Technology can be so appealing for smaller businesses. It offers the tools they need to do battle with larger corporations and, via the internet, to play on a global stage. It may even help them work more efficiently if they apply it carefully. On the other hand, technology is complicated, hard to manage, constantly evolving - and sometimes goes wrong. If you don't have the skills to make it all work properly, and make no plans for a system failure, you are in a worse position than if you'd stayed with a paper-based system.
Business owners shopping for new computers, networks, software and services face an array of choices. They may have read magazines, taken advice from their teenage children and talked to other people in the same position, but few go properly prepared to make what may be their most important investment.
'People tend to turn up on our doorstep when they've got a problem, or some change has occurred at their organisation to force them to re-think what they're doing,' says Mark MacGregor, head of Connect Support Services, a consultancy specialising in small businesses. Many companies, he says, survive by using a local expert who can come round and fix things when they go wrong, but there comes a stage - possibly through expansion - that the 'one-man-band who's looked after them so far is no longer up to the job'.
This leaves one of two routes: start taking on IT specialists and set up an internal IT department, or take on a consultancy that will help you make the best of your budget.
MacGregor has a collection of simple tips for small firms making the transition, and says it's usually easy to make significant savings just by re-organising the way the company operates. For instance, if it has bought several individual licences for PC software, it can save by switching to a multi-user licence.
When buying new PCs, don't be overcome with gigabyte-envy and buy the biggest you can afford. Office PCs need be only basic models with a processor and memory suitable for the applications that you'll run - normally, Windows, Office and your company database. Most files will sit on the server anyway, so local PCs need very little storage. In fact, giving users tons of space on their PCs will only encourage them to store family photos and YouTube videos.
Offices also tend to end up with a range of devices - such as photocopiers, scanners, faxes and various printers attached to desktop PCs. These could all be replaced by a single shared multi-function device, capable of handling all those tasks for the whole office. The savings in electricity alone can be worth having, and you have only one device to maintain with toner and paper. A secondary benefit is that staff will be less likely to print unnecessary documents if they have to get out of their chair to visit the printer. And, still on the subject of power saving, get staff to turn off their PCs at night before leaving the office. It all helps to cut costs.
Avoid complexity wherever possible. For instance, if staff have laptops, get them all the same model with the same software. Advises MacGregor: 'Don't flit from brand to brand because it saves you the occasional few pounds; rather, get the same manufacturer and same software versions. This makes troubleshooting more efficient and allows you to purchase equipment in bulk where appropriate. They will also have a number of compatible parts, particularly laptops. Having standard equipment will make it easier to support your IT and cheaper for you.'
Many companies acquire bits of technology over time with little overall grand plan. So for Mitchell Feldman, head of the Internet Group, any contact with a new client begins with an audit of its systems. That means going through the whole set-up, assessing whether equipment is fit for purpose, whether the warranties on the hardware are still in force, and if software licensing is up-to-date and takes advantage of volume discounts.
The consultant will also ensure that the broadband service is right for the business, and check that internet domains are registered correctly. In one case, for instance, Feldman found that a web designer had registered his client's web domain under his own name. In other words, the company did not own its own internet identity. 'The audit is usually quite damning,' says Feldman. 'It's frightening for the business owners, but it means they can make decisions based on knowledge rather than guessing. They can then produce a logical roadmap of how to get where they want to be.'
Companies can then set about using the technology to support more efficient working. For instance, simple things like electronic diaries will help co-ordinate what members of staff are doing, and make it easier to schedule meetings. Putting data in one place for people to share also creates a consistent view of the information, and cuts out any duplicated effort in entering data. And if everyone on the office network can view the information, why not go one stage further and allow staff on the road to dial in and view the information they need - whether it be the appointment diary, stock levels of goods or the status of a customer's delivery.
In fact, some firms go the whole hog and allow customers to access their files via a website and check their own orders or stock levels. That way, office staff spend less time answering telephone enquiries.
