Identify, Acquire and Master the Technology that Will Drive Your Small Business

Give your small business its best chance for success by creating a technology strategy that grows with your company. 

For most small businesses, technology is an indispensable partner that keeps everything from point-of-sale to marketing to finance running smoothly — as long as all parts of the technology work together like they should.

To minimize any tech-related roadblocks, take some time to create a strong technology strategy that's cost effective, highly strategic and geared for growth. Sound daunting? It doesn't have to be, with effective planning and implementation.

In this article, we delve into some of the major elements of a technology strategy for small businesses. We start with a look at technology planning, move into hardware shopping tips and software functionality, cover networking basics and finish with tactics for backup and security.

Table of Contents

  • Develop a Technology Plan with Room for Growth
  • Hardware Shopping Tips
  • Where to Look
  • Software as a Service (SaaS)
  • Set Up a Business Network Quickly and Easily
  • Keep Data Safe and Secure with a Few Simple Tactics
  • Gauge Your Security Needs
  • Review the Plan

Develop a Technology Plan with Room for Growth

The first step in any technology strategy — even before perusing different technology options — is to determine what you need. Although it's tempting to load up on flashy devices and feature-packed software, putting too much into a technology combination could lead to operational inefficiencies and budget strain.

Here are three steps to get started with planning:

  • Document current usage: Write down every form of technology you're using now, including cell phones, software, online tools, email clients, data storage, laptops and networking equipment. This will give you a broader view of your existing technology and how those pieces are fitting together.
  • Determine effectiveness: As you're noting a particular technology component, consider whether that tech works effectively or if you're just "making do" with it. Are you taking more time than necessary to back up data, for example, rather than utilizing a behind-the-scenes solution that does the work for you?
  • Paper to paperless: Is there a process that's manual now but could be automated, such as appointment scheduling or check writing? Determine the benefits of bringing more of these tasks into the technology mix. For instance, an online appointment scheduling application can also keep track of client contact information, reducing the need for address books and separate databases. Consolidation of tasks and information can significantly boost efficiency, and drive business growth as a result.

Hardware Shopping Tips

Once you've determined technology usage and goals, it's time to choose hardware that will best meet your company's needs. Cost is a major element, but it shouldn't be the only factor in a technology decision.

Be sure to also consider:

  • Interoperability with existing technology: One of the most important considerations when developing a technology strategy is how well all the components will work together. One prominent example is the increase in dependence on mobile devices. As more and more employees integrate smartphones and tablets into their working day, they may discover these newer devices do not synch well with their company's legacy laptops, networking equipment or software. Before installing these devices in your workspace, consider consulting an expert on the issue or leveraging the online forums and web sites that naturally support these types of devices.
  • Support services: More obscure manufacturers might offer technology at a lower price tag, but consider the long-term costs if support isn't part of the deal. Often, it's much better to choose a reputable, known manufacturer with strong tech-support services.
  • Future-proofing the technology mix: Will the laptop you're buying handle multiple rounds of software upgrades and security fixes? Bringing older or refurbished tech into your company can be smart budget-wise, but make sure the hardware you're buying today will run well tomorrow, too.

Where to Look

Take the time to gather information from a variety of sources. According to a study done by the research firm SMB Group, 72 percent of small businesses cite vendor websites as one of their top sources of information when it comes to technology solutions.

Social media can also be a boon; the same study found 68 percent of small businesses use blogs and 64 percent view webinars and podcasts when looking for information about technology. Survey respondents also indicated that email newsletters, search engines, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook were also influential in their decision-making.

In general, culling from multiple sources in this way can give you a wider view when evaluating specific technology components, like a certain brand of smartphone or a line of laptops. Set aside some time up front for this kind of broad research effort and you’ll soon realize the effort spent now is worth the higher efficiency and profits later on down the line.

Choose Software Based on Business Function

Similar to hardware like laptops and desktops, software should be evaluated based on functionality, business goals, interoperability and effectiveness. Here are some top factors to consider when choosing software and making it work for you:

  • Quick setup: As a small business owner, it's likely you don't have weeks to discover all the nuances of each application. Look for software that can get up and running quickly, giving you time to learn about features as you use the app.
  • Consolidated tasks: Running different pieces of software to track expenses, calculate mileage, deliver tax advice, streamline inventory and do other financial chores can leave you running from one part of your hard drive to another. Make a list of all the tasks you do in a certain area, like accounting, and see if there might be an application that ties these tasks together.
  • Appropriate functionality level: On the flip side of consolidation comes simplification. Some small businesses don't need inventory management or supply chain functionality — they might require only an invoicing program and expense tracker. If that's the case, don't go with a feature-rich (and therefore more costly) software package that delivers unnecessary functionality.
  • Mobile: Many applications created today may feature a mobile component, which is to say they have a version that’s been optimized to run quickly and efficiently on a smartphone or tablet. For a company that's particularly decentralized, mobility could be a driving factor during application selection.

Software as a Service (SaaS)

The constellation of small business applications is vast, with free options, cloud-based choices and traditional boxed software. Some SaaS models offer applications on a monthly or annual subscription basis; pricing depends on the number of users and the amount of data stored.

SaaS is likely to keep growing in the small business community. Recent research from AMI Partners determined that usage of SaaS-based customer relationship management (CRM) software among small businesses will triple by 2015. AMI Partners estimates that over 500,000 U.S. small companies are using SaaS for their CRM needs now.

The benefits of a SaaS approach hit all the top factors for software selection: Often, companies can choose only the functionality they need, access is available to mobile devices and many SaaS applications offer consolidated tasks. When considering your software blend, be sure to consider these types of applications as well, in case they make sense for your business, too.

