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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