Small Business Tech Study
I started my first business nearly 15 years ago. Looking back on that experience, I’m still amazed by the fact that the fundamental steps a business owner needs to take to create and grow their business remain virtually unchanged. On the other hand, the tools that are now available to accomplish those steps have advanced beyond my wildest dreams. These tools are both incredibly functional as well as shockingly inexpensive.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent considerable time with six small business owners in different industries and at various stages of growth; evaluating their business’ tech infrastructure. Although each one had specific needs calling for specific tools, I found that nearly all of them either needed (or were already using) the seven technology-based tools described in this article to strengthen their businesses.
Below is a snapshot of the demographics of the businesses with whom I worked, which lead to my conclusions about the broad applicability of the technology tools I’m recommending.
Demographics of Businesses Analyzed
- Size: ranged in size from 2-5 full time employees with varying numbers of contractors
- Age: ranged from 1.5 to 8 years in business
- Commercial real estate
- Construction (x2)
- Office type:
- 3 in traditional offices
- 2 in home offices
- 1 with people working from a traditional office and home offices
- Bootstrapped: 5
- Venture Capital: 1
Tool 1: Google Apps for Email and Calendar
Every single company that I talked to either already uses Google Apps or agreed that they needed to switch to Google Apps.
Google Apps is basically Gmail for business owners. It allows you to have a custom business email address on your businesses domain name (eg: email@example.com) and adds the functionality of a shared business calendar, shared Google Drive, a suite of other tools, and administrative controls that make it easy for the business owner to control each employee’s or contractor’s accounts.
Some of the businesses I met with already had a business email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), but they either set it up through GoDaddy.com when they registered their domain name or their website designer offered to set up their email accounts for free. All of these businesses, however, had problems with managing and sharing calendars. They agreed that having a built-in, shared company calendar was a compelling enough reason alone to switch to Google Apps, which costs $5/month/user. The other tools that Google Apps offers are nice, but the shared calendar is the key.
For those businesses that were still using a free web mail service (email@example.com), the decision to use Google Apps was obvious.
The only real competitor to Google Apps is Microsoft Office 365, whose comparable product offering for business email, shared calendar, and SkyDrive starts at $6/user/month, but it’s still a new service and the online versions of MS Word and Excel are still, in my opinion, a bit less useful than Google Docs.
Here is a link to Google Apps signup page (30 day free trial): http://www.google.com/intl/en/enterprise/apps/business/
Tool 2: Virtual PBX or business VoIP for business phone number
Of the companies that I met with, one was using a basic land line for their business number (but primarily using their cell phones), two were just using cell phones, one was using a virtual PBX, and 2 were using business VoIP.
The cloud has arguably done more to reduce costs for phone systems than any other business tool. Through a virtual — or “cloud” — PBX, a business owner can get a separate business phone number (or port their existing number into the system), an auto attendant, multiple extensions (routing to existing cell phones or any other phone number for that matter), corporate voicemail, and more for as little as $10 per month with no equipment or setup costs.
For those businesses that prefer to have physical, business phones in their office; business VoIP provides all of the functionality of a traditional business phone system (and more) for roughly $25 per line, per month. In addition, these providers sell their VoIP phones at heavily discounted rates — roughly $100 each. Most of these plans also include free access to your own conference bridge and a dedicated online fax number that you can use to send and receive faxes.
There are a number of companies that offer business VoIP services and the pricing and features vary a considerable amount; so it’s best to use a comparison table to decide which one best suits your business.
If you need a separate number for your business with business phone system features, but you’re happy using cell phones for all your calls, use a virtual PBX service. Here is our comparison table: http://virtual-pbx.choosewhat.com/
If you prefer to have separate physical business phones in your office, making it easier to transfer calls between phones and providing you with a dedicated number for each phone in addition to the main corporate number, then you should use a business VoIP. Here is our comparison table: http://business-voip.choosewhat.com/
I know this technology sounds really confusing. The amount of jargon in the marketing materials makes my head spin. That said, the companies have done a great job making their apps and online interfaces wonderfully simple to use. If you have questions, just post them in the ChooseWhat forum: http://www.choosewhat.com/forums/, and we’ll answer them.
I will post part II of this series later this week, covering the next 2 tools that all small business should use.
