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Blog posts in Business IT

Streamlining processes with everyone on the same IT page

April 14, 2014 by Guest contributor

Streamlining processes with everyone on the same IT page/ People using smart phones{{}}When I started my business, the biggest drain on my resources was time. Many people say the flexibility of being your own boss is a major reason why they start up, but budding business owners be warned – it could be a while before that flexibility comes into play.

Of course, initial start-up capital also proved to be quite a shock. No matter how many friends you have giving you advice, nothing quite prepares you for the shock of the amount of capital you need to start up. Thankfully, I was able to sell my car, which gave me a decent amount of capital to begin with.

Now, however, as my business has started to get established, the matter of time has reared its head once more. As such, my current priority is to hire someone who can help me out and give me that flexibility I desire.

Saving time and money

One of the primary pieces of advice I’ve been given is to not hold back on employing someone because you fear losing money. This is easier said than done, but I’ve also noted a great way of saving time and money when it comes to future employees.

Not only will employing someone help me save time in the long run (along with sharing the workload), but by engaging with current technology, training and management will also be reasonably straightforward.

With the rise of BYOD (bring your own device), there’s no reason not to apply this to small businesses and start-ups as well. However, one of the best time-savers (and long-term money-savers) is to ensure that everyone in the business is “on the same IT page”.

Keeping in the loop

Investing in the same smartphone as my own means I know what software is available, and I can easily train future employees on how to use the device, along with the many apps installed.

Because Microsoft now offers a mobile version of Office, it’s never been easier to manage a small business. Chances are, until my business fully takes off, employees will work part time, so training them completely on a device used across my company is one of the best time- and money-saving decisions.

I want to understand everything I ask my employees to do. In fact, regardless of the help my friends offer me, it’s been my aim from the start to tackle everything independently, because it’s the best way to tackle the steep learning curve.

Hiring a new employee seems daunting, especially as my business is still in its infancy. However, with the right training across a device and software I understand, I have confidence that it’ll run as smoothly as possible.

Blog supplied by Frederick Miller of Helpingu2save.co.uk.

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Keeping your SME rural

November 19, 2013 by Guest contributor

Keeping your SME rural/cottages in the Costwolds{{}}Many business owners dream of one day expanding their SME into a global organisation based in the buzzing business capital of the big cities. While the thriving metropolitan atmosphere may seem like the best place for any business, this isn’t always the case.

Thanks to developments in technology and communications, keeping your business rural has never been easier, and comes with some real benefits. From employee satisfaction to publicising the business, there are limitless positives that come with working in the countryside.

Flexible working

From an operational point of view, it’s certainly much more practical to keep an SME based in a rural location. A small, slightly cheaper office is often enough for an SME that can then hire employees based around the country.

This will allow employees to converse with customers countywide without the cost and effort required to travel in and out of the city on a regular basis. Allowing some employees to telecommute to work will also increase employee satisfaction, resulting in a happier workforce and a higher quality of work.

The evolution of technology

When once it would have been impossible for a modern business to work within a rural area, the advancement of technology means a fully functioning and practical business can be ran effectively from the middle of a field!

Telecommunication has never been easier, while satellite broadband is an effective and practical means of internet access for those who do not have access to fibre optic broadband.

The grass isn’t always greener

Working in a major city may offer a somewhat more cosmopolitan atmosphere, but the benefits of the city rarely outweigh the negatives. Due to the sheer size of most cities, it’s next to impossible for smaller businesses to make their name known against the ferocious competition.

Employees often report lower work satisfaction when commuting on a regular basis, and potential customers will often enjoy the personal, SME approach to business that can be taken when working in a rural environment.

Blog supplied by independent satellite broadband internet service provider Europasat.

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Cloud computing - the panacea for start-ups?

September 30, 2013 by Adrian Case

Cloud computing - the panacea for start-ups?/cloud computing{{}}Go back a few years and the choice of computer systems for start-ups were pretty limited. Typically, a website would be created, some email addresses set up and routed by POP3, while a small server would be used for file and print. It could be a glorified workstation or if the budgets permitted, a small business server, which gave the added benefit of Microsoft Exchange, etc. Enterprise-level IT solutions were beyond the realms of most start-ups. IT systems were expensive and inflexible, so compromises had to be made.

Cloud computing – the panacea for start-ups?

In today’s cloud-dominated IT environment, it is cost-effective and straightforward for start-ups to establish a fully featured computer system. Gone are the days of buying expensive servers, worrying about back-ups and having to accept second-rate solutions. We now work in a largely online but totally connected world. Sage advice for start-ups on choosing a location from which to operate would be to ensure that their internet connectivity is fast and robust. Location is important, not least in terms of the broadband choices available.

Example solution

So, to begin with, let’s take an example start-up with three staff.  Previously, a workstation would have been used for file sharing and POP3 email accounts would have likely been used. 

The obvious downsides to this are myriad – it is not a particularly scalable solution and if business growth was planned, a server would be required. File sharing outside of the office would have been challenging (and certainly less secure), with it being likely that files would be saved outside of the workstation and on other machines, potentially risking files not being backed up properly (and possibly not giving an offsite back-up data set). 

POP3 email is a cheap option, however, over time a lot of spam and viruses would be received, some of which could get through a standard PC antivirus solution. Moreover, POP3 traditionally is less reliable and with no email filtering, any email outages can lead to lost emails in the event of an ISP failure.

Nowadays, a cloud solution could be utilised from day one, resulting in enterprise-level solutions for a cost-effective monthly fee. This would comprise of a hosted server, with a full VPN to ensure that staff can work seamlessly on the move. Data would all centrally stored and trouble-free, being securely backed-up offsite. Email would be filtered and cleaned, before being delivered to the devices of your choice through Microsoft Exchange. As well as syncing emails between multiple devices (smartphones, laptops, etc), exchange also allows full collaboration, shared calendars, etc.

Whilst a cloud solution might not be right for every start-up, the benefits certainly make it ideally for the majority of new enterprises. Some of the key reasons why are listed below:

  • Saving money: instead of outlaying valuable capital on server and networking, cloud computing offers a cost-effective alternative.
  • Mobility and flexibility: employees can work securely from anywhere and information is available while on the move.
  • Scalability: instead of computer systems restricting the growth in users or data, or certainly incurring significant upgrade costs, cloud solutions can be scaled up or down as required with minimum inconvenience or cost.
  • Reliable: most cloud computing providers guarantee uptime, which ensures your systems will always be working.
  • Increased security: as well as hosted services being more secure, they also offer an inherent disaster-recovery solution to ensure that your business can continue to operate in the event of a power cut, fire, etc.

Blog supplied by Adrian Case of Akita.

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What value a domain name?

August 27, 2013 by Guest contributor

What value a domain name?/web browser{{}}The domain name business can be extremely lucrative, with people willing to part with considerable amounts of cash to secure the perfect name for their hot new start-up or innovative product.

Although there are still a plethora of dot-com addresses available, most word-related domains were snatched up a long time ago, most likely they are being sat on by the owner until someone shows signs of interest.

If you are lucky enough to own a catchy or highly desirable domain, it can be difficult to reach an accurate and fair valuation. Likewise, if you are looking to purchase one, you must understand what you are paying for.

Although there are plenty of ‘estimation’ tools available online, their accuracy is often highly questionable and ultimately it comes down to one thing – how much the end user is willing to pay for it.

Brandability

Due to the ever-decreasing effectiveness of exact match domains (eg mobilephones.com, mountainbikes.com, etc) in the search engines, branding is the way forward. If a domain name is catchy and memorable, you can easily build up a strong brand around it. Better yet, a name that is pronounceable, while not necessarily forming a real word, is also a great alternative. For example, Waze.com or Twilio.com or Zynga.com.

If a domain name meets the above criteria, it’s almost certainly going to increase its overall value. Although they are hard to come by these days, a domain that is short in length, regardless of how pronounceable it is, will also hold a higher value.

When it comes to extensions .com remains king, with .net and .org generally being worth less. More and more obscure domain extensions are becoming available, making it easier to construct a word that incorporates the extension (eg www.Mirro.rs). In some circumstances, these can fetch high prices in auction. Although .coms are generally more valuable, it all comes down to what domain is right for your business.

