Wednesday, June 15, 2011

IT Tips for Start-up / Small Businesses

When you move from a corporate environment with dedicated IT support to a small business start-up (with a few people working together) where you suddenly have no in-house IT support and have to be even more vigilant about spending money, you can either spend the money to replicate your previous working environment, or take a step back and look at what's on offer and see what can make life easier. Here are a few applications that I have found useful:

E-mail/Calendar: Most corporate users are already familiar with Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes, but the infrastructure to support these software don't come cheap. If you are already using Google Mail or Yahoo or another web-based e-mail, then you have already experienced a bit of cloud computing. With Google, you can set the e-mail up so that you can have the e-mail address with your own domain name rather than the usual @gmail.com or @googlemail.com. The beauty of this is that you don't have to carry your computer around to download and check your e-mails, and you can check your e-mails and calendar using most of the mobile devices as long as you have access to internet. Google even have an offline access so that you can download the e-mails and work on them if the internet access is unreliable (eg if you are on a train and about to go through a few tunnels!)

Phone Calls: Many people are already using Skype for PC-to-PC calls, but it's worth purchasing one of the Skype paid plans to allow you to call landlines or abroad cheaply. This is especially useful if you have to call a "toll-free" number abroad - with your normal phone, you still have to pay, but with Skype, I have participated in many conference calls outside the UK. Skype is also great if you want to do a teleconference with people from multiple locations. For a PC-to-PC call, you can also share the screen with the other user which is handy if you need to review something together or show the other user how to do something on screen.

File Sharing / Collaborative tools: Most people still like sending files by e-mail but if this can quickly get out of control if you are working on draft documents and the files are updated constantly by multiple people. Even if it's on a server, usually only one person can edit the document while the others have read access only. With cloud computing, multiple people can edit the same file and the updates can be seen in real time - making the collaborative effort a lot easier, and since there's only one file, you don't end up with multiple versions with the risk of the modifications spreading over different versions. Google Docs is one of such tools available if you want to do simple word processing, spreadsheet or presentation stuff. It can also generate a representation of your Microsoft Word, Excel or Powerpoint file but the layout may be messed up depending on how you upload the files. One way to really combine Google Docs and Microsoft Office and harness the power of the combination is to have Google Cloud Connect or OffiSync - imagine using Google Docs as simply your file sharing area, and you still use Microsoft Office to open and edit your documents. Obviously Google Docs or other online file-sharing applications (eg DropBox, Box.net etc) may not be suitable, or you need to assess the risk vs benefit, if you need specific server configuration to meet certain requirements or compliance.

Web Conferencing/Webinar: If you need to share slides or screen with a group of users over the internet, many corporate users immediately think of WebEx. However this may turn out to be quite costly, and there are a few applications around that can do an adequate job: one tool I have tried out is Present Online Now which allows you to set up a web conferencing room very quickly and it's even free if you have no more than 10 participants at any one time.

There are many other open source or cloud computing applications that are cost effective and can simply things in life (eg before you compile a large spreadsheet with your customer contact details, consider a customer relationship management tool like Insightly ; or if you just need a tool to convert files to PDF occasionally, consider PDF 995). Google Apps provides a wide range of tools to help you to get started in your business, from Gmail to Google Docs for file sharing to Google Sites for a very intuitive way to build websites. Keep an open mind and look around - I'd be interested to hear your experience and thoughts, especially if you are a small business or about to leave the corporate environment to set up your own business.


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