In a modest departure from the type of posts I usually pen, I’ve decided to write this time not about tips, tricks or how-to’s but rather reflect on what this past year has revealed about how IT is changing, growing, developing in the small business space.
I think it’s safe to say that there is a definite, almost visible line that separates consumer from business technology. This is especially true for larger companies that tend to need more robust solutions for their technology problems. I can’t say the same is true for small business though; while PC makers have differentiated between consumer, small business and enterprise in their product lines for years, I’ve found that this year, more and more, we’ve considered consumer software, services and “gadget” solutions for our small business clients. No longer is it the case that software and services that are specifically tailored to consumers is “no good” for business use. For a small company with less than 20 employee’s there’s no reason not to consider LogMeIn as a REAL remote access solution versus a more complicated VPN and maybe Remote Desktop setup. The importance of having access to your files everywhere, means that we’ve walked into environments where there is no server but Dropbox is installed on each employee’s laptop. Is Dropbox specifically a business solution for sharing files? Not at all, (although now they do have a business plan, they call it Dropbox for Teams) but provided that the information being shared isn’t “three-letter-agency TOP SECRET” why shouldn’t a small business use it if it makes sense for them?
We’ve also had a few clients specifically ask us about iPad‘s; they wanted to know how and iPad could fit into their “technology lifestyle” (my quotes, not theirs). Some other client’s were a bit more proactive, and would come to us after the fact and say “Hey, I got myself an iPad and I have an app that let’s me access my desktop at the office and an app that let’s me review client files…” The great thing about small business IT is that it doesn’t have to go through tons of red tape before it’s adopted by users, and depending on what you need, an iPad my be the perfect device for you to get work done while you’re away from the office. I think for most users (especially in a Windows environment with specific Windows only applications) a laptop is still probably the best portable device, but I don’t see that being the case for much longer.
Enterprise IT has been struggling in the past few years as employee’s have been ditching their Blackberry’s for iPhone’s and Android based handsets. The IT organization has had to find solutions other than BES to manage mobile device security. Small Business IT hasn’t really had these issues around mobile device management and security. What we have come across this year is a lot of: “Hey I got a new [insert name of device here] how to I get my mail and contacts on it?” and then we have to figure out how seamless the integration is going to be between their new device and their e-mail server or provider. The truth is that consumers have quite a few options for getting e-mail, contacts and calendar synced across their multiple devices with offerings from Google, Microsoft and Apple. The fact that both Google and Microsoft have solutions specifically tailored to small business means that these services that consumers have enjoyed over the past few years have moved up to the small business space in terms of features but remained decidedly prosumer in terms of pricing and we’ve found ourselves implementing either solution where the case was right.
This portion of this blog post is brought to you by the buzzwords “virtual” and “cloud”, words which we couldn’t seem to get away from this year. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that 95% of the clients or potential clients we got in front of this year specifically asked us about “going virtual” or “using the cloud”. After hours of evaluating different scenarios, solutions, use cases etc. we’ve come to two fairly simple conclusions:
1. Virtual Desktop technology is not yet priced right for small businesses. Unless your business is currently managing close to 100 desktops, you’re unlikely to save any money by rolling out VDI. The caveat however is that if you have very basic software needs, and a distributed workforce of less than 10 users a Microsoft based Remote Desktop Solution may fit your small business perfectly.
2. Hosted E-mail and Collaboration is the only cost effective way to handle e-mail in a small business environment. As I’ve mentioned before we’ve deployed both Google Apps solutions and Microsoft BPOS and now Office 365 solutions for some of our clients. Most of these clients were previously on basic POP/IMAP e-mail service from their web host so moving to a collaboration platform like Google Apps or Office 365 completely changed the way their business functioned with the ability to share calendars and communicate using IM. It’s clear though that small businesses that are currently managing e-mail using an on-premise server stand to gain a lot from moving to hosted solution, especially where the path is on-premises Microsoft Exchange Server to Office 365. For businesses not as tied to Microsoft products (Windows, Office etc.) Google Apps continues to be an excellent option.
As always every case is different but over the past year we’ve found these general observations to hold true.