All these moves will make the company more efficient, but will also increase the dependence of its staff on the proper working of the systems, so any plan needs to encompass regular back-ups of files and a clear and well-rehearsed plan for business continuity. Floods, power cuts, terrorist attacks and ordinary systems failures can all bring the company to a halt if no-one has considered the possibility beforehand and made provision for it. 'We ask people to think how much it would cost them if they lost their IT for an hour, for a day or even longer,' says Feldman. 'They often don't realise how much they depend on it.'
Having made that assessment, companies can then plan to back up files regularly, preferably taking the back-ups off-site in case of fire or flood. Or they may prefer to give the job to one of the many companies that offer automated file back-up as a service.
One of these is Iron Mountain Digital, which offers a hosted subscription service for companies with five employees or more. Ken Yearwood, who manages the company's Nordic region business, describes it as an insurance policy. 'We provide business continuity, e-mail continuity and back-up, for a small amount compared to the overall IT budget,' he says. 'The company management can decide which files are business-critical and which users' files need to be backed up.'
The service operates by taking regular copies of the nominated files and e-mail boxes, so that in the event of a breakdown, the data is not lost or inaccessible.
Physical security is, of course, only part of the picture. The internet is a dangerous place, where viruses and other threats can disrupt your systems. At the very least, instal anti-virus software and a firewall, and keep them up-to-date. Anti-spam software will keep out the 90% or so of e-mail traffic that is either just junk mail or carrying an infection.
It may make sense to consider outsourcing the process of filtering e-mail to a specialist company. That way, incoming mail goes first through their systems, where spam and viruses are stripped out and only valid e-mails are forwarded to you.
The last piece of the security jigsaw is to make sure your own staff behave themselves. Left unmonitored, they can while away their working days looking for cheap holidays, downloading music tracks for their iPods, or even viewing porn websites.
Worse still, they can steal information. Feldman tells of one small specialist recruitment company in which two staff took copies of the database and set up in competition. And since data theft is a civil matter, the owner would have had to mount a private prosecution against the culprits, something he could ill afford. And yet simple software tools exist to allow certain types of websites to be blocked, e-mails to be monitored and logged, and certain files to be protected from copying. It is just a question of applying the right technology in the right way.
With all the bases covered and security in place, small companies really can start exploiting the technology to good effect. As the case studies show, mobile communications give staff the flexibility to work anywhere - at home, with a client - as if they were sitting in the office, and to be more effective.
And if capital budgets are really tight, or you just don't want the bother of managing all the technology, consider using software as a service, rather than purchasing a licence and running it yourself. That model was pioneered by companies like Salesforce.com and has been widely adopted elsewhere.
Finally, consider using a hosted telephone service rather than having your own telephone exchange. Even with a couple of lines, you'll benefit from features that come only on big exchanges, and if all your staff work from home, you can have one incoming number, with calls routed to the right person.
The technology can present the image of a big organisation to the outside world, and make your teams work smarter. Just make sure you know what to do when it fails - as it always will.
KERRIE KEELING - HOW SOFTWARE HELPS TO KEEP CLIENTS HAPPY FOR A WOMAN'S TOUCH
Kerrie Keeling quit her job in investment banking in 2003 to set up a home maintenance company with a difference - all the tradespeople would be women. 'I realised there was a gap in the market for female tradespeople as, often, women can feel uncomfortable and intimidated at having a strange man in their house,' she says.
She put herself through short courses in decorating, plumbing, tiling, electrics and carpentry and then launched A Woman's Touch, specialising in interior and exterior decorating. She started off working from a bedroom with her PC, a landline and a mobile phone, but as the company grew, this set-up got pretty unstable. In 2005, she experienced 'an enormous crash' of her PC system.
'The computer died and I lost absolutely everything. I had no back-ups.' She pulled in an IT services company called Solutios, which retrieved some data. Keeling was impressed by the way Solutios worked, using SPV smartphones from Orange - similar to the Blackberry - which enabled staff to receive and send e-mails. Its system is hosted remotely and everything is backed up daily.
She followed suit. 'I invested heavily in giving my team SPVs as well. They were working in different locations, but this allowed them to dial into the central network and share files,' she says. 'We can e-mail team members during the day while they are out on jobs. They can also take photos of what they need and e-mail them to us or to the client to show them what needs doing.'
