Whether you own a startup or an established business, it's important to make the right software investments. Here are some tips on how to decide what's best for your business.
By Chad Preston
You have the business plan, an office space and a surplus of ambition, but keeping your business successful is going to take more than a strong work ethic. You're going to need the appropriate technology without spending inappropriately. But where do you start? How do you know which computer software is essential?
There are many resources out there to help you get started. Magazines such as Entrepreneur and Inc. have sections devoted to small business technology, with guides that can help you make the right decision. You can get help through the manufacturers and retailers themselves, such as Dell, Gateway, Lenovo, HP, CDW and Best Buy’s Geek Squad. An on-staff or contracted IT consultant can be a good investment. You can also negotiate to get training included in an IT purchase.
Know the Basics
Although businesses may use specific platforms and software suites for their particular industries, many of the basic day-to-day operational tools are the same. No matter what kind of business you run, most experts agree on the essential types of applications. These core applications include: word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, e-mail, a Web browser, accounting and financial tools, and security software such as antivirus and firewall technology.
The Microsoft Office (Microsoft Office Small Business 2007) suite of products has become an almost universal business tool, and is widely seen as the most popular office system in the world. Joe Kennedy, author of The Small Business Owner's Manual. suggests beginning with Microsoft Office, which includes Word for word processing, Excel for electronic spreadsheets, Outlook for e-mail and contact management and PowerPoint for slide-show presentations. Optional programs in the Microsoft Office suite include a database program (Access), and a marketing materials design program (Publisher) but these optional add-ons may not be needed depending upon your situation, he said.
You should have an accounting program at your disposal, he says, and suggests Intuit QuickBooks for this kind of task. “If you don’t use an accounting program, you can expect to pay much higher bookkeeping fees and end up with less accurate books,” he says. “But buying a good accounting program does not make you a good accountant. These programs do not teach accounting theory and [they] assume the user knows debits from credits.” Many businesses hire experts to keep the books accurate, he says.
These days, electronic security is a hot topic. You must have a good antivirus/security program, such as Symantec or McAfee, and Spybot Search and Destroy or Webroot Spy Sweeper, Kennedy says.
Customer relationship management is another area to cover. “I heavily recommend a commercial-grade customer relationship management (CRM) program such as ACT! or Goldmine,” Kennedy says. “Otherwise your new business is still in the 1970s and will get clobbered by more savvy competitors.”
Know What Best Suits You
In many fields, industry-specific software and even certain platforms are desired in addition to a basic office software suite. Many publishing and design firms use Apple computers and Mac software, for instance, which seems to be the industry’s preference. Some businesses might also prefer Macs for aesthetic reasons. No matter how pretty that iMac is though, PCs seem to be the general business standard. Ramon Ray, technology evangelist and editor of Smallbiztechnology.com, says that the PC systems are best for businesses overall as they have more software and more support. So, put some thought into what you need based on what your venture will provide to customers.
Gordon Bridge, president and CEO of CM IT Solutions, Inc. in Austin, Texas, points out that there are application packages designed to automate processes for specific industries.
A law office, for example, would use packages written specifically for law firms. Many vertical application packages integrate well with general programs such as QuickBooks, he says. Intuit lists links to partner companies that manufacture compatible applications.
Consider Hiring a Consultant
Depending on your skills and experience, hiring a consultant may be a valuable investment. It will cost some money but is the quickest and most effective way to ensure it is done right, Kennedy says.
Joshua Feinberg, cofounder of Computer Consulting 101 in West Palm Beach, Fla., agrees. He says that the first place a small business owner should start is with a competent IT consultant. He says a professional will be there every step of the way to make sure that the business is up and running from an applications and hardware standpoint. Consultants can also be hired on a contract basis to help you define your technology needs.
You want to put the same care into choosing an IT consultant as you would an attorney. “Small businesses should look at IT consultants like you would a service such as an accountant—someone who is like a part-time employee,” he says. “The key thing is looking at them as a resource to be a trusted advisor in that area.”
“You hire a CPA because you don’t want to take 6 months to learn tax code,” he says. “If you really want to focus on your business, it’s good to spend the money on a consultant, so you’re not bogged down by trying to solve your own IT problems.” The costs vary greatly depending on the size of your company and your IT needs, he says.
A consultant can help you decide which programs to buy and what choices are most cost-effective, says Feinberg. “One of the biggest small business concerns is getting the most for the money,” he says. “Some people in the office product stores have expertise, but most likely can’t provide the kind of in-depth experience a hired consultant can.” But if you’re handy with computers and have the time, you can do it yourself and do it for less, Kennedy says.
Know How Much is Enough
If you do decide to go it on your own, be sure you do your homework. There are so many options, making a choice can be overwhelming, Bridge says. Some manufacturers will try to up-sell to configure machines with more than is needed, he says. “Having fancy speakers or the largest hard drive, for example, and spending a lot of money doesn’t make much sense.”
But it is also possible to overlook something and under-configure. Security is often overlooked or not enough thought is put into it, Ray says. Spending too little can be its own problem. “Everyone wants to save money,” he says. “They say ‘I just want something that will last for this many years,’ but you get what you pay for.”
Often software is bundled with needless tools or tools that the person does not know how to use due to a lack of training, he says. Small businesses often forget about the rich features available in their software and concentrate just on the essentials of getting today’s work done, Kennedy says. As a result, few people use more than 5 percent of the features available in programs such as Microsoft Word or Excel, he says.
“If just one small feature is learned every couple of days, huge productivity increases will be realized over time and this very productive software will become an even better investment,” he says. “And since these programs will be around for far into the future, investments in learning new features will pay off to both the user and the business many times over.”