Authority

The overall authority of a site is often the main factor taken into account where established domains are concerned. The rapid advancement of the World Wide Web coupled with the sheer amount of potential customers that regularly surf it, means people are happy to pay for a domain name that has value from a search engine optimisation perspective.

Important factors include:

  • Domain age.
  • Amount and quality of external links pointing to it.
  • Its historical ranking history.

A large number of low quality and ‘spammy’ external links pointing to a domain can have severely detrimental effects on its ability to perform in the search engines. This in turn can greatly reduce its value, due to the amount of work required to ‘clean up’ the link profile.

Always be sure to thoroughly explore a domain’s link data and consider using the Wayback Machine to view historical snapshots of what site used to reside on it.

End user

Taking the above factors into account may help you arrive at a rough valuation of a domain, but if you can’t find an end user (ie someone who might be interested in the domain), it is essentially worthless. An end user is usually someone looking to launch a new business or complement an existing one, who can greatly benefit from owning the domain.

Consider exploring the potential value of a domain name by simply searching on Google for any keywords it contains, and seeing who is currently advertising for these terms. If people are paying to advertise within the search engines for a term, the will most likely be interested in a matching domain name.

Post supplied by Mark Potter of ICANN accredited domain registrar and web host www.namecheap.com

Visit the IT Donut for a host of other blogs about domain names and other business IT related topics.

How Cloud computing could help your business

June 18, 2013 by Emma Williams

How Cloud computing could help your business/drowing of cloud computing{{}}Businesses should always be on the lookout for new, innovative technologies that save them time – and cloud servers can certainly do just that. However, the amount of companies currently using cloud technology is still relatively low, compared to those using traditional servers and software. If your business hasn't got on board the cloud yet, here are a few of the benefits that you could be missing out on... 

Saving you money

Switching to cloud computing can be extremely cost-effective. Most cloud server companies operate on a pay-as-you-use basis, so you only have to pay for the storage, backup and applications you require, rather than paying outright for various computer packages and software upgrades.   

Reliable and up to date

Cloud servers are generally more responsive to developments in the ever-changing IT industry and it is quicker and easier to get hold of updates, because you don’t have to go out and buy hardware, it’s done online. It also means that if you have employees working remotely from other locations using multiple devices, you can ensure they are working on the most up-to-date documents.

If your business currently operates using hardware that is ageing and getting close to capacity, it's likely that a cloud server will be more reliable and quicker to operate. And if you do have any issues, with most cloud computing companies, help and advice is available round the clock.

Secure back-up

Ensuring your work is backed up is one of the most important things a business can do. Financial details and customer information are some of your most valuable assets, and losing them could cost you a lot of time and money. With a cloud-based service, you can set it to automatically save your data frequently to a safe online location. 

Allows for flexibility

If your business is just starting and you don't have years’ worth of data to store, you should be able to just pay for the capacity you need. And, as your business expands, you can easily increase the capacity and functionality of your cloud server as you need.

Time-efficient

Perhaps the most important thing a cloud server can provide you with is more time. You and your employees will no longer have the hassle of buying, installing and maintaining your software, your Ccoud provider handles all this. That means you and your employees can get on with on things that more directly contribute towards your profitability.

Written by Emma Williams of Creare Communications.

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Have you become a master of technology but slave to your work?

February 25, 2013 by Tim Gibbon

Have you become a master of technology but slave to your work?/woman on the phone with laptop{{}}Small and medium-sized enterprise owners (SMEs) are proficient at using technology, but unable to switch off in their personal lives, according to research from business insurer Hiscox.

The research was conducted between 28 November and 6 December 2012 and surveyed 1,030 businesses. It suggests that 89% of SMEs have mastered the use of technology, but are slaves to smartphones. The research also suggests that 38% of SME owners have difficulty switching off and 37% find working off duty hours intrusive upon their personal lives.

The online survey by Opinium reviewed how businesses are using technology and how although they are using it better to manage their businesses; they are not able to control the impact that it has on their personal lives. 85% of respondents admitted to checking their work emails while on holiday. 

"Our research confirms what we already know from working closely with them; SMEs are constantly connected to their workplace, incredibly tech savvy and committed to their business," explains Alan Thomas, small business insurance expert at Hiscox.

Interestingly, 59% of survey respondents plan to either purchase new equipment or upgrade existing equipment as an investment in technology in the near future (61% keep up-to-update with technology). From these technology investors, 35% plan to do so in the next 12 months compared with 25 percent who plan to do so in the next two-three years. 10% of SMEs were found to relish new technology and generally upgrade equipment as soon as it becomes available.

"As SMEs seek to keep their business running at all times, the option to clock off at 5pm is fast diminishing and being 'switched on' is becoming a normal way of life. Thanks to the reliance on and access to technology, SMEs have become masters of technology but slaves to their work, and it's no surprise they are leading a lifestyle where they are 'always on'," added Thomas.

Given that SMEs are closer and influence the day-to-day management of their businesses on a more intimate level, it’s no surprise these factors have such an impact for them.  This can be compounded when SMEs are home workers when it is thought that temptation to be distracted often turns out to be the opposite.  

Tim Gibbon is a director at communications consultancy Elemental and tweets @elementalcomms and @timgibbon @smponline

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The power of domain names

February 18, 2013 by Sally Tomkotowicz

The power of domain names/domain.com{{}}According to research carried out by names.co.uk, more than a quarter (28%) of new small-business owners wait months after they’ve registered their company name before they register their domain name, thereby risking losing out on their preferred website address.

In fact, our research suggests that about a fifth actually lose their preferred name and have to settle for a name that isn’t related to their company.

We surveyed 2,079 business owners and found that many were startlingly relaxed about owning their online brand – but come to regret this later on when they miss out on their preferred domain name.

Even many dot-com savvy firms established in the past three years have missed the boat. Most companies make the mistake of focusing exclusively on their company name, believing it to be central to the success of their business, without even thinking to check for their domain name first.

Your domain name is often more important these days than your mobile or telephone number, so it is a big oversight not to check whether it’s available before registering your company name. Customers will search for your .com or .co.uk address every day, so not owning the most logical domain can be a real issue.

However, not all businesses are as forgetful about registering their company name. More than a third (35%) admit to registering their domain name before they launched their business, with 25% building their website before launching their business. About half (49%) also admit to registering multiple domain names to protect their company name or expand their business. 

Other key findings from our research include:

  • 84% of respondents launched their website within months of registering their company, with 12% building their website in a day
  • 10% took more than a year to get a website online
  • 27% have registered Facebook and Twitter accounts, but 54% still have neither
  • 25% might consider changing their company name, given the chance
  • 10% admitted to not being sure if they even like their company name.

Names are important, of course, and every one with plans to start a new business really needs to think carefully about their domain name. We encourage small businesses to consider registering their domain name before they launch their company, so they can get the name that best serves their business’s interests. 

Sally Tomkotowicz is marketing manager at Namesco, which provides online services for businesses and individuals.

Want to get your business online?

September 12, 2012 by Sally Tomkotowicz

Want to get your business online?/computer screen http{{}}An online presence is essential for modern businesses. The chance to reach a global customer base and to be ‘open’ 24/7 gives you a great advantage over the traditional high street set up. Sounds good, but what you need to know is just HOW to get your website online. Here are the key things to consider for getting your business online…

1 Choose your domain name (website address)

Use a name relevant to your business that includes keywords. It is advisable to keep the domain name short and easy to remember. The most popular extensions are .co.uk and .com. You may want to think about protecting your brand by registering multiple extensions.

2 Creating your website 

Now you need to think about a home for your site and actually create it, which is where you have a few options: 

  • DIY website building tool – this is the easiest option allowing you to get online quickly and easily using a point-and-click method. The templates available make it easy for you to produce a professional-looking website even if you don’t have any technical skills. Some enable you to add features like PayPal shop and Amazon widgets, allowing you to sell directly from your site.
  • Web Hosting – shared hosting is the most common choice for getting a site online and providing a home for your site. Make sure the solution is reliable, because a bad hosting solution will reflect badly on your business.

3 Think about SEO

Obviously, you want your website to appear high up in rankings when people use search engines such as Google. Implementing basic SEO (search engine opitmisation) techniques will get your site higher up in search engine results, such as using keyword in sufficient density on your website; filling your site with fresh and relevant content that is updated regularly; and using backlinks to pages on your site and others. Harnessing the power of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook can also help to drive traffic to your website.

