In this day and age, no matter what kind of business you’re running, it’s very difficult to imagine doing so without a computer playing a role at least somewhere down the line. Nevertheless, you don’t need to blow the budget on expensive equipment or complicated software. Taking a pragmatic approach can be just as effective as calling in consultants to design you a bespoke system.
Are you a PC or a Mac? Maybe you prefer Linux. Quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter, as your needs will be the same. In terms of software, at the very least, you will need a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a database program, and some sort of calendar to help you keep organised. While there are commercial programs available, there is also a plethora of freeware that work just as well as paid offerings. When looking for a freeware solution, try to pick something that has the following features:
- Actively being developed, with regular updates and new features being added
- Cross-platform compatability, for ease of use across different operating systems
- File compatability with industry standards, so that you data can be transferred without having to be reformatted from an obscure file format
- Strong community, through forums or boards where you can get support and advice
- Scalability, so that the program can cope with increased usage or amounts of data as your business grows
There are hundreds of programs out there, but you need to choose whatever is right for your business. Take your time in coming to a decision. It is far more disruptive to get to grips with new software when you are up and running rather than before you begin.
One thing you are going to pay for is your domain name. Costs will vary according to how many domains you buy up, the kind of hosting package you request and the amount of bandwidth that you think you will need. Even if you decide to have a static single-page website giving no more than your contact details, a domain name is essential to projecting a professional image. Would you rather buy from a business with an anonymous Hotmail address or one where you can do a whois lookup? If you’re going to be marketing your business or communicating with customers via email, it is doubly important that you secure your domain name as part of your corporate image.
Unless you are strongly confident in your abilities, I would also suggest paying for your website design. It needn’t be as expensive as you think, and as the electronic “face” of your business, you want to make sure it is up to scratch. While it’s tempting to think that you could use one of the numerous templates – many free – that are available, what you need to remember is that everyone else with a tight budget has had the same idea. If you want your business to stand out, it should have a unique design. If you’re technically minded, you could try amending a template for yourself, but one of the most cost effective ways to get the look and feel you want is to find a website that is as close as possible to your design ideal and to get in touch with the designer and ask them to tweak it a little. As they have already done the bulk of the work in coming up with the original template, a few extra lines of code will not cost nearly as much as starting from scratch.
Decide if your website is going to be used simply for marketing or if you are going to be selling through it. Again, this will affect how much it costs, and there are numerous e-commerce solutions which vary in terms of cost and capability. Regardless, nobody will visit your website if they don’t know that it is there, so you will need to promote your website before you receive any return from it. The simplest way is to make sure all emails from your business incorporate the website URL in their signatures. You should also submit the URL to all relevant directories. Join forums, comment on blogs, make sure that there are links to your sites. This is the least agressive form of SEO, but investing a little time in promoting your website means more visitors, which means more leads, which means more sales.
Business IT needn’t be a hugely complex affair, despite what you may think. You can pick up most of the basic software programs you will need for free, and any but the most complex websites can be set up and run with the minimum of cost or fuss. The trick is, as always, to think about what your business needs, rather than what you would want in an ideal world. The savings you make can go to supporting other parts of your business that are more likely to generate revenues.
[Image by KM & G-Morris]