Five Technology Musts When Starting a Business

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.

Eliminate IT Completely?

Yeah, just go back to legal pads and abacuses….abaci…you know what I mean.

I read an interesting article in which a company fires its IT staff, outsources the labor, and moves to hosted and outsourced infrastructure.  Before I actually make a point (yes there is a point to this), a little background perspective might be instructive. 

IT and Accounting/Finance are often at odds with each other within an organization.  There are many factors for this.  Accounting is dumb and IT RULEZ!!  Ahem, just kidding.  Accounting is usually a very technology dependent group and in many situations CAN’T do their jobs without IT’s help and this can lead to tension and stress between the two.  Also, CFO’s (as in the story) see IT expenses only as cost centers and don’t realize that IT should be a strategic asset of a company.  Just between you and me, IT people don’t always have the best people skills, either.

Ok, on to my point.  I think it’s great that this company was able to save over 60% on their IT budget.  With 90 stores and a headquarters, they must have hundreds of users and I wonder about what THEY think about the changes.  In short, it looks to me like this business is a bit large to have gone this route.

I’m a big believer in outsourcing for small business.  I think that brings a real advantage in business by having predicable costs in IT.  But I strongly believe as a business grows, there comes a tipping point where someone needs to have a hand on the tiller to steer the adoption and growth of technology.  Could a consultant do this?  Probably.  It’s a rare consultant that will ever understand a business and it’s needs as well as a dedicated professional that works in that business every day. 

Convergence – Continued

Day 3 was a really good day and it kicked off with a great Keynote from Kevin Schofield of Microsoft Research.  He gave an excellent presentation and showed off some of the things they are working on with their $5 billion R&D budget.  Some of the VERY cool things he showed were the Worldwide Telescope project and some of the advances they’ve made with Microsoft’s Surface (a table-top touchscreen computer). He talked about “innovating our way out of recession”, which I really liked the sound of. 

I also went to a session that covered Windows Essential Business Server which is a new product that fits in between Small Business Server and the full blown Windows Server products.  I’ll be doing a comparison of these products soon which I will publish for your reading pleasure.  (No seriously, I mean it this time.)

Convergence 2009 – Day 1

So I’m in New Orleans at Microsoft’s Business Solutions (aka Dynamics) annual conference, called Convergence.  I’m here because of my day job, but I have been struck by how hard Microsoft is working to try to serve SMBs better that they have in the past.  That’s not exactly a high bar to exceed, but they’re really working at it.  I’ve mentioned Microsoft’s Online Services in the past, and CRM is one of the spaces that (it seems to me) they’re working overtime. 

So what does that mean to a small business owner?  Basically, it puts some really sophisticated tools in reach both from a financial stand point as well as a technical one.  Not only is the software more reasonably priced, but you don’t need expensive hardware or technical people to run the thing. 

This is certainly not an original idea or one that’s exclusive to Microsoft, but considering where they have come from as a company, I think their efforts in this area are commendable.

More to come…

DIY: Windows Home Server

I’ve extolled the virtues of WHS in the past.  Now it’s time to show and tell.  This will show you how to take an old computer and turn it into a Windows Home Server of your very own. 

Prerequisites:

A computer with at least 1 GB RAM (…a functional one, I’m not a magician)

A copy of WHS

A couple of big hard drives

A basic understanding of how to connect things inside the computer (don’t worry, there will be pictures…)

 

1.  We’ll start by adding the drives to the old computer.  Keep in mind that there are as many different kinds of cases out there in the world as there are annoying kid shows on Nickelodeon.  I’ll just show you how to connect them, you’ll have to figure out how to mount them yourself….

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This is the back of a SATA drive.  It has two connectors that we need to be concerned with.  The longer flat black connector (circled in red) is the power connector.  This connector will usually have a couple of different colored wires and you can trace it back to the power supply.  The other is the data connector (circled in blue).  This connector is usually a single wire and needs to connect to the motherboard.  These connectors only go on one way (the right way) and shouldn’t need to be forced at all.  It should look something like this when you’re done.

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The data connector on the motherboard side should also go on only one way and should connect easily.

2.  Ok, now we need to set the PC to boot to the CDROM drive.  Once again, every PC is different in how you set this.  Right when you power the machine on, it will tell you how to get into the “BIOS” or Setup.  Try the delete key, F2, F9, F12, Escape it could be almost anything.  Once you get into the setup screen look for Boot or Boot Device or Boot Order, then set it to your cdrom.

3.  Put the WHS disc into the drive and away we go.  It will boot and go through some things and you will finally see a screen like this:

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Click Next and you’ll see:

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Next again.

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Next.  (Seeing a pattern?)

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Next.  (Isn’t IT work fun…no wonder tech support guys are always grumpy.)

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Click “I accept the agreement” and then Next.  (Ahhh sweet variety)

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Now you get to do some actual typing!!  Enter your product key, then click Next.

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On this step you must tap into your creative mind.  Name your server whatever you’d like.  DaffyDuck, TheMatrix, Mordor, I’ve seen them all.  Don’t use spaces though…

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Click “I acknowledge that all data on these drives will be lost” and then next.  (All data really will be lost.  This is the point of no return.  Any information from your PC’s former life will be completely gone after you click Next and then Yes).

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Of course we’re sure….

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Now click Start and then go have a sandwich or something, because it’s going to be a while.  It will reboot about a million times, go through various stages of set up and then will finish.  You shouldn’t need to do anything until your screen looks like this:

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3.  So the last bit here is to configure the password and answer some questions.

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Choose a strong password with upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols.  As it tells you in this screen, it’s very important to remember this password.  You’ll be using it every time you connect to the server.

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This screen asks you if you want to do Automatic Updates, probably a good idea.  Click “On” then the forward arrow.

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This one’s up to you….

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As is this one.  (Although this will suppress those annoying Send/Don’t Send messages when something goes wrong…)

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This is the FINAL screen!  It’s telling you to use the “Windows Home Server Connector” CD to connect one of your other computers to your spiffy new home server.  We’ll go over that and more in PART TWO of this fabulously long post.  Stay tuned….