Ten Penny-Pinching Ideas for 2008

The gadgets to spring for, the systems to install, and the best ways to soak your overpriced tech consultants for free advice

The year is drawing to a close and I can happily say that I've learned a few things in 2007. I've learned how safe the world is because Microsoft (MSFT) does not build airplanes. I've learned that if I'm ever asked to open the MTV Music Awards, I shouldn't show off my belly. And I'm also relieved to report that not only am I smarter than a fifth grader, I'm probably smarter than the 10 billion people watching that show.

In business, I've learned that much technology is overhyped and misrepresented. Every day I deal with stuff that doesn't work as promised. But there's a bright spot: Even in the vast wasteland of crappy software and unreliable hardware, I have found some penny-pinching technology recommendations that are worth considering for 2008.

1. Increase your network bandwith.

Faster is better. Just ask Laurie. She found that the faster she could enter an invoice, print a check, or record a customer order, the faster she could get on to the next productive task. When was the last time you had a computer nerd visit your office to do something productive? And I mean other than the 148 times he was in to fix broken stuff. Laurie brought in her propeller head, gave him a big bag of pork rinds, and marched him off with these orders: Review my network and tell me how I can make things faster! Laurie's guy did this review for free, especially after she hinted that she was looking at other IT guys to make recommendations. Once he finished choking on his pork rinds, he set off to work. And guess what he found? Lots of ways to speed things up and improve Laurie's life—a new router, a new hub, more memory for her server, a better husband. Technology gets faster and faster every year. Make your network go faster and you'll immediately save a few bucks. Laurie ultimately passed on the husband upgrade. Don't you just love a happy ending?

2. Set up remote access.

Work isn't done just between the four walls of your office. Get with the program! People like to do work over lattes. They like to access their files while driving down the turnpike. They want to send e-mails while getting a lap dance. Remote access tools are inexpensive and easy to deploy. Try a site like www.logmein.com and you can set up, for free, a password-secured Internet connection to a computer. This way, remote people can access information anytime, anywhere. Or set up Windows Terminal Server ($99 per user) or Citrix (CTXS) (definitely more than $99 per user) for simultaneous access by multiple users to a single server. Buy cheapo laptops for your people (especially the ones getting lap dances). All you need is a wireless card and an Internet browser. Set them loose on the world and let them access their programs from anywhere there's a Wi-Fi connection. Be careful they don't rack up too many overpriced coffees at Starbucks or you can say goodbye to any productivity savings.

3. Create a few key reports.

Norman promises me that this is the year he's going to face reality: getting information from his accounting system is a pain in the butt and he's going to do something about it. Every business owner I know, like Norman, complains about how difficult it is to get reports from their business systems. "C'mon, friend," I say to Norman. "Don't you think the guy who sold you the software needs to feed his family, too? How is he supposed to grab extra consulting dollars from you if you could actually create reports?" Norman finally woke up. He now understands that reports are difficult to write because not only does he have to understand the reporting software, but he also needs to get his arms around the complexities of his systems' database. He's smart enough to do this, but thankfully not stupid enough to waste the time. So he promises to bite the bullet this upcoming year. He's going to come up with three to five key reports he wants to see every day or week. He's going to hire the overpriced consultant to come in and write up the reports.

A couple of grand spent on a few decent reports will save him many times over in better management of his orders, quotes, expenses, etc.

4. Get CRM already.

Full disclosure: Yes, my company sells CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems. So my opinion is subjective. But don't feel pressured to buy what we sell. Just get something. CRM is mainstream. Take the leap in 2008. Have your employees record activities. Take notes. Share calendars. Do quotes and forecasts. Keep e-mails all in the same place. Send out consistent documents. Create a monthly newsletter. Don't look like a dope when your customers call. It's never been less expensive. You can get Microsoft Outlook's Business Contact Manager for less than $200 (or included in an upgrade to Office 2007). You can get salesforce.com (CRM) for $50/month. You can take your chances on free, online systems. But get something for goodness sake! CRM systems help catch sales opportunities before they fall through the cracks. They improve customer service. They make business owners money.

