Frank and simple IT advice for small businesses: back up, blog and borrow

Not long ago, someone asked what I would do if I were a government czar on small business, like the czar on the auto industry. I’m taking this further and proclaiming myself Small Business Technology King for a Day.

While I wish my edicts were the law of the land, sadly, I am without the dungeons necessary to enforce my rulings. So take these “edicts” as free consulting for best practices in how small businesses can get the most value for their technology dollar.

First of all, backup better. Two-thirds of small businesses get a failing grade on data safety because of lousy or nonexistent backup processes. Though a boring comparison, data backup is insurance. You have insurance that pays off if your house burns down, right? That never happens to most people, but everyone and every business loses data.

Every lost file takes time or money to find or replace.

This has been one of my hot buttons from the beginning. If you want to know more about my future, one concentration will be data safety audits. I’m working with a partner to finalize a worksheet to help small business owners give themselves a grade on how safe their data is on a scale of 1 to 10.

Sad to say, most audits so far have been in the 4-to-5 range. Soon I’ll have a workbook to help companies address the subjects they failed, and improve to passing.

Protecting your data is the cheapest business insurance you have, but easy to overlook. Thinking about data loss is like thinking about life insurance: a painful subject to contemplate. Unlike insurance, data protection costs are going steadily downward. You can now save more money than ever as you save your data.

Although marketing didn’t used to be a technology issue, it is now. One of the tidbits I have on file for a future column (oops) is a source saying only 37 per cent of small businesses have a Web site. Really? One in three small businesses are on the Web, the greatest and least expensive marketing medium ever? Fail.

It astounds me when I talk to small business people who pay for phone book advertisements, but think the Web is too expensive. Non-white pages salespeople are aggressive, but they inflate how many consumers and businesses reach for a phone book rather than a Web browser.

For the price of one month’s small ad in the non-white pages, you can get a Web site for years. Even if the Web site says little more than what you do, your business hours, and contact information, get one started today.
When I suggest small businesses need blogs, owners say nobody wants to know what they had for breakfast. That is true, but that’s not the modern blog. I suggest letting your tech people, whatever your business, write the blog.

List ways for your customers to do more with the products you sold them. Tell them how to fix products themselves when possible to avoid a service charge. Highlight customers doing something interesting with your products, to give other customers ideas on ways to do more themselves.

E-mail reaches people for pennies per month, so use it. When I get a reminder from my air conditioning service company to change my filters, do I get mad? No. Do I always change the filter? No, but I’m glad they remind me. Work to get an e-mail address for every customer, and ask them to follow you on Twitter. Yes, Twitter.

Twitter’s reputation for business use stinks somewhat, but if you have a retail business of some kind, Twitter may really help, along with e-mail. Did your restaurant get 200 pounds of cheese rather than 20?

Send e-mail and tweets that cheese-broccoli soup is free with all entrees for the next two days. Have a ton of extra Halloween candy to sell? Get the word out fast and free with Twitter and e-mail, and use them to keep in touch with existing customers.

Using software-as-a-service programs increase collaboration, eliminate the distance barrier between coworkers, and drastically reduce costs. It’s easy to run your entire small white-collar company in the cloud, as multiple case studies have shown. Sharing documents, calendars, and task lists costs a few dollars per employee per month. Ditto for hosted e-mail.

The slogan used to be “use other people’s money” but now it’s “use other people’s hardware.” Until you have a tech with computer security training on staff, avoid your own Windows server. You’ll need one sooner or later if you grow, but you’ll also find one turns into five faster than rabbits, and rabbit feed is much cheaper than keeping Windows servers running and patched and secure and updated.
Customers have bought more laptops than desktops the last three years. Follow that lead to the logical conclusion, and never buy a standard issue desktop. Buy laptops or buy workstations, the high-powered computers with multiple processors and lots of RAM for video and audio editing, image manipulation, and large database churning.

If you’re not doing one of those jobs, a laptop works just as well. If a laptop works, you might find that a netbook works even better, saving money and increasing portability. I’ve focused a lot on netbooks lately, and will keep writing on netbooks as excellent options for small business needs.

I just installed Windows 7, and it’s nice. But not nearly as useful right out of the box as Ubuntu 9.04. Ubuntu, and other Linux distributions, include an operating system that works just as well as Windows for the majority of business uses, and includes all the software a regular white collar worker needs today.

The operating system and applications cost between nothing and $49 dollars for a CD to share.
Compare $49 (or free) to the cost of Windows and Microsoft Office. Every Linux distribution will run on older hardware (unlike Windows 7 and Vista), include a boatload of office productivity software (usually with OpenOffice as the leading package), and be far more secure than Windows.

Following my own advice, I’ve used an older off-lease Pentium 4 system with less than 1GB of RAM as my primary workstation for the last three years. All my documents and e-mails are done on this box. I use it to change my Web site, write blogs, and listen to music.

I need my Windows box about 10 percent of time. If you upgraded four out of five of your computers to Linux rather than buying new ones, and buying new software, how much would you save for your company?

About $500 times the number of upgraded systems. For most small businesses, saving $500 for 80 percent of their users would make their bottom line look much, much better, and their computers much, much more secure.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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