Technology can’t solve all small business problems, but it can make day-to-day work easier. Here are five tools every small business should use everyday to cut costs, add capability and help your company punch above its weight. None of them are expensive:
Smartphones, tablets and mobile apps: Phones can do so much more than make voice calls. If you do nothing else, use them to get email while on the move. There are millions of mobile apps replacing almost every possible computing task. Smartphone apps are cheap and, mainly, easy to use. Used properly a smartphone means you have all the information and functionality you need where-ever you happen to be. Expect to pay around NZ$1000 for a decent smartphone or tablet. Apps are usually less than NZ$10.
Cloud computing: Storing documents and data on remote cloud services is cheaper than running your own servers and less trouble to organise. Back-ups are automatic and, best of all, you can get at important information from your mobile gadgets while away from home or the office. Basic cloud services are free, suitable annual subscriptions for most small businesses will rarely run to more than a few hundred dollars.
Software as a service: Closely linked to cloud computing, software as a service (SaaS) means applications are delivered online. Remote servers do all the heavy lifting, this means in almost every case you can use powerful applications from a smartphone or tablet. Done well, SaaS means zero administration – you no longer need to worry about updates or making back-ups. Not always cheap, expect to pay anywhere up to around NZ$70 a month per application.
Digital communications: This includes voice-over-IP calls, instant messaging, video conferencing and collaboration tools. Staying in touch is important. The specific tools depend on what you do, in each case the cost of digital communications is lower than conventional communications and often there are other advantage. Largely free, although you’ll need to pay for the data traffic.
Company website: Go where the customers are; online. A website tells people where to find you and what to expect when they do. You can list your products and services, even do business directly from your own web site. Basic sites are free, expect to pay around $2000 for a more complicated, professionally made site.
Google’s decision to kill Google Reader underlines the risk you take when committing to the company’s technology stack. You really don’t know where you stand with Google and its products from one day to the next.
There’s an obvious danger relying on free software and services. The provider has no financial or contractual obligation to carry on delivering. Hardheaded commercial organisations like Google care little for any moral obligations.
What you might see as essential business tools exist only because of Google’s whim. The company can pull the plug at any moment.
This applies to Gmail and all the Google Drive apps. It applies to the Chrome browser, Google+, YouTube and Google Maps. All of these services are free. Google could stop them all tomorrow if it wishes.
As I wrote earlier: sometimes free is too high a price.
Google’s high-handed approach to running its business sounds alarm bells. I wouldn’t put my faith in a paid Google Apps account.
Sure Google has a financial incentive to keep Google Apps running, but the revenue from online business software is such a tiny fraction of the overall business that it could comfortably leave thousands of users in the lurch barely showing a blip on the annual result.
Closing Google Reader may only a small annoyance when taking a bigger picture view of technology, but it undermines trust in Google’s entire technology stack. A prudent business user can’t risk committing to an uncertain stack.
Cloud computing, all about counting those pennies?
Companies large and small are decommissioning information technology infrastructure as they move to cloud computing.
That’s not news. Cloud and as-a-service offerings have been widely discussed for years and are increasingly the new normal.
Cloud is often cheaper and more efficient than owning and maintaining infrastructure – especially where technology isn’t strategic.
Yet it isn’t always clear which approach has the lowest total cost of ownership because IT TCOs are notoriously hard to measure. Few company owners can tell you how much a specific self-hosted application costs to run. Cloud costs are much easier to gauge – you get a bill each month.
And few understand completely the financial and strategic implications of not having large IT investments on company balance sheets. Tax laws means companies depreciate installed systems over a several years. Traditional technology is capital expenditure. On the other hand cloud subscriptions are service payments and are written off immediately as operating costs.
A switch to the cloud frees capital for investment elsewhere. It also changes how people, especially at the top of businesses, think about technology. The implications of this aren’t yet fully clear, but most likely companies will become more nimble in their thinking.
There will be less sunk cost thinking – that’s where people argue “we’ve paid for this stuff we need to get a return on what we spent” – and more “what technology makes the best sense now” thinking.
This will give business owners more agility – they can better respond to changing conditions. This works just as well when expanding a business as when cutting costs.
Which could mean great turbulence. That’s not always a bad thing, change means opportunity, but it can also mean greater business uncertainty and more risk taking.
Alfred Burton, Mount Tarawera in Eruption – copyright free image from Auckland Art Gallery
VMWare took off with a hiss and a roar as companies squeezed servers into fewer and fewer boxes.
Server consolidation has been going on in earnest for more than a decade. I’ve seen numbers from analysts suggesting almost two-thirds of enterprise computing takes place in virtual machines.
The numbers could be higher in New Zealand.
Tim Dacombe-Bird, who runs VMWare’s NZ operation says Australia and New Zealand are ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to server virtualisation. He went on to say New Zealand is running well ahead of Australia. Which means New Zealand could be a world leader when it comes to virtualisation.
This makes sense to me. I still remember in the late 1980s talking to Tom West from Data General who told me New Zealanders squeeze hardware further than users in other countries.
Then as now it was all about economics. New Zealand is a relatively small economy, our organisations are smaller, our data needs are smaller so IT costs spread over a narrower base. This is less about doing things on the cheap and more about maximising efficiency.
Lenovo ThinkPad T430u Ultrabook
While researching a story on business Ultrabooks I stumbled over Lenovo’s T430u ThinkPad. It looks like a good choice for business users preferring a Windows PC over a tablet.
If I was in the market for an Ultrabook, I’d choose this.
Why? Because the T430u is a business tool, not a toy.
Like all Ultrabooks, the T430u is slim and light – Lenovo has packed it in an aluminium case. Better, it passes US military spec tests which means its more than tough enough for most New Zealand businesses. There’s also built-in web conferencing – a huge bonus.
Best of all, Lenovo has sharpened its pencil on pricing to the point where the T430u range represents some of the best value around. Prices start at NZ$1025 for the model with i3 processor, 2GB of Ram and a 320GB hard drive.The top of the line $1550 model has an i7 processor, 8GB of Ram and a 128GB solid state drive.
Loading logs at Gisborne
Three days ago I watched a series of lorries barrel through Gisborne carrying unprocessed logs to the port where they were loaded on to a ship.
That wood is heading overseas. Workers in another country will add value.
New Zealand unlocked just a small part of the wealth tied up in those logs.
We ate in The Works, a restaurant housed in an old Gisborne port building. There chefs took locally produced raw materials like fish, meat and vegetables then added value by turning them into $30 plates of food. We sipped Gisborne Chardonnay – a few cents worth of grapes turned into $40 bottles of wine.
At the time I thought how the economy would be boosted if New Zealand could move more of its economy higher up the value chain.
That’s what the Callaghan Institute could do. If the project succeeds, it won’t just move food, agriculture and wood processing up the value chain, it will help our industries capture the crowning heights. It’ll make us richer as a nation.
There’s a danger it could just become another top-heavy bureaucracy acting to widen the gap between innovators and the market. What we don’t need it more paperwork or more red tape. We certainly don’t need officials meddling at the sharp end of the economy.
Let’s hope CI can broker partnerships between innovators and industry. I’d like to see the new organisation get a few early runs on the board to prove its worth.