Dynamic Business Logo
Home Button
Bookmark Button

Starting Up Your Small Business

The benefits of technology to any small business can be huge, if you make the right choices at the start. Wrong choices are expensive, frustrating, and time wasting.

Helen Bradley outlines the right approach to planning a system that will fit the bill now, and grow as the company does.

Active ImageStarting a new business is all about making decisions. From the giant step of starting a new enterprise to smaller decisions such as choosing the colour for your logo, all the decisions you make impact on your business life for many years to come.

Some require specialist technical knowledge in areas you may not be familiar with, such as computing, networks, and telephony. We've put together this guide to help determine what you need and to highlight issues to consider before you buy.

Before you go shopping, consider what tasks you need the technology to perform. The list might include recording sales, office tasks, financial management, and budgeting. Armed with this list you can determine what software you will need to perform these tasks and then what hardware will be needed to run the software, capture data, and produce reports and documents. In some cases, choice of software may determine the hardware because some software may only run on a PC, for example, making it inadvisable to buy a Mac.

If you find the list of software and hardware is longer than expected, go back to your task list and pare it down to what is vital now and what could be postponed. The task list for most businesses will include not only office and financial tasks but also developing a business and marketing plan. You should also consider ways to benchmark your business to track how it is performing relative to other businesses of the same type.

Money Matters

When investigating accounting and financial software there are two main types. If your business has fairly straightforward needs in this area you can buy off-the-shelf software such as MYOB, QuickBooks or the like. If your needs are specialist and if these 'one size fits most' products don't suit, check to see if any software has been developed specifically to meet the needs of your particular market. Your industry association should be able to advise you of the companies that develop software for your type of business. If not, try phoning owners of businesses like your own (situated in other locations) and ask what they use.

Check the list of tasks you need your financial software to perform against each product's specifications to ensure it will do all you need it to do. Make sure there is room to grow into a product—as your business grows the software should be able to be expanded by adding modules or additional users or by providing an upgrade path to another of the company's products allowing you to take your data with you. Your accountant should be able to assist you in assessing the suitability of accounting software and may have information on products that interface with the software the accountant uses and which may simplify the process of preparing the annual business returns.

CCH Business Services offers the MAUS range of business products, specifically tailored for the Australian market. The range includes business planning software that steps you through the process of creating a business plan and provides benchmarking tools that include data for businesses similar to yours that you can use for comparison purposes. Tools such as CorpRat's Business Coach for Windows helps you create a business plan and score cards for tracking business performance.

You will also need tools for budgeting, payroll, and inventory management. In many cases these will be integrated into your accounting software, so check to ensure that the respective modules can perform all the tasks required. In the area of payroll, there are standalone programs like Logisoft's ePayDay, which is free for a single company with up to five active employees.

For general office related tasks, an office suite is generally recommended. While Microsoft Office 2003 is the best known suite, there are others such as Corel's WordPerfect Office, IBM Lotus SmartSuite, Sun's StarOffice and the free OpenOffice.org. Each of these suites comes with a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation modules, but beyond that they all differ. Compare your task list with the feature list of any suite you're considering purchasing to see if it has the tools you need; if not, you may be able to add a standalone solution to fill the gap, or choose another suite. If, for example, your choice of suite doesn't include a database or contact manager, consider purchasing a database such as Alpha Five or a contact manager such as Act! For internet browsing, there are the free Firefox, Netscape, and Internet Explorer, and for email, Outlook Express is installed with Windows and does a serviceable job.

Choosing Hardware

When software has been chosen, it’s time to consider hardware and services. If you're operating from a fixed location, desktop computers are a cost effective solution. However, if you plan to be on the road, laptops offer portability as well as plenty of computing power. Unless you're doing a lot of graphics intensive work you don't need top of the range computers and, generally, those in the middle price range will be sufficient. You may even find your computer comes with office and financial software already installed and included in the price.

Most businesses will require at least one printer, and your choices are generally a laser or an inkjet printer. Colour lasers were once out of the price range for most small businesses but this is no longer the case. If you're printing materials that are likely to be in contact with the elements, a laser is a better choice than an inkjet printer as toner doesn't run when wet as ink will. If space is a premium then an all in one printer/scanner/copier—with or without the ability to fax—is a good choice. These machines take up far less space than the two or three machines they replace and are available in either inkjet or laser technology.

When shopping for a printer, compare the price of consumables and the average number of pages they print for each cartridge. The 'real' cost of a printer is not the purchase price but the cost of ink and toner cartridges over its lifespan.

