Archive for category The Operations Dept

7 Mistakes new businesses make with IT

Any new business likes to get off to a fast cheap start, but it important to keep an eye on the prize and be wary of cutting too many corners that will end up costing time, money and possibly loss of data and even your businesses ability to adapt to a changing business landscape.

So here are the top seven IT mistakes I have seen new businesses make:

  1. POP email

POP email accounts are those email accounts that you get when you sign up with an ISP. Often you get a few free email accounts that you can associate with your company domain. The problem with POP accounts is that they don’t get backed up and leave you with a false sense of security. Ultimately much of your businesses value lies in the contacts that you have, as much as the conversations you’ve had. POP accounts only store the conversations, and in many cases even those are cleared from the server by your email application. So now all of your data is sitting on the one vulnerable hard disk in your computer and unless you know what you are doing, this does not get backed up.

Shop around. For less than $US15 per month you can get a hosted 5GB Exchange mailbox that stores all contacts, calendar and email. It gets backed up each night and it can be made to synchronise contacts and appointments as well as email with your mobile PDA. If you have multiple employees you can share contacts and calendars and email. This can takes office productivity to a whole new level. Outside the office, on the work site, having access to your email, contacts and calendar is fast becoming as important and as expected these days as having a mobile phone was five years ago. From the work site you can place a booking with a client into the Calendar on your PDA and within minutes staff back in your office can see that booking by looking into your calendar on the server. And Vice-Versa, how good is that. No more checking with the office then calling the client back to confirm, not to mention the to and fro reduced if the booking did not suit.

Of course if you lose or break the mobile phone al of the contacts and appointments that are synchronised to the server are not lost. Just get a new phone and set up again and all the contacts and appointments will be synchronised back onto the phone.

OK, setting this up may require some help from an IT consultant but when you factor in the productivity gains and the reduced risk of data loss in the event of failure the gains are worth it for most businesses.

2. Peer to Peer networking

There is a plethora of fantastic cheap devices on the market these days that let you store copious amounts of data on a networked hard disk. If you like you can also share the hard disk of your own computer so that your co-workers can store all of the data in a single location.

But please don’t forget that you need to back that data up and, just as importantly, you need to be able to restore from that backup should the data be accidentally overwritten, corrupted or you just have a good old fashioned disk crash. Most IT professionals don’t like keeping all of the eggs in one basket. So we devise ways of making systems redundant. A ‘real’ server solution will have redundant hard disks, so that should one fail, your data does not go with it, resulting in days of downtime while the system is pieced together from that backup that you regularly do.

Too many small businesses still store scary amounts of critical data on a single hard disk inside a regular workstation (usually the oldest one in the office).

3. Free software

Free software sounds great. And it can be. I am not against it in itself, but with most software it is not the license that will end up costing you the most money, that will actually be a small part of the cost. You need to consider the longer term costs of implementation and running your systems utilising that software. For a small basic single user application that may be fine. But for something that will be implemented across your business to become what we call ‘mission-critical’ you need to consider the longer term implications. How easily can I get outside help to support this system should those who know it move on (key-man risk)? Can I recruit people who know how to use this system, or will I need to train them up?  Will updates for the software be available when I come to upgrade the platform on which it runs?

These are some of the questions you need to ask before taking on what may appear to be a cheap solution.

4. Mates Rates advice

It is hard to pass up free advice. However free advice rarely translates into good support. At least not the kind of support you can depend on from a strategic point of view. Your mates may be available after hours and on weekends but if they are holding down a full time job they may not be as accessible as you need them to be. There are also often strategic and technical differences between how IT is setup and run in a small business environment compared to that of larger organisations. There are specific product bundles available from vendors such as Microsoft, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Symantec and many others that facilitate excellent solutions for small business when implemented correctly. However while these bundles may appear to be a collection of products that many IT experts may be familiar with, they often include some additional bells and whistles that allow you to get real leverage with your IT investment. I have seen many implementations Microsoft’s Small Business Server where a so-called expert was unfamiliar with the use of Remote Web Workplace and so had not known to implement this for the business. Yet Remote Web Workplace is one of the core offerings of small business server and one that many administrators of large organisations would give their eye-teeth for. It allows small business workers to connect to any workstation within the office and run all of their applications from a remote location.

So how could this have been over-looked? Remote Web Workplace is not a feature available on ‘big’ business systems, so if your friends work in big business, they may not know about it, or many other things.

Another important function I have seen ‘knowledgeable’ mates overlook is the ability of Microsoft’s Small Business Server to enable BlackBerry type functionality with regular iPhone, Nokia and Windows PDAs. Perhaps the mate thought they would need to buy a BlackBerry server to do all of this, perhaps because the company they work for has one.