4 Use Google analytics

Make use of Google analytics to get information about what customers are looking at on your website and how long they are spending on each page. This will allow you to continuously improve your site based on actual customer activity.

This blog was written by Sally Tomkotowicz, Marketing Manager, Namesco

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How to build loyalty and grow your online business

August 10, 2012 by Simon Armstrong

A common way to encourage customers to buy from your online store is with reward schemes. Many of us already use loyalty cards or vouchers when shopping in supermarkets to collect points and redeem them for a few pounds off a future purchase. Everyone benefits: the regular customer feels they are valued and retailer gains more repeat business. For every free drink someone is enjoying at their favourite coffee shop there are many customers with a loyalty card that have some, but not sufficient, stamps to gain a reward.

Bigger retailers also gain a huge amount of statistical data to understand customers’ shopping behaviour better.

You can do it too

The good news is if you are a small online retailer you can also set up reward schemes. For example, loyalty programmes that show customers you appreciate their business.

If you decide to implement a loyalty programme, make sure your ecommerce platform offers this functionality as standard. That way you don’t have to use third-party software – or worse still, develop an app that might never fully integrate with your back office. Then you need to consider the following:

  • The starting point has to be research to establish what you want to achieve. Are you trying to acquire new customers, retain current ones or reward your best buyers?
  • A loyalty programme should not cost more than between 0.5-2% of your marketing budget. Spend more on your best customers and set up the scheme so unprofitable customers are not eligible for rewards.
  • Be upfront about why you are running the programme and be consistent with the offer, so customers understand what they will be rewarded for.
  • Prepare a calendar of events and timetable to complete the plan successfully.

However, loyalty programmes aren’t for everyone. If your business offers consistently low prices and great service, such a programme may not be necessary. It's a long-term commitment and it is likely to be at least 18 months before you start to see a return. 

Tell a friend

Another way to gain new customers and build relationships with your existing ones is to offer a referral scheme. This incentivises customers to promote your products and your business. You are much more likely to make a sale if you are recommended by someone who is a trusted source.

If you get a sale as a result of a recommendation, say thank you and send a reward in return, such as a discount that can be used when placing their next order. Your customers’ friends could also receive a one-time referral discount. 

It’s a win-win situation. What else could be the most cost effective way for promoting your company?

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Welcome to the world of netwalking

July 18, 2012 by Stuart Russell

What is Netwalking? - Walkers mapreading{{}}To many the term “networking” conjures up images of early morning presentations, suits and pushy salespeople. You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that a host of networking opportunities now exists that really does offer something for everyone.

Whether you find breakfast networking a turn-off or maybe the thought of presenting your business to a room full of strangers fills you with dread, there is something out there for you.

One such event gaining popularity across the UK is “netwalking”, which couldn’t be further from the traditional event format. Groups generally meet up at a different scenic location once or twice a month to enjoy a walk, followed by a drink in a local pub. The walks are usually graded to suit most people of average fitness and you can even take your dog along with you. The format has proved popular because they not only allow business owners to build new contacts and relationships, but also help them to get fit – a win-win situation!

Due to the informal nature of these new types of networking opportunities, they are ideal if you want to avoid the awkward small talk scenario of traditional business events. And because the focus of the events is usually on some other activity many people find it easier to strike up a conversation. 

If you are tempted to dip your toe into the networking world, it’s worth bearing in mind a few points. As with any area of business, if you are investing your time and money into something it is important to have a strategy in place beforehand. Ask yourself a few questions and set some goals.

What do you want to achieve from networking? Are you looking for new customers or collaboration partners or do you just want to build a support network for your business? What kind of return on investment are you looking for from your networking? By knowing what you want to achieve you can more easily measure your success and change direction if necessary.

Always remember that networking is about building relationships with people over the long term, not making a quick sale following a first meeting. It takes time to get to know and trust people and you can only achieve this by regularly attending an event.

Ok, so what if walking isn’t your thing? There are many other unique and fun events taking place across the UK, everything from coffee and cupcakes, barbeques and golfing days to paintballing and boat trips along the Thames. If your business is missing out on the potential benefits of networking, take a fresh look at what’s out there and give it a go.

By Stuart Russell of FindNetworkingEvents.com - the online resource listing over 3,000 upcoming business networking events, workshops, seminars and business shows across the UK.

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The golden rules of using Facebook for business

July 16, 2012 by Ken Builder

Facebook - Like/Unlike{{}}Barely an hour goes by these days without some multinational brand desperately appealing to you to ‘Like’ them. Admittedly, this is on their Facebook page rather than them wanting to join you for drinks, but with an estimated 845 million global users, Facebook popularity for a business is now directly linked to its turnover.

But is Facebook just another marketing domain to be exploited by corporate heavyweights or can it work for new business just as well? The answer is no and certainly yes – if you do it right.

Creating your page

When creating a Facebook page for your new business, make sure the basics are covered:

  • Great visuals – a picture prompts a thousand Likes. Make sure the visuals demonstrating your new business are strong and attractive. No holiday snaps (unless you’re selling holidays).
  • Call to action - Place a clear call-to-action graphic in the landing tab, this will help getting more "Likes" from your visitors.
  • Check your competitors – Look at what other businesses/competitors are doing with their pages. Mimic the good and mind out for the bad.
  • Make sharing easy - Add an "Invite Your Friends" Box to your page enabling your visitors to instantly choose some of their friends and send them invitations to your page.
  • Make purchasing easy – If you’re selling products online, constructing your page to be a one-stop shop for customers to interact, engage and buy.
  • Join your forces – To maximise awareness and interaction of your new business, link your website to your Facebook page and vice-a-versa.

Finding customers

Your idea is formulated, product/service offering ready, logo designed, website constructed and Facebook page created. All you need now are customers and the beauty of using a ‘social network’ to find them, is that, if you’re already a private Facebook user, you very likely have a good-sized network already that likes you.

For anyone starting a new business, you must use all the tools you’ve got. Don’t be afraid to ask people to help you out and give your new product a try. Why does this work? Because those people with whom you share your life story on Facebook already trust you. There’s no target audience to build. No reaching out to other people in your niche, trying to gain recognition. Your friends will support you. They’re your friends, after all and if they ‘like’ what they see, then suddenly your new business reaches the eyes of their friends and so the social network beings to do what it does best – to network.

Getting engaged

Once your network is up and running, don’t bombard people with constant, well-worn sales pitches but rather engage them with your insight, offers and industry expertise.

  • Create a resource – By including well-sourced and relevant industry information and comment on your page, followers will come to recognise you as a lot more than another shop or service provider.
  • Interact with your customers – Whether it be offering discounts, reacting to customer comments, requesting comment on new product lines, initiating light-hearted debates or posing thought-provoking questions, engage your followers and they will readily spread the message of your business.
  • Handle criticism carefully – Remember, Facebook is an open forum, so any negative comments posted on your business Facebook page by disgruntled customers must be dealt with ‘in public’. Problems that are seen to be being dealt with swiftly and compassionately reassure potential customers. Never be tempted to delete negative customer comments – it will invariably come back to bite you.

To Facebook or not to Facebook?

 A well-executed social media strategy can offer you the chance to engage with untold numbers of potential new customers and provide them with a valuable insight into your business ethics and character. When it comes to consumer decision-making, the importance of these factors should not be underestimated.  What you are meticulously cultivating is that illusive animal - consumer trust.

We all buy from brands we trust. Maybe we trust that they will give us the very best value, or perhaps we trust that they know more about what looks good to wear than we do, but we buy from them, and return to them, because we have, for one reason or another, formed a positive association with what they stand for. So if your new business is almost ready for launching, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to create your Facebook page.

Ken Eden is MD of WebEden, an independently run, London based, web Software Company.

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Passwords: how to keep yours safe

June 08, 2012 by John Sollars

Login screen - password security{{}}Passwords are hugely topical at the moment, of course, after hackers were alleged to have leaked more than six million member passwords from social networking website LinkedIn. You might even have had to change yours as a result.

