Dont tell Michael Barrera that small businesses are a marginal part of the U.S. economy.
Barrera, national ombudsman for the U.S. Small Business Administration, in Washington, will be happy to give you chapter and verse on the effect small businesses have and the huge role they play in keeping the country running.
“Small business is not small: About 97 percent of all businesses are small businesses. They employ over 51 percent of everyone employed, and 66 percent of all new Net jobs are created by small businesses,” Barrera said during his keynote address last month at Ziff Davis Media Inc.s online technology trade show for SMBs (small and midsize businesses).
The two-day event featured several expert panels advising SMBs on some of the most pressing technology decisions they face, including strategies for enterprise applications, printing and document management, and security.
“The number of options is truly overwhelming,” said panelist Ann Westerheim, president of Ekaru LLC, a technology services SMB in Westford, Mass. “The applications emerging now are within reach of SMBs and cover all business functions.”
Increasingly, SMBs are considering hosted application service providers, such as Salesforce.com Inc. and Intacct Corp., because they allow businesses to access applications through a Web browser, eliminating the costs of buying and managing in-house servers, Westerheim said. However, Westerheim also cautioned that hosted solutions still present obstacles.
“Many customers arent comfortable with having their data far away,” she said. Furthermore, hosted applications depend on Internet reliability, Westerheim said.
Microsoft Corp. is changing the enterprise application landscape for SMBs, panelists said. The Redmond, Wash., companys CRM (customer relationship management) applications offer familiarity and integration with existing Microsoft desktop software, Westerheim said. However, she acknowledged, Microsoft relies on partners to provide support, and the quality of VARs varies.
As with enterprise applications, there is an increasing supply of printers targeted at and priced for the SMB market. But panelists urged SMBs to look beyond hardware prices when calculating the total cost of ownership.
For example, when deciding whether to buy wide-format printers or to outsource such printing jobs, small businesses should evaluate whether they have the in-house skills to operate these printers or the desire and time to learn, said Tom Reid, president of Coated Solutions Inc., a consultancy in Half Moon Bay, Calif. “These are not plug-and-play devices,” Reid said.
When calculating the overall costs of in-house printing, SMBs should consider such factors as software, consumables, maintenance and media costs, Reid said. Other factors to consider include the quality and type of prints required, frequency of printing, and monthly output.
SMBs also may want to reduce the number of documents they print, said panelist Joe Kennedy, a Los Angeles small-business consultant and the author of “The Small Business Owners Manual.”
“I advocate you dont print documents unless theres a compelling reason to do so, and even if documents are printed, be sure to keep duplicate digital records,” Kennedy said.
That kind of planning is also an essential piece of any small business security strategy.
“If you dont discuss security, and you only respond when something happens, that is way too late,” said panelist Michael Grieves, director of research for the MIS department at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, and a senior partner at channel strategies consulting firm Core Strategies, based in Irvine, Calif.
Grieves suggested some simple steps for resource-strapped SMBs, such as notifying and frequently reminding employees to tell someone if they have a problem; avoiding opening e-mail attachments, visiting questionable Web sites and responding to requests for sensitive data; investing in virus protection for all systems; and keeping systems up-to-date.
He also urged SMBs to back up data and have an emergency plan in place.
“All these things dont cost a whole lot of money; theyre more about awareness than they are about expenditures,” said Grieves. “But doing some of these things will save you a great deal of time and aggravation when and if you have a problem.”
Panelist John Norman, a systems engineer at Advanced Systems Group Inc., in Denver, advised businesses to be aware of what assets they need to protect and from whom they need to protect them. Norman also urged businesses not to overlook internal threats, such as unauthorized employees or contractors.
He also said valuable security measures dont have to cost a lot of money. “We have, for instance, some customers that handle government classified information,” Norman said. “They dont have half a million dollars to spend on a highly secured hardened network, so, instead, what they do is store them on [a] flash disk and [a] USB key chain and lock it up at night.”
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