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Unit 2, 10 Kam Close
Morisset Industrial Park NSW 2264,
Australia

49705842

All-weather labels, tags and signage. 
Water-proof. Long-lasting.

Green Geek

Dr Joseph Sweeney has a long history in horticultural labelling, barcode and supply chain management.  He has worked extensively with both public and private sector organisations on a broad range of technology initiatives, including electronic document interchange (EDI), the Greater China region’s adoption of EAN barcodes and product identification numbers, e-commerce, software design and project management.

Since working on the development of TyTags’ initial labelling solutions more than 30 years ago, Joseph has been actively involved in supply chain management issues throughout the Asia Pacific and Australasian region.  Most recently, he spearheaded the development of Australia’s first just-in-time colour digital labelling solution for horticulture and environmental uses.

Better known in horticultural circles as the Green Geek, Joseph writes a monthly article published in Hort Journal Australia  identifying and demystifying  IT from the perspective of growers and nursery managers.

In addition to his role within the family business, Joseph is also an advisor with Intelligent Business Research Services, the largest independent Australian technology advisory and research firm. At IBRS, he guides clients in the planning, selection and deployment of new technologies.

 

Printers

Kascha Sweeney

Printers

In this day and age, we are all trying to either reduce our carbon footprint or doing away with the cost of excessive paper use. However, it is inevitable in business to have printed materials: be they brochures, cards, training manuals or informational documents. It’s also important to have a printer ready for when we need physical copies of signed documents, or if you want to see how a design translates to print. How do you choose the right printer for the job?

What are the printing solutions available on the market? Let’s find out by examining some of the options.

Inkjet Printers

Many people already have a personal printer at home, and it’s likely that it is an inkjet printer. Inkjet Printers use cartridges of liquid ink that is sprayed in tiny, precise little dots out of a series of nozzles onto the page (or other printing surface). Inkjet printers cost much less than laser printers and are very compact, easily fitting in small workspace, so they are a good choice for personal home use and for small business. Also, inkjet printers offer a wide range of generic printing options: black and white or coloured documents, printing on paper, printing transfers or stickers, et cetera. Photo printing is often better on an inkjet printer than on  other types of printers. In short, an inkjet printer is an all-around solution. On the downside, inkjet printers are notoriously expensive to run. While buying the printer hardware may seem like an absolute bargain, over time you will find that the cost of ink cartridges makes them a very pricey option. Therefore, inkjets are best suited for people who only do very small amounts of printing.

If you think you need an all-round, reliable printer that fits on top of a personal desk, and you don’t plan to be printing a lot, but you do print a lot of different things, then an inkjet printer is the way to go.

Laser Printers

If you think you are going to have to print large amounts of documents on a regular basis, consider getting a laser printer, or an LED printer which is more or less the same thing but with different internal workings. Laser printers use light beams and static electricity to work their magic. As paper passes over a “drum” (more like a roller), a laser beam “draws” the images to be printed in static electricity on the drum. The static electricity is used to stick a powdered toner (colors) onto the drum, which then rolls the images onto the paper, and a heater fuses the toner in place.

Laser printers are generally much faster than inkjet printers and can handle high volumes of printing. There are both black-and-white and colour models available. The quality of black and white printing done on laser printers is sharper, and the cost of printing a page is significantly lower compared to printing on an inkjet printer. Laser printer speed, and their ability to economically print large numbers of pages, make them perfect for small to medium offices.

Thermal Printers

If your business involves selling bulk products at retail, then you definitely should consider thermal printers.

Thermal printers use heat to print on a specialized fabric (called thermal paper). Generally, thermal papers are relatively inexpensive, but there are also highly specialised thermal papers including self-adhesive labels, waterproof and weatherproof labels, and even cardstock. These papers come in rolls, which allow them to be continuously fed through the printer.

However, thermal printers are not general-purpose: what they do well – printing continuous stock – they do very well. They are not really useful for printing documents or signage, and almost all only print black-and-white. In addition, thermal printers tend to be a little bit more finicky to set up than an inkjet or laser printer.

Thermal printers are perfect for printing barcode labels, tags, and for printing business receipts at the point of sale.

What to buy?

Before getting a printer ask yourself, “What sort of printing do I need to do?” If you’re planning to print the occasional letter, small sign or photo, then by all means purchase an inexpensive inkjet printer from a retailer such as Officeworks or JB Hi-Fi. On the other hand, if you are planning to print mostly documents, manuals and colour signage, which is how most offices use a printer, then go for a laser printer.