The truth is, we’re over a decade into the 21st century and people STILL don’t ‘get’ passwords. In the online world we’re increasingly asked to come up with unique strings of letters and numbers in an abstract way: “between 8 and 16 characters in length and containing at least one capital letter and number”. We’ve also got lazy.

Many users reuse their passwords in multiple places, each time dramatically increasing the chances of it being discovered. Not only that, but we also have a terrible habit of trying to use dictionary words with numbers instead of letters. “3lephanT” for example would be considered secure for many services, but in fact it’s all too easy for a computer armed with a dictionary and a list of common substitutions to crack.

The alternatives to DIY

The common alternative to allowing users to come up with their code is creating one for them. This solution, while much better than letting people invent their own password, creates its own problems. People underestimate their ability to remember passwords and fearing exclusion, they note them down somewhere. We all know how insecure this is, so how do we introduce a better system?

Try talking to your employees; educate them on the implications for the business of insecure logins. Then together, come up with a workable solution.

You can use security software that includes a password vault in the cloud, or subscribe to one separately, eg LastPass or KeePass. These apps will even offer to generate strong, random passwords for you.

Another option is to encourage the storage of passwords in a physical form, the challenge is to do so securely. This could be as simple as locking a notebook with important passwords in a safe or as complex as creating a system whereby passwords are shown as innocent notations in a dictionary or other book. For example, to keep tabs on my StartUp Donut password I noted down either a reminder, or the password itself in or around “doughnut” in my Oxford English Dictionary. You can take this idea further by introducing ciphers, choosing passwords based on words in the surrounding text or even by choosing a word that’s not directly associated with the subject matter.

Or you could stick with nonsense passwords but encourage your employees to take care in remembering and selecting them. Often phrases can be reduced to initials and thus remembered without too much hassle (or the reverse can be true, a mnemonic can allow users to convert a forgettable mess into a memorable sentence).

Perhaps security might be better served by, instead of insisting on a hybrid string of characters, encouraging longer chains of words. This page from XKCD was intended as a joke but it illustrates the points I’m trying to make clearly.

If you’re really interested in this subject there are a couple of articles you can read. The first is the recent study by Joseph Bonneau on ‘The science of guessing’ where he looks at the passwords of 70 million people and uses their (anonymised) data to draw some interesting conclusions. While Fareez Ahamed has delved into some of the leaked Twitter passwords and provides an insightful statistical analysis of his findings.

If you’ve found an effective way of keeping logins safe, then please leave a comment.

John Sollars is MD of printer ink retailer Stinkyink.com

Why cloud computing is ideal for start-ups

April 18, 2012 by Kerry Hale

A recent survey by BestVendor of more than 550 US start-ups found that 57 per cent were using Google Apps for email, 71 per cent were using QuickBooks for accounting, 59 per cent were using Salesforce as customer relationship management and 39 per cent were using Dropbox for storage. All exist ‘in the cloud’ – so what is the appeal of cloud computing?

A major attraction is cost, of course. Some applications are free, and those that aren’t allow businesses to pay monthly. These applications also require no space on your computer, while businesses don’t have the hassle of upgrades or the worry of losing data if their computer should get lost or broken. Let’s face it – many start-up owners don’t want to think about their IT. They just need it to be there – and work – so they can focus on running and growing their business.
 
Start-ups aren’t alone; established businesses are also making the move toward the clouds, but more slowly and with slightly more anticipation. A recent survey of 511 IT professionals by InformationWeek revealed that 27 per cent said they won’t be moving to cloud computing, while only a third were actually using it.

Why are larger businesses taking their time? Aside from questions about security, they already have their software needs taken care of in-house and although they see a future ‘in the clouds’, the initial transfer is likely to be a huge task.
 
Start-ups are in the best position. They can start as they mean to go on; they often have little or nothing to transfer, which means they can start quickly and cheaply. Plus, as they grow, they can continue to add additional software and users.
 
These are the five main reasons why start-ups are reaching for the clouds.

1 No major set up

When a start-up reached a certain size, traditionally they would have considered investing in their own office-based server, which could cost between £500 and £2,500. If they use the cloud, the server is managed by a supplier, which eliminates that large initial outlay.

2 Predictable costs

Another cost benefit for start-ups is there are no surprises. New software can be added when you need it, new users added instantly. And although the monthly payment will rise to reflect the additions, there are no lump sums; it works just like your mobile phone bill and so forecasting can be done easily and accurately.

3 Scalability

Cloud computing allows expansion in line with your business growth. Many start-ups grow quite quickly, but can shrink with equal speed. With the cloud, software and users can be removed as quickly and easily as they can be added and so the bill is reduced accordingly. As soon as you grow, you don’t need to invest in further servers or software, you simply let your provider know and they’ll expand your cloud again.

4 Flexibility

In the early stages, many business-owners work from home. Collaborating with partners, associates, even employees, can be done very easily with the cloud. There is no need to work at the same location. Documents can be shared, computers remotely backed-up, and your software can be accessed anywhere.

5 It’s green

Not all of course, but many start-ups advocate sustainability. Clouds have been proven to be green and so this provides another incentive for start-ups to consider the cloud.

Posted in Business IT | 4 comments

Are you planning to spend too much money on your website?

December 05, 2011 by Dale Cook

If you own a business, you almost certainly need a website. Even if you aren’t selling products online, the web is where people go to search for businesses – it’s the new Yellow Pages and fingers are still doing the walking. So it was surprising that our national survey of small-business owners revealed that 41 per cent of them don’t have a website.

Your website is an investment, but how much should you spend on getting one? For a new small business, it’s a difficult decision. It will depend on your resources and how much value you place on your website. Our poll of 400 small businesses across the UK suggested that one-in-five self-employed professionals spent more than £1,000 on getting their website up and running. But what are the options?

Hire a professional designer

If you have a good turnover/profit, and a good portion of that can be attributed to your website, hiring a professional web designer could be a smart move. Generally, a designer will give you something better than what you thought you wanted. The only problem is the price tag. Good designers don’t often come cheap and can spend days perfecting your website. If you’re a small business owner and can’t afford a professional designer, you can minimise the risk of spending too much money by creating your own site.

Become a budding designer

Some of the most popular platforms for web developers at the moment are WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal (there are lots of others). They’re great for business-owners who know, or want to learn, a bit about web design and, best of all, they’re free (although you still need a web address and hosting). Be prepared to devote a large chunk of time to getting a bespoke website though.

If you’ve bought your own domain name, know which web host is right for you and can set up an FTP, WordPress is worth looking at. If you didn’t understand half of the last sentence – and not many people would – there are other ways.

DIY web design for the rest of us 

Despite 36 per cent of respondents saying they don’t think they have the time or skills to create a website, it’s not as hard as it sounds. Easy-to-use web design software makes getting a website live online simple – and quick. You don’t need to know any programming language – they often have templates made by designers so if you can use a mouse and keyboard, you have all the skills you need to create a professional-looking website.

Being in charge of your own website makes updating quick, easy, and free. You don’t have to communicate changes with anyone, wait around for them to get it done, and then pay them for it. You’ll find that most of these types of programs sort you out with a domain name and hosting, and usually cost less than £100. It’s great value, however you look at it.

What to do?   

For the cash-strapped start-up, using a DIY website program provides excellent value for money and won’t eat up much of your time either. It’s a safe way to get online without a huge initial outlay. If you feel the need, you can always get a professional to redesign it for you when you have the money.

For more information on Serif visit www.serif.com/webplus.

Dale Cook is product marketing manager at Serif.

Posted in Business IT | 7 comments

3 SEO improvements to boost your website's ranking

September 30, 2011 by Dale Cook

People can find your website in a variety of ways, but few are more important than being found ‘naturally’ via a search engine. Why? Because using a search engine is the most common way for people to find websites. Appearing in search results can cost nothing as opposed to paying to promote your website in print or through online adverts – and the higher you rank in the search engine results, the more traffic you get!

So, here are three tips to improve your website’s search engine optimisation (SEO) and boost your ranking…

Choose your keywords wisely

It’s important to choose the right keywords for every page on your site. These are words that relate to your field or topic and are likely to be used in searches.

Focus on different keywords for each page. This way, each keyword has its own unique value to a particular page, rather than the same set of keywords on every page competing against each other to do the same job, resulting in your SEO being less effective.