5 . Backup-backup-backup and offsite-backups. Then test them.

It makes me cringe to see what some people consider a backup plan.

Too often I have heard people telling a reporter that loosing the house to a fire was bad enough but loosing the family albums and memories was devastating. The rate of business failure after a major IT disaster from which there was no backup is very high. I have seen figures like 80% in the two years following the disaster thrown around.

So I guess lesson one is make a backup of all of the family photos and take them to a location away from the home. And then repeat this regularly. And check that you can access the copies that you have made. Lesson two is to do the same for your business.

6. In-house software / DIY Systems

All too often I see people who believe that their systems and their way of doing things is so special that they must create their own software just to manage this. Accountants probably bare the brunt of this when the new business owner fronts up to them with a box full of receipts and an excel spreadsheet full of fancy macros that nobody except the business owner knows how to use. Or the very very special Access database for managing stock levels and generating very very special reports.

All businesses want to feel that they are unique. But encoding that uniqueness into a software application that can only be modified by one select person can turn out to be a serious strategic mistake when you try to sell the business or when that ‘key-man’ risk is realised because the person who knows the system can no longer maintain it.

Ask yourself how your business will make money. If developing this special piece of software and selling it is not on the list then don’t go there.

7. Lock in.

No deal in IT is so good that you should sign up for more than two years. The market and your business moves too fast for that. What is a great deal today can be serious drain on cash flow in as little as six months from now. So whether it be a mobile phone plan, an internet connection, a PABX system, a server hosting plan or an IT support plan, two years is just too long a commitment to make. If we think a deal is good today, you can be assured that a better deal is just around the corner and if you’ve locked in for a long time you will be regretting the lock in for at least half of that time.

And it is not just the money. Once you’ve locked into a plan you’re often locked into a technology. Then along comes the next best thing and your business is now not as dynamic as you thought it was.

Svend Petersen is the Managing Director of Excelan.

Excelan provides a personalised level of IT support and strategic consulting for small to medium sized organisations in and around the Sydney CBD.

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My Favourite Web tools Pt 2 – Goodsync

Last week I told you about Roboform, the stress saving password encryption and saving program. This week i’m looking at Goodsync, Roboform’s first cousin.

As the name would suggest, Goodsync is a syncronisation program. It will syncronise Folders & files on a PC, Network, and the internet.

I use it on a daily basis to back up my most critical files. Everyday, I copy my accounting back up, my CRM data, my clients art files, copies of my quotes and invoices, our procedures manual, my Roboform data, and my quoting program data – a lot right? It is a lot, and frankly, if I was simply making a back up or copying all those files every day, it would take all day!

I also make multiple copies – I have the original files on my mail PC, I have a back copy on a “storage PC” on the work network, and I make a copy to my laptop (so that I have a mobile copy of the file in case of something like a fire at work). That’s how I use it, you could just as easily use a portable hard drive.

The beauty of Goodsync is; it only copies over files that have changed. This means it doesn’t get bogged down copying files that are already there in the back up destination, a big time saver.

First, Goodsync analyses the source files compared to the destination files, after the initial analysis, this takes only a few seconds.

Then Goodsync creates a list for you to check. There are default settings like always forcing the sync one way, or force the newest revision of the file to override the direction of the sync. You can either manually make the decision, or let Goodsync decide for you based on your preferences.

At the click of a button, it copies the right files to the right place super fast – the only limitation of speed is the speed of your connection. My hard wired network syncs faster than it does to my laptop through the wireless router for example. Still, it only take 3-5 minutes per day to back up all my critical files to two different locations.

Goodsync is super easy to use, A few minutes to set up the initial settings, and then once that is done the daily task takes only minutes. Take this link for a quick overview of how Goodsync works . There is also a MAC version of Goodsync, which I haven’t tried yet, but if it’s like anything Apple, it’ll be easy 🙂

I haven’t used the portable version, Goosync2go, but i have used the protable version of Roboform, so I have to assume the portable version is every bit as good as the PC version.

Of course, there is a free trial of Goodsync, it has full funcionality, just a few limits on the volume, so give it a go!


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Evaluating Your Small Business Strategy

Countless people set themselves personal goals in life, but in many cases, small business owners don’t do themselves the same favour.  Without setting time aside to consider, plan and implement a solid strategy for any business, its success can be often hindered or compromised.

In these tough economic times, owners are struggling to make their business grow, but strangely enough, there is great opportunity for companies to make leaps and bounds while the market is down.

Take a Step Back

Being in the day-to-day running of your business can alter your perception of how effectively it is run.  Take the time to look at every facet of your business to gain the most unbiased perspective.