Part II: 7 Tech Tools All Businesses Should Use
Tool 3: Online Data Backup
Of the six companies that I interviewed, one was backing up their data with iDrive, one backed up data with a portable hard drive, but stored much of their business info in Dropbox, and the other four had no data backup of any kind. Considering that every business maintains critical documents on their computers, this is terrifying. Computers can be stolen, broken, or simply stop working without notice. Without some kind of reliable backup, there is a good chance that the day when you have one of these kinds of problems, it will be the worst day of your life.
Online backup services are so cheap and easy that there is no excuse not to use one. Prices for these start at about $5/ month and offer backup from 30 gigabytes to unlimited storage. If you evaluate the cost of these services versus the value of your data, it’s simply a no-brainer. These backup services are also useful, because most of them make your data accessible via the cloud and store versions of your data. If you accidentally delete a folder or a file, or want to revert back to an older version of a document, you’ll be able to retrieve it easily through your backup service.
The only downside to all online backup services is that if you happen to have a hard disk failure and need to completely restore your system it might take a few days to completely download all of your data (think about how long it would take to download a 150 gigabyte file- LONG!!!). Some of the services will send you all your data on a hard drive in the mail for a fee, and you can just download and access the files you need through their online interface till it arrives. The fees differ between services, but for example, for $100 iDrive will mail your backed up data to you on a 1 terabyte (1024 GB) hard drive, which is yours to keep. This may seem pricey, but it’s actually a pretty standard cost for this type of hardware, and you’ll also have another place to back up your data. Their website says the processing and shipping of this backup drive will take 2-5 business days.
The features and pricing of these services vary. Here is a comparison of several of the top services: http://online-backup.choosewhat.com/
Tool 4: Digital File Sharing
Thanks to the popularity of Dropbox, this tech tool has caught on quickly. Four of the six businesses from this study were using digital file sharing services (3 Dropbox, 1 iDriveSync). These businesses use digital file sharing services to create shared folders on their computers, which allow them to easily share files with co-workers and customers without having to constantly send new or updated files over email.
Dropbox is by far and away the most popular file sharing service, with over 100 million current users. It is incredibly easy to use, and they offer a free account that provides up to 5 gigabytes of free storage. In order to use the service, all you have to do is create a free account, download the software to your computer, and begin dragging files and folders into the new folder labeled “Dropbox” that you will now see on your computer. These files and folders are automatically synced to “the cloud,” so you can access these files online, anywhere. Further, if you want to share these files with others, you can select “Share with” and type in the email address of anyone you want to share the file or folder with, then they will have access. If your colleagues don’t have Dropbox already, the service will invite them once you enter their email address into the “Share with” field. Also, the files you share with them will automatically sync (update) to the Dropbox folder on their computer whenever changes to the file are saved. Click here to sign up for Dropbox individual plans. The service also offers Dropbox for teams, which is a better deal for businesses that will have 5 or more user accounts sharing a large amount of data (more than 100 gigabytes).
iDriveSync is very similar to Dropbox, but it’s not as widely known or used. They do, however offer a free account with 10 gigabytes of free space, which gives the service some appeal if you don’t mind using an “off brand” service.
Google Drive is Google’s recent answer to Dropbox. If you use Google Apps or Google Docs, you might have noticed that Google Docs one day turned into Google Drive. At first glance, it looked like they just changed the name, but, they actually added some new functionality making it a Dropbox competitor. You can now download the Google Drive software to your computer and sync files to that folder just like Dropbox. I’ve tested this out a bit, and, although its integration with Google Docs is appealing, the process for file sharing is a bit clunky and counterintuitive.
I will post the final piece of this series next week, covering the final 3 tools that all small business should use.
Part III: 7 Tech Tools All Businesses Should Use
Tool 5: Email Marketing Service
Only one of the six companies I interviewed reported using an email marketing service to communicate with their prospects, customers, and other stakeholders. The one that uses the service drives a huge portion of their sales through email. The other business all recognized that they were missing an opportunity by not keeping people up to date about what they were doing with their business. This was especially true when they found out how cheap (and in many cases free) that the email marketing services are for their businesses.
ChooseWhat.com has compiled a comprehensive buyer’s guide for businesses looking to integrate email marketing into their marketing plan here: http://email-marketing.choosewhat.com/email-advertising-buyers-guide
The best known email marketing service is Constant Contact, but there are several other useful options as well. All of these services provide the same basic functions, but they offer different pricing and features. At their core, however, they all make it simple to manage your database of contacts, send them professional-looking emails, and track the emails’ impact (number of opens, clicks, unsubscribes, etc. ) in real-time.
