How to use technology in your business – in plain English!
Just starting up in business? Congratulations! You’re the engine room of our economic recovery. You’re a beacon of hope in troubled times. You’re, err..., probably getting no sleep, juggling too many balls, and realising that this entrepreneurship lark isn’t non-stop glamour.
Well, we can’t give you glamour (when did you last see technology folks on the catwalk? Exactly...)
But we can point you in the right direction as regards the tech tools in your business. Here’s a top ten to get you started.
1. It won’t cost an arm and a leg
Evolution moves fast in technology. What was impossible ten years ago is now commonplace – and the cost of IT is coming down constantly. The recession has also put pressure on providers of hardware and software to offer keen deals. So,
expect your startup technology costs to be comparatively low.
In the second half of 2012, the exception to this is laptops; which are increasing in capability and quality sufficiently to warrant
slight increases in the base price; but you’ll still get a bargain compared to what you might have bought three years ago.
Similarly, the whole concept of “buying” is becoming outdated. With cloud services available for most of the tools you’ll need, smart businesses are effectively renting their software as a service. You can have everything from data storage to customer management systems switched on today for a low monthly fee, no upfront hardware cost and no maintenance headaches – which is great if you’re good at your job, but not too keen on getting down and dirty with the techie stuff.
2. Mmmmm – Free Trials!
Most British banks still give new businesses a grace period of free business banking. Similarly, most software providers, both online and offline, will give you a free trial (expect 30 days, many Microsoft products offer a generous 60 days).
Take advantage of these offers – they’re not just freebies or ways to evaluate competitive services, they are an ideal way to kickstart your business. During a free trial period, you can implement processes which help you to execute real, money-earning work, and only pay when you are fully committed. That’s highly effective business practice.
3. Productivity v Efficiency
There are hundreds of thousands of software options available to you; and billions of possible configurations. To make sense of
them, try this rule of thumb. A technology service should either help you be more productive (doing more in the time you have and with the resources you have) or be more efficient (cut the cost of doing the things you do).
Big companies worry about efficiency. If they can shave a few pennies on a process which they conduct many thousands of times, they turn a significantly greater profit.
Whereas when you’re starting up, and you’re on your own, it’s all about productivity. An hour saved on each workday is 12.5% more time to earn more money .
Cut through the marketing waffle, and look for real productivity benefits – especially timesavers. If writing proposals, communicating with customers, making sales, delivering services, sending invoices or solving problems can be made easier in your business with technology, embrace those tools with open arms: they will pay for themselves rapidly.
4. “I’m not a technology kinda person” just won’t do
Stay with me on this. Of course we weren’t all born with thumbs designed for texting. The humble author of this article went to a school with no computers. Yup, he’s old, too. He learned Latin, and that has turned out to be a right old waste of time. But we digress. Here’s the argument:
Every now and then, a rock star will admit on TV that they have lost millions of pounds across their careers, because of a dodgy
accountant. “I’m just not a money sort of person”, they’ll say. “I just play the guitar”. And that’s why they’ve lost millions of pounds.
Similarly, you know you won’t run a successful business if you say “I’m just not really a customer sort of person”. If you don’t like
dealing with customers, get a backroom job. Or possibly customer services for an electricity company.
And the same goes for technology. If it’s an evil in your view, it’s a necessary evil. Tech companies have put more effort in the past
five years into making their stuff user-friendly than ever before. Start discovering technology, and you will almost certainly be pleasantly surprised. It may even become quite good fun. More fun than losing money, anyway.
5. Protection matters
Recently, some eagle-eyed good guys at Microsoft discovered that unscrupulous hackers had infected computers in China with viruses before the computers had even gone on sale. In other words, buyers would receive a laptop, in its packaging, already
infected. That’s how smart the bad guys are.
This problem has not affected the European supply chain, and you certainly don’t have to worry. But it’s a salutary lesson: anti-virus protection isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s an absolute essential. Without it, you are as good as 100% certain to suffer either an attack which will affect your business operations, or an attack which will hijack your technology for someone else’s nefarious purposes.
You don’t need to become an internet security expert, just as you don’t need to understand how your burglar alarm works. But you
do need to install protective software, just as you do need to lock your front door before you leave home.
6. Password Pandemonium
Similarly, observe password best practice. That means:
- Use complex passwords, ideally 8 characters or more, mixing letters, numbers and symbols. Amazingly, the top passwords in 2012 are:
password, 12345678, qwerty, dragon, <a very naughty word>, baseball, football and monkey
Clearly, our natural obsessions are laziness, sex, animals and sport. Oh, and dragons. All of these will take less time for a hacker to compromise than it took you to read this sentence.
Furthermore, don’t use obvious meaningful phrases (children’s birthdays, names of husbands or wives etc.) – these too are a doddle to counter.
- Change passwords regularly.
- And don’t use the same password for all the many websites and services you use. If you do, your security is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain; and a motivated hacker who cracks into one service will rapidly compromise all of your online activity.
7. Connect Everything
One of the most important aspects of technology productivity is connectivity. We’re not talking about wires; rather that the information held in one piece of software should be usable in others, too, and on other devices. It is crucial when you are evaluating software and services that information can be moved and transferred. Similarly, if you decide to leave the service, you need to be sure that your data can be exported and then moved to an alternative provider without hours of horribly unproductive hand-typing.
Microsoft Office documents, spreadsheets and presentations, for example, export to countless other formats (pictures, PDFs etc.). They can be read and even edited through a web browser and on mobile devices. They can even be read by competitor services. All this means that you can work safe in the knowledge that there won’t be any nasty surprises.
8. Meet your customers
A key opportunity provided by technology is the chance to communicate effectively with your customers. Check out pay-per-click advertising to find new customers. Use Microsoft Publisher to easily create newsletters to stay in touch with existing and potential clients. With Office365, you can create customer portals and engage with them on their own terms. CRM is available for a modest monthly fee to manage your client relationships from the first incoming call through to fulfilment and invoicing. Finally, give them the chance to offer you feedback with surveys and return emails. There’s no excuse for any customer to feel unloved or left out of the loop!
9. Switch off!
Most new business owners discover after a matter of days that their business gobbles up every last available moment of free time. You’re working evenings and weekends, and, in today’s incredibly connected world, you’re never more than an email, call, tweet or text away. It’s tempting to be available 24/7, but it’s an unsustainable work/life balance, and it will rapidly reduce your effectiveness as a decision-maker and manager.
Instead, put all that technology at your disposal to good use; by being more available at the times that work for you, and completely unavailable when you need some downtime:
- Use the ‘presence’ tools in systems like Lync to be “available” or “busy” as appropriate, meaning clients and suppliers can know in advance whether to contact you.
- Run through emails, voicemails and other incoming messages when it suits you, not all-day, every-day.
- Use Outlook as a universal Inbox. Most systems will, for example, send voicemails to your Inbox as audio files. Outlook can also use powerful rules to flag incoming messages by type (e.g. Twitter mention), source (e.g. website enquiry) or content (e.g. customer complaint!) automatically in order to help you prioritise your time.
10. Go anywhere, go mobile
Finally, get a Smartphone. As a small business, you need on-the-road tools far more than the fat-tie-wearing sales exec of corporate folklore. Fat tie man has a team of people back at base to take those calls, and a sales manager he can fall back on if he needs to know what’s going on. You don’t have any of those luxuries. At worst, that means missed opportunities; at best it means time you spend on trains and planes is dead time unless you have the documents you need to hand to be useful.