Whether you want to manage social media accounts or enable flexible working, there’s no doubt you need at least some tech expertise to get ahead in business. But in a world where the latest app or piece of time-saving software is just round the corner, keeping up-to-date can be a headache.
To help you decide what will work best for your business, the Guardian Small Business Network held an online Q&A on how technology can give your firm the edge, covering everything from IT security measures to project management tools. Here’s a roundup of the best advice:
What IT security measures should small businesses be taking?
Security should be a top concern, and the panelists shared some simple steps for business owners to stay safe.
“A great password management tool is step one,” says Laura Crossley, communications and engagement lead at Surevine. “You need a tool where you can share passwords with colleagues, access on the go, and not have to manually type passwords in – LastPass is our company password tool of choice.”
Peter Chadha, founder of DrPete Technology Experts, agreed, adding that you should provide clear instructions in your staff handbook about the precautions they should take. Make sure files have proper access control and use systems that allow for two step authentication. “Special care should be taken when storing files in cloud-based systems as it is very easy to share files inadvertently,” he adds.
James Cotton, founder and managing director of digital creative agency Onespacemedia, says security measures will depend on the type of business, but the real danger is people. “Training and a solid, evolving IT policy will protect the majority of SMEs.”
Andy Brocklehurst, UK lead for distribution at Cisco, says it is useful to think of security as a “threat continuum: before, during and after”. He says: “In the ‘before’ phase consider firewalls and identity engines. You may already have some of this capability built in to your router and you just need to activate it. In the ‘during’ phase look at areas such as intrusion protection, cloud, email and web security, and finally ‘after’, look at advanced malware protection (AMP).” If you are concerned about cloud security, remember that many of the providers will have invested heavily in security – but ask the questions outlined above of your cloud provider, Brocklehurst says.
How often should small businesses update their office tech?
“Tech is so important that it is something every entrepreneur should be au fait with,” says Eddie Holmes, founder of Launch22. Small business owners should spend time understanding new developments on a regular basis “either by developing the knowledge themselves or by outsourcing.” He suggests keeping office tech under constant review. “Always remember that competitors and new entrants will more than likely be adopting new efficiency tools or hardware that makes their business run at a lower cost or deliver greater value to customers,” he says.
Cotton echoes this viewpoint. “It’s crucial for teams to be given the best tools for the job,” he says. Laptops and desktops should be renewed on a 18-24 month cycle. However, don’t bother investing in capital purchases – get a good leasing deal instead, he says. “Smaller firms with less of a credit profile can use companies like Photolease to help spread the costs of hardware.”
Most PC equipment tends to slow down after a couple of years, Chadha adds. “You might consider Chromebooks – these laptops rely on working in the Google ecosystem but they don’t slow down as every time you reboot them they have a fresh set of operating software installed. They are also very inexpensive.”
Are perks like activity trackers something small businesses should offer their team?
While the panelists were open to the benefits of activity trackers – typically a watch or wristband that calculates the number of steps you take in a day – they agreed that the best way to boost productivity is to offer a good work-life balance. Crossley says: “These extra perks won’t do any harm though, in fact, you can have a little fun by adding in some competition.”
Chadha pointed out that they could be a low-cost perk, as many modern smartphones have activity tracking built in – something to consider before “rushing into buying these gadgets”.
Gary Stewart, director of Wayra UK and Wayra UnLtd, says there are increasingly cost-effective apps that can achieve similar benefits to an activity tracker, but at a fraction of the cost. “We’ve seen startups like Virtually Free work with big companies and startups to offer these sorts of services,” he says.
What customer data should small business capture to help them grow?
“This is a question being asked by businesses of all sizes, and part of the issue is how do you turn the data into value?” asks Brocklehurst from Cisco. He says they work closely with companies such as Hadoop. “Another company we have worked with at Cisco is Artesian, and they help accelerate the value of unstructured data.”
Holmes suggests that it shouldn’t necessarily be a priority for those starting a business. The focus should be on selling first, Holmes says, or you won’t have enough customers to make your data worthwhile. He says data collection should be “a result of engaging with customers to sell them things”. Once collected, the data can be used to “glean insight and inform strategy”.
He adds: “As the business grows, again, what you collect depends on what you want to use it for. Insights on buying behaviour, customer acquisition channels, how much it costs you to service each customer – there are literally myriad things you can measure. However it will only be straightforward if you have the right tech tools in place from the early days.”
Stewart, from Wayra, agrees. “The goal should be to use the data to understand the customer better and eventually increase sales,” he says.
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