Try to place your keywords in the URL, headings, in image tags, and in the content, but don’t overdo it. If you cram in too many keywords or repeat the same ones endlessly, it will impact negatively on your search engine ranking and won’t read as well, lessening the quality of your content.

You can enhance your SEO and have great content by striking a good balance.

Create a blog

A key part of effective SEO is adding new and original content. If a search engine spider checks your site, it will be looking for fresh content or changes to existing content, so it’s important to ensure that your site gets updated frequently.

A great way to add new content is via a blog because it’s so easy to update regularly and perfect for adding unique content.

And it’s not only search engines that find new content on a blog appealing. Visitors to your site will be craving new information – and the blog on your website is exactly where they’ll find it.

Amongst this new information there may be links to articles on other websites. And if your content is good enough, those websites might return the favour and link back to your site, improving SEO and generating traffic for you – see the results for yourself.

Use meta description tags

It’s not just the information on your web pages that will affect your search engine optimisation. You can improve SEO by giving the search engine spider a taste of your website before it has even got to your homepage, with a meta description tag

This is the short paragraph that appears in the search engine’s listings and gives a brief overview of your site. It’s also your first opportunity to attract potential visitors, as well as the search engine spider, so it’s important to give an accurate representation of your business and relate to the information on your site.

As with your website’s content, don’t fill the description, which should only be around 30 words, with only keywords in the hope of boosting your SEO. Again, you’ve got to find the right balance between effective keywords and marketing yourself to potential customers.

And just like keywords, be sure to use a different meta description tag for each page of your site, so as not to lessen its impact.

Improve your SEO in no time

There are lots of other ways to improve SEO. It’s one of the broadest topics when talking about websites, and the goal posts are changing all the time. You’ll see arguments for site maps, link building, analytics and more – they are all valid – but these three tips are a great place for you to start shooting up the rankings and generating traffic on your website!

Dale Cook, Serif. For more information on Serif and its products including WebPlus website design software, visit the Serif website

Posted in Business IT | 4 comments

Analytics, optimisation & advertising: three must-read books

September 12, 2011 by Matt Bird

The plethora of information available in the online world has created the horrible scenario where there’s too much of a good thing. If you’re looking for helpful advice or guides, you’ll be able to find them in droves, all with contradicting views and opinions on best practices. When you’re looking for start-up business advice, where performance can hinge on the smallest make-or-break decisions, it becomes crucial to find a reliable, trustworthy source that you know is speaking from experience and not opinion.

Following on from my August post, below are three more personal recommendations of authors who actively blog helpful tips and guides online, coupled with a best-selling book that is a must-read. Each of these books covers a different field of business so, if you have a start-up website which you are looking to grow, you need these books.

Avinash Kaushik - Web Analytics 2.0

Field: Website analytics

The ability to track data on the internet is second-to-none, allowing user-centric information for marketers and companies at a level that has never previously been available. Making this data actionable though, now that’s difficult.

Avinash is quite simply a legend in the website analytics field, and you should be worried if you hire a web analyst who is not familiar with his name and work. Responsible for the term “Analytics Ninja”, he is an advocate for better reporting, leading to conclusion-based analysis that is crucial for a successful website.

His best-selling book “Web Analytics 2.0” is tailored to an hour-a-day attitude of improving your understanding, implementation and analysis of data for your website. The depth and breadth of this book make it perfect for those just starting out in website analytics as well as experienced professionals. It is literally impossible to read this book and not become a better analyst (and all proceeds of this book go to charity, such is Avinash’s way), so if you buy any book, this must be it.

Danny Dover - Search Engine Optimisation Secrets

Field: Website optimisation

You are probably familiar with the term Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). An essential requirement for any website hoping to show-up in search engines like Google and Bing, SEO is both necessary and difficult.

The field of SEO is strewn with guides from literally thousands of sources and you can easily get caught up in terrible advice and ‘best practices’. Start off with Danny Dover’s guide and you won’t go wrong.

Similar to Avinash’s Web Analytics guide, Danny’s book is perfect for both SEO newbies and pros, and covers everything from basic on-page optimisation to more advanced SEO tactics, such as site architecture.

The SEO road is a long and frustrating one, but Search Engine Optimisation Secrets will relieve the pain of searching for answers.

Craig Danuloff - Quality Score in High Resolution

Field: Online advertising

At some point in your website’s life, you will want to advertise it. Whether it is on Google’s content network, or search engine bidding in the sponsored ads, online advertising done right can be a revenue-winner, but done wrong can be a company-killer.

Craig Danuloff’s book focuses on a section of online advertising referred to as Pay-per-click (PPC), a self explanatory term highlighting the fact that you provide an advertisement and will be charged each time an individual clicks it.

The world of PPC is incredibly advanced, and so much deeper than an auction model of “he who spends most, wins”. One of the key factors of PPC is a Quality Score algorithm, a mystery figure calculated by the search engines which impacts when your ad is shown and how much you pay.

It would take a lifetime to find and read through the Quality Score essentials that you need to know for a successful campaign. This book brings all of this information together, with the expertise of Mr Danuloff breaking down the intricacies of paid search and Quality Score in a way you simply won’t find online.

I hope these recommendations lead your start-up to greater things. Have you read any books recently that are filled with start-up gold? Share the wealth by adding your own recommendations on our Forum http://www.startupdonut.co.uk/forum

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

Posted in Business IT | 0 comments

10 important lessons our Q&As can teach you

August 09, 2011 by Mark Williams

1 Buying a business

“Buying an existing business can be less risky than creating one from scratch. If the business has customers, it has income. Risk is also easier to assess because you can calculate costs, turnover and profit – and thereby predict cashflow”

Emilie Corbille of www.daltonsbusiness.com

2 Setting up a limited company

“If you want to form a new company, you must send Companies House your registration fee plus a memorandum of association, articles of association and a completed IN01 form, which details the company’s registered office and the names and addresses of its directors (and company secretary, if applicable)” 

Andrew Millet of Wisteria Formations

3 Tax for the self-employed

“By putting away some money from your earnings each month – say, 25 per cent of your gross earnings – you should have more than enough money in the bank to take care of your tax bills”

James R McBrearty of www.taxhelp.uk.com

4 Market research for start-ups

“Even if you believe you have an excellent idea for a business, you mustn’t allow yourself to get fooled into a false sense of optimism. Test it thoroughly by doing some basic market research. Only then can you move forward on any sound basis”

Start-up author Kevin Duncan

5 Calculating start-up costs

“You should minimise your start-up costs because then you’ll stand a better chance of surviving that crucial first year. Also, it’s a good discipline to get into from day one. In business, you must keep your costs as low as possible ­– and avoid buying things you don’t need”

Martin Dunne of Sayers Butterworth chartered accountants

6 Effective cashflow management

“The old saying ‘turnover is vanity, profit sanity and cash reality’ remains true. Businesses go bust in the long term through lack of profit, but in the short term, they fail because they don’t have enough cash to pay their bills on demand. Cashflow is the lifeblood of any business”

Chartered Accountant Howard S Hackney

7 Supplier contracts

“Having a written contract clearly sets out the roles and responsibilities of both parties, which is helpful when it comes to monitoring the relationship’s success. It can also act as proof if a supplier’s performance falls short”

Marie Kell of Andrew Jackson solicitors

8 Complying with environmental legislation

“The onus is on the business to ensure staff comply with legislation. An act of omission by an employee is likely to have consequences for the business. In some circumstances, directors may even be personally liable. The consequences can be drastic”

Kevin Turnbull of Muckle LLP Solicitors

9 PR for start-ups

“Editorial is regarded as more believable than an advert. I’ve read that it’s 50 per cent easier to sell to someone who has read positive things about your business, products or services. And such publicity is usually no cost or low cost. Even if you have to pay someone to do your PR, gaining one piece of coverage per month can be much cheaper than advertising”

Jane Lee of IT PR specialist Dexterity

10 Setting up a home-based business

“It’s low cost and therefore less risky, because there aren’t any expensive premises overheads. You can also claim for a percentage of your domestic bills, for lighting, heating, telephone calls, etc. A home office means no commute, so you save money and time, too”

Emma Jones of Enterprise Nation

On the go

August 04, 2011 by Jason Sullock

During the last three decades the way we work and live has changed beyond recognition. Our grandfathers (and rather fewer of our grandmothers) worked in a job for life, climbed their way up through a company’s ranks and often kept regular 9-5.30 hours. By contrast, today’s workers are expected to negotiate changing circumstances and new challenges throughout their careers.

