When it's a bad idea to phone a friend

Asking your mates to fix your IT problems seems like a cheap option - but it might well turn out to be a false economy...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Here's an amusing stat from PC World Business: apparently no fewer than 1.3m UK SME owners have turned to friends and family to help with their IT problems in the last six months, a tactic the retailer has dubbed 'matesourcing'. This isn't entirely surprising: when business is tough and cash is tight, you can't blame people for being reluctant to splash out on expensive IT support and advice. But if it actually makes the problem worse, it'll probably cost them more money in the long run...

According to a PC World Business survey, 28% of SMEs have resorted to matesourcing lately, which apparently is 20% more than six months ago (some are so desperate that they've even called upon their next door neighbour - like the Gold Blend advert, but with network cables). However, in nearly half of these cases, their friends' efforts have caused or failed to prevent further IT problems down the line - at which point they've had to shell out to get it fixed properly anyway.

Taking advice on purchasing decisions is also a risky business: the survey found that technology is the biggest outlay for small firms when they're starting up (even ahead of stuff like wages), so getting it wrong can be an expensive mistake. In other words, don't see phoning a friend as a lifeline, as PC World Business MD Phil Birbeck puts it (geddit?).

PC World Business does have a vested interest here; it's currently running a series of workshops in its stores where SME owners can turn up and get some free advice on how to run their IT systems and what they should be buying. 'No one goes into business to spend money or time on computers,' says Birbeck. 'So the challenge is to find cost effective support so they can concentrate on their customers.'

Apprentice Series Two winner Michelle Dewberry, who's been drafted in to lend a bit of business nous (and celebrity glamour, natch) to proceedings, reckons she's dabbled in a bit of matesourcing herself. 'I'm always asking people for advice, even if they know nothing about IT,' she tells MT. And she wasn't surprised to see so many business owners coming along to the workshops and taking a real interest in technology.'You can't afford not to,' she says. 'If you don't plan your technology carefully, it can cost a lot more in the long run. Even if you're still a small business, you need to plan for that growth.'

Happily, Dewberry, who's now running group buying business thedailychic.com, is a big advocate for life as an entrepreneur - even at the moment. 'I just think there's no time like the present. Yes, it's difficult; yes, customers are more cautious. But there's always a reason not to do something; in 6 months' time it'll be something else. It's a difficult challenge, but I've been telling people: you have far more security when you're in charge of your own destiny.' Let's hope some of these SME owners take her advice and build some big companies of their own. Who knows - maybe in a few years some of them may even be gracing our Top 100 Entrepreneurs list...

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