Businesses rely on information technology (IT) in almost everything they do. Every fledgling company should specify and source technology that meets its immediate requirements, while making it easy to expand as the business grows.
This briefing covers:
- Basic requirements.
- Buying and getting support.
- Cloud computing.
1 Setting up your office
Nearly every start-up business will need basic communications technology.
1.1 Computers are the workhorses in most businesses.
- Think about how many you need.
- You will probably need one per person.
- Personal computers (PCs) running Microsoft Windows are a popular choice.
- An increasing number of businesses choose Apple Macs, although these tend to be more expensive.
- Opting for laptops may give you more flexibility.
- Entry-level computers can be a false economy.
1.2 An internet connection will keep you connected to the outside world.
- Fibre-optic connections are fast, reliable and available in many parts of the UK.
- You can purchase standard fibre-optic broadband from a range of suppliers.
- Larger businesses may require a dedicated leased line from a specialist supplier.
- Business broadband packages offer more reliable speeds and better support.
- You may need another connection for your telephone services (see 1.6)
1.3 You could work more flexibly and efficiently with mobile devices.
- Smart phones allow you to use email and the internet on the move.
- Tablet computers have larger screens, so are good for reviewing documents and presentations.
- Some powerful tablets have capabilities approaching those of full-size computers.
1.4 You are likely to need a printer, and maybe some other accessories.
- Laser printers are fast and reliable. Simple models cost from £50.
- Look for a printer with a network connection so everyone can share it.
- Pay attention to the running costs. Over time, these will dwarf the purchase price.
- Inkjet printers are good for printing photos, but are more expensive to run.
- You may also require a photocopier and scanner. An all-in-one device conveniently combines printing, scanning and photocopying in a single unit.
1.5 Consider how you will provide email.
- If you have a server (see 2.5) you can run and host an email service in house.
- However, most companies find that using a separate email provider is more cost-effective and reliable.
- Email services are available from a range of providers.
1.6 Think about what sort of telephone system you need.
- Most modern business phone systems use VoIP (voice over internet protocol) which make your calls via the internet.
- With VoIP, you can have a number of phone numbers, without requiring a physical phone line for each.
- VoIP is typically more flexible and cost-effective than a traditional phone system. However, it requires a reliable internet connection. Consider getting a separate broadband line just for VoIP.
- You can buy a phone number from a service like Skype (www.skype.com), then make and receive calls through your computer.
1.7 Some businesses require specialised technology.
- If you run a retail business, you may need point of sale terminals (tills).
- A chip and PIN reader allows you to take card payments. These are available from banks and specialist suppliers such as iZettle.
- Design businesses often use plotters or large printers to create posters and diagrams.
- A good IT supplier can help you understand what combination of hardware is best for your business (see 6.1).
1.8 It can be a hassle to source and set up everything yourself, especially if you have limited experience.
- Consider working with a local IT supplier (see 6.1).
IT for micro-businesses
If you’re starting a company by yourself, and already own a decent computer, there’s nothing to stop you just using it.
It’s important to ensure that you are taking security precautions (see 5), but many freelance and single-person businesses are run successfully using nothing more than a laptop and smart phone.
2 Your network
Your business will almost certainly need some kind of network.
2.1 A network allows you to connect computers and other devices, so you can:
- Get all your computers and devices online.
- Easily share files and other data.
- Share resources such as printers.
2.2 If you have fewer than five employees, you can easily create a simple network.
- The centre of your network will be a router. They cost from about £40, or are included with most broadband internet services.
- The router normally connects to the internet, then all your devices connect to the router.
- You should be able to connect using wires (also called ‘Ethernet cables’) or wireless (see 2.4).
2.3 If you have more employees, you should plan you network in more detail.
- Think about how many devices you need to connect and how you will connect them.
- You might need additional routers, access points and equipment.
- Running cables in an office can be tricky. A local IT supplier (see 6.1) should be able to help.
2.4 A wireless network (also called Wi-Fi) can provide extra flexibility in your business.
- A wireless network allows your devices to connect using radio waves.
- Most mobile devices can only connect to a network wirelessly. All new laptops have wireless capabilities built in.
- Wireless is very convenient, but not as fast nor as reliable as a wired connection.
- Many businesses use wired connections for permanent desks, and rely on wireless for other parts of their building.
- To set up a wireless network, you need a wireless router or wireless access point.
- You may require more than one access point.
- Use encryption and take precautions to protect your wireless network (see 5).
2.5 Larger businesses often build their network around a server.
- A server is a dedicated computer that manages your network and stores data.
- A server allows you to run centralised applications, such as a customer relationship management system.
- They cost from around £400 but require significant ongoing maintenance.
- They require some technical knowledge. Speak to a trustworthy IT provider (see 6.1).