How we work reflects and informs how we live. Your employees’ work lives form just one part of their life experience. Childcare, the responsibility of elderly relatives, pregnancy, illness, leisure, education... all these factors and infinite others combine with employment to create an overall life experience, for better or worse.  And, of course, within the work environment itself things have also changed dramatically. The days of addressing your workmates as Mr. and Mrs. and wearing a tie to the office are all but gone. Longer hours and a less formal working culture have provided more opportunity for colleagues to socialise. Self-development in the form of training has increased as individuals are required to perform more multi-faceted roles. Diversity has become a valued asset... It’s a different world.

Changes like these are inevitable, constant and should be embraced. That’s why it’s always worth stepping back to consider how they may impact on your business and how you might manage them to your advantage. By taking a closer look at how to create a better working life for your people, you can improve their health, decrease stress levels, and provide your employees with a greater sense of being valued and of having their talent nurtured. It might be a relatively small project like a bike-to-work scheme, or a more committed move towards better pensions or more flexible hours: however you engage your people and improve the way work fits into their life experience can only benefit your business in the long-term.

Progressive employers have long recognised that the best, most productive members of staff aren’t necessarily tied to the office. By allowing individuals time to work remotely, to set up meetings in different cities, to take business to the clients, companies are energising the workforce. This new sense of freedom and personal responsibility has been made possible by technology. Over the last 20 years, the number of employees in the UK ‘telecommuting’ – using technology to work remotely – has doubled, according to Census figures.

The internet represents the single largest factor in changing how, and where, we work but other technologies have also had significant impact when it comes to getting us on the move. Tele-conferencing, video-conferencing, mobile phones, email and instant messaging all give us the freedom to take our work anywhere. It’s no longer necessary for us to be together to work together – a concept that has radically altered the notion of a set ‘place of work.’ Until recently, business software was one of the few areas of work life that was strictly office-based. There is a wide range of new and innovative ways for employees to work remotely, covering more than the obvious email, CRM and web access.  Sage, for example, has introduced a new app that enables access to Sage 50 Accounts 2012, wherever you are. Sage 50 Accounts Mobile www.sage.co.uk/sage50mobile harnesses the power of the web to enable you and your employees to view cash flow, customer and supplier details, reports and much more in real time. The app is simple to set up, free and whether you’re a financial director looking for quarterly figures or a manager generating a weekly sales report it’s invaluable when you’re on the go.

The benefits of mobile business

  • Staff retention – freedom and trust are attractive incentives
  • Increased productivity as employees work more dynamically
  • Reach new markets with face-to-face interaction
  • Decrease overheads on office space, heating and lighting
  • Lead the way – remote and mobile working are set to rise

Dynamic, forward-thinking businesses address cultural and technological progress as a matter of course. A business adaptable enough to work change to its advantage, harnessing new ideas to invest in happier, more productive employees, is a business primed for success.

Posted in Business IT | 0 comments

How cloud computing can help a start-up

August 02, 2011 by Matt Bird

This blog has been written in the Cloud, edited in the Cloud, shared in the Cloud and critiqued in the Cloud. Indeed, a huge amount of my and colleagues’ work is done online, and so I’d like to pass on some thoughts on how this new phenomenon can help your organisation.

So for starters what is it? Cloud computing is in essence the ability to run programs and view files that are installed on a remote machine. There have been cloud-style systems in place for a long time - take browser-based email like hotmail and gmail for instance. Nowadays more and more ambitious systems are being created and it seems like everyone is getting involved.

To my mind there are three main areas where cloud computing has significant advantages over more traditional desktop systems.

Cost

Pros

At the start, when revenue is low and your company is growing, minimising costs can give you an advantage.

Cloud computing is very, very cheap. A standard desktop licence of Microsoft Office is roughly £239.99. So ignoring upgrade fees and installation hassle, that’s £240 per user for basic work capabilities.

Now take that user and give them full access to Microsoft’s online offering (Microsoft 365). That’s £4 a month and Google Apps is even cheaper at £3.30!

Cons

Cloud systems are still in their infancy and constantly being added. Some functionality that you are accustomed to may not yet be available, so do your research on what you need.

Security

Pros

You’ll undoubtedly be aware of the recent spate of large corporations being hacked (e.g. Sony, Fox News and Sega), often through simple flaws in their (expensive) IT networks. By passing the handling of data on to a third party you gain two key advantages:

Firstly, whoever stores your data has security at the forefront of their minds and (should be) constantly keeping up-to-date with the ever changing battleground of patches, hacks and updates. Your cloud supplier will have a budget for heavy duty protection that is simply out of reach for small businesses.

Secondly you also pass a degree of liability onto whoever holds your data. If they get hacked, they’ve failed to provide the service you’ve paid them for and you can claim.

Cons

You must be careful over who is holding your data. The EU has very strict rules about data protection and any company outside the EU must be listed on the “Safe Harbour” list to be allowed to hold onto information.

Portability

Pros

Any data or programs that are stored in the Cloud are available anywhere where there is an internet connection, which is very beneficial for people on the move.

Start-ups are often spread thin, with numerous responsibilities for any staff members, tight schedules and out-of-office engagements. The Cloud means that leaving files on the wrong machine before a key meeting is impossible, and any employees needing to work at home or make crucial changes to documents whilst on the go will have that ability.

Cons

As with any website, password safety is really important in the Cloud where your user name and password are the weakest link between a potential attacker and your data.

Ultimately, the Cloud offers some great opportunities for new businesses.

The low start-up costs of services and the limited hardware needed means it’s all very accessible. It’s easy to use, cheap to try, and is at least worth testing with a free trial.

Do you know of any Cloud success stories, or still have concerns for your company? I’m happy to share my experiences and ideas.

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

Posted in Business IT | 2 comments

How to build a customer-focused website

July 22, 2011 by Ewan McIntyre

It may sound blindingly obvious, but by focusing on customers' needs when you design your website you stand the best chance of creating a site that customers will want to visit.

However, this can be easier said than done. Unless you really understand what customers want, you run the risk of creating a website that drives customers away rather than attracting them.

Carrying out some research before you start can help you identify what your customers really want. You need to know:

  • Who your target customers are
  • How they use your site
  • Whether your site is easy to use

Who’s your audience?

Ask yourself who your audience is. Are they current or prospective customers? Are they individuals or businesses? Where are they located?

Customer records can answer some of these questions but if you want to profile online customers there are some great online tools you can use. Tools like HitWise and Alexa can help you profile the people who visit your site, your competitors’ sites or even your industry as a whole.

How do customers behave on your site?

If you’re updating an existing site, answering this question is simple. There's a host of free and paid for web analytical tools that can give you a detailed picture of how customers behave online. Free tools like Google Analytics are simple to use and can help you identify who visits your site, what they look at, how long they spend online and which visits lead to sales.

Analytical tools can also help you identify what doesn't work, where potential customers drop out and the pages that generate complaints.

If you are launching a site from scratch, you could start by looking at your competitors' websites. What do they provide? How does that compare with what you offer? Do your customers use competitors' sites? What do they think of them? What works and doesn't work?

The best way to answer these questions is to ask customers directly. You can use online surveys like 4Qsurvey, send out questionnaires or carry out face-to-face interviews.

Getting feedback directly from your customers will help you hone your site to their wants and needs. It will also demonstrate to them that their needs matter to you.

Remember to ask customers what they might want to do in the future. Technologies are constantly evolving and your customers – particularly business customers – may be developing new systems and technologies that could help give your site a competitive advantage.

How usable is your site?

Put yourself in your customers' shoes. How easy is it to complete online tasks? Is it easy to find what you are looking for? Is it obvious what steps need to be taken to complete a task?

Eliminating usability issues will help you maximise sales and reduce the number of people who leave your site without completing their task.

There are plenty of experts that can review your site for you. Alternatively, you can use one of the many online resources like this great usability guide. It gives hints and tips on how you can do your own usability testing. But remember that you should be testing with actual customers in mind.

Once you know what your current and prospective customers want from your site, you can start to define the site’s structure, look, content and feel.