If you plan to print heavy papers, self-adhesive sheets, or signage, definitely look for a laser printer where the paper remains mostly flat as it passes through the printer (these are called ‘straight pass’ printers.) These types of printers tend to be heavier, larger, and quite a bit more expensive than lasers where the paper curves around to land in the top tray. But the extra dollars are worth it in terms of functionality and reliability.

Another consideration is whether or not you wish to scan documents and send and receive faxes. For only a few dollars more, it is quite easy to get an inkjet or a colour laser printer which has “multifunction” features. This means that the device is not only a printer, but also a scanner (like a photocopier) as well as a fax machine. If you do decide to purchase a multifunction printer, I would strongly suggest that you get a scanner which has a “continual feed” capability, which means that you can simply put a stack of paper into a tray on the top of the device, and each and every page will be scanned in turn. This is a wonderful capability for quickly digitising tax records!  Another benefit of a multifunction printer is they can also replace the traditional photocopier in the office!

Another option to consider is “duplex” printing. In plain English, this means the ability to print automatically on both the front and the back of a page. On the surface this may just look like a way to save paper. However it has another benefit: the ability to print booklets. Most printers that have the capability to perform duplex printing can also automatically print the document in such a way that the pages can be simply folded and stapled down the middle to form a brochure or small book. This is really useful for proposals, or on-the- spot brochures.

Finally, some new printers – in particular the laser printers – have built-in wireless connections. This means that you can simply put the printer in your office, and it will connect to an available Wi-Fi network. However, don’t be fooled that this will always be an easy task: setting up a printer still involves installing drivers and potentially messing with your network settings. You will need to read the manual. The real benefit of wireless printers are that they can be put anywhere you want in your office, without having to worry about network cables. They can be a real advantage in nurseries.

Finally, I should mention that when you shop for printers it is very tempting to go for the cheapest model. However, this can be false economy. With inkjets, the real cost of the printer is almost always in the ink cartridges that you have to continue to buy. The laser printer’s long-term costs will be in the toners. Therefore, before you buy a printer, have a long hard think about how many pages you are likely to be printing in a year, or two years, or even three, and then calculate how many ink cartridges or toners you would need to buy over that time to print that many pages. Toners and ink cartridges will have the number of pages they can print indicated on their packaging. Armed with that information, you can calculate how much the printer is likely to cost you over that period of time. And that, is the real cost of the printer.

Cryptolocker

Kascha Sweeney

Avoid Hackers Holding You To Ransom

In the past month yet another insidious malware has emerged to scourge the Internet. A few months back, it was Heartbleed. This time, it’s the "CryptoLocker" attack. CryptoLocker is a great example of how high-tech villains can get really creative in their efforts to gain riches.  Criminal hackers have turned to the crime of ransom. No, they are not going to kidnap your children. Their intention is to kidnap all your business data.

They do this by sneaking in a special bit of malware that will encrypt all of the data on your computer: all your important documents, your accounts, your customer records, work orders... everything! This effectively renders all the files on your computer and on your network useless. And here is the clever part that makes this ransom more than just malicious vandalism:  if you pay them within three days, they will give you a special key which will decrypt everything and restore your files to their pristine condition. After the three days, forget about it... your files are gone!

This link provides a good overview of CryptoLocker: https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/alerts/TA13-309A

Luckily, I'm best mates with a security expert, and he provided me with some really interesting insights to CryptoLocker.  I've tried to turn his rather technical mumbo-jumbo into human understandable language, and more importantly, provide practical ideas that you can do to protect yourself, or at least prepare for the worst.

First, it is important to understand that the CryptoLocker malware is constantly being upgraded.  This means that even if you have antivirus software, there is still a chance (albeit a much, much smaller chance) of becoming a victim of CryptoLocker. Even the antivirus

companies such as Avast and McAfee point out that they are, by their very nature, reactive and therefore can't guarantee that they will always be ahead of the hackers.  That said, your first line of defence against CryptoLocker is to have a commercial grade antivirus product installed and constantly update. Because CyptoLocker only needs to infect one computer on your network to hit files on shared network drives, it’s important to be sure that every computer is protected with antivirus software, and kept up to date.

Also, do not get hung up about which antivirus solution is the “best”, because all vendors are putting a lot of effort into nabbing CryptoLocker, and therefore all products will give you the same level of protection in this case.

