This article originally appeared in the December 2018 edition of the Traverse City Business News.
I’ve been there. There are probably only a couple of you and only so many hours in a week. I vividly remember watching Saturday parades go down Front Street from the window upstairs, our baby boy napping in his Pack ‘n Play next to the desk, the smell of Murdick’s fudge wafting up from below, and telling myself to focus and get back to what I was doing. If you’re like my partner and I were, you’re wearing multiple hats – strategy, sales, finance, operations. When you have few resources for anything but growing the business, here are five practical tips for getting the IT right from the outset.
1. The Cost of Free Plans
With fewer than 5 users, you can usually get free digital file storage from OneDrive or Dropbox, cheap communications management via Slack and similar tools, and Evernote stands in for napkins when you have great ideas. For any of the above, consider ponying up for their business-level plans to get features like file encryption. “The Service Level agreements that come with these free services often lack the disaster recovery and security you need for your business files,” advises Derek Smith, co-founder and CTO of Naveego in Traverse City. In other words, you could be putting your intellectual property out there for the pilfering or subject to being deleted forever – to save $10 or $20.
2. The Cloud for Business Phones
Hosting business applications in the cloud doesn’t make sense for every business, but for a startup that might move 3 times in 3 years, with people working from multiple sites, and without much capital for large purchases, it can make a lot of sense for your phone system. Setup of cloud-based business phones is usually faster than conventional systems,too. The controller for the system lives in a data center, so (unlike our experience years ago) you have protection from power outages that come with Northern Michigan weather.
3. Lean Tech
In his landmark book “The Lean Startup,” Eric Ries laid out approaches for entrepreneurs to apply lean manufacturing principles to develop their product or service offering quickly. By focusing on quantitative measurements of customer feedback, analyzing cohorts, and organizing work with kanban, companies iterate faster to a product that sells. It makes a ton of sense, but takes some doing to put in place. While conventional Lean is often done on whiteboards and can work best with paper, mobile workers in a startup can use technology tools. For kanban boards, there are the popular Trello and Asana apps that work across multiple devices. If your company has a Microsoft Office 365 subscription, Microsoft’s Planner app works similarly and is included. The Lean Startup model says waiting to get deep into analytics will cost us in wasted product development and marketing expense. Power BI dashboards and analytics are available for as little as $10 per month with free training available on the web.
4. Take Caution with Shared WiFi
People running startups often work in shared workspaces, coffee shops, hotel rooms, or wherever there is WiFi. Coffee shops don’t have an IT security team monitoring what’s happening on their network. Just having a password on the public WiFi is not enough. Assume whatever equipment is feeding that connection is broadcasting what’s on your laptop elsewhere in the world freely. You can use a VPN if you have access to a properly configured one and know how. If not, follow the advice of Kaspersky Lab: use your cell phone data hotspot.
5. Consider Flexible Technology Platforms
You’re not doing this to be in it for six months, so make technology choices that won’t require the business to do a big migration project a short time down the road. For example, you need a web site and may not want to be locked into a proprietary content management system that only one guy can service. WordPress does the trick and gives you a plethora of choices going forward for look and feel and functionality. For CRM, Salesforce got to be #1 because they created a platform where innovative partners could provide features for specific needs and industries. As your business grows, you can add deeper marketing capability and even artificial intelligence from the same system on which you started. It’s less time-consuming than uprooting the whole thing, and isn’t time your most valuable commodity?
Sources: usa.kaspersky.com;powerbi.microsoft.com; Ries, Eric. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. New York: Crown Business, 2011. Credit for the term “Intentional Technology” goes to the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, zingermanscommunity.com.
My start-up experience:
I’ve been a part of two startups, Safety Net and Naveego, and consider myself fortunate to have had co-founders with both. There is so much to do when getting started – I think the people who do it alone are superhuman, like those people who only require three hours of sleep per night. When Kevin and I started Safety Net, we knew almost nothing about running a business. It took years of constant self-education. If you’ve seen reading lists for “The Personal MBA” or “100 Best Business Books of All Time” – thank goodness for those – I used many of them and still do. There wasn’t an incubator in town then, but there was the Chamber, SCORE, NMC, Michigan Works! and the MEDC. We were averse then to bringing in outside investment capital or debt. Funding growth organically was a long slog. Ten years later, with Naveego, it was a completely different experience. I wouldn’t trade either one, because I learned so much.
Advice for a new business owner: If you are creating something of value, you can’t afford to ignore data security.