Starting right: IT solutions for SMEs
It came as no surprise that the number one challenge is cost – after all, I’ve experienced this in my own business. We all have worry about costs and have to manage them carefully. This is even more important to SMEs who don’t have the seemingly unlimited funding of large corporates.
Businesses may face significant funding challenges when rolling out new IT infrastructure and although most do seem to overcome this hurdle, it is important to get the basics right so that you don’t have to change direction in future, which may add significantly to the cost. I often see businesses focusing their entire budget on one aspect, i.e. a server or workstations, which leads to unplanned expenditure down the line when they realise that they cannot avoid certain key aspects like security.
SMEs also face a significant challenge when it comes to maintaining and upgrading technology, which is often neglected. This is probably one of the most significant differences between SMEs and larger companies – the latter invests continuously and creates a virtuous cycle of preventative maintenance and incremental upgrades, whereas the former tends to treat IT as a once-off cost. SMEs require predictability in their cost structure, but the way in which many SMEs address maintenance is often the root cause of the unpredictability – using IT service providers on a break-fix basis – which is not only costly in the long run, but also leads to unpredictable and unplanned costs. Managed IT services on the other hand will ensure predictable cost and prevent many untimely breakdowns while also allowing for proper long-term planning.
It always amazes me how much extra the bells and whistles can add to the total price of a new car and I think dealers bargain on selling at least some extras with each car. Customisation costs money! We live in a time when buzz words like bespoke and custom are used in all products and services that we buy. In my opinion this is not the best way to go about setting your IT systems. You want your IT to be as standardised as possible. Standardised systems will save on technician time spent on setup and maintenance and will also reduce the risk of unforeseen problems and incompatibilities. When a managed IT service provider rolls out the same well-designed framework to all their clients, it brings about efficiencies in terms of labour and equipment cost, all which will be beneficial to the client.
Lack of IT Skill
Many small business owners (myself included!) start off by doing everything themselves and this includes their IT. If they are lucky enough to grow over time, this can lead to inefficient systems or problems that needs to be addressed as the business achieves scale. The one thing I have learned from being an entrepreneur myself is that we cannot be a Jack-of-all-trades when it comes to business. We have to play to our strengths, which for business owners and management should be to run the business. My business is IT and I can assure you it’s a full-time job to keep abreast of new developments and evaluating them as options for deployment to our clients. Trying to do this yourself introduces the risk of getting it wrong, not even to mention the opportunity cost of the time spent investigating IT solutions rather than focusing on doing what you do best.
IT is so ingrained in many business functions today that it is vitally important for management to be involved in IT planning. IT must serve the business and its clients, bring about efficiency and security and ultimately play a big part in the success of the business. That is why the right skills are important and winging it is not an option.
Security & Compliance
I think most businesses forget about security and compliance until an event reminds them about it. Whether it’s the latest ransomware attack or learning about a business affected by a data breach, these events can cause sleepless nights for managers and business owners. IT security has become a very complicated and specialised field and the attack surface has grown exponentially due to cloud services and the sheer number of devices demanding access to data.
It is vitally important to make security an integral part of every IT decision. Security is like a chain in which every link must be strong to protect the integrity of the chain. You could have the best firewall, but it won’t protect you from ransomware if your workstations are not patched or if employees are using private cloud storage services (like Dropbox) on them. It is important to put the basic security features in place, monitor and maintain these to ensure that they remain relevant, and gradually build towards more advanced security. Plan for security, document your policies and educate your staff.
Related to security is compliance. While this may not be front of mind for many business owners, there is no excuse for ignoring the law and we all have to comply with regulation, for example the POPI (Protection of Personal Information) Act. You might be a doctor’s office, an accounting firm or a law practice that works with sensitive client data that needs protection and breaches can destroy your professional reputation, if not your entire business. A managed service provider will evaluate systems and discuss relevant options for securing your business.
The rate at which technology changes is truly staggering and can be overwhelming. The rapid development has levelled the playing field for many SMEs, by making things like exchange email affordable for smaller businesses through Office 365 and other Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings. Herein lies the challenge and the risk – the simplicity of deploying these services is good, but can also be risky if not fully understood. Think about how easy it is these days to sign up for an online accounting package, a CRM solution or even Office 365 hosted exchange email. Think about all the data that you are entrusting to other organisations to keep safe…
It is important to partner with someone who can guide you through these changes and discuss relevant new technologies with you as they become relevant to your business. New systems and services should be reliable, safe and scalable so that you don’t hit a ceiling when your business grows. A good managed service provider will do this for you, while you and your team focus on the business.
As your business grows over time, your IT systems need to keep up. This is a particularly important consideration for smaller businesses, where the acquisition or loss of just one large client could result in an immediate step change in the scale of the business. The design of your IT systems should take into account this need for instant scalability from the start and on a continuous basis as you grow and become more successful. The scaling should be seamless with minimal disruption or downtime.
One obvious way to scale is using cloud services like Azure or Amazon Web Services, which provide seamless expansion of processing power or storage space. However, the cloud is not the only way to be flexible – think about equipment leasing, which allows you to lease a bigger firewall if and when you outgrow your current appliance. If you choose the right building blocks from the start, there are many options available to expand or contract.