predetermined fee for. As an IT consultant myself, I shy away from charging at an hourly rate because I don't want clients thinking I'm scamming them."
As part of a project proposal, many consultants list the costs of the computer equipment necessary to implement a technology solution. In the past, these prices could be somewhat inflated by consultants in an effort to increase their profit margins. According to Chang, while this tendency hasn't completely disappeared, the pricing information widely available on the Internet has changed the market. Now business owners can compare prices and search for the best bargain on hardware, forcing consultants to focus more on providing value-added services like installation and customization.
"If you're knowledgeable about technology, you should use the Internet to check out the lowest prices for the hardware and software based on the specs given by the ITC," says Chang. "Or you can buy the hardware yourself and ask the ITC to do the value-added work. But if you don't want the hassle, or don't know tech, the best thing to do is get quotes from at least two different consultants and compare them."
In a corporate environment, the MIS department is tasked with responding to computer crashes as quickly as possible in order to keep user downtime to an absolute minimum.
Should the "virtual MIS department" for a homebased business have the same responsibilities? According to Ray, unless your business would suffer tremendous losses from unscheduled computer downtime, keeping your IT consultant on call for after-hours or weekend visits would be prohibitively expensive. "If you're a normal 9-to-5 business, emergency on-call service is an expense you can really do without. I've found it very rare for a computer to simply break down."
Ray compares IT consultants who offer 24/7 on-call service to manufacturers who sell consumers costly extended warrantees with the purchase of a telephone or other product, suggesting you can head off computer emergencies by scheduling regular maintenance of your systems-during normal business hours.
If you're running a business where a midnight computer crash would spell disaster, you have several options for after-hours tech support. Ranging from most to least expensive, you could put in an emergency contingency clause in your consultant's proposal or service contract, making it mandatory for the ITC to provide 24-hour on-call service at a specified rate. Again, if you don't stand to lose a lot of money from a computer crash, it may not make sense to pay the extra charge for this kind of emergency or on-call service.
There are also several 24-hour tech support hotlines, which, for a relatively small fee (far less than an unscheduled 2AM visit by your ITC), talk you through the process of diagnosing and repairing software crashes.
Finally, some consultants with nervous clients have taken to building their own Web site with a FAQ section where the business owner can go during non-business hours to find answers.
Building a good working relationship with a tech consultant provides much more than just advice on your next computer purchase. It also offers you something you can't buy in any store: peace of mind.
Microsoft Business Advantage
This Web resource created specifically for small to medium-sized businesses with five to 500 PCs features a referral engine linking to local technology experts, as well as software licensing information.
Ontrack Data Recovery
(800) 872-2599, http://www.ontrack.com
If you have lost or inaccessible data on your hard drive or floppy disks, Ontrack Data Recovery is the place to get help. Solutions range from in-lab and remote services to cost-effective do-it-yourself software.
Intel's Answer Express (888) 795-7357, http://www.intel.com/answerexpress/index.htm
Answer Express supports more than 200 leading software titles--plus hardware and peripherals--
and offers help with installations, troubleshooting and how-to questions.