Technology is powerful. That power can be translated into dollars and cents, when it helps you run your business more efficiently and more profitably. The good news is: there's a lot of technology out there that is cost-effective and packs a punch for a small business. The bad news is: there's a lot of technology out there - making things very confusing.
In my line of business I receive on average 4 to 6 press releases or announcements each day about new technology offerings for small businesses. You can find technology to do nearly anything today. But if I had to choose just 10 technologies and say 'use these to run your business more effectively without spending an arm and a leg' my list would include the following:
1. Business website - If you already have a website, super! Consider improving your site -- and skip on to no. 2. But if you're one of those still on the fence about a website - don't be. A website gives your business reach to a larger audience and potential customer base. Today, customers and prospects expect businesses to have an online presence. They look for businesses online. Even if they learned of your business some other way, they go online to check your business out - whether to get directions, find your hours of operation, or research your products and services. If you don't have a big budget, start with a free or low-cost offering designed just for small businesses. Microsoft Office Live Small Business. Intuit and Google are just three of the companies offering free or low cost websites for small businesses. Some domain name companies, such as Network Solutions, also offer tools to create websites.
2. Anti-virus software - Every computer you and your staff uses needs to be equipped with an anti-virus software package - if you wish to avoid hours of headaches, lost productivity and unusable computers due to malware infections. Get a package that includes anti-spam protection, along with Internet security to protect users from malicious websites while surfing the web. Be sure to keep such software up to date with a subscription. That's your protection against new viruses and malware that are released all the time.
3. Accounting software - Any seasoned business owner will tell you that a keen understanding of your financials increases your odds of success. For that you must have up-to-date accounting records. Luckily, technology automates and takes the drudgery out of keeping your books. Even better, today's software gives you reports and dashboards to intelligently use your financial data to make business decisions. Plus, most of the software vendors make it easy for you to share your records with your accountant or tax preparer. Intuit's QuickBooks, Microsoft Office Accounting Express, Peachtree, and a growing variety of simpler bookkeeping or accounting applications, such as LessAccounting and Outright, are just some of the many choices.
4. Google account - Google offers a collection of tools, products and services that I consider essential for small businesses. Set yourself up with a Google account and you can get access to a free business listing in Google Local; free calendars and email; free spreadsheet, word processing and presentation software; free analytics software to analyze the traffic to your website; the Google Webmaster tools panel to help you monitor your presence in the Google search engine; and much more. Did I mention most of the tools are free? 'Nuff said.
5. File backup system - One of the biggest 'gotchas' for small businesses is having a computer meltdown and losing your hard drive - only to realize that you just lost years worth of precious customer and financial records. Ouch! Don't get caught this way. Make sure you have a fail-proof infrastructure in place to back up computer files. There are a number of ways to do this. You can use a Flash thumb drive or CDs to manually copy your files. I prefer either an external disk drive along with automatic backup software, or an online backup service. In the latter two cases you don't have to remember to do a backup. Once you have verified your automatic backup schedule, you can forget it until you ever need to restore your files.
6. Virtual switchboard - Technology can help you manage your telephone presence much more efficiently and cost effectively. With a virtual switchboard software application, you can easily arrange for a custom-recorded greeting for your main phone line; routing to departments and employees; advanced voice mail options; follow-me call forwarding with call screening; and toll-free numbers. These applications are called 'virtual' because you manage them through a Web-based admin panel and they do not require buying expensive equipment. They typically provide more powerful 'presence management' options than your phone provider alone offers for a small business budget.
7. Smart phone - One of the biggest productivity tools - and a liberating tool than enables you and your staff to be mobile and not tied to the office - are smart phones and handheld devices such as the iPhone, BlackBerry, or Palm. Armed with such devices, your employees can complete transactions outside of the office, stay in communication at all times, and increase overall efficiency and productivity.
8. Laptop - Assuming your organization has a full complement of desktop computers, let's talk portable laptops for a moment. Having at least one shared laptop in your business serves several practical purposes. It allows you or someone else to take it on visits to clients; give marketing presentations; and hold meetings offsite. Giving employees the use of laptops of their own allows them to be more productive while on business travel -- or even to work from home on occasion. Hardware prices continue to drop and with careful shopping you may find laptops in the $500 range on sale.
9. Intranet or team collaboration space - With so many teams working from multiple locations, or with outside vendors and contractors, online collaboration spaces are growing in popularity. These are private Web spaces where you can access shared files, manage project deadlines, and communicate/work together. Think of it as your office space online. Google Apps for Business; Central Desktop; Basecamp and Box.net are just some of the choices. Compare features carefully and test drive a few offerings if you can -- there's surprising variance in the offerings in this space.
10. Web conferencing solution and webcam - Finally, I'd suggest having a Web conferencing solution, along with a webcam, for live meetings held at a distance. This could range from free applications such as Skype for online chats/meetings and YuuGuu for screen sharing, to low cost apps such as Go to Meeting and Webex. By holding online meetings instead of in-person meetings, you can save big. You avoid excess time and money spent traveling, especially plane travel.
Limiting the list to just 10 tools was tough. I could go on with another 10, and still barely scratch the surface. My hope is that this list will spur you to try just one or two new tools that can make your business more productive and profitable, and your workday more convenient and rewarding.