Be proactive. Be prepared. Take security concerns seriously. Always watch for ways to cut costs.
That just might sum up the advice that enterprise-grade IT shops would give smaller businesses about how to avoid costly IT mistakes.
But what are some specific technology lessons that smaller fry can learn from the big fish? We asked the experts, and here’s a partial list:
Get an IT tuneup. Don’t wait until things go wrong with your systems to look under the hood. Have someone come in and do a vulnerability assessment to identify what’s working, what isn’t, and where your security risks are. “Proactive maintenance and support is something that the enterprises do and small businesses don’t,” notes Tim Brennan, founder and managing partner of Rockville, Md.-based SysArc, an IT support firm that counts many small businesses among its clients. A good assessment can cost as little as $1,000, and can save a business much more, notes Brennan.
Be prepared, even for a disaster. “Small businesses tend not to do much with disaster recovery,” notes Brennan. Storing your backup on-site, or never testing your backup system, is not going to protect you if there’s a fire, earthquake, or theft. There are many options, from low-cost online backup products like Mozy or Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3). “It’s all about the investment you want to put into it,” says Brennan. “But at very least, back up off-site.”
Even better? Do what the big firms do and document a complete disaster recovery plan with a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, adds Steve Hilton, vice president of small business research at Boston-based Yankee Group. “Disaster recovery and business continuity are top IT needs,” says Hilton. “You don’t need to go to a crazy level with this like the enterprises, but think about how your company would survive, function by function….sales, customer service, finance.”
Security concerns: yes, they’re real. Perhaps big firms have more at stake, and are more likely to have government contracts that demand tight security plans. But many small firms don’t take security risks seriously enough, experts say. “A lot of smaller firms view security as a techie thing that’s too expensive,” notes Kevin Beaver, IT author and founder of Acworth, Ga.-based Principle Logic, an IT security consulting firm. “It’s like not having auto insurance, and then having a big wreck, and realizing they needed it.” Simple steps like encrypting laptops and installing power-on passwords onto PDAs and cellphones -- even personally-owned ones that are used for business -- are steps companies should be taking, Beaver says. Hilton adds that cheap cloud computing options like Google messenger with Postini secured email and archiving make securing networks easy for even the smallest staffs.
Go with a virtual private network (VPN). In today’s business environment, every business, regardless of size, should be using a VPN to link their office with remote workers in a secure, cost-efficient fashion, says Beaver. “It’s important that your business supports telecommuting,” Beaver notes. Bigger companies have found VPNs to be the cheapest, most effective way to link workers across the country or across town.
Slash your telecom costs. Bigger companies are all doing it -- looking at their telecom plans line by line for ways to cut costs. Smaller businesses can get in on the act, too. First, look into switching over to a corporate plan for your cell phones instead of having individual employees each expensing their own personal cellphone, suggests Yankee Group’s Hilton. “If 50 people in the office are each expensing their cellphone charges, your costs could be highly variable,” he says. Also, corporate plans offer corporate-sized free-minute plans, too -- another savings. Finally, contact your telecom provider and see if you can renegotiate any old plans -- in this tough economy, telecom providers are willing to strike new deals to keep business, experts say.
To be sure, there are many other lessons smaller companies can learn from enterprise-grade IT shops. But follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way to swimming with bigger fish.