RECOMMENDATION: Ensure that EVERY computer that is connected to your office network is running an up to date anti-malware solution, such as Symantec, McAfee or Trend Micro

It’s also important to understand how CryptoLocker can get onto your computer. CyptoLocker is pretty unique in that it starts off the attack by sending in a very small program that scans your computer for known weaknesses. Once it finds a chink in your computer’s armor, it downloads additional malware to take advantage of that weakness and eventually take control of your system. It’s a bit like a scout infiltrating an enemy base to get the plans, so the army can invade!

Understanding this is important for two reasons. First, it lets us know that we have to be on the lookout for the scout: that first bit of software which can only sneak into our computer if we are unobservant.  Secondly, it stresses just how important it is to lock down all of our defences: in this case, it means ensuring that the Windows operating system and applications – especially Adobe’s products – are patched as soon as possible.

The CryptoLocker scout’s main attack vector is fake emails with links to compromised websites. These emails appear to be from companies such as UPS, FedEx or Tax services. However, it has been reported (unconfirmed) that people are also getting emails from a friend. When you click on these emails’ links (which may also be inside Word or PDF document, or some other interesting file) you effectively open the door to that dastardly scout! Unfortunately, Google's email scanning and some antivirus tools do not catch CryptoLocker when it is sent via and email link, so you need to be alert!

RECOMMENDATION:  Do not open emails, or click on links in emails, unless you are 100% sure they are genuine.

As mentioned above, CryptoLocker can sneak into your computer via an infected website. This is particularly an issue with International (especially Chinese) websites and porn sites, since many (up to 30% by some estimates) of web servers in developing countries are un-patched and open to hackers.

RECOMMENDATION: Be very careful about which web sites you visit. If you do need to search high-risk sites, consider using an iPad or Android tablet, which is immune to CyptoLocker.

Another option is to install the special 'safe-browsing sandbox' software, which may be included with your anti-malware software. Avast Internet Security has this feature.

One of the great things about criminal hackers is that they are lazy (but really, really smart.)  This means that they will only target the most common weaknesses.  The CyproLock scout is no different. Once it is in your computer, it will look for well-known and easy to exploit weaknesses, namely unpatched Adobe and Microsoft software and unpatched Windows.  When it finds an unpatched bit of software it uses that to open the games, then calls in the army that causes all the real damage. Therefore, it’s more important than ever to ensure your computer remains updated with the latest patches.

RECOMMENDATION: Ensure that all Windows-based computers and software (especially Adobe Reader and Adobe Flash) are patched as quickly as possible. Microsoft and Avast have tools which will help in that regards. Unfortunately, bandwidth for patches and updating is a serious problem for some rural businesses. This is one example of where poor broadband infrastructure is putting small business at a serious financial risk.

As noted previously, CrypoLocker is evolving fast. And now this type of threat is out, there will be even more devious copy-cats. Which means that even when you take precautions, you still need to prepare for the worst.

The best defense is to have all files backed up off-site, perhaps with a service that offers ‘incremental backups’ such as Crashplan.  Incremental means that even if your files get encrypted and then automatically backed up, you can still go back in time - from a few days to weeks or even months - to find the versions that were not yet encrypted.

RECOMMENDATION: Subscribe to an automated cloud backup program which includes the option to incrementally store past versions of your files. In Australia, Crashplan is a good option, as it has an option to back up ten computers (perfect for small offices) for about $10 a month.  And if you do need to recover your files, you can order a door-to-door recovery disk from CrashPlan for about $160, so you do not need to wait for your backup files download - so you can get back to work quickly.

Interestingly, the cost of restoring Crashplan is about $160, and the cost of paying off the hackers is about $300. So while back-up is cheaper, it  is tempting to simply pay the ransom: it seems easier, faster and reliable… and that is exactly what the criminals want you to think. However, I encourage you to resist that temptation. First of all, it may be technically illegal to pay them. It’s a bit of a grey area, and though I’m not a lawyer, it is illegal to pay extortion in Australia. Secondly, paying them encourages more of this behavior, and gives the criminals more money to invest in new attacks.

RECOMMENDATION: You should have a discussion with your management to determine your plans should you be attacked. Your starting point should ALWAYS be from what is legal and what is morally acceptable. Most security people stress that you should not deal the hackers, and instead plan how your would restore your computers manually, from external backups. The reason why you should have that discussion now, rather than waiting until your systems are attacked, is that you will have more than enough stress should that happen. Write down an action plan for an cyber-attack, and, better still, practice it.

