The use of information technology (IT) is vital in the day-to-day running of companies and new businesses expect significant returns on their IT investment.
Every fledgling business should make sure it specifies and sources an IT solution that meets its immediate requirements, while ensuring the solution can act as a base for expansion as the business grows.
This briefing covers:
- Basic requirements.
- Using software.
- Budgeting and buying.
1 Setting up your office
Nearly every start-up business will need basic communications technology.
1.1 Consider how many telephone lines or extensions you will need.
- Make sure you will be able to add lines or extensions later if necessary.
- Ask your telecoms supplier if they have a special package for businesses including both phone service and internet connection.
- Take advantage of competitively priced broadband packages from a variety of suppliers.
Some systems use your broadband connection for telephone calls, called broadband telephony. This will give you more functionality and flexibility without the initial costs incurred through traditional telecoms systems. For example, voicemail and call diversion.
1.2 For most start-up businesses, PCs have become the central part of an IT system.
- Look at your business plan and see which objectives could be more effectively achieved by using a PC system.
For example, you can manage large amounts of information more effectively on a PC than with a paper-based system.
- You will need to invest in training.
Remember to include training costs when budgeting for your IT system.
- The greater the use of your IT system, the greater the impact if something goes wrong with it. Make sure you consider security and support (see 6).
- Avoid buying hardware or software which is too complicated for your needs.
1.3 The printer you choose should be determined by the quality, speed and versatility you require.
- IT systems are advancing all the time. It is easy to be attracted by the latest gizmo. Always buy what you need rather than what the sales person says you need. For most business purposes you are unlikely to need features such as speakers, the capacity to play DVDs, or advanced graphics or sound cards.
- Once your IT system is up and running, don't upgrade software simply because a new version has been released. Establish whether the new features would benefit you. In any case, you will probably be better off waiting until any glitches have been ironed out.
2.1 If you are working on your own, the only network you need to consider is the connection between your PC, phone line (for internet access), printer and possibly scanner or copier.
- This should be easy to set up, as connectivity should be built in to all the devices. Check this before making the purchase.
2.2 If you have more than one computer and fewer than eight, you can consider linking them through a peer-to-peer network.
- Each user can access the other users' machines and external devices. This may slow down some users' machines at busy times.
2.3 When your business has more than six connected PCs, you should build a network based around a server.
The server is a dedicated computer that manages the network and stores software and files created by users. It allows anyone on the network to access other people's work when required.
- You must take preventative measures in case the server fails. At the very least, the contents of the server should be backed up regularly. Ideally, you need a server that is built to continue functioning even if components fail, as well as backing up regularly. For maximum efficiency, make one person responsible for your IT.
3 Office benefits
With the right software, your IT can increase the efficiency of your business' internal operations. Check that software can do exactly what you want it to, before you buy.
3.1 Email provides a fast and inexpensive way of communicating with everyone, including people within your business.
- Email is an essential tool, particularly for businesses selling to other businesses.
3.2 Word processing software allows you to produce professional-looking documents and letters quickly and easily.
- Features such as automatic spell-checking can improve your accuracy and efficiency.
3.3 Basic accounting software can simplify book-keeping and automate VAT returns and similar tasks.
3.4 Stock control software allows you to predict buying or manufacturing needs to help drive efficiency.
3.5 Source business and market information online.
- You can conduct research into market trends, your customers and your competitors.
4 Connecting with customers
Effective use of IT can project a professional impression of your business to customers and potential customers and help you manage your business relationships more effectively.
4.1 Contact management software or a simple database allows you to record details of customers and suppliers and your dealings with them.
- You can schedule sales activities and monitor progress.
4.2 A database allows you to generate mailshots and monitor the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, while software such as PowerPoint allows you to produce sales presentations for customers.
4.3 Your internet presence can range from providing simple information about your business through to full online ordering and tracking systems.
- Your website can be used to keep existing customers up to date with what your business is doing, as well as providing a global shop window to your business for potential customers.
