E-mail it's one of the most basic tools of any small business, and yet it can cause a lot of confusion. Everyone's familiar with the To, From and Subject lines, but dig deeper into the infrastructure both hardware and software and e-mail gets hazy for most people. If you're starting a small business and need e-mail, or you've outgrown your current e-mail system, knowing how e-mail works and what your options are will help you find the service that's right for you.
To better understand e-mail we'll start by breaking it down into two separate pieces. Every e-mail system has an interface, the software program that lets you read and send messages. Then there's the back end, a combination of hardware and software that brings messages to the desktop and carries them away again.
Let's start with the interface. Here again we'll split it in two: There's software that runs on your own desktop also referred to as the client and software that runs on a server usually located somewhere else.
You can access e-mail through a Web interface such as AOL, Earthlink, MSN, Google and the like. This can be a boon for small businesses thanks to its low administrative requirements and typically low cost. "You don't have to worry about buying an Exchange server, you don't have to worry about buying separate SPAM or anti-virus products," explained Martin Hall, managing director of the INBOX e-mail-industry event.
But there is a down side here, some say. "The biggest mistake I see small businesses making today is using a free e-mail account. Nothing says "unprofessional" like having the e-mail address email@example.com," said Pedro Sostre, creative director at the consulting firm Sostre & Associates.
To offset the risk of looking very small, small businesses still can use an Internet-delivered e-mail system by spending a few extra dollars to purchase their own domain names. Earthlink and similar services sell domain names for a manageable fee, thus allowing SMBs to take advantage of Internet-based e-mail's ease of use while still appearing professional.
Alternately, one can access e-mail via software that resides on one's own computer, such as Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, MacMail and Thunderbird. These applications typically offer a better range of features than the Web-based applications. They allow access to e-mail even when an Internet connection is not available, and they typically offer faster performance than their Web-based counterparts.
Most of these in-house products offer the same basic tools: In and Out boxes, anti-SPAM protection and search capabilities. Outlook dominates the market, in part because it can be used alongside or in conjunction with Microsoft's Exchange collaboration tool. Outlook is generally considered a safe bet, and it typically comes wrapped up with Microsoft products: For instance, it is integrated into Office.
For those of you who don't want to put all their eggs in the Microsoft basket, Eudora offers a solid alternative, while the Mac operating system includes MacMail as part of its basic package.
The Back End
But how does my e-mail get here? And where does it reside when I save it? Here again you have choices to make.
Go with an Internet-based service and the back end is easy. The service provider handles all the nuts and bolts, processing messages through its own servers and managing things like SPAM and security. Any downside has to do with the lack of control. "You are relying on the provider for everything," Hall said.
A good intermediary option involves using a desktop application such as an Outlook, with an outside server in play to do the heavy lifting. This way the hardware is someone else's problem, but the small business gets more control over how e-mail is handled in house.
This plan requires some set-up your part you'll have to configure SMTP for outbound mail, and POP and IMAP for incoming messages. This isn't hard, and in fact it is common for the company selling its server capabilities to handle it for you. "Typically a good provider will give you all the information to configure that stuff. It is a basic part of the service that you get from your Web host," Hall said.
Those services can in fact be fairly extensive. Take for instance Outblaze, a global provider of hosted e-mail services. Its latest product, Outblaze-SME, offers sophisticated administration and collaboration tools that let small businesses purchase and allocate storage, as well as administer e-mail, calendar and file cabinet services through a Web interface. That kind of third-party support can give you control over e-mail while still leaving the hardware responsibilities to an outside vendor. Of course it's possible to move the whole show in house, but that typically is not the best bet for small businesses.
"Occasionally, a small business will want to host its own e-mail server," Sostre said. "Nine times out of 10, this is unnecessary. The costs associated with that can run between $3,000 and $5,000 for setup, and if they don't have a Microsoft Certified Professional on their team, they will probably need to have one available on call in case something goes wrong."
How To Choose
What kind of e-mail do you need? There is no single right answer. "It's like asking how long is a piece of string. You need to evaluate your business needs, your different requirements," Hall said.
One way to handle the question is simply to increase your company's e-mail sophistication as the business grows. Start with a simple Web-based account, then add branding and a domain name in order to add that professional touch. Move up to a service provider who can offer more sophisticated mail-handling tools. Then if things get really big, it may be worth looking for a server of your own.
Always consider, though, the true costs of an e-mail strategy. "It's not just the money. It's the people and their time," Hall said. "You wouldn't want an internal server, for example, until you have an internal IT person who is capable of maintaining the equipment."
Finally, it would be negligent to consider e-mail options without thinking about security. An estimated 70 percent of all e-mail today is SPAM, Hall noted. "So if you don't have any SPAM controls in place, and e-mail is fairly important to your business, your employees are sitting there looking at an In box where seven out of 10 messages are SPAM," he said. Add to this the increasing use of e-mail as a tool for delivering viruses, "and you basically are holding the door open saying, 'Come on in and trash my business!'"
It's true that nearly all e-mail providers and applications include some measure of SPAM control and virus protection, but no small business owner can afford to take these things for granted. Be sure to talk to your service provider so oyu know exactly what kind of SPAM and Virus protection he offers. If you're not satisfied, you can always supplement your protection.
Adam Stone writes extensively on business and technology issues. He makes his virtual residence at firstname.lastname@example.org and his physical home in Annapolis, Md.
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