It’s heartening to look forward to next year and wonder what new and exciting technologies we’ll come across that will benefit our clients. Undoubtedly prices will continue to fall, and new small business technologies will mean that you won’t need a 20K IT budget to get robust IT solutions for your small business.
Here at Invizio we spend a lot of time advising small business owners on how to get the most bang for their buck with respect to IT investments. While the only option for some clients is to purchase specialized software and systems, there are also a ton of free or inexpensive alternatives on the market . One of the most fascinating things for me personally has been the evolution of the web and the growth of rich web applications that put functionality and user experience at the forefront for little or no cost to the user. Many of these applications offer features that small businesses can leverage to operate similarly to their larger counterparts and without breaking the bank. So here are 5 applications that we either use in-house at Invizio or recommend to our clients and friends to help them be more productive everyday.
Yes, its not just one application but Google’s suite of Mail, Contacts, Calendar & Docs applications is in my opinion the best option for small businesses that want a strong mix of collaboration and mobility features without investing in an onsite email server. Available in two business editions (Standard, Premier), you can configure Apps to work with your company domain (e.g. invizio.com) and create accounts for all of your employees to receive mail, share calendars and collaborate on documents.
What I really enjoy about Apps is the convenience and flexibility that it offers. While you may access Apps via the web interface, features like push mail and calendar/contact syncing are available for mobile users through Google Sync on mobile device platforms like Android, Blackberry and iPhone.
Cost: Standard Edition: Free (supports up to 50 users); Premier Edition: $50 per mailbox annually (no ads, technical support & better Outlook integration)
How to Get It: You can get started with Google Apps at www.google.com/a/.
Google Apps has almost everything I need to be productive on a daily basis except a proper tasks application. So when I stopped using Microsoft Outlook a few months ago, I needed a replacement that would offer similar task management features and go well with my Blackberry as well. Remember the Milk fits the bill (free). The application provides an intuitive online interface to manage tasks allowing you to create as many lists as you’d like and lets you share tasks with family, friends or coworkers. There are a bunch of ways you can get new tasks into the application, but by upgrading to Remember the Milk Pro you get the option of syncing with your mobile device.
Cost: Free; $25 per year for Remember the Milk Pro (mobile sync functionality)
Where to Get It: Never forget another task (or milk run) at www.rememberthemilk.com.
After noticing that my best email sending hours are really late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, I didn’t want my contacts to think I was an insomniac (which for the record, I’m not). The Deferred Sender service lets you schedule the delivery of email messages at a date/time in the future. The service is free, reliable, and can be configured to notify when your message has been delivered. One of my favorite uses of the service is to schedule follow up e-mails within 24 hrs of meeting someone at a networking event and not have to worry about fitting it into my schedule the next day.
Where to Get It:Start scheduling e-mails today by signing up at www.deferredsender.com.
I can’t tell you the last time that I actually checked my voicemail, and it’s not because I’m rude or have a problem with voice messages. It’s because of Google Voice. Now finally open for public sign-up, Google Voice gives you a separate phone number in any area code you like and lets you redirect your voicemail inbox so that your voicemails can be transcribed and sent to you by text or email. You can configure your Google Voice number to ring and forward to any number you like, control your availability, screen calls and record custom voice greetings. We often recommend Google Voice for solopreneurs who rather not give out their personal cell phone number or need a business phone number.
How to Get It: Visit www.google.com/voice to get started.
Of course there are tons of places online to store files, but we have an app-crush on Dropbox. This online storage service goes the extra mile by offering 30-day revision snapshots and a convenient online interface. The application works on Windows, Mac or Linux uploads your most recent file changes to the cloud, provides collaboration features and is simply awesome on the go with iPhone, iPad or Android. Dropbox really shines in situations when you need to share file updates on file types that are not easy to shuttle back on forth via email. The basic (free) package kicks off at 2GB, but you can swindle your way into an additional 8GB of space by getting others to join.
Cost: Free (2GB, Basic edition); $9.99/month (50GB); $19.99/month (100GB)
How to Get It: Get your very own at Dropbox at www.dropbox.com
If you use any of these or any other applications to be more productive, please tell us what you think.