If you do not think CryptoLock could happen to you, don’t be fooled. There is big money in this new attack. The BitCoin wallet, where some of the payments are going, reportedly has over US$45 million already. And that is probably just a fraction of their total takings. Of course, the hackers’ ability to get the money out of this account without being traced, remains to be seen, but given the sophistication of the attack and the money involved, it's likely they will have some pretty powerful resources. My guess is that some of the gang will be caught, but others will not be picked up and will renew this sort of scam in the future, even once it is shut down.  Big money, big (well-organised) crime, low risk.  So this sort of crime is here to stay. We gotta live with it. Get yourself prepared.

Time for a New Accounting Solution?

Kascha Sweeney

As small business owners, we all know how important it is to get our books in order. And it’s not just for the tax office. If we want to make it in an increasingly budget-conscious and competitive landscape, small business owners must keep meticulous and well organized financial records. That means doing your accounts on a regular basis, and reviewing your business’ performance on an ongoing basis, rather than just just haphazardly throwing your accounts to an accountant a few days before taxes need to be filed.

 

Here’s the thing: good accounting is not about record keeping for the tax purposes. It’s about finding ways to work better. Not only will good accounting practices keep you out of trouble with the ATO, but they help: improve your business model and establish profit goals, locate non-performing products and services; identify and focus on your best and most profitable customers, and even improve payment times.

 

However, if you are like me, you probably dread doing accounts. Some small business owners get overwhelmed when dealing with numbers and byzantine accounting codes. Some are just tired of having to deal with redundant processes, like examining bank statements, or printing online statements and encoding them into spreadsheets.  And a lot of the old school accounting solutions did not really help solve these dreads. There was not a lot of competition in the accounting software space, so we just had to use what we always used in the past, no matter if it required arcane knowledge of ledger codes and tax rules.

 

The good news is, in the past two years there has been something of a renaissance in accounting software: with new and very viable players disrupting the old guard. Most of the new solutions are cloud based - yes, I’m going to be advocating for the cloud again - and many are written not from a bookkeeper's perspective, but from that of a business person. So no more having to remember ledger codes or how to enter journals: just get on with the business and enter information on your activities.

 

Gone are the days when we have to keep notebooks and receipt pouches, sales ledgers and paper records to help us do our accounting. We now have access to software that can help simplify the accounting process and eliminate redundant processes (this means foregoing the dreaded, time consuming data entry). Business owners can save time and still be able to keep up to date, organized, accessible records. Better still, many of the new solutions are also focused on providing business people with quick snapshots of their businesses’ performance on an up-to-the-minute basis. Reports and dashboards (graphics that clearly summaries key business issues) allow you to see at a glance the information that will help you make decisions that can improve your business’ effectiveness and profitability.

 

In short, to paraphrase a cliche, the new breed of accounting solutions allow you to spend more time working ON your business, and less time working IN your business.

 

When looking for a new accounting solution you should consider the following capabilities:

 

  • Cloud based. Running your accounting via a cloud service means never having to worry about backups, moving between different computers or keeping track of the business while on the road. It also means your financial advisor may dip into your accounts whenever they need, without disrupting your business. Plus the accounting solutions is immediately updated whenever there is a change to taxation tables or rules.

  • User Interface is designed around business activity, not accounting activity. When you first turn on the accounting package, it should present you with key business functions, like sales and purchasing, rather than journals and ledgers. More importantly, when a sale or purchase is entered, it should be in a matter than is straightforward and business like, without the need to remember product or service codes, tax details or account codes: it should be just like writing up an invoice.  Since not all businesses run exactly the same way, this also means you should see how well the accounting solution’s user interface can be configured to fit your individual business needs.

  • Context aware data entry:  Related to the above, any time you are entering information to your accounting solution, it should be smart enough to make suggestions. For example, if you were entering in an an ‘account’ or ‘sale type’ for a sale, you should be able to type something like ‘land...’ and as you type, the solution would begin to suggest various options for you, such as ‘landscape planning services, landscaping work, landcare consulting’ etc.  While each of these suggestions may infact reference a product, service or account code, that is not what is important: only the face that you have types a few letters and the accounting solution makes smart suggestions. This not only speeds up data entry, but helps to keep your accounting scrupulously accurate.  

