Planning for Computers in your Small Business
Technology is required to stay competitive and grow. As a small business, pivoting and adopting emerging technologies sharpens your competitive edge. Many computer technologies exist to automate common business tasks and are essential to scaling your business while maintaining a profitable bottom line and stakeholder satisfaction.
Here is a list of some of the important technologies to consider when you are planning to scale or launch your business.
- Accounting & Inventory
- These central processes are common to most businesses. Cash flow and the creation of data in the form of quotes and invoices, then receiving and recording payments, is characteristic of all successful businesses. For some businesses, ordering or manufacturing inventory is an extra step that requires tracking.
- Fire, virus, and mistake insurance all rolled into one. Don’t let bad backup strategy close your business. Use mirrored hard drives, local and off-site backups to mitigate damage to your data.
- Communication & Collaboration
- Keep your people and your assets organized and efficient as you scale. Track progress and responsibility using text and email messaging, voice and video calling, conference calling, and broadcasting.
- Now that you have the first three sorted out along with any production technology specific to your niche, it’s time to protect it. Stop people from hacking your email account and impersonating you to a customer or guessing a login and defacing your website.
- Your processes are organized, efficient, and bullet-proof, and now it’s time to connect with your perfect customers or clients and scale up your business. Take a small business approach to your marketing strategy and maximize your return on investment.
Please see the full article on nics.ca for details and examples on these technologies.
- Accounting and Inventory
Focus on delivering the best product or service you can, but you also need to track your work and accurately bill your customers to generate cash flow, pay your vendors and the government on time without fees or penalties, pay your employees and contractors reliably, and know at any time whether you are pulling ahead or falling behind.
There are many different approaches to choose from to meet these needs. One option is a stack of paper and pens to create invoices or quotes as you need them. Invoice creation is an example of a consistently repetitive task. When you notice a repetitive task in your business, recognize the opportunity to automate and gain efficiency. First, you might change from blank paper to paper with pre-printed templates. This change would automate writing out your company name, address, GST #, Invoice #, and then you only need to add the bill-to, ship-to, and product or service information with pricing. Doing this by hand like my grandfather used to with his electronics wholesaler gets old fast, as you typically need duplicates and when math is done by hand there is inevitably human error that has to be reconciled and corrected.
Leveraging modern technology, we can accomplish these tasks and more in a fraction of the time and energy it would take by hand, and with greater accuracy. Picking your inventory, accounting, and point of sale software is one of the most consequential decisions you will make for your business. Here are some suggestions to follow when you are shopping for software:
- Any software worth its electrons will offer a free trial for you to evaluate before you buy. Only consider software that offers a free evaluation, and only buy software you have tried.
- Buy software that lets you access, backup, and migrate your data. The invoices, purchase orders, inventory counts, and account reconciliations are all unique data that you can’t buy but must reproduce if you lose. Make sure you don’t lose access to your data if you decide to stop paying for your software’s annual fees.
- The more homogenous your IT configuration, the less labor it will take to keep running. Decide early on if you will need a local server footprint or if you will invest in hosted software as a service. If you don’t have a server, but you are buying software that requires a server, you will need to budget for and procure server infrastructure.
- Can you extend your data to other applications using Structured Query Language (SQL) database connections or an application programming interface? Your business is represented and constrained by your data. If your data won’t adapt and scale, neither will your business.
- Are you buying software from the people who made it? Or are you buying from the people who bought the software and marked it up? Be cautious using acquired solutions with many middlemen who do not add any value.
We recommend Spire Systems as a local server-based solution for inventory and accounting software. It has strong search capabilities with an accessible PostgreSQL database for extension and reporting. Spire is appropriate for businesses with three or more users and scales up to 100+ users.
For a hosted solution, we recommend Microsoft Dynamics 365. Hosted solutions are attractive because they require no local foot print and no up-front server or software costs. However, hosted solutions are often more expensive over time and can offer less control over your data.
After the basic infrastructure, backups are the most important part of your technology strategy. A reliable backup strategy includes three types of backup; hardware mirroring or clustering, local software-based backups, and off-site disaster recovery backups.
Hardware mirroring is most often found with servers, where the server hard-drives are configured to work together and appear as one single drive to applications or the operating system. The hard-drive controllers copy data on-the-fly between drives to achieve redundancy. This redundant configuration sacrifices potential storage capacity for reliability and is often described as a redundant array of independent disks, or a RAID array.
