I have had the pleasure of working with a variety of small businesses from startups to well established organizations. From website design to computer tune-ups and IT consulting, I get to see a good variety of approaches to implementing technology into their business. Through working with these clients and being a small business myself, I think I have come up with a list of some best practices that small business might over look at first. Not every suggestion will work for every small business but they are worth considering and accepting them as something to try or ruling them out as something that doesn’t fit.
1. Have a web presence but don’t pay too much
I know if it’s a small business mentality or perhaps it’s just a small town mentality. I think a business that doesn’t have a website is missing out. It should not cost much to get a website – a few bucks a month for hosting and the initial development costs. Beyond that, using a platform like WordPress should enable a small business to take care of it themselves. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time updating a website, work with the developer so it works well being fairly static.
Then again, there are as many websites out there that do not have their own websites as there are those that have a bad website. There doesn’t have to be a whole lot of content for a website to be useful. If you’re a business, I should be able to find the important things: hours, location, contact number, etc. If you’re a restaurant, you should have a menu online. If you’re a storefront, maybe have a catalog or selection of products listed. Please don’t go with those template websites from phone book companies and others. They are too limited and are typically hard to update..
A restaurant in the town next to where I live had three different websites and a Facebook page. Each had a different URL and the information (like hours) could contradict each other. It was hard to tell which site was current. If all you can and want to manage is on Facebook, fine, go with it. Focus, get the information on there, and make the most of it. It’s better than nothing. I needed a contractor last week. I went with one of the few in the area that had a website because I could confirm that they do the job I needed done. It seemed the most professional.
2. Separate personal email and work email
This issue cracks me up. I recently worked with a client for a website design. It was a pretty fast development to get them on a WordPress theme that worked for their content. Unfortunately, part of the website migration meant new hosting. The email tied to their domain was POP-ed down to their local PCs and the Internet speed in the business was not the fastest. Several employees used their email at the work domain for personal messages, including receiving tons of messages with images attached. This made their mail folders huge! Depending on your mail hosting, that extra storage space could lead to extra costs down the road, not to mention the painstakingly long migration times.
Inform your employees of a policy to not use work email for personal use. It takes up storage you are paying for and could be bad marketing (your domain is in their email address after all). Anybody can sign up for a free Gmail or Outlook.com email account and use that for personal use. Don’t want to have to check more than one email account? Just check your work email at work and your personal email at home – one email account to check at a time!
3. Simplify your communication channels
Going hand-in-hand with the previous point, simplifying your communication channels is just like branding. When you focus on your brand, you will get better results. Just because you signed up with your ISP for email as firstname.lastname@example.org and you have your email with your domain as YourName@companyname.com, doesn’t mean you have to use both email addresses. You bought your domain make use of it. Every lost communication could be a lost sale and if you have a lot of business going to your ISP email account, what happens if you switch to a different ISP? It could be the loss of a lot of business or even some negative feedback from customers that never receive a reply.
Just like using a company phone number instead of your personal phone number, simplify your channels so you only have select places to check for messages when you’re unavailable.
4. Plan a computer replacement cycle
Computers won’t last forever. It probably took a significant investment to get the technology you need which is all the more reason to start planning for their replacement. Can you afford to replace them all at once or will they need to be phased in? Is their software that you will need to update when you upgrade your computer to a new operating system? Do all of your computers need to be on the same version of the software? Consider computers, monitors, servers, routers, printers, and other technology that might go bad out of warranty and how crucial it is to keeping your business going. Perhaps you can start with an expectation that your computers will last you 4 years and go from there to figure out when they would need to be replaced.
5. Have an employee trained for technology issues
An organization I work with taught me this one. I’m happy to work with them to reduce their costs. They have an employee that is pretty tech savvy. They can do what I tell them or continue doing what I started. This gives me an extra set of hands when they’re available and somebody in the building to complete some more intensive tasks. Meanwhile the organization benefits at getting the job done faster and at a lower rate.
Another benefit that a tech savvy employee can provide is that they can serve as a translator. They can explain the organization’s needs or problems a little bit better than some others and in addition, I can tell them something and trust that it won’t get mutated and mutilated in its understanding like a big game of telephone. Now, it’s hard to hire for this sort of position or it narrows the field if you’re looking for somebody like this, so you might have to luck into it.
6. Understand the difference between a business environment and home when it comes to technology
I have seen a few times when a business is run like a home. Sometimes their technology works like a tin can on a string and that’s the only way they’ve been able to get it to work while other times it is just failing to take advantage of any more complex solutions. Forming a workgroup or joining a domain instead of keeping each computer separate can provide benefits that you may not even realize when you are used to thinking of a home computer being all by itself.
7. Understand when a problem needs a technical solution or a managerial solution
“Is there a way to block Facebook on the computers? Employee X just sits on Facebook all day.” Sure, there are a variety of technical solutions we can implement here but the best one is probably going to be a solution from management. Having a talk with the person, ensuring they have enough work to do, ensuring they understand their job description and role – otherwise, it’s just going to be an awkward conversation to explain why Facebook stopped working right after I sat down at their computer or it will just be some passive-aggressive resentment towards the boss once the employee realizes they have been limited.
8. Invest in some basic security and backup solutions
This goes along with point 4 of having a replacement cycle because you understand the value of technology in your business. Your computers should have antivirus and a means of backing up your important data regularly. It might take some extra investment but if you rely on a computer for your business to continue, you don’t want it to be frequently down due to malware. You also don’t want to lose your important records just because a hard drive died or a room flooded. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
9. Be aware of compliance requirements
Small business owners have lots to keep track of and take care of. Complying with every little thing can be overwhelming but it needs to be done lest you pay for it later. Things like accepting credit cards have their own rules to comply with. You should be able to work with your 3rd party credit card processor to ensure you are meeting those.
You also want to ensure you are complying with software licensing requirements. Don’t use pirated software in your place of business and don’t use the ‘free-for-home’ software packages either if you don’t qualify as a commercial entity. The motivation for this can be to avoid penalties as well as to show respect, one business to another. Find out more details about this point from www.bsa.org.
When should you start implementing some of these changes? Well, some of them can be as they come up, like when you start thinking about your next fiscal year’s budget, you will certainly want to take your computer replacement cycle into account. Reflect on the suggestions to see if they apply to you or how you can implement them. Regarding employee issues like using work email for personal uses or needing to implement a managerial solution, it could be “the sooner, the better” solution or if you already have a time planned for regular employee reviews, you might just go over the changes you would like to see then.
For other issues, you might keep an eye open for an IT consultant to analyze your environment and make a few recommendations for moving things forward. Likewise, you might ask around to try to find a web developer in the area that can help you get a web presence established.
I don’t intend to sound like a know it all. Running a small business can be hard work and your days filled with making hard decisions. Please feel free to disagree with my recommendations or share others that you think should be included in the comments.
Image credit: Studeo Grinta on Flickr.