  • Automated bank feeds. This a biggie! Most accounting solutions now have the ability to specify to automatically connect to your bank accounts and pull down all the financial transactions. Better still, some accounting solutions will then automatically reconcile the bank transactions with your accounts: customer payments and automatically correlated and marked as paid, purchases are confirmed and recorded, etc.  This literally decimates the time needed for bookkeeping, while simultaneously dramatically reducing accounting errors. In my small business, when we began using this feature, it reduced our booking hours from three days a week to half a day, and more importantly, our accountant commented on how accurate our books were, and that instead of paying $7000 for our end of year accounting, we only ended up paying $800.  So the simple ability to link your bank accounts directly into your accounting more than paid for the new accounting solution in the first year!

  • Always up-to-date Australian tax tables, GST rules, etc.  Not all accounting solutions are designed to support Australian businesses (though the one’s listed in this article are.)  Make sure than any solution you review not only supports all of the reports and processes you need for doing business in Australia, but also updates these as soon as the government implements changes.  This is particularly important for GST, pay-as-you go, and withholding taxes. This is one of the reasons why I am very keen on cloud accounting solutions, as they are always up-to-date.

  • Configurable dashboard.  Dashboards are a way for you to quickly see all of the information that matters to you.  At the very least, the dashboard can display how you are tracking on budgets, annual or quarterly income, outstanding bills to pay, accounts payable, and a list of things for you to follow up (like calling overdue customers).  However, no two businesses are the same, and no two business owners are interested in the same things. Therefore, it is important for your accounting solution to have a dashboard that can be customised to display just the information that is important for your business… and give you the ability to change the dashboard content as your needs change.

  • Automation and recurring activities.  Being able to set up automated payments, alerts for bills or even automatic emails to overdue customers is not only a time-saver, it helps ensure that your business actually does these laborious, but important for cashflow, tasks.  Again, it’s all about being able to spend more time working ON your business, not working IN your business.

  • Attached documents. One of the great things with the new cloud solutions is that you can scan (or use your smartphone to take a snapshot) of receipts and invoices, and have these attached to your accounting records. This way, your filing becomes fully digital. No more hunting for scraps of paper should you be audited!  This also means you can store proposals and important work order information directly in your accounting solution for later reference.

  • Integration with other business solutions.  The ability to display up-to-the-minute customer accounts in your customer relationship management (CRM) solution is a huge benefit. It allows you to not only check to see if a customer requesting more products or services has an outstanding invoice, but also to identify who and when is buying what, and why.  Linking accounting history with client data is a huge boon. This means that your accounting solution needs to be able to integrate - that is, pass information back and forth - with your CRM. Likewise, you may have an online shop. Linking purchases from that shop directly into your accounting package will save a lot of time and fuss, and ensure your customers are given prompt service.  When looking at accounting solutions, check out which other solutions they can integrate with ‘out of the box’ and how they can connect with other solutions via special ‘APIs’ or ‘cloud connectors.’  Integrating two or more applications can be a little tricky, and I’d always recommend you get some technical assistance from a geek to help. But even so, when looking for a new accounting solution, you should ask if and how it can integrate with other solutions.


 

A host of service providers are available in the market and are constantly adding improved features to benefits users. Let’s take a look at some of the main players.


 

MYOB and MYOB Essentials.  MYOB is one of the most popular accounting solutions in the Australian market. The firm has both the traditional desktop-based product, and a cloud based offering called MYOD Essentials. The desktop product integrates well with Microsoft Office and is relatively easy to install.  MYOB’s most promising claim (according to an MYOB Client Insight Survey) is that their solutions can save you up to 10 hours per month of data entry by linking your bank records to your MYOB account. In my experience, the savings of linking back records to your accounting solution are far greater! MYOB has the usual accounting essentials such as sales, quotes, invoices, and expenses management features. The MYOB Essentials is a cloud based application has all the typical benefits of the cloud: data is automatically backed up in the cloud and updates are automatic as well, and teams can collaborate. However, MYOB Essentials is not as sophisticated or as well designed as its cloud competitors. MYOB AccountRight, a desktop solution that connects to the MYOB Essentials cloud service, provides the option to work offline. Accounting data synchronises when you are connected to the internet. You can purchase MYOB Essentials for $29 a month or try it for FREE for 30 days. MYOB AccountRight is $70 a month with a 90 day money back guarantee and a FREE 30 day trial as well.

