The other day I heard about the increase in new businesses being started as a result of people losing their jobs. That got me thinking about all of the things that it takes to make a business viable, and ultimately successful. Technology is one of those things, and like it or not, you must deal with at some level. In my experience, appropriate use of technology can save time and money, both of which are constantly in short supply when starting a business. Many will shy away because of the imagined costs, but there are some things that a small business can’t afford to do without—some of them are even free!
1. A PC or Laptop with Enough Horsepower
I have lost track of the number of times that a business owner has asked me, “Why does Quickbooks take so long to open on my computer?” or “Why is Word so slow?” Very often they are running the latest and greatest software from Intuit or Microsoft on what used to be the family PC which was purchased four or five years ago for the kids to do their homework on. That’s like putting a 300 pound jockey on a 10 year old race-horse. The horse may have been great in its day, but it wasn’t meant for that kind of abuse.
Look at the system requirements of the software that you use the most. It will have a line that says something like Recommended RAM: 512 MB. A good rule of thumb is to double that amount and then look for a system that has at least that much memory. Depending on the type of work you do, you may have other requirements for your computer shopping, but that will get you started in your search. Laptop vs. Desktop? That’s easy….will you ever need to work on it anywhere other than your desk? If you answered yes, then you need a laptop. If not, then save the thousand dollar or so difference for some of the other items in this list.
2. High-Speed Internet Access
With email, online ordering, online banking becoming so indispensible, you really have to justify NOT having a fast connection for your business. In general, you’ll pay less than $50 per month for a very good connection, in some areas you’ll pay less than $30.
3. Office Software
Office productivity software has come a long way over the decades. Microsoft Office allows you to create everything from ads to invoices to financial statements. The price tag has evolved also. Ranging from $150 all the way up to $600, purchasing Office, in spite of all its great features, can put a serious dent in the budget.
A couple of fairly solid alternatives exist, and they’re free! Google Docs is an online set of office tools including word processor and spreadsheet application. It’s fast, you don’t have to install anything to use it and it is completely free. You don’t get nearly as many tools to work with as with Microsoft Word, but you can export to Word format and send them to clients, who will be none the wiser. OpenOffice.org is a free download which includes a word processor, spreadsheet application, presentation software (think PowerPoint), and even a database application. This software has been around the block a few times and has gotten better with each release. It’s definitely worth a look.
4. Accounting Software
It amazes me at how many business owners try to do without this essential tool. Intuit’s Quickbooks ($149 for Pro, $339 for Premier) is really the king of the hill in terms of ease of use and features. Sage Software’s Peachtree ($189 for Complete) is another contender, but many business people that I work with feel that it is more accountant-oriented and not as straightforward. Regardless of which way you go, get something! Your accountant will thank you.
5. A Web Site
Whether you’re a carpenter, a lawyer, or a restaurateur, you can’t escape the fact that the majority of potential customers will use the web to check you out before they give you a try. Your site needs to at least tell customers who you are, what you do and how to contact you. You can host a web site for as little as $4 per month. (Godaddy.com, 1and1.com) That just leaves the cost of having the site designed. It makes sense to have an actual designer do this for you if you already have someone helping with things like your logo and letterhead. Alternatively, you can buy a simple template site for as little as $39. (www.templatesbox.com)
Armed with these tools, you can now market to more people, produce professional quotes and brochures, track your receivables and payables, and speedily surf the web looking for your dream car in between. You don’t need to break the bank for a start-up technology budget. The advantages in efficiency and competitiveness certainly justify the modest expense.