When a hard drive in a RAID array fails, a light changes state on the front of the server to indicate a status change on the controller, and the server sends an email to you or your designated administrator with an alert that your RAID array has become degraded and which drive requires replacing. Your system will still function normally, but if another drive fails before the first bad drive is replaced, you’re in trouble.
Local software backups are the go-to for recovery from data corruption. If a file is erased accidentally or maliciously, the first step is to restore from a shadow copy. This option is accessible to end users by right-clicking (context clicking) your folder or file and clicking on the “restore previous versions” option. There are situations where the previous versions will be unavailable. Some malware will target and corrupt shadow copy backups to prevent restoration, in which case local hardened and versioned backups need to be used for recovery. Local versioned backups can be created regularly by your Microsoft Windows operating systems.
Off-site backups are your last option for recovery and mostly in-case of a disaster such as fire or flood. Your disaster recovery strategy has two primary goals; your Recovery Point Objective, or RPO, and Recovery Time Objective, or RTO. Your RPO is how much data loss you can tolerate, and your RTO is how long it will take to restore your business technology in the event of a disaster. If you are not sure what your RPO or RTO should be, we recommend you develop a decision-making tool that estimates your cost of downtime. Your Cost of Downtime (CoD) should include not only footprint and operating costs but also lost opportunity and reputation costs. If your CoD is $100 per hour or less, then your typical RPO is 24 hours, with an RTO of 72 hours. This RPO implies you are backing up your critical data once per day, so the most you can lose is 24 hours of data. An RTO of 72 hours implies that if you have a fire, it will take you no more than three days to restore your infrastructure and data to operational. Normally, this would start with a call to your IT provider letting them know you need disaster recovery, and they would contact the data center and order a hard drive priority shipped with a copy of your complete data set, which would arrive 24 – 48 hours later. The next step is ordering and installing replacement computers, servers, and networking devices, all shipped over-night, installed and configured within 48-72 hours.
Good business backup strategy requires regular testing. At $100 or less per hour for the CoD, local backups should be tested at least once per month, and a disaster recovery simulation should be successfully completed (meets RPO and RTO goals) once every 1-3 years.
- Communication and Collaboration
Keeping your people and resources organized as you grow your business is challenging. Consider that all the contact points between stakeholders, including customers and staff, should be monitored, recorded, and mined for opportunities to add value and improve your business.
Consider all forms of communication medium, including text messages, email messages, faxes, video and audio calls, conferences, and webinars. All these mediums can be accessed from one technology vendor and integrated to provide intelligent searching of history. We refer to this type of system as a unified communications stack, and we recommend Microsoft Teams for unified communications.
Some of the features you can expect from a unified communications stack include:
- Inexpensive long-distance dialing on all devices with internet.
- Voicemail to email, transcribed to text with the original audio attached.
- Intuitive conference calling, with click and drag functionality to add contacts to a voice or video call.
- Broadcasting capabilities for when you want to push a webinar out to all your customers at the same time and get survey feedback and chat capabilities.
- Full support to extend the system to roaming mobile devices, allowing users to dial using a different application on their mobile phone and avoid traditional service charges.
- Ability to extend status, chat, voice, and video features to your website to provide a visual phone directory with live status pulling from user’s calendar appointments and call status.
Collaboration, or people working with a common purpose, requires facilitation to stay efficient as you grow the number of people collaborating. Many people have experienced making no progress due to endless meetings where similar information is disseminated and discussed. The key components of effective collaboration management are shared digital spaces, notifications, scheduling, and tracking. You should be able to post to the project board from anywhere with internet access, and other team members should then be able to subscribe to your post(s) and receive email notifications when they are updated or changed. You should be able to add attachments to your posts, including videos, documents, and slideshows. You should be able to add due dates to posts, and then see a calendar view that shows you all the due dates for the board together, and lets you drill down on those by clicking them in the calendar. You should be able to assign resources and budgets to sub-items and have a total and timeline that automatically adjusts as new items are added.
For smaller projects, we recommend Trello.com as a free and extendible project board solution that gives you the key components except budget tracking, which can be done manually. For larger projects spanning longer periods we recommend Microsoft Project and Microsoft SharePoint for management, which offers detailed budget tracking and automatically changes totals as new entries are added, as well as granular access permissions for larger teams.
