By Phil Birbeck, Managing Director of PC World Business
After employee costs, IT is the second biggest outlay for small businesses when starting up, according to new research from PC World Business. For many small business owners, setting up their IT can often be an arduous and stressful process. The number one priority is getting their business off the ground, rather than wasting time double checking their IT is set up correctly.
However, it does not have to be complicated. PC World Business’s Managing Director, Phil Birbeck, gives his tips to help start ups get their IT right first time, allowing business owners to focus on their firms’ strategy:
Work out why IT is critical to your business and what you will use it for
From simple word processing and emailing, to computer-aided design and digital imaging, there is a computer out there for every business. Take time before you set up to think about the tasks you will be using it for and if these will change as your business grows. Consider monthly payment plans but be careful to compare rates to ensure your package is competitive.
You do not need to spend a fortune on IT
Once you know what business tasks you will be using your IT for, you can calculate how much you need to spend. There is no point forking out hundreds of pounds on an ultra modern laptop, if all you need is a low-spec computer for emailing. Remember, many common business tasks can often be carried out on a basic laptop.
Take advantage of social media
Every small business should use social media, as it is a cheap and easy way of marketing your business and getting noticed. Create LinkedIn and Twitter profiles for your business – they are great ways of getting your firm noticed online and differentiate yourself from your competitors. Put time aside to manage your channels, as often customers use social media to voice negative experiences it is important to monitor websites regularly and react to any comments quickly.
Cut the printing costs
There is no need to outsource printing nowadays. Multi functional devices can photocopy, scan, print and fax, offer professional quality and are economical to run. Combine this with the relevant software and you can easily print professional quality leaflets, brochures and documents in your own office. For economical day to day printing, set the default printing function on all your office PCs to print mono and on both sides of the pages. Colour copies are often about 10 times the cost of black and white, so it is well worth making this small change.
Find IT suppliers you trust
Use internet forums to research which IT suppliers have specialist small business IT advisors and look at what other businesses are saying about them. Build a relationship with your advisor, as this will help them understand your business and what your requirements are.
In the early stages you might have to move offices or use managed office space so think about investing in a laptop so you can take your business with you. Being flexible is one of the benefits of a small business and you do not want to be tied down to your IT. Smartphones, such as a Blackberry or iPhone, are another useful piece of equipment, particularly because you can download business-related apps such as those from Salesforce.com. Salesforce.com provides CRM and collaboration apps to businesses that can be accessed over the internet and pay-as-you-go. Customers can also build their own apps to suit their needs.
Back-up your files
Use two back-up devices, such as external hard drives, and always keep one offsite, just in case the worst happens. It is better to be safe than sorry, especially when you are handling confidential or sensitive business information. Consider backing up online or using cloud services as this allows you to access files from anywhere. Cloud computing is a cheap and flexible way of working and storing your documents in a central system.
Get a professional email address
Domain names are an inexpensive way to give your firm a professional edge. Ask 123-reg or the person who hosts your website to set up an email address for you – it is quick and inexpensive. Many customers communicate with a business via email, so it is worth investing in this to create a more professional image for your business from the outset.
Get expert advice
It is easy to rely on friends and family for help setting up your IT and when there is a problem. However, this can often lead to more problems as you may need professional advice quickly to get you back on track. Remember, you can now get free independent advice on the high street from small business experts. Talk to other businesses in the area to see who they use for IT advice and make sure you select someone who appreciates your needs and understands what direction you want the business to go.
Secure your data
A lost laptop is bad enough, but it can be even worse if it contains confidential business information. Protect your business data by setting passwords on your computers and individual documents, changing these regularly. Shop around for deals on insurance, especially online suppliers, to provide you with an extra level of comfort. This will save your business a lot of time, money and stress.
Invest time into making sure all employees know how to use existing technology to improve the business and their work. Only too often do we get stuck in a rut and use the same programmes and equipment when there may be something else available that can save time and effort. Organise internal training sessions between staff to share ideas and knowledge. This should involve the entire organisation, especially senior level management and directors.
Make your software work for you
Simple IT software packages often fulfil many business needs. The key is knowing what tools they offer and what you need to achieve as a business. If your business gathers a lot of data, software such as Microsoft Excel or Google Docs, include effective charting tools to help you spot patterns and trends. You may get huge amounts of emails per day which need to be read and responded to, to keep on top of new business or customer queries. Use your email wizard to sort, prioritise and file them. Finally, there are many free tools available that help manage your Twitter account. TweetDeck allows you to segment Tweets into groups, so you could have a column for Tweets that link to your industry and a column with Tweets from your customers so you can easily keep abreast of breaking developments.