What Technology Does My New Business Need?

May 15, 2006

By Ramon Ray

Congratulations, you’ve opened your new business! As your hands run over the new furniture and you wrap up a few things with your lawyer and accountant, you’re probably starting to wonder what kind of computing infrastructure you should consider for your business.

Many businesses have very similar needs, which I’ll outline below. Depending on the specific needs of your business, there will be some particular technologies you’ll need that other businesses have no need for. Here are six things your business must have in the beginning in order to be successful.

Local Technology Consultant
One of the most important investments you can make is to ensure you have one or two local technology consultants who you trust, who know about your business, and who can guide you in your technology growth.

You have an accountant (for obvious reasons) and a lawyer (for even more obvious reasons)–having a local technology consultant or solution provider is no different. Get references, see what past work they’ve done and, like an employee, give the relationship time to mature to be sure they’re working in your best interest.

A good place to find small-business solution providers is at Microsoft’s Small Business Specialist Program (www.microsoft.com/smallbusiness).

High-Speed Internet Access
Every business, no matter how big or small, needs high-speed access to the internet. Having traditional dial-up access is simply too slow and too limiting for a business. High-speed internet will enable you to take advantage of online backup, VoIP and other technologies you wouldn’t be able to do at all or as efficiently with a dial-up connection.

For those businesses who are only online or do a significant amount of business online, your internet service is the life blood of your business. You must ensure that the vendor providing the service offers very reliable service and support.

Computers
Of course, you must have computers for each employee. These computers shouldn’t be slow, rinky-dink, bottom-of-the-barrel relics from the early ’90s, but should be relatively new, high-speed tools. Each computer should have plenty of memory (512MB or more), hard-disk space (80GB or more), a fast processor (2-3GHZ) and a quality screen for minimum eyestrain.

Your computers must be set up in a network with a file server and shared internet access.

Those who are dealing with large files such as graphic artists, design shops or others must have very powerful computers to be able to quickly manage and store the files. The memory you use backing up 100-word files that a very small law firm might deal with is much smaller than backing up 100 hi-resolution photos.

Data Security
It’s absolutely imperative that your businesses data is secure and backed up. Your local network and each of your computers should have a firewall (a hardware firewall for your network and at least a software-based firewall for each computer) and anti-virus software (many come bundled with features to detect phishing and other online threats as well). In addition, ensure your computers and network are configured by a local security consultant (your general knowledge solution provider might not have sufficient expertise to properly harden your computers and network from online attackers).

If you have a wireless network make sure it’s secured as well. The second phase of your security plan is to ensure all of your data is backed up and that you have a recovery plan in place. If you came to work and found nothing but a hole in the ground, what would you do? What plan would you have in place to recover your data onto other computer systems? That’s how you have to think.

If your business retains personal information of your customers, especially financial information, social security information, etc, it’s even more important that a professional security consultant work with you to ensure your information is secure. Your network must be secure, but also your online applications. Hackers can go to your website and use “back door” holes in the online software to access your database if the online application or database isn’t properly configured.

Website
Every business must have a website. If you want to start out with a very simple site that’s more like a digital brochure, that’s fine for now. But consider having a website filled with relevant information for your customers, partners and employees.

You can easily build a website on your own using tools from Homestead Technologies, Microsoft Office Liveor many other web-hosting companies. You can also hire a website developer to do this for you.

As your business grows you’ll find that filling your website with as much customer-facing information as possible will a) reduce the amount of inbound e-mail and phone calls to your business, and b) customers can serve themselves from your website and be happier.

E-Mail
One of my personal pet peeves is seeing a growing business with an AOL, Yahoo! or Hotmail e-mail address. I think it’s unprofessional, and since it’s very easy to have an e-mail address with one’s business name, there’s no excuse. Your web host can set up e-mail accounts for you as part of your web-hosting service. Or, as always, you can work with your local technology consultant.

If you’re in a regulated industry it’s vital that you have systems in place to archive your e-mail to ensure it complies with government regulations for your industry.

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The Friendly Face of Business Software

May 3, 2006

By Sarah Lacy

Last fall, AMR Research analyst Bruce Richardson was sitting on a couch in San Francisco’s Moscone Center during one of Salesforce.com’s many customer conferences thinking about the phenomenon the software company had become. As a scrappy upstart, it took the industry by storm, offering a cheaper and easier to install program to manage sales teams.

Dancing in Richardson’s head was a conversation he just had with the chief information officer of a large industrial company who was planning to ditch Salesforce.com’s (CRM ) software for one of the market leaders, Oracle (ORCL ) or SAP (SAP ). But when he ran into a chatty conference attendee from the same company, he asked her about the CIO’s plans. “Over my dead body,” she exclaimed. It was fierce loyalty unlike anything Richardson had encountered in his 26 years covering business software. In fact, it was downright Apple-esque, he says (see BW, 9/19/05, “An eBay for Business Software”).

Such fierce user loyalty may be the first spoils in a growing design renaissance in business software. The feature wars are over. The new software upstarts have a powerful one-two punch: cheap startup costs and drop-dead ease of use. While much of the attention in the software industry has focused on inexpensive applications that undercut pricey traditional business programs, it’s the new design movement that could prove more important. In fact, it could end up reshaping the user experience across Corporate America.

