Essential technologies for small businesses

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My former Boston University graduate school professor Bala Iyer asks the interesting question:

“Do you know of a good list of IT tools and technologies for small biz? Essential tools for a start-up. Thx.”

If we go back to my graduate school days, there was a wild craze back then and for a few years after in ERP, or Enterprise Resource Planning. Typically these were giant huge systems sold by companies like Oracle, Peoplesoft, SAP, and more for millions upon millions of dollars to large companies. Whether those systems actually made a difference after multimillion dollar installation costs and hired consultants is up for debate, but the idea in concept was good – identify areas where technology could help business be more productive.

The good news, and the answer to Bala’s question, is that there are a whole bunch of these tools available today to small businesses that a decade ago would have cost you those millions. This list isn’t a list of specific packages for the most part, but a list of software categories that most businesses will need.

Financial Accounting and Reporting: Take your pick from Quickbooks to Freshbooks to a gazillion other cloud-based services. One of the key things in financial software is that a good package goes beyond simple accounting into things like forecasting, cash management, costing, and budgeting to help you know the financial health of your business.

Human Resources: There are lots of different HR options, from to other startups, but one on the hiring and recruiting side is available to everyone – social networking, especially with LinkedIn. HR software has to cover things like benefits management, payroll, promotions, professional development, and more.

Project Management: From leaders like 37 Signals’ Basecamp to Huddle to even free services like Google Docs, having some kind of project management system is important for keeping important initiatives moving forward. PM software needs to look at the management of projects, people and resources assigned, billing, reporting, and more.

Customer Service: Typically, customer service is lumped in with CRM systems, but that’s a dangerous mindset. Look to customer service software for helping customers help themselves as well as coordinating efforts within a company. One area many companies overlook is bug tracking software for developers; it’s fairly straightforward to implement for other customer service purposes and is ideally designed to help identify issues of priority, severity, and scope in nearly any product or service. Free, open source packages like Mantis and Bugzilla can fill this need nicely.

Customer Relationship Management: When people talk about business software and tools, this is almost certainly the first category that comes to mind. Sales and marketing usually yell the loudest for good CRM software that helps manage the marketing and sales processes. This includes marketing automation and marketing software, sales force automation, opportunity tracking, and customer conversion. The gold standard in the CRM space for larger business is; for small businesses, they’ll want to look to solutions like Zoho.

IT Solutions: The last area that most businesses, but especially small businesses, deeply neglect is in the realm of IT solutions. Here we’re talking about reliable means of backing up data, as well as providing reliable access to data and powerful tools for analyzing it. With so many businesses dependent on technology, do you have a disaster recovery plan and tools set up to keep things rolling in case of emergency? The good news for small businesses is that cloud-based software and services are making this more and more affordable every day. What was once the domain of only the richest companies is now available for pennies per day from providers like Google, Amazon, Rackspace, and many others.

For small businesses, there are two search queries to look to when researching any of these tools. If you have absolutely, positively zero dollars budgeted for software and a whole lot of time, look for open source solutions for any of the categories above. For example, if you want salesforce automation and haven’t a dime to spare, search for “open source CRM” and you’ll find that SugarCRM Community Edition is a great choice. It will require extensive technical knowledge or a lot of trial and error to get it to be functional, but the direct financial cost will be nearly zero.

If you have some budget, look for cloud based or SaaS solutions to the above categories. Cloud solutions tend to work best for small startup businesses that do have some budget and want to be able to scale quickly, or you simply don’t want to maintain any infrastructure.

Finally, do you need all 6 categories? I’d argue yes, you need to have something in place to answer the needs in each of the 6 major areas above. Without some kind of solution, a part of your business as a startup is going to be neglected, and that’s going to cause pain down the road. There’s even a term for that, technical debt, that refers to shortcuts and compromises made to get a business going; once you grow, you have to pay down that technical debt.

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