And finally…

Remember: it’s not enough to only think about customers' needs when you build your website. To ensure that your site remains customer focused, you must continually review your web metrics, talk to your customers and develop your website accordingly. In doing this, you’ll create a site that your customers will return to again and again.

Ewan McIntyre is the web implementation manager for Sage UK

This blog is a reworking of a blog that featured on the Sage blog   

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Start your own web-based businesses

June 01, 2011 by Jonathan Rodger

Looking back on all the ventures I've started or been involved in for the past 10 years, they all have one thing in common – they have all been internet businesses, mostly selling web-based software as a service.

It's not that I'm naturally a technical person. In fact, when it comes to DIY I'm the sort of person who will hammer a screw into the wall to save going to the hardware shop to get some nails. I couldn't write a single line of PHP code. I hardly know any Linux commands and yet most of the servers running my current email marketing business, Message Horizon, are based on Linux. I have no interest in learning these tools either. There's no need to. The most important thing for an entrepreneur starting a web-based business is to understand and research what the technology is capable of doing, and even more importantly – what its limitations are.

There are plenty of techies out there who really know their stuff. Let them build the technology. Make sure you team up with the best technical people you can afford. A word of warning, however – pick ones you think you can work with. The ability to get on with your technical people is key, as I’ve found they can be slightly arrogant when dealing with those of us who are less technical than them. If you spot one of these, avoid them at all costs – otherwise they will quickly drive you to despair.

So, why would a non-technical person be so heavily involved in web software businesses? The main reason is they make great businesses. They have all the key ingredients that make business fun and rewarding.

  • They are only limited by your imagination. You can make software do almost anything with a computer. Whether it's automating your social media updates, sending email newsletters, taking online payments or powering data searches, your software does what you want it to do.
  • A software as a service can produce recurring revenues, similar to subscription payments. This is the holy grail of any business. If you can build a decent base of clients paying you on a recurring basis then you're well on your way to having a stable, profitable business.
  • They are scalable. You can start very small with a prototype and add layers of complexity and more processing power as you grow.
  • They can make very low-cost start-up businesses. You don't need stock, premises, or even full-time staff. You can run them from home.
  • They can be automated. Your website can do most of the selling for you. Some web businesses require very little customer pre-sales negotiation, if any. Payment and fulfilment can be handled automatically.
  • Your market is international.
  • You can add complementary services and build a portfolio of linked businesses.

The best way to start a web software business is with a basic version, which you develop according to user feedback. Over time the product will evolve into something customers actually want, rather than your own interpretation of what they need.

In terms of the idea, the key to web software is to automate a repetitive manual task or to simplify a very complicated one. Find a “problem” and make your software provide the solution. Take inspiration from your own everyday tasks, whether it be in the management of your website or any other task. Sooner or later you'll come across a requirement that isn't well served by existing tools. You may be already on the way to starting your own web software business.

Jonathan Rodger is managing director of email marketing service Message Horizon.

Why analytics are vital to your business

May 27, 2011 by Matt Bird

The majority of UK businesses now have some level of online presence and one of the brilliant things about the digital world is that performance is measurable.

When should a start-up look at this? Yesterday! Never underestimate the value of historical data, especially if your product/service experiences seasonal demand. In its simplest form, historical data can help you forecast peaks and troughs, with significant implications on areas such as your business cashflow or marketing budgets.

Tell me more

Analytics software (eg Google Analytics) are remarkably easy to install and offer potentially endless performance benefits. To give you a taster, here are three analytics-based tasks to help boost your start-up’s website and business performance.

1 Referral tracking

Any decent analytics programme will tell you where traffic comes from. This can be anywhere from a search engine or marketing email, to someone typing in your website URL into the address bar.

These statistics include what are called “referrals”, essentially, other sites linking to you. Referrals include business directories, comments posted in forums, affiliate sites and links from articles you’ve had published. Knowing where you are getting traffic from allows you to decide where to focus your energy and budget on building traffic, while monitoring brand mentions and opportunities. These brand mentions give you first-hand access to: people mentioning your company; accolades; and complaints.

If someone has had a bad experience with your business, you can get in there early and limit the damage. If someone is telling their friends how great you are, get their permission to use them as a testimonial, ask them what they liked, let as many people as possible know how great you are.

You’ll find plenty of Twitter search tools that complement analytics referral tracking here.

2 Search monitoring

Most analytics packages enable you to track the exact queries being used in your own website’s search bar. This is invaluable customer intelligence. You can see what people are searching for, which pages result in the highest interest, which searches return no results, etc. You can even see trending in market demands. If you monitor spikes in certain terms being used, you can see where the customer interest is heading. The possibilities for this information are huge, and can really help steer your start-up in the direction your customers want – instead of the direction you think they need.

3 What technology your visitors are using

What browser do your visitors use? Are they on a laptop or mobile phone? Knowing how your visitors view your page is important. Imagine the changes you’d make to your marketing plan if you knew most of your traffic came via mobile.

You can also highlight performance issues on your site. I know one update Stinkyink.com released had... let’s just say “interesting”... repercussions for Internet Explorer 6 users, which missed testing, but analytics bought the issue to our attention.

Craving analytics yet?

I hope those points have opened your eyes to the benefits to be gained from analytics, even on a low traffic start-up site. Be inspired and go implement it now – or dust off your analytics package and have a tinker.

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

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My top ten favourite web applications and tools

April 28, 2011 by Dale Broadhead

The internet is now helping people reach their business goals quicker and easier than ever before, and this is one of IT’s true achievements over the past couple of years, with much credit due to resources already available on the market. My top ten favourite web applications and tools (in no particular order) which could help your business are:

1 Dropbox (free versions)

If you’re like me, your work location changes from day to day. For years I was frustrated by having to remember to put important documents I might need while out of the office onto a memory stick. What happens when the memory stick was full? You'd have to start deleting.

Dropbox is a virtual hard drive. No matter where you are, as long you have synced with the cloud-based tool, you can access your files. Even if you haven't synced, get your hands on an internet connection and you’re good to go. It's also great for sharing files without having to worry about emailing large attachments. Dropbox offers free and paid hosting solutions and is a must have for any start-up.

2 Basecamp

Keeping on top of projects and delegating tasks can be complicated and time-consuming. Basecamp is a great tool for project management and is full of great features that keep you on top of all of your projects.

It let's you do things such as assign specific tasks within projects to people and monitor their progress. The application has a great feature that allows you to exchange notes on each individual projects that you use a lot, brilliant if you have people working on projects in various locations. You must pay for the application, but it's worth it.

3 Email Center Pro

When we first launched, we found it hard to keep on top of all our customer service emails. Email Center Pro provided the solution. It gave us a virtual mailbox that could be accessed online from anywhere. The application is accessed through most web browsers and is full of features such as assigning emails to different members of staff, notifications of new emails, conversation tracker, etc. There are many more features included as standard. This is a paid-for service, but it’s incredibly cheap.

4 Google Calendars (free)

Knowing what you are meant to be doing, when and where is vital when running a business, but staying on top of all appointments can be hard. Google Calendars works well for us – and it’s free. Although it's not the most all-singing and all-dancing calendar application available, it does exactly what we need it to do. We can make appointments, invite attendees, email and send SMS notifications. It's basic, but sometimes that's all you need.

5 Wordpress (free)

Blogging is now very popular and with cutting-edge applications such as Wordpress, it's easy to set up your own blog site. Blogs are a great way to interact with customers and keep them up to date in more detail than Twitter and Facebook. We decided to use Wordpress because it's growing at an incredible rate, there’s a huge amount of plug-ins and support. It's available as a free hosted solution on wordpress.com or you can download the application for free and host it on your own server.

6 Tweetdeck (free)

Keeping Facebook and Twitter pages updated used to be a pain and, in my case, often ended up not happening. Now with the help of Tweetdeck, we can update both our Twitter and Facebook accounts from a nice desktop application. It's so easy to use and available for pretty much all interfaces. You can create an account for access through different machines and it also has a web browser version you can use when your on the road. Also there is support for many other web services such as Buzz, Myspace and LinkedIn.

7 Evernote (Free Versions)

Brianstorming is a massive part of many businesses’ growth ambitions. Evernote lets us share our notes with others and allow them to participate in our brainstorming efforts. There is a web version and desktop application available for most operating systems and a great mobile version for the iPhone. Free and Premium versions are available.