THE GEEK FACTOR. Forget what the corporate IT department thinks about business software. The actual users will tell you programs like those offered by Salesforce.com may be the first truly intuitive pieces of business software they’ve ever used. “My mom could pick this up in about three or four minutes,” says Chris Corcoran, CEO of Sunset Companies. He’s a customer of NetSuite, another on-demand company that’s getting ready for an Initial Public Offering this year (see BW, 2/13/06, “Giving the Boss the Big Picture”). “Most salespeople will tell you to take their right arm before you take away Salesforce.com,” jokes Kim Niederman, senior vice-president of worldwide sales for Polycom, a Salesforce customer.

To really appreciate the change, consider just how frustrated the buyers of business software had been. Companies spent buckets of money in up-front costs, and then more dough getting that software to work. Even more galling for tech managers is the reality that a lot of people outside of, say, the accounting department, never bother to use the products because they’re too geeky and complicated.

That’s why two big software movements have been gaining steam. The first is on-demand computing, where companies such as Salesforce run the program for the customer, selling use of it over the Internet for a monthly fee. The other big trend is the open-source software movement, where vast communities of coders collaborate to build software that’s freely available online.

POSITIVE IMPRESSIONS. It’s not that all of those open-source contributors are great designers. The key to the appeal is the try-it-before-you-buy-it nature of the open-source movement. When the software works and it’s easy, it catches on fast within companies and quickly builds a grassroots following. Increasingly, open-source designers understand that their audience is counting on them to develop easy-to-use programs.

Take customer relationship management company SugarCRM. It even seeks to provide some entertainment with different “skins” it offers for its interface. Sales people can log client meetings and organize contacts against a backdrop of palm trees or a golf green. “It seems a little silly at first, but they smile the first time they see our application,” says Clint Oram, co-founder of SugarCRM. “That’s an important first impression.” (See BW Online, 10/3/06, “Open Source: Now It’s an Ecosystem.”)

Good design is becoming more than a nice-to-have feature. Thanks to slick Web sites like Amazon.com, people are coming to expect software that takes no or little training to use. In fact, Salesforce’s first prototype bore an intentional resemblance to Amazon.com. The only difference: The tabs were changed from categories such as “Books” and “DVDs” to things like “Contacts” and “Sales Leads.” Says Parker Harris, Salesforce’s co-founder: “We want to get a toe-hold, and once people start using us, we know they’re going to like it. That’s our secret sauce.”

TALENT SHORTAGE. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that on-demand software is focused on the user experience. The down side of letting customers pay by the month is that they can more easily switch to a rival. So on-demand software providers have to keep their customers happy with uncluttered, user friendly designs that, at least for now, the old guard can’t match.

“SAP and Oracle may be the standards, but if you get something that works, people will hold onto it forever,” Richardson says. Security software company IronPort Systems is one of several who tried to switch from Salesforce and faced a full-on revolt from the rank and file. “We’re stuck,” says CEO Scott Weiss.

That’s a good news/bad news scenario for usability companies such as Adaptive Path in San Francisco. Jesse James Garrett, director of user-experience strategy at Adaptive Path, says his business is booming and it’s near impossible to find good freelancers to bring in to meet all the demand. If they haven’t taken jobs at Google (GOOG ) or Yahoo (YHOO ), they have taken jobs with the new software up and comers.

ALWAYS EVOLVING. A lot of these are consumer-oriented Web sites, but just as many are Web applications aimed at businesses. The talent pool of good designers is getting so dry that venture-capital firm Sierra Ventures has hired Adaptive Path on retainer to consult with startups on usability and design before they even write a line of code — a big departure from the way software is usually crafted.

It’s not just a greater focus on usability. Companies like Salesforce and NetSuite have a natural advantage. Since they host the software, they can track every mouse click, just as an e-commerce site can watch how shoppers navigate the virtual aisles. So user feedback is almost instantaneous. If people are getting stuck, companies can make real-time changes to the site. It’s like the entire user base is in a real time usability lab. “We actually host companies’ Web stores, so we learn how great Web stores work,” says Evan Goldberg founder and chief technology officer of NetSuite.

Such constant tweaking — largely invisible to customers — represents another major difference in the way software is made and maintained. Traditional software companies do one big release every few years, and the upgrades are time-consuming and expensive. Hosted software is more an eternal work in progress. It’s continually updated, based on traditional focus groups and on watching how people use the software.

ADVANTAGE: SMALL FRY. That kind of direct connection struck Todd McKinnon immediately when he became vice-president of development for Salesforce.com. He previously worked for PeopleSoft, now part of Oracle — a company known for its good user interfaces. “At PeopleSoft we couldn’t get a release out in two years,” he says. “Here, we do it every four months, and a day later it’s being used by hundreds of thousands of people.”

Adds usability guru Garrett: “The big guys just handed this advantage to the smaller players.” And, as the overbooked calendars of usability experts show, scrappy upstarts aim to make the most of it.

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