Set Up a Business Network Quickly and Easily

With today's business communications, as well as online applications, technology is woefully less effective without an Internet connection. Here's what you'll need to set up a solid wireless business network:

  • The Router: Because so many office devices (e.g. scanners, laptops, photocopiers) can benefit from wireless technology, many small business owners choose to create a wireless network. For this, you'll need a wireless router, a small device that takes the signal from the network and broadcasts it over a certain area. To get the most of the connection speeds offered by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), look for routers that operate on the 802.11n wireless standard.
  • The Modem: The modem helps deliver that wonderful digital signal from your ISP to your home office or place of business. You can always buy your own modem, but almost all ISPs will supply one that fits whichever data plan you purchase from them.
  • No wireless? No problem: Network cables, also called Ethernet or Cat 5 cables, are basically insulated connections that physically link your computer or peripheral to whatever source you're using for Internet access. You can use these cables to plug a computer directly into a network source or to hook up peripherals to a wireless router.

The benefit of a wired approach is straightforward (a faster connection speed), but doesn’t mean as much as it once did given the strength, mobility and reliability of today’s dual-band wireless routers. If you can help it, go wireless. The wired approach may give a speed boost, this is true, but it comes at a cost: you’re sacrificing the efficiency, maneuverability and potential productivity boosts that a modern-day wireless setup provides (and no coffee shop working sessions, either).

Keep Data Safe and Secure with a Few Simple Tactics

All the technology savvy in the world won't be enough if your data gets wiped out.

According to the 2012 Global Disaster Recovery index from IT services firm Acronis, 23 percent of small businesses lack a remote backup strategy, and 42 percent still use manual, antiquated backup procedures (e.g., transferring new files onto an external hard disk). Only 21 percent of small businesses in the survey deploy cloud backup solutions.

Researchers noted that these numbers were similar to 2011, even though small business owners surveyed realized the importance of data backup.

Don't let your business become a statistic. Although data backup can seem like a tiresome chore, a number of technologies can make the task easier. Here are a few main options:

  1. Cloud-based backup: Many small businesses are turning to the cloud because it offers ample storage without steep costs. Think of a public cloud as an online self-storage unit — your data is routed to a secure rented space, where it benefits from shared resources. If you're concerned about security because you have a great deal of highly confidential information, consider a private cloud, which resides within the company's firewalls.
  2. Physical storage: Some small businesses have limited data, which they want to physically retain. In those cases, traditional storage mediums like external hard drives, DVD-ROMs, CDs and USB thumb drives can be inexpensive ways to store smaller amounts of data. For a bit more room, backup tape libraries can also be useful. With tapes, offsite storage is easy, since you simply pick up the tape and bring it home. We should note that each of these approaches carries an obvious security risk: theft and tape damage are as easy as leaving something in a cab or spilling a coffee. Be careful out there.
  3. Backup software: Numerous software packages offer automated backup, recovery features, reports on data usage and other functions. Some of these applications feature "one-click backup," which means an entire system can be backed up with a single mouse click.

Whichever option you choose, make sure to utilize it and plan for regular backups. Automated services and software can help keep a small business on track, and out of danger.

Gauge Your Security Holes

A firewall and some antivirus software were once all it took to consider a shop “secure,” but not anymore. In the modern digital age you need to evaluate every facet of your business—people included. In every aspect of a technology strategy, security should be a driving factor when it comes to purchasing and implementation.

Consider poor password policies, for example. Year-after-year countless independent reports reveal that the most-used “poor” password is, well, the word “password.” The numerical phrase “123456” is often a close second, revealing that for many small businesses, the biggest security threat is often its own employees. Don’t be too hard on them, however. Sometimes all a workforce needs to create better passwords is a little advice.

For example, choose a string of text that’s easy to remember, like a line from the Pledge of Allegiance. “I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America” has a nice ring to it, and if we take the first letter from each word, we get “Ipattfotusoa.” Ugly word, yes, but it’s a great 12-character, seemingly random password. Take it a step further if you like and sub in some numbers: “I1p2a4t3tOf.” That’s pretty ugly too, but it’s the kind of ugly you can remember, and the kind that a hacker would pass up for something easier to crack. Like, say, 123456.

Beyond your people, it’s important to look at each piece of equipment in the office (even the printer, if it's wireless-enabled) and set security controls or install the latest antivirus program, if possible. These controls are often found in the user manual that accompanies the device, but in rare cases where the manufacturer has not included them, or the instructions appear to be written in another language, contact a tech professional for help.

Most antivirus programs, once installed, will update automatically, thereby ensuring your PC or tablet has the most up-to-date protection no matter how forgetful you might be with that kind of thing. New malware launches every day, so having an autonomously updating antivirus program on your device is an invaluable tool we really cannot promote enough.

Lastly, take a look at automated security tools, such as those found with data-backup software and services. These tools can also run their own regular antivirus and intrusion protection sweeps on a system and send an alert via email or even text message to let you know when something seems awry. That’s more time for you to worry about things that really matter, like your bottom line.

Review the Plan

As your company grows, it's likely that your technology needs will change. Creating a technology strategy that anticipates this growth will go a long way toward minimizing expenditures and technical issues. Of course, be sure to review your technology mix on a regular basis.

Also set aside some time at least once or twice a year to evaluate your hardware, software, networking gear, backup and security, and determine if all those components are still meeting your needs. When doing this review, project a year into the future, when you'll likely need more storage space or be managing more company growth. Planning for a certain level of expansion will help keep your technology mix at the right level.

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