After you have built a system that works for your business, it’s important to protect it from malicious actors. Many security options exist to help secure your business data and reputation, and they fall into two categories, conventional perimeter security, and dwell-time reduction context-based security derived from an awareness of your system and driven by artificial intelligence.
Examples of perimeter security include hardware and software firewalls and antivirus on your network from vendors like Fortinet or CISCO, end-point anti-virus and encryption, and firewalls from Microsoft and other third parties, and your physical security including your site alarm system and access control within your building. Depending on the cost of your downtime, perimeter security can also include offensive measures such as honey-pots and traps to gather information from attackers to pass on to authorities.
Dwell-time reduction security is software that runs on your devices that builds a context-based model of your users and identifies activity that is out of context. We’ll use the character, Susan, to illustrate how this technology works.
- Susan is an architectural technology, and she spends her time at dual monitor workstation drawing segments of staircases with CAD software to be included in building blueprints.
- Susan works from Monday to Friday, and with flex time has varying start and end times, but always within the 12-hour range of 6 am to 6 pm, and never on weekends.
- Susan typically only visits the company SharePoint website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few supplier websites that are all located within North America.
With a conventional strategy, it is difficult to identify when your perimeter security is compromised. The average median dwell time for attackers in 2018 was 101 days according to Mandiant reporting, meaning on average it took a business 100+ days to figure out someone unauthorized had access to their system, let alone resolve the breach. When Susan accidentally clicks ‘yes’ to allow the website script to run, she has told the antivirus to let the script do what it wants, so now how do you reduce the amount of dwell-time her attacker has on the system? We do this by leveraging cutting-edge context-based security software that builds a profile of the users over time. So with the example of Susan above, the context-aware security software would notice that her device and user account was active in the middle the of the night and sending network traffic to the Baltics and attempting to access server resources that her user has never tried to access before. All these factors together would push the system past the warning threshold, and an alert would be sent to you or your provider indicating that a user is compromised, reducing the dwell time of the attacker.
We recommend Endpoint Detection and Response from SentinelOne, which has been acquired by SolarWinds and is now part of their managed offering. For more detailed information, please review https://www.sentinelone.com/blog/active-edr-feature-spotlight/.
Now your business is working effectively; it’s time to connect with your preferred customers using effective marketing. There are many marketing philosophies, and I’m going to share my favorite small business strategy. The proper execution of this effective strategy results in a funnel of interested traffic going to the base of your funnel, which is typically your website.
Having your website as the base of your marketing funnel offers several advantages, but it does mean your marketing success rests on your website as a foundation. Regardless of what makes up the base of your funnel, it must be the most effective and polished component of your marketing.
Create a model of your perfect client using your existing customer data. Go through your customer history and find the customer that best represents your ideal customer. Call and offer them an incentive to meet with you and provide a recorded interview. Record how they search for your products on Google by handing them a laptop and watching what they type into Google. Do they type the full search term? Or do they pick one of the autocomplete suggestions? Now you have the first piece of your user model, and you can use it to optimize for Google search results for this campaign. What are their favorite colors? Now you know the background color of your ads for this campaign. Gather as much data as you can from your model customer to allow for the fewest assumptions when building your ads.
Build digital and traditional ads using your model and split test the ads until you have effective advertising reaching your favorite customers. The big difference between this small business approach and the typical approach to advertising is when you start your split testing. Your return on investment improves as you do less guessing on your marketing targets, which in turn requires less split testing to find effective advertising.
Use remarking to capture the 10-20% of the qualified traffic in your funnel that is interested, but not ready to commit right now. One of the most effective marketing strategies is following up with the people who want to buy but aren’t ready yet, so don’t forget to do remarketing using cookies and opt-in mailing lists.
Use Google analytics and other traffic tools to find the rough spots in your funnel where visitors get stuck. Smooth out these rough spots by building trust and lowering perceived risk to help them progress through your funnel.
Optimize your website as the base of your funnel for your marketing campaigns by using the keywords mined from your model in compelling and on-topic articles posted on your site. Avoid using strategies that employ tricks like keyword stuffing, because even if it works today, it’s not worth the punishment when you get caught and delisted from Google.
Optimize your off-site search engine rankings by connecting with your vendors or customers online and offering them articles and valuable content to post on their platforms for free, but with back-links to your domain. These back-links are the most important component of off-site search engine optimization as they raise the reputation of your domain and your position in relevant search results.