What kind of relationships do you have with suppliers? Is there any way you can leverage the associations you have with them to gain better pricing or additional extras (like longer trading terms to increase cash flow) that they don’t usually provide?

Do employees see their position as a job or a career? One of the most difficult tasks an employer can face is motivating their staff so that they are more productive.  Try to introduce creative, cost effective ideas to improve staff morale, which will ultimately allow your business to be more successful in so many different ways – higher customer satisfaction, increased work output, less mistakes and a much nicer place for everyone to work.

What are your sales margins? Taking a realistic look at how much you are making on your products and services is crucial to allowing your business to grow.  A small increase in sales margin may not seem like much in isolation, but calculated over a year, this additional profit can make quite a difference to your bottom line.

In many cases, customers will expect to see increases in prices every few years, purely because of inflation.  If you do apply increases, be transparent to your valued clientele – it will only reaffirm why they should continue to spend their money with you.

What are your competitors doing? If they are blazing trails in your area or industry, find out why and how.  Start to follow their lead and see where you can even improve on their practises.  But another, far more powerful way to knock down competition is to find out what they are doing badly.  By being exceptionally great at what your competitors do badly, it will soon put you miles in front.

Planning – What to Consider

After all the research has been done, it’s important to spend some time planning how you will turn all of these findings into meaningful actions.  There is a fine balance between continuing to maintain a high service level in your business and being able to implement new processes, procedures and projects.  Figure out what elements can be immediately implemented into your business and what will take more time and resources. Once you’ve determined this, you can then allocate timelines to these more lengthy projects so as not to interrupt the flow of your business.  Many strategies tend to stretch over several years, so make sure you build some level of flexibility in to allow for changes in your business, the economy and the marketplace.

Implementation – Getting Your Hands Dirty

It’s all well and good to research and develop business strategy, but sometimes the hardest part can actually be doing the work involved.  The best way to avoid being overwhelmed with implementing the strategy is to break up each task and set key goals and milestones.  Once you have completed the task or project successfully, make sure you take the time to look back on what you have done and be constructively critical.  If you have an upcoming project of a similar nature, it will allow you to become more efficient in implementing your business strategy.

All in all, developing a business strategy gives you the chance to recognise opportunities and shortcomings that may not have been realised otherwise.  While each business can be very different, the foundations of a solid business strategy are ultimately the same and can be applied to most companies, regardless of their service offering or industry.

An article provided to us by one of our site sponsors – NRMA Business Insurance

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My favourite web tools. Part 1

My Favourites tools for the webThis isn’t a long list. In fact it’s only a few. However, they are products that I use every single day, and i’ve actually come to rely heavily on them, so I guess a short list of quality is better than a long list of lower quality, right? This is part 1, part 2 & 3 will follow in the coming weeks.

Part 1 – Roboform.

If you are like me, you have dozens, if not hundreds of log ins and passwords to remember.

I have several websites and blogs to manage and they each have a log in for the blog, one for the forum, one for the admin etc etc, I bank accounts, supplier sites – the list goes on. As of today, I have 212 log ins to various websites, all needing me to remember the URL, the log in name, and the password – yeah, that surprised even me 🙂

I also use the web a lot these days, like most of us, for purchasing, researching, enquiring products and services. So i’m constantly filling in forms – Name, address, age, hair colour……. – very time consuming.

About two years ago, I found the very nifty product – Roboform. Roboform is a little bit of software you load straight onto your PC that securely stores all your personal info.

RoboForm’s Key Features are;

  • So Easy – You remember one password, RoboForm remembers the rest. I suggest you don’t use your beagle’s name, ok?
  • Saves Time – With ONE CLICK RoboForm goes to a website and logs you in automatically. I can log into any site on the list – no finding the site, no remembering the log in, no remembering the password.
  • Saves More Time – RoboForm also fills long registration and checkout forms with one click. Roboform will fill in just about any form you find on the web. I save lots of time when signing up for service, newsletter, buying a product, making an enquiry. I’ve found a few it wont work with, like java applet stuff, but even then you can copy and paste faster then you can type it all in.
  • Secures Your Information – Stores passwords on YOUR computer, protects them with AES encryption. Hey, nothing is bullet proof, but Roboform’s encryption is far stronger than having your browser store your passwords in the cache.
  • Strengthens Passwords – Generates random passwords that hackers cannot guess. A strong password has, letters (a mix of upper and lower case), symbols, numbers, is min 8 digits long, and is apparently random in appearance. So, a strong password looks like this – 1&xT44B! – a weak password would be – Franklin (your beagle’s name that you use for every password, banking, your blog, your facebook, the lot!) The problem is of course, how do you possibly remember a password like the strong one, let alone remember dozens or hundreds of different ones? Roboform features a password generator that you can set to generate passwords of different length, different types of digits (numbers, upper / lower case text, symbols). It will fill the forms on the fly, and copy the password to you clipboard if the form you are using won’t allow auto fill in (some more secure sites like banks won’t allow auto fill in to stop robots)
  • Fights Phishing – Phishing is when you get those emails from a bank or PayPal or some such asking you to log in and confirm your details. Often these fake sites look so real that many unsuspecting users will “log in” and hand their name and password to the thieves on a silver platter.Fills passwords only on matching web sites. Just for the record, your bank will NEVER email you and ask you to log in.
  • Defeats Keyloggers – Somewhere along the line, we have all been infected by a malicious virus. A common threat are keyloggers, simply put, a virus records every keystroke, and send a small text file to the data thief at a pre-determined time. Roboform doesn’t use the keyboard to fill in your passwords, or to fill forms (like credit card forms), so keyloggers are rendered ineffective. You can also use your mouse to fill in the master password, so even that can be kept secure.
  • Simple to Use – Just download RoboForm and learn as you go. It really is intuitive and easy to use. Even if you are very new to the interweb, you will be Roboforming like a pro in no time.