 

Reckon One - For a sole trader or small business that is growing, Reckon One is a very interesting choice.  Reckon One (formerly known as Quickbooks) has the most flexible pricing options among its contemporaries. It gives you the freedom to design your own accounting solution by choosing just the features you need. As with any cloud-based application, Reckon One is quick to set up, has automatic backup and updates, and has data sharing features. It also has a mobile app that is compatible with iPhone and Android devices, so you can carry around your accounts in your pocket. At the starter level, Reckon One (Core) provides features such as creating budgets, tracking and creating payments, and reporting, among others. As your business grows, you might discover that you need more features. Reckon One gives you the option to add more modules as you need them. The Invoices module allows you to generate and send invoices. The BankData module imports your bank transactions into your Reckon One account. The Projects modules helps you review and forecast. Reckon One starts at $5 per month with a 30 day FREE trial.  

 

Saasu - SaaSu packs the usual arsenal of accounting features Invoicing, automated banking, and reporting, payroll, among others. SaaSu’s interface is very well designed, and largely focused on business activities, more than bookkeeping. However, what makes Saasu different from the above competitors is that it is a true cloud based program. For a software to work well and quickly it needs to be written specifically as a cloud software, otherwise, it be slow and a little clunky to use: something we’ve seen with products such as MYOB Essentials. SaaSu is one of the few accounting solutions that was born and bred in the cloud. Users (like me!) give it a high rating. It also has very flexible invoicing capabilities and all their plans include access to a (very) lite CRM and Paypal feeds. The Inventory feature is also great for companies that sell products instead of services. Significantly, it has over 50 out of the box integrations, including: shopify, magento, mailchimp, and ebay among others. SaaSu plans start at $9 a month, which is just good enough for a sole trader. If you are a small business, the $20 or $35 a month plans are more likely required. You can also try it out for FREE for 30 days before you decide to purchase.

 

Xero - As with the previous accounting solutions providers, Xero has the standard features that include, online accountings, bank reconciliation, invoicing, plus a host of add ons. Like SaaSu, it also have a very capable live bank feed feature which supports multi currency for international transactions, and shows real-time exchange rates. A mobile app is available for accounting on the go. Again, like SaaSu, Xero is one of the softwares created specifically for the cloud, and this translates to a smooth and fast user experience. It is relatively easy to use, although appears more ‘spartan’ than SaaSu. In addition, Xero’s user interface is more like a traditional accounting and bookkeeping solution than SaaSu.  

Xero has a 30-day maximum FREE trial period and starter plans are at $25 per month.

 

There is no one ‘perfect’ accounting solution. All of the above will do the job, and do it well. The challenge is picking the tool that will fit your business and your working style the best. Interestingly, I use SaaSu for my personal business as a sole trader, while my consulting partnership uses Xero, and our family business, TyTags, uses MYOB. So it’s swings and roundabouts. However, the key here is to examine your accounting solution and consider if you are getting what you need from it… and start looking at alternatives which may help you run your business better.






Cloud Storage Solutions

Kascha Sweeney

 

How much data and digital files have you accumulated over the years: letters & documents, business spreadsheets, presentations, images and logos, idea boards, photos, and even music and videos? Keeping data from the conception of your business up to present day takes up massive amounts of data storage and you almost certainly had to buy larger hard drives as your business grew. You have probably gone through quite a few time consuming software and hardware updates as well. You’ve also likely saved your files onto CDs, portable hard drives or thumb drives and stashed those away for safe keeping – often in a shoebox inside a locked cabinet. In short, you got important (historic and current!) business data scattered all over the place.

If the above sounds like yourself, you are not alone. Many small businesses struggle with “data management.”

In the bad old days – say five or  six years ago – the only real option for small businesses was to constantly buy ever larger hard drives and additional external storage disks. This did not solve the problem of ever-growing data, it just moved it into physical “boxes” that had to be stored somewhere safe. But business information quickly became a physical asset to be recorded. Of course, this meant that the information was difficult to locate, and also susceptible to being lost or damaged, or even stolen!

The good news is that there is now an alternative to this data management dilemma for small businesses. Yes, the cloud. Or specifically, “cloud storage solutions.”

What are cloud storage solutions?

Cloud storage solutions are virtual digital data stores - sort of ‘hard disks in cyberspace.’ You can think cloud storage services as having your own infinite sized data bank where you can make a deposit or withdrawal from anywhere, anytime.

There are many advantages of cloud storage over the more traditional approaches. First is that cloud storage solutions are “scalable.” This means that as your data storage grows, the data storage space that you have in the cloud grows as well. Better still, you only pay for what you use. As your business grows, you simply purchase more space. While this sounds fairly ho-hum, the real benefit is that all of your business information can sit in one location,a location that will grow as your business data grows. This means you don’t need to buy additional disks, or save information on external drives. No longer is your business information scattered on a variety of different media in different locations and among different staff! By keeping all the information in one location, it is easier to locate files should they be required. It is also a fantastic way of demonstrating your business’s value (for example should you be considering to sell your business or when bringing in business partners). In short, having all your data in a single location allows you to manage and control your data.