Clients like it, because they are usually working and don't want to sit on the phone discussing plumbing problems. 'They much prefer e-mail contact,' she says.
But the cumbersome spreadsheets through which she managed the projects and finances started to creak. 'Turnover had got to about £250,000 and it was getting ridiculous trying to combine everything on the spreadsheets.' She invested in software from Sage, which specialises in financial software for smaller companies. 'I started off with its Startup package as a trial run. I thought it was fantastic, and really easy to use. I went for SageLine 50. This is a bit advanced for my needs now, but it has the project facility, which is invaluable, because I can see how profitable individual projects are. It helps me from a strategic view, to work out where I want to take the business, what works, and what doesn't.'
She runs the software on her own server. Solutios handles all her back-ups and provides her with on-site support for all systems. 'I always thought I was computer-literate and would probably be alright. But things go wrong all the time - a screen freezes or something needs doing. So I pick up the phone, and they either come in or dial in remotely to see what's happening,' says Keeling. 'It's the best money I spend.'
Everyone in the company uses the SPVs to share contacts and calendar information. 'For instance, we can book appointments in our estimator's calendar and put the details in her contacts list. While she is walking around the site with the client, she types all the details into the SPV; that synchronises with what we see in the office, and we can write out the quote. It means we can give our clients really good service as well.'
The Wimbledon-based company now employs 32 people and covers an area from Cambridge to Brighton, with a new offshoot servicing British expats in Spain.
Buoyed by the success, Keeling has just launched a new company to do bigger jobs, such as lofts and basements, but this time the spreadsheets are absent. 'Having learned my lesson on the technology front, I bought my Sage package before I started the company. So this time I'm doing it right and, I can tell you, it makes a world of difference.'
GRAHAM LLOYD-ROBERTS - BELLWETHER MANAGES WITHOUT AN OFFICE
Founded in 1998 after the privatisation of British Rail, Bellwether Enterprises specialises in engineering and technical consulting for the railway industry. It has no office and just nine staff who work from home, linked through broadband internet.
From conventional e-mail, the firm has now moved on to a hosted service that provides shared calendars and contacts, better security and improved web access. Each consultant carries a 3G Palm Treo smart phone and a laptop computer with 3G wireless communication to allow them to log on to the internet from any hotspot. They have one monthly face-to-face meeting, and mainly use e-mail the rest of the time.
But rather than instal and run its own in-house e-mail server, the firm has a hosted service based on Microsoft's Solution for Hosted Exchange 2003, provided by Cobweb Solutions.All the consultants have Windows XP Professional and Outlook 2003 on their laptops, enabling them to synchronise with the information held on the Hosted Exchange servers. This way, they can refer to their messages and schedules even when they are not online.
'A company with this structure would not have been possible even five years ago,' says Graeme Lloyd-Roberts, Bellwether's MD. 'However, developments in technology such as Hosted Exchange and the widespread availability of broadband wireless networks and mobile phones mean that we are not constrained by the lack of physical offices.'
He reckons the system saves them more than £50,000 a year, by not having to rent an office, and through reduced travel costs. 'We are still operating without an office and have expanded tenfold since our founding, and having Hosted Exchange has been a big part of our success."
TOP TIPS FOR WISE IT INVESTMENT
Make a business case. Decide what you want to achieve. Don't buy kit and then find uses for it afterwards.
Stick to standards - that will ensure systems operate together
Budget for regular back-ups of all your files
Budget for a disaster recovery plan, and test it regularly.
Consider software as a service - this will cut capital investments.
Consider having a managed service for computer hardware, and for the phone system. This saves on internal support, capital expenditure, and may bring 'big company' features.
Use communications systems to allow staff to be more mobile.
Implement centralised calendars to help co-ordinate appointments and meetings.
Implement customer-relationship management software - it supports better service and helps identify best customers.
Consider offering self-service for customers - give them access to your systems to check stocks, orders. It saves having to answer queries.
Budget to keep systems secure - protect against viruses and other internet-borne infections.