- Companies are increasingly opting for cloud services instead. This usually leaves them with lower overheads (see 4).
2.6 Consider whether you need to provide remote access to your network.
- It is tricky to provide remote access to your data without a server unless you use cloud services.
It’s important you choose software that will allow your business to run smoothly.
3.1 Web browsing software can help you access the internet.
3.2 You will also require email software so you can send and receive emails.
- Many companies use Microsoft Outlook to send and receive emails (see 3.3).
- The company that provides your email service may offer Outlook - or other email software - as part of the package.
3.3 An office suite allows you to work with common business documents and files.
- Most companies use the Microsoft Office suite. It is likely your employees will be familiar with this software.
- Free alternatives are available, such as LibreOffice. However, these packages do not always work with Microsoft Office files.
3.4 Basic accounting software can simplify book-keeping and automate tax returns.
- Payroll software makes paying staff easier, automating repetitive and difficult calculations.
- Some accounts packages include advanced features, such as stock control.
- Accounting software is increasingly available as a cloud service (see 4).
3.5 You could consider using customer relationship management (CRM) software to track customer details and contacts.
- Customer relationship software is helpful if you have lots of customers.
- CRM software is increasingly available as a cloud service (see 4).
3.6 You can use mobile apps.
- The software and cloud services you use in your business may also come as an app.
4 Cloud computing
Cloud computing services are beginning to replace software. They could help you be more flexible and get the IT system you really need - while keeping your initial costs low.
4.1 Cloud computing services are accessed over the internet.
- Instead of installing software onto your computer, you sign in online.
- Most cloud services charge a monthly fee instead of a one-off cost.
- They are cheaper upfront, but overall costs often work out similar to traditional software.
4.2 Cloud services tend to be very flexible.
- Unlike traditional software, cloud services aren’t tied to a single computer so you can access them from any computer or device.
- You can generally increase or decrease capacity instantly.
For instance, if a new employee joins.
- You usually pay a fixed fee, based on your usage.
For instance, the number of users you have.
4.3 Most cloud packages include maintenance and support.
- This can reduce your IT maintenance burden, because the cloud provider handles updates, security patches and provides help when you need it.
4.4 Cloud services store your business data on servers operated by the cloud provider.
- It’s important you can trust the provider to take good care of your data.
- Make sure the provider is well-established, with a strong track record.
4.5 You need an internet connection in order to use cloud services.
- Check that any cloud provider offers a guaranteed level of uptime.
- Consider whether you need to upgrade your internet connection - especially if you need to transfer a large amount of data.
5 IT security
The information you hold on your IT system is valuable. You can suffer data loss through malicious attacks and by accident.
5.1 Physically protect computer equipment.
- Stealing a PC or server is one of the easiest ways for someone to get hold of your data.
5.2 Design your network with security in mind.
5.3 Run security software on every computer.
- Choose a reputable package - make sure it runs automatically and is kept up to date.
5.4 Create a robust back-up system.
- Set up regular back-ups.
- Store at least one set of back-ups off-site. Keep them away from heat, moisture and magnetism.
- A cloud backup service can be a good way to back-up data off-site.
5.5 Ensure employees understand the importance of security.
- Make security part of employees’ contracts.
- Make sure your staff understand why it’s important they follow security procedures.
5.6 Make sure you know what to do in the event of a problem.
- Create a file containing key information.
5.7 Mobile devices pose a particular risk as they can easily be lost or stolen.
- Make sure employees know what to do if their device is lost or stolen.
- Install tracking and remote wipe software and encrypt all mobile data.
6 Buying and getting support
You can source your equipment, software and services from a number of different channels.
6.1 Establishing a good relationship with a local IT supplier can pay dividends over time.
- Look for a supplier that understands your business and what you’re trying to achieve.
- A good supplier will help you choose, install and set up your IT and provide ongoing assistance and support.
- This may be a little more expensive than buying direct from manufacturers but you are less likely to make inappropriate investments.
6.2 In shops you can try out the equipment you’re buying - and take it away with you.
- Retailers generally offer maintenance and support. But this can be expensive - and the quality can vary.
6.3 Buying direct from the manufacturer is good if you know exactly what you want.
- Orders can be placed over the phone or the internet.
6.4 You are likely to buy cloud services directly from the cloud provider.
- Many services offer a free trial, followed by regular monthly payments.
6.5 Be wary of used or refurbished items.
- In certain circumstances, this can be an effective way to get more for your money.
- However, it’s hard to be sure of the history of used equipment – and it may be more likely to fail.
6.6 Create a budget to help you prioritise your spending.
- Keep your business objectives in mind when choosing what to buy.
- Remember that some equipment, software and services may have significant on-going costs.
- Don’t forget to budget for support and training. Allow some contingency funds, too.