4.4 Communicating with customers via email is quick and efficient.
- Email marketing is cost-effective and easy to tailor for specific customers through a contact-management system.
4.5 It may be useful for customers and suppliers to have access to your IT systems through an extranet. For example, an architect may want customers to see plans as they are being developed.
- An extranet allows customers to view files by logging on to dedicated areas of the system.
5 On the road
5.1 People that spend much of their time out of the office should consider portable computers, from laptops to hand-held devices.
- Laptops cost more than an equivalent desktop PC.
5.2 You can access your IT system while off-premises through an internet connection.
- You must take additional security precautions if you allow access to your network from outside your business (see 6).
- Connecting directly to your server saves time as you work with the original file stored on the server. You do not have to worry about saving updates to the server and the portable device.
6 Securing your data
The information you hold on your IT system is valuable, and holding business information on a computer creates a security risk.
6.1 Physically protect computer equipment.
- Stealing a PC or server is the most direct way of getting hold of information and the easiest way to discover how to gain access later.
6.2 Design your network with security in mind.
6.3 Create a robust back-up system.
- Set up a procedure for making regular partial and complete backups.
- Store backups off-site. Keep them away from heat, moisture and magnetism.
6.4 Ensure employees understand the importance of security.
- Make security a part of employees' contracts.
6.5 Make sure technical support is available. This can range from a suitably-qualified individual looking after all IT issues through to specialist support contractors.
- Work out the longest time you could work without your system before your business is damaged and make sure that your support could get things up and running before then.
6.6 Mobile devices such as laptops and memory sticks are at most risk. They can easily be lost or stolen.
- Make sure you keep a record of all devices leaving the premises and who has it.
- Check each item in and out.
- Ensure you use password protection so that if a device is stolen the information on it cannot be accessed by an unauthorised person.
7 Setting up a budget
7.1 Expect to spend between £400 and £1,500 plus VAT for a desktop computer.
- For around £400 plus VAT you should be able to buy a PC sufficient for basic office applications such as word processing, simple accounts, sending email and online access.
- For £1,000 plus VAT, a system will be more powerful as well as having more extensive sound, graphics and storage capabilities. For example, this could be used for web and print design, or for stock-control systems that juggle large amounts of data.
- For £1,500 plus VAT you should get high-speed processors with lots of memory and advanced graphics capability. High-end machines are only necessary for businesses that depend upon processing speed, eg printing or music production.
7.2 Dedicated servers cost from £1,000.
- If your server use is light, a standard desktop PC could be used as a server.
- For workgroups above six people, a dedicated server is desirable.
7.3 Additional costs to consider include:
- Running and maintenance, and any warranties. This may significantly add to the initial costs. Check what level of support you will get and if there are hidden charges.
- Training for you and your staff.
8 Shopping around
You can source your system from a number of different channels.
8.1 Mail order firms offer a wide product range at competitive prices.
- Advice tends to be limited to helping you make a purchase.
- Returning faulty equipment can be time consuming.
- Choosing a supplier registered with the Mail Order Protection Scheme means you are insured if it goes bankrupt.
8.2 In shops and stores you can try out your purchase - and take it away with you.
- Retailers generally offer maintenance and support. But this can be expensive - and the quality can vary.
8.3 Buying direct from the manufacturer can be a good idea if you know exactly what you want and don't need advice.
- You can generally specify how you want the system to be built.
- Orders can be placed over the phone or the internet.
8.4 Resellers can provide a range of services, from single PCs to tailored IT systems and support packages. Shop around to find a reseller that clearly understands your needs and offers competitive prices.
8.5 Consultants can specify, install and configure systems for you. This can be a good option if you lack experience with IT systems. But you should check a consultant's references carefully.
8.6 Used computers can be bargains - but you have to be careful to avoid buying something of questionable quality or legality.
- Some manufacturers sell fully-tested returns or discontinued ranges at heavily discounted prices. For example, visit www.dell.co.uk/outlet.