5. Avoid Vista.

I think Microsoft Windows Vista is a great operating system. But then again I still think O.J. is innocent and Donald Trump's hair is real. So if you don't agree with my view, stick with Windows XP for as long as you possibly can. We will all be forced to drink the Vista Kool-Aid after Jan. 1, 2008 when no one is allowed to sell Windows XP anymore. So buy up Windows XP computers now. Delay getting Vista until the hardware really catches up. Just say no to nonfunctioning programs and incompatible devices! Microsoft will be releasing their first service pack to Vista in 2008 and that should make it ready for prime time. But you've got better things to do than monkey with an operating system that, for the time being, costs more than it returns.

6. Invest in smartphones.

Milt invested in smartphones (these are phones that also combine contact, calendar, and other office applications) for his key employees and is happy with the result. He has his people use them to communicate and keep track of their contacts and schedule. Not being a masochist, he only allows them to synchronize data from their computers to the smartphones, not both ways. He found out the hard way that synchronization isn't all it's cracked up to be, so he keeps it simple. Advised by his teenage daughter, he got an unlimited text-messaging plan for immediate communications. On the downside, he did calculate that it's quicker to fly to Los Angeles from his hometown of Boston then to check the flight status on his smartphone's browser. So he doesn't rely on the Internet yet. But do expect this all to improve in 2008 now that Apple's iPhone has shown other vendors how to do it right. Milt's investment in smartphones has increased productivity and keeps him closer to his customers and employees. And he's gotten very good at Soduku, too.

7. Outsource your phone systems.

Over two years ago we threw out our phone system and outsourced the whole headache to Virtualpbx.com. We never looked back. For about $12 per month per mailbox we get the whole phone system, complete with automated attendant, call forwarding, voicemail, etc. The best thing is that no one calling us knows we've outsourced! Even the automated attendant has an American accent! We don't have to worry about maintaining our own system or paying through the nose for a phone lease. True, we're vulnerable if their servers go down. But then again I'm vulnerable to food poisoning from that Chinese buffet down the street. And I'm still taking my chances with General Tso's chicken. Maybe your company is too big for a system like this, but if you're like me and running a company with only 10 employees, it's a great, cost-effective move for 2008. Oh, and check out gotvmail.com for price comparisons.

8. Consider an intranet.

Big Business is buying into intranets in a big way, so, like supply-side economics, it's only a matter of time before it all trickles down to smaller companies.

An intranet is a Web site that's only for certain eyes: usually this means internal employees, but it can be opened up to customers and vendors, too. Here you can have one place for documents, contacts, and messages. You can create custom views of financial and other data from different systems to display on your intranet so that users can get quick access to their data. You can open it up for customers to check on their orders or vendors to check on their payment status. A big player is Microsoft Sharepoint, but others are also gaining ground. Benefit for 2008: more productivity and less duplication of effort. Big drawback: no porn. Damn.

9. Create a few alerts.

Sam, a client of mine, gets an e-mail every time a customer's invoice goes over 30 days. It always puts him in a bad mood. Why? Because late payers drive him nuts. But these alerts are a necessary evil. The minute one of these e-mails lands in Sam's in-box he's on it—calling, yelling, screaming, until he gets paid. You can go nuts like Sam, too. Most systems nowadays come with built-in alerts. You can get reminded when a quote is overdue, an order is shipped, an employee has taken too many vacation days, a salesperson is behind quota. Ask the guy who sold you the software about creating alerts and start getting information in advance before it becomes a bigger problem. True, he may charge you $500 per hour to set up a simple alert. So watch how he does it over his scrawny shoulder and do it yourself afterward. The new year should be the year of alerts.

10. Bring in main vendors for a show.

Forget reality TV. The best entertainment can be had right in your own conference room. It's called the Dog and Pony Show. You should start doing this in 2008. Here's how it works: Technology's constantly changing. You and your employees need to stay up to date. You're also kind of bored. So you bring in your technology vendor for a dog-and-pony once a year. Tell them you're considering a system change. That'll scare the crap out of them. Then they'll come marching in, for free, and tell you all the great things you could be doing with your existing systems that you're probably not doing. Come up with a bunch of nit-picking complaints about your system. This shouldn't be too tough to do. Now watch them squirm. They may offer you some new goodies to try, like new modules or tools, just to keep you happy. At the very least, they'll keep you current on all the good stuff out there that works with your systems so that you can identify any potentially useful tools to help you do things quicker and better.

Like this list? There's 500 more just like it from over 300 experts in Gene Marks' Streetwise Small Business Book of Lists. It's available at bookstores, amazon.com, and www.smallbizlists.net.

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