There are a few other features – you can find more details here – too many for me to detail, but the three above are the ones I use every day. In fact, i’m using it right now. I can quickly and easily skip between different sites. At the moment i’m working from home, so i’m skipping between logging into the work network, Vertical Response, the WordPress log in for this blog, and the admin for Too easy!

The good folks at Robofrom also have a portable version – Roboform2go – for installation onto a usb. You can take that with you and log in on any PC (the portable version doesn’t work on your Mac)

When you buy Roboform, you also get access to the online system, which means you can even log into your account from anywhere without Roboform2go (I find having a USB easier and more convenient myself)

It’s ready to go for PC’s, but they haven’t yet produced a MAC friendly version. I’m told that will come, but for the moment they have created a system utilising the online product, and a java applet that sits in your safari or firefox menu bar (it may work in other browsers, but I don’t know. I only use Safari of Firefox on my Mac)

If you think that sounds good, you can trial it free or buy it here.

That’s my favourite web tool.Part 2 next week – Goodsync.


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Are you Yammering?

This is like Twitter, but just for your organistation. If you have a bunch of people with intra company email addresses, they can connect and chat, just like twitter does on a global scale. It works on the premise of “what are you doing now?” as the main question. Then as people use it they find others working on things similar to them, or they may have an answer or a resource for someone else where working on something.

Productivity tools just got a kick in the backside folks!

Your business and the flurry of market meltdowns

An interesting article in the Melb Age newspaper on the flow on effect to smaller businesses.

In an interesting basic view, if the big banks can’t get money to lend, or they are pulling their heads in “Just in case” then your chances of getting credit of some kind may well be hampered, in the short term maybe not a big deal, but in the bigger picture the squeeze could be on!

How to Attract the People You Need

Just because you select an ideal recruit for your business, doesn’t mean they will automatically want to work for you. Why not?

Many businesses overlook the fact that they have to sell their offer and make it an attractive option for prospective new employees.

If you operate in a competitive environment where good recruits are scarce, or when you are trying to attract very high calibre people, it is essential that you make your business, and the position, sound as appealing as possible.

Here are some factors to consider:
1. Consider what drives people to join new companies. They typically want:
a. a new challenge
b. more money
c. opportunities for promotion
d. to work in a larger company
e. to work in a smaller company environment
f. to work closer to home
g. to work in an environment where they can improve their skills and learn
h. to work in a company full of friendly people
i. to work for a market leader
j. a manager who will spend time with them to teach and mentor

Does your business offer any of these enticements?

2. If it doesn’t, you may have issues with how the business is structured, or how it is performing, and may need to make some internal assessments and adjustments before you are able to attract the kind of people you need and want.

3. If you do meet some of these criteria, then the next question is, how do you sell your business and the position to the candidate? At every point possible!

a. The advertisement
i. Outline what’s positive and different about your company
ii. Make it sound interesting
iii. Provide several ways to respond to the advertisement (email, phone call, fax) – it appears more professional
b. Your website
i. Presentation – professional or amateurish?
ii. Overview of your business – should provide reasonable detail
iii. Clients – some reference to clients is a positive indicator
c. The interview
i. Reception and greeting – friendly, and again, professional
ii. Positive interaction – encourage questions at the end
iii. Be animated when interviewing and talking about your business
iv. You and the company must reflect the culture (professional/casual, committed, creative, service focus etc.)
d. Follow up
i. Needs to be a fast turnaround if you want the person
ii. Well organised – timeliness, information in the offer

If you do all of these things it is more than likely that you will be able to employ a candidate who matches your requirements, and the culture of your company. Good luck!

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