IT is everywhere in your small business environment, from your business’ internet hookup to your website to your credit card processing system. If you’re just starting out with your company, building your IT infrastructure can seem like a big haul. In truth, you can start small and grow it as you go along — but you do need a plan from the get-go.
Not long ago, much of the latest technology was only available (read: affordable) to the biggest companies. Now, with a flood of new smaller IT players, and big players such as Microsoft, Oracle, Apple, and SAP trying to tap the small business market, prices are dropping.
And it goes without saying that software is becoming available via the Web as “software as a service” or SaaS, replacing more expensive boxed software that needs to be purchased outright and installed. Think about Intuit’s popular QuickBooks product. A few years ago, the only option for QuickBooks was to buy a copy at BestBuy for up to $400 and install it via CDs — and keep buying new copies every year or two as the product updated. Now QuickBooks is available online for under $20 per month, and you always have the most up-to-date features.
So where do you start when it comes to thinking about IT? Every small business needs the basics: computers and/or tablets, internet connectivity, accounting software, and a website. The resources below should help you along the way.
Let’s Talk Hardware
Pro tip: You need a computer. Many small business owners, when their companies are starting out, tend to split their personal computer into double duty. As you start thinking about your business and its roadmap, it’s important to make sure you have the right computer for your company, and ideally that you’re using one dedicated only to your business. While many new laptops are universally powerful, you should take stock of the kind of programs you’ll need to run — web browser-based tools, accounting software, maybe even marketing and graphic design software — and have a business computer powerful enough to run the programs you need.
Another great tool for small business owners with a storefront is a tablet that runs as a point of sale (POS) system. Some point of sale tools to look into are Square, Intuit, Shopify, Erply, and Shopkeep. If you want to learn more about POS systems, Entrepreneur has a great overview.
Your Internet Connection
Getting your internet set up at your business, similar to your home, often doesn’t leave you with a lot of choices. Many cities and towns only have one or two large-scale internet providers to choose from. If you’re shopping between two, make sure you compare their small business rates not just for your immediate needs, but for your needs one and two years down the road.
If your business needs to start looking into next-level internet hardware, like routers, switches, and even firewalls, there’s a few good recourse out there for comparison. Check out reviews and charts on PCWorld, Small Business Computing, and CNet.
Your Website Is Your Most Important Marketing Tool
Your website is your small business’ front door on the internet. Having your website up and active — and having your small business’ information registered with Google and other search engines — can mean millions of dollars in revenue.
When it comes to getting a website up and running, there are two things you need right off the bat: a website provider, and hosting. Nowadays, many website providers also offer free hosting. Some examples of small business website providers that also offer free hosting are: Squarespace, Weebly, WordPress, Wix, and Shopify (if you have an online store). Here’s a great comparison of a few website builders. If you decide to build your website on another platform, and you just need web hosting, here’s a handy comparison chart of some of the larger providers.
Get Your Finances And Inventory In Order
There are a lot of accounting and payroll software tools and interfaces out there. It’s important that you shop around for the tools that fit your needs, where you plan to grow to in five years, and also the operating system you’re using. There’s a good comparison in CIO Magazine of some of the bigger players: QuickBooks Online, FreshBooks, and Xero. You’ll also find a comparison chart on Fit Small Business showing the differences between QuickBooks, Xero, and Wave.
When it comes to payroll management, your options expand even further. Chances are your bank has a small business payroll service, which you should look into, and then compare it against some of the larger tech players in IT, like Intuit, ADP, Paychex, Zen Payroll, and Sage.
IT Support Along The Way
What happens when an issue pops up in your IT infrastructure, and the vendor you bought it from says it’s not in their ability to fix? As an example, your POS system suddenly can’t connect to your WiFi. The POS system’s customer support tells you it’s a problem with the router from your internet provider. Your internet provider tells you it’s a problem with the POS system. So … now what?
There are a lot of locally-based IT support companies that work with small businesses. If you do a search for “IT support services in [your city/town/state]” you’ll probably find a few. These companies can also help you set up an initial IT infrastructure for your company, if you’re interested in pursuing something like that, it can serve as a good substitute for a company that isn’t large enough to warrant an in-house IT person.
Some players in the IT support field you may want to look into are Responza, Dataprise, MindShift, ACS, EverOn, Power Solution, Voyage, CSM, and (if you’re in the Bay Area) Kinetix (who we use here at BusinessAdvising.org).
So How Do I Pay For This Stuff?
If you’re like most small business owners, two things you probably aren’t thinking about when you’re building out your business: an IT roadmap and an IT budget for future years. Just as you do with your financial plan, marketing and sales plans, and operations plan, your IT plan is an integral part of the roadmap that keeps your company sustainable. Take time to look at where you are now, and where you want to be in five years, and decide where and when your IT needs will need to change and grow. Set aside an IT budget each year to meet those goals, and include any funds for staff training and consultants you might need to bring in. Also, build a bucket into your IT budget for unexpected expenses. Your sales lead or your store manager suddenly spilling a cup of coffee across a laptop can mean $2,000 you hadn’t planned to spend that quarter.
Having a roadmap for your technology should not be put on the back burner. As a growing small business, you need to cover your bases, and use technology to support and bolster your goals. If you don’t put the time into thinking about your IT and budgeting for it over time, you’ll end up with unexpected costs, and often feel like you’re playing catchup with new technologies, instead of staying out in front.