8 A virtual telephone number

We needed a telephone number that offered two things – ability to put calls through to multiple extensions and a voicemail service. We chose eReceptionist. With this web application we chose our telephone number, set up our extension landline diverts and set our open and close hours. We were up and running in less than an hour. If a customer calls out of hours they are transferred to our voicemail and we can also divert calls to another landline at a different office if there is no one available. It's a great application and works well for us.

Dale Broadhead, Ink Spark Limited

Posted in Business IT | Tagged IT software | 3 comments

How to create a blog as unique as your business

March 31, 2011 by Zoe Brown

The design and functionality of your blog should be determined by your blogging targets and goals. Not all blogs will look the same or require the same functionality. Getting exactly the right blog for your business takes careful consideration. 

How will my visitors look for my content?

How people find content on your blog is call “navigation” and numerous common methods are used:

  1. Order of presentation. Some vistors will simply read the content in the order it’s displayed on the screen.
    • In full. If you achieve a large following, your most recent article should always display in full on your blog home page. This is because visitors have already read your previous entries and they will usually want to read your recent article and then leave.
    • Most recent. It is nice to include the most recent (10 or so) articles on the home page, this encourages new visitors to read on. This is not suitable for blogs using lots of images as the page could become bloated and slow to load.
    • Excerpts. You may choose to include only excerpts on the home page. These are small summary paragraphs which click through to the full article. But beware, the excerpts need to create interest.
    • Category search. Posts can be assigned to a category. The number of categories you decide on will depend on your business and the frequency of your post. Ideally, if you have more than eight categories you should consider sub categorising and so on. Using categories as the main navigation method is useful for larger blogs with lots of content and blogs with many contributors. It is not relevant if the content is date sensitive. For example, technology articles might be out dated quite quickly and therefore it’s not important for people to be able to search via category.
  2. Archive/date search. Visitors are usually able to find content based upon the published date. I prefer to read personal blogs in date order, it brings me closer to the author and I like the time line. If your blog is being used for news & events, a date search is really important. 
  3. Blog search. It’s always nice to include a search tool, however, visitors will only use this as a backup if the main navigation is not adequate or they are looking for a specific post. Ensure that it is easy to find but it does not need to take up a lot of screen space.
  4. Browse. First-time visitors like to browse. To encourage browsing you should include as many options to find content as possible including: internal links and next/previous options.
  5. Active posts. Many blogs include a recent comments section which link through to blogs with recent activity.
  6. Integrated menu. If the real goal of your blog is to drive traffic to your main website then you should consider integrating the main website menu into your blog.  This means that users can easily find your main website and don’t get “trapped” in your blog.

It’s fine to encourage all methods of navigation but it’s useful to decide on one method for the primary navigation. A useful exercise is to rank the different types above in order of importance.

Where should the main menu live?

Your primary navigation (menu) should be easy for visitors to spot, higher up the page, more prominent and allocated enough space. Your menu will usually be placed across the top of the screen (horizontal menu) or down the left hand side (left hand menu). I often see the menu on the right, which is acceptable, but remember that will be the first section of the page to be hidden on smaller monitors (and therefore visitors might need to scroll to reach it).

  1. Horizontal menu. This type of navigation is fixed in size and can only accommodate a small number of categories (I’d say 8-12 max). It’s possible to use drop down menus for sub categories, but these are harder for people to use, not useful for people with disabilities and don’t always work on all browsers or devices (such as iPhones and Blackberry’s). I would recommend avoiding a drop down menu if at all possible, at the very least offer a text based alternative.
  2. Left hand menu. By far the most appropriate place to position a larger or expanding menu is down the left of your content. This options allows for many more options including larger menus with sub categories.

How often should I post and how long should they be?

I often hear that the magic number is at is at least three times a week. However, the truth is the frequency of posts should be calculated based upon your goals and the return on your investment (time). 

  1. Frequent posting. Posting three times a week (or more) is great if you require lots of repeat visitors or if your goal is to build up lots of content for SEO purposes. But remember to measure the return on your time and to avoid publishing low quality content. Generally, if you are posting frequently you’ll want to keep your articles short and snappy.
  2. Less frequent. If the goal of your blog is to simply demonstrate an authority on your topic (valid where you are selling large value items to less customers) you do not need post quite so often. High quality and low quantity content is also perfect for encouraging back links. Your posts can be longer, more technical and more in depth.
  3. Not Frequently. If you do not intent on posting very frequently, there is little point in featuring the date in your posts. Leave it out and avoid putting off visitors.

How personal does the blog need to be?

  1. The personal blog. If you are the owner of a small business then you may opt for a personalised blog. You may personalise with your photo, the style of your writing and use of graphics.
  2. The company blog.  For larger companies you may have a team of individuals posting on the blog, the blog may even be used more for PR, News & Event – in which case it can be more corporate.  If may be useful to include a bio for each contributor so that visitors can meet the authors – but this will depend on your business goals.

How much interaction should I encourage?

One great blog features is the ability to allow visitors to post comments on your posts. But don’t just use the feature because it’s available. Comments can be subject to abuse and you’ll need to monitor them closely.  If you do want to encourage lots of comments, then remember to ask for them and always respond to people quickly. Alternatively, you might not want to allow comments or you may choose to turn them off for some articles only – all up to you and your goals.

To summarise – As with all marketing, there is no “one size fits all” approach. The way you manage your blog will depend on your goals, your company and the resources available.  Your blog and your approach to managing your blog should be as unique as your business.

Posted in Business IT | 0 comments

Protect your business from common email scams

March 11, 2011 by Daniel Offer

There are many types of online fraud, but email scams are among the most prolific. Thankfully, many people are now more aware of online scams, but email fraud is still rife and it often targets small business. Here are two of the most common types of email scams:

1 Domain name expiry scam

Malicious fraudsters have now started targeting .uk domain names with falsified domain expiry warnings. Sadly, many of those who fall for this latest domain name con are small firms, largely because they do their own in-house IT management and are not fully au fait with some of the technical aspects involved.

Unscrupulous online criminals are manipulating this lack of knowledge. Many websites receive emails that warn of an imminent domain name expiry. A lot of small businesses, fearing they’re about to lose their domain name, pay extortionate fees to renew their domain unnecessarily.

The emails are usually called something like ‘Domain Registry Services’. They warn of an urgent renewal being required and will state the charge for a renewal. This charge will be much more than an average renewal. It will also be completely bogus.

Many small businesses don’t keep accurate records of when they bought or last renewed their domain name and they probably will not remember the original charge.  This is probably why this scam works so well. If you receive one of these emails and are in any doubt, contact Nominet.org.uk (the .uk internet registry at www.nic.uk).

2 Phishing and password theft

Most small businesses tend to manage and respond personally to business emails and can become targets for this renowned, but effective, email scam. ‘Phishing’ is the practice of attempting to gather sensitive, protected information by persuading someone to enter their private details online. The most common form of phishing scam is the fake bank email.

Internet criminals clone an official bank email address or manipulate the recipient’s email inbox into believing the email has come from a trusted source. Often the sender of these emails will appear to be the real company. The email will often say that “owing to a recent security threat to the business’s account, to ensure there has been no fraudulent activity”, the business must log in to its account with its username and password.

The email will contain a believable login section that mimics the real bank’s website template. If the business owner enters their details, online fraudsters can access a business’s private accounts and steal money or make unwarranted transactions in the business’s name. Real banks will never ask for personal account information via email, of course.

Trust Your Instincts

Be cynical. If an email just doesn’t seem right – don’t open it. Then report it. Many email providers enable you to report spoof emails and phishing attempts. One of the best things a small business can do is use an email provider with high-end junk and spam filters. Many cheap web-hosting services provide email services, but their filtering software may be substandard. It may be prudent to invest in a reputable web host or use a generic email provider such as Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo!. If you receive a domain expiry email, contact your domain name supplier. It’s that simple. They won’t take umbrage.

There are many more scams other than the two I’ve mentioned. Caution, common sense and a little bit of knowledge will go a long way towards reducing the likelihood you’ll fall for an online dupe.

Daniel Offer is a partner in the Facebook messaging application Chit Chat for Facebook

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