Another huge benefit of cloud storage solutions is “data protection.” Cloud storage solutions backup your data onto multiple servers in different locations. You don’t need to know how this happens, it just works behind the scenes. This means that nothing gets lost during software upgrades, maintenance, repairs, or even natural disasters.  The good news is that managing the complexities of backup and ‘data resilience’ (that is, ensuring your data is never corrupted or lost) is offloaded to the cloud storage service provider, so you no longer have to trouble yourself with complicated data maintenance.

Another, often underrated, advantage of cloud storage solutions is “data availability.” Storing the data in the cloud means that you can access the data wherever there is an internet connection. That also makes it easier for file sharing and collaborative work.

Some things to consider

Of course, cloud storage is not without  its disadvantages.  The main concern for most people is data security. Having your data stored in the cloud might mean it is vulnerable to inspection by hackers or security services. If you deal in sensitive information (for example, research & development), you should carefully consider which information should not be put in the cloud… but all the rest should. Also, do not overestimate the security of keeping your data on-premises: cloud storage vendors are far more paranoid and far more skilled in security that anything your IT team could cobble together. Moving to a high-security, fully encrypted cloud storage provider, like DumpTruck, may actually improve your data security!  

Moving data to cloud storage can also create problems stemming from allowing too many people access your information: accidental deletion or changing of important files. The good news is that many (not all) cloud services include ‘version control’ for files, enabling you to ‘rollback’ any changes or deletions.   

The final disadvantage is that cloud storage requires that you have a good internet connection. If you are dealing with very large files, but only have a limited bandwidth internet connection, then working with cloud storage is going to be a horrible experience. Some cloud services get around this problem by only synchronising or backing up files at certain times of the day. For example, I have over a thousand gigabytes of data backed up with CrashPlan. Given the huge number of files involved, I’ve set the service to only ever backup files between 1:00am and 6:00am in the morning. This means that day-to-day usage of the network is not crippled by the cloud service sending and receiving big chunks of data. It all happens “off-peak.”

How to choose a cloud storage solution

There are many cloud storage solutions: to pick the right one, you have to first understand your needs. Ask yourself this: “Am I concerned with online storage & collaboration, synchronisation, backup, or archiving?”

 

“Online storage and collaboration” is when your data is made available in the cloud to make it easier to access for one or more people. Often, online storage is a key for allowing staff to be mobile and to collaborate from any location.

“Synchonisation” is where you want to ensure that one or more devices always have access to the exact same version of a set of files: if you make a change to a document on your laptop, the file will also change on your desktop computer.  Cloud storage solutions enable this by noticing every change you make to your files and sending the changes up to their servers, then replicating those changes back to all of the other devices you have connected to the service.

“Backup” is taking copies of your important files and putting them into an online vault, which ensures that even should your local computers die, you still can regain access to your file. Backup is a day-by-day process, or in my case, a night-by-night process. Unlike online storage, backup is not aimed at enabling many people to access working files - it’s about ensuring files are not lost should a disaster occur.

“Archiving” is like backup, but is meant for long term retention. With archiving, you are placing files you no longer need for day to day business into online storage just in case you need to refer to them in the future. For example, you may place backups of previous years accounting files into a cloud archive. The benefit of archiving is that it reduces ‘clutter’ in your work environment by removing unneeded files, but still keeps them available should they ever be required (for example, for a tax audit!)

Here are some of the most popular cloud storage providers in the market:

Cloud Storage Service Provider

Best Feature

SMB best plan:

Other plans:

Free Trial Period

Box

Online Storage & Collaboration

Great integration with Microsoft office programs. It also lets you combine online storage and workflow management. Plus, all the versions (Personal to Enterprise) give you access to Onecloud apps.

Starter: $5/user/mo (10 users max. 100 GB storage, 2GB file size)

Personal: Free (1 user, 10GB secure storage, 250MB file size)

Business: $15/user/mo (unlimited storage, 5GB file size)

Enterprise: $35/user/mo (unlimited storage, 5GB file size)

 

Carbonite

Backup & Archiving

Great for when you’re in a disaster prone area because Carbonite is all about backing up, securing, and disaster-proofing your files.

Personal Plus: $99.99/computer/yr

Personal Plans: starts at $59.99

Pro Plans: starts at $269.99

Server Plans: starts at $799.99

15 days

Code42 CrashPlan

Backup & Archiving

Perfect for people who can’t be bothered. Set it up and forget about it as it continuously backs up your files even unattended. It also keeps deleted files forever.

CrashPlanPro Business

CrashPlan+ Home: Free

CrashPlanPro Business: not available in all areas

CrashPlanProe Enterprise: $75 user/yr

30 days  

DropBox

Online Storage & Collaboration, Synchronisation

Dropbox is the most common and well known online storage solution, and also synchronises files between computers. It is fast and easy to use and also a feature that lets you restore previous versions. However, it can be very bandwidth hungry!

Business: $15/user/mo (unlimited storage)

Basic: Free (1 user, 2GB storage)

Pro: $9.99/user/mo (100GB)

 

GoldenFrog

DumpTruck

Online Storage & Collaboration

If you are paranoid, then Dump Truck is for you. It has a major emphasis on security, using bank-grade encryption and European (Switzerland) servers. It is also bundled with “Virtual Private Network” technology, so even your network gets encrypted.

5 GB: Free

50GB: $4.99 user/mo

100GB: $9.99 user/mo

200GB: $19.99 user/mo

500GB: $49.99 user/mo

 

Google Drive

Online Storage & Collaboration, Synchronisation

You can share and collaborate on any kind of file on Google Drive (docs, images, music, videos). The free plan gives you 15GB and anything created in Google Docs does NOT count against your storage cap. Great for when you’re already a Google fan.

15 GB: Free

100GB: $1.99/mo

1TB: $9.99/mo

10TB: $99.99/mo

20TB: $199.99/mo

30TB: 299.99/mo

 

Microsoft OneDrive

Online Storage & Collaboration

Microsoft OneDrive is Microsoft’s very own cloud storage service - great for Microsoft fans and Windows users. Mircrosoft recently announced OneDrive users would get a whopping 1TB storage!

Business: $2.50/user/mo (25GB now but promises 1TB storage) ***Price alert: pricing has been slashed from $5/user/mo to $2.5/user/mo.

Basic: Free (1 user, 7GB)

 

Mozy

Synchronisation, Backup & Archiving

Mozy has a file sync service (Mozy Stash) that syncs files between multiple devices and has a DVD Recovery Option where they copy your data on to a hard disk and ship it to you.

MozyPro: 9$9.99/month (10GB)

MozyHome: $5.99/month (%)GB)

MozyEnterprise: contact

30 days

*MozyPro only

SOS Online BackUP

Backup & Archiving

SOS Online Backup is serious about securing your files with “military grade” automatic online backup. The feature called ForeverSave means all data will be available forever including version history.

Busines Plan: $69.99/mo (file size limit 250GB)

Personal Cloud: $3.58/mo

Family Cloud: $16.11/mo

SOS Business: $199.99/month (file size limit 500GB)

14 days

SpiderOak

Backup & Archiving

Another service for paranoid people. SpiderOak encrypts your information using “keys” that only you have.

Professional: $10/user/mo (100GB)

Basic: Free (2GB)

Blue SMB and Blue Enterprise business plans are coming soon.

 

SugarSync

Synchronisation

SugarSync makes it almost effortless to sync and share files between multiple devices, and allows you to recover any previous versions of a file even deleted ones.

Individual: 60GB $7.49/mo

Individual: $9.99/mo (100GB)

Individual: $24.99/mo (250GB)

Business: $55/mo (1000GB)

Business: custom

30 days

 

 

What is this Cloud Thing Anyway?

Kascha Sweeney

By now regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Cloud Computing. Although a relatively new buzzword, the underlying technology behind it has been around for well over a decade, which is eons in "Internet years." If you have gmail, yahoo mail or hotmail, chances are, you’ve already experienced Cloud Computing.

But what is the 'Cloud’ really? The cloud is just an analogy for running services and software over the internet. Technically, cloud computing involves storing and accessing of data, or running of a program or application over a network instead of on a local a computer hard drive. In fact, the term 'cloud' comes from old network and engineers diagrams dating back to the 70's, when mainframes ruled. The cloud symbol was used to represent a network connection between two or more data centers.  Hence, data and applications from remote locations were 'in the cloud'. Oh we geeks are an imaginative lot.

Today, cloud computing can be best thought of