Forget keeping up with the Joneses, just keeping up with today's technology is stressful and expensive enough.
Small business owners often feel overwhelmed, causing them to cling to old, familiar technologies. That's a mistake, according to Brian Casazza, CIO of Vistage Worldwide, a San Diego-based executive coaching organization with more than 21,000 members.
[Don't miss this article: Small Business IT Pros Say Cloud Services are the Norm]
A successful entrepreneur in his own right—he co-founded 9 Squared, an early pioneer in mobile content—he knows that staying on the forefront of technology helps a business grow and gain a competitive advantage. It used to be that only big corporations had the means to afford the latest innovations in business software and IT systems, but times have changed.
"Companies that invest in technology are outpacing those that don't," Casazza told Small Business Computing. Fortunately, the digital divide between small and large companies has narrowed significantly, and today, there's little excuse for small businesses to fall behind in IT.
Small Businesses Aim for the Cloud
It's not a fad. Cloud computing has revolutionized the IT landscape for startups and smaller organizations by leveling the playing field and making advanced software capabilities attainable to businesses with modest technology budgets.
Business applications and IT services that once required a huge upfront investment in hardware and software and a whole team of systems administrators to manage them are now available in the cloud on an affordable subscription basis.
Better yet, using cloud-based technology means that small business owners pay only for the technology their business actually uses. The days of buying expensive servers and IT systems to grow into are over. Small businesses can now take advantage of variable cost models that match their IT expenditures to their business requirements at any given time.
And aside from the occasional outage, the major cloud providers have generally excelled at delivering reliable and secure IT services. "The cloud has gotten bigger, better, and safer," said Casazza. "These days, there's pretty much military-grade encryption" in use at cloud companies' data centers, making it practically impossible for hackers to stage an attack and pluck your information directly from their servers.
Mobilize Your Small Business
The speed of business has ramped up in recent years, and so have customer expectations.
If an opportunity or a customer-service issue arises, "it's not going to wait for you to come back to the office," said Casazza. He recommends mobilizing your business with smartphones, tablets, and portable PCs to ensure that clients and vendors can contact you and your teams both in and out of the office.
The mobile mindset should also extend to company websites even they primarily cater to a business-to-business (B2B) audience. Fortunately, Wix, Squarespace, and practically all of the other website builders worth their salt already have mobile responsive designs that render expertly on mobile phones.
Beef Up Your Analytics
No matter how sharp your instincts, there's no longer a need to trust only your gut.
The enterprise software industry has made "huge advancements making data more accessible for the little guy," said Casazza. Thanks to the cloud, there are "a lot of really robust BI [business intelligence] applications" like Geckoboard and Google Analytics that provide actionable insights into your customers' habits and buying patterns.
Moreover, they're as easy to use as common productivity tools. "You don't need an expensive data analyst," said Casazza. User-friendly interfaces and rich visualization capabilities help even novices explore their business data with confidence.
Take Advantage of Video Conferencing
"The world is getting smaller; geography doesn't matter anymore," Casazza said. Naturally, intense negotiations, on-site service calls, or other hands-on tasks often require hopping on a plane, but for routine meetings, sitting down in front of a webcam often gets the job done quickly and economically.
"Travel is expensive," and foregoing its associated costs lets small business owners funnel the "travel budget back into the business," said Casazza. Virtual meetings also "take a lot of the risk out of spending more time with your customers," he said. The less time employees spend travelling to and from a customer site, the more time they can dedicate to growing your business.
Of course you can splurge on an expensive teleconferencing system for your conference room, but there's a good chance your company's current devices and broadband connection can already deliver a perfectly acceptable virtual meeting experience. Casazza noted that Microsoft Office 365 customers can pay a little extra for Skype for Business (formerly the Lync enterprise communications software suite), which provides more professional virtual meeting capabilities than, say, the Skype consumer client.
Be Purposeful on Social Media
Many small businesses flounder on social media, said Casazza revealing one of his pet peeves.
Companies frequently take to Twitter or poke around Pinterest without a coherent strategy. For many, "it's kind of an afterthought and ends up being managed by the office administrator" or other staffer who isn't necessarily well-versed in their company's marketing strategy, he added.
Of course, their efforts inevitably fail to gain traction and attract more business.
It pays to take "a step back and build a strategy," even it if means spending some money with an ad agency for professional guidance. During the process, identify "which social media sites are relevant for your business" and find your company's voice.
Craft a social media strategy that reflects your type of business and its goals, realizing that its effects may not be as apparent as a direct return on investment (ROI). While sales organizations may be able to drum up sales by running promotions on Facebook, companies can also use social media as a "brand builder," burnishing their reputation online, said Casazza.
Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at Small Business Computing. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.
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