Almost any company can benefit by sending out a monthly newsletter to their friends, family and business network. You can keep them up to date about new services offered, new clients and new successes. For most businesses, this network is going to be the best source of leads, so it’s a good idea to keep them current with your business. Software Advice confirmed this in a recent study, conducted in partnership with Eloqua and CMO.com, stating that email marketing was the respondents best source for high quality leads. MarketingCharts.com has compiled these findings and the opinions on alternative B2B marketing channels below.
ChooseWhat also has a comparison of these marketing services: http://email-marketing.choosewhat.com.
Tool 6: QuickBooks
Fortunately, five of the six companies I met with used QuickBooks. The one that didn’t use it had an old copy and knew they needed it. That business owner purchased an updated copy the day after our meeting. I don’t think anyone would consider QuickBooks to be a really “high tech” tool, but it is certainly a tech tool that all small businesses need to use.
People often want to know about QuickBooks alternatives. Even though there are various other brands of bookkeeping software on the market, my answer is that there aren’t any. This isn’t because QuickBooks is the most user-friendly bookkeeping software imaginable; their advantage is the QuickBooks “ecosystem” in today’s accounting world. 99% of bookkeepers and accountants you might want to hire to help you maintain your books and file your taxes are very familiar with QuickBooks. If you use another tool, your options for bookkeeping support are severely limited. Peachtree is the second most popular bookkeeping software, but it is extremely difficult to find bookkeepers who are comfortable using it. Unless you want to do your own bookkeeping forever, you’re much better off using QuickBooks.
The only question remaining is “which version of QuickBooks should you buy?” We have a comparison section on ChooseWhat.com dedicated to QuickBooks (quickbooks.choosewhat.com), which compares the three “cloud” versions and the two most popular “desktop” versions. For most businesses, the decision will probably come down to “Online Essentials” vs “Desktop Pro.” The low monthly fee of “Online Essentials” and the ability to access all your information remotely are the two biggest reasons to go with this version. But, if you don’t mind spending a little more upfront and don’t need to access your data remotely, “Desktop Pro” is a better value. It has a lot more features and will help you prepare tax forms (like 1099’s for contractors).
Overall, this is my most important recommendation for business owners; get some version of QuickBooks and use it to keep track of financial data. The longer you wait to do this, the more difficult it becomes to catch up and the more money you’ll waste paying taxes on expenses you could have written off.
Tool 7: LastPass
None of the businesses I met with had a password management solution. Considering the fact that tools like LastPass are free and most businesses have at least dozens if not hundreds of passwords to manage, this is absolutely baffling.
Most business owners I’ve met with handle passwords in 1 of 2 ways:
- They write all the login information on a piece of paper or Word doc and try to hide it somewhere; or
- They use the same username and password on pretty much everything they access
Both of these are far less than ideal and pretty much every business owner knows this. LastPass is a tool that creates a “Vault” for all your login information for your websites. Once you create an account and install the plugin for your browser, it will offer to remember login information on any website where you enter it. It will even offer to create a much more secure password (like eFtu7$%k90HJk or something ridiculous like that) and then save name of the site, the web address, username, password, and any notes you want to save associated with that website.
In the future, when you visit any of these sites, LastPass will offer to login to the site for you. Alternatively, you can search LastPass’ Vault for websites that you want to access and launch them directly from there. With LastPass, you will use much more secure passwords for your logins, so you will only need to change LastPass’ password periodically to keep your information safe. This is especially useful when an employee leaves. Rather than having to change all your passwords, you just need to change the LastPass password.
A basic LastPass account is free, but you can upgrade to the Premium version for $12 per year to get access to LastPass’ mobile apps (which I find very useful). LastPass also offers and Enterprise version of the software at costs $24 per user per year, which allows you to set permission levels for users and specific websites and gives you a lot of administrative controls.
Small Business Study Final Notes
Technology isn’t perfect, but over the last decade, this industry has given small business owners and entrepreneurs access to tools that previously were only available to their much larger and better funded counterparts. The only thing preventing more business owners from taking advantage of these tools and increasing their competitiveness in their markets is lack of information. I sincerely hope that anyone reading this article takes full advantage of this information. And furthermore, I hope it opens their eyes to the incredible world of affordable business and productivity tools currently known to such a small few.
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