An alternative to a dedicated fax machine is an internet system like E-fax which gives you a local number that people send faxes to which are then delivered to you via email. Your faxes are sent via the internet so you avoid having to dedicate a phone line to the fax.

If you're planning to have more than one computer, factor in the cost of networking them so you can access all files from each computer. You will also then be able to configure them to share a printer and internet connection. A wireless network will avoid the cost of having to run wires, especially in older buildings which don't have provision for wiring.

Even if you'll use the internet for email only, you will need an internet service provider (ISP). Determine if you need a fast broadband connection or if a dialup connection will suffice at least for the short term. Also consider registering a domain name for your business and having it set up at a hosting company so you can receive emails using your domain as the email address. In this way, if your business buys the domain graceandfavour.com.au your email accounts might be manager@graceandfavour.com.au, accounts@graceandfavour.com.au, and so on. Having a domain name and correctly set up business email accounts is more professional than using free email addresses like hotmail addresses and is more flexible than using an email address tied to your ISP which you will lose if you change providers.

If you need to communicate on the road as well as at the office, consider an ISP that offers local call dialup connection or wireless connection in locations you'll be travelling to. This way your on-the-road communications will be included in your base service and y
ou won't have to buy a second service. Some ISPs offer international services so you can connect using your ISP in major cities throughout the world.

Phone Facts

Rounding out your telecommunications purchases will be your telephone system. With the increasing development of VoIP solutions, consider a VoIP phone that runs off your broadband internet service. Solutions like the Engin Voicebox and NetComm's Desktop phone offer the functionality you're used to having in a regular telephone with the cost savings and flexibility of making calls over the internet.

Other options include computer managed phone services which replace the traditional PABX and offer voice mail and intelligent call routing. These can help filter your calls to the right person without requiring operator intervention. Companies with offerings for small business include Commander and Alcatel. Purchasing handheld/phone devices rather than mobile phones enables you to take your contact list, email, calendar, and other online tools with you as you travel, and this offers flexibility if you're on the road a lot. Ensure the tools you use on these handhelds are compatible with the tools on your desktop or laptop computers so you can synchronise the data and don't have to duplicate it.

When purchasing a computer system, keep an eye out for deals that combine hardware and software in a single package. For example, the Quicken Retail starter kit includes QuickBooks Plus, QuickBooks Point of Sale, a barcode scanner, thermal receipt printer and a cash drawer.

When obtaining an EFTPOS terminal ensure it integrates with your POS software so you don’t have to key in your data twice for each EFTPOS transaction.

Playing Safe

The data you have stored on your computers is important to your business and you must take care to protect it. The hazards to your business data include physical threats like fire, flood, and theft, as well as computer viruses, worms and trojans, and damage done by unauthorised access.

To protect your data, take a multi-faceted approach to security. Back up your data regularly and do so on some form of removable media that you can store off-site for extra security. Typically this backup might be done to a CD, DVD, tape or a removable drive, or you can sign up to use an online backup service—the latter will require that you have a broadband internet connection simply for speed and convenience. You will need software to perform the backup process, and while a rudimentary backup program comes with Windows XP, it can't back up to CD or DVD so you should consider buying something more powerful and flexible such as Computer Associates BrightStor ARCserve Backup which can back-up networked and laptop computers.

To protect against unauthorised intrusion, install a firewall on your internet connection and also install and use a virus checker and anti-spyware software. You may find that these are options you can include with the purchase of the computer system. Adding them into the purchase saves you the trouble of installing them yourself and then all you need do is pay the ongoing licence fees when the initial period expires. Some of the companies providing these security tools include McAfee and Symantec.

The bottom line with buying technology for any business, new or old, is to see it as another business tool. It should function properly, be comfortable to use and it should support what you do. It's not there to be pretty or to impress, it's there to do a job. Having a clear idea as to what that job is and finding technological solutions that can perform those tasks is a necessary first step to ensuring your technology is a good match for your business.

Direct Solutions

When sisters Michelle Bailey and Katrina Brand investigated technology for their new business, Elan Bridal House and Accessories, in Sale, Victoria, two things tipped the balance in favour of the Retail Starter Kit: flexibility and support. As Brand explains, "We were impressed that the QuickBooks POS software feeds data direct into QuickBooks so we can get detailed reports to help us determine what's selling and what's not. This is a vital management tool for us, particularly as a startup business". The other key factor was the local support, says Brand. "QuickBooks is widely used in Sale and there are training courses and backup support available locally. That was important to us as we hadn't used the program before."

What do you think?

    Be the first to comment

Add a new comment

Guest Author

Guest Author

Dynamic Business has a range of highly skilled and expert guest contributors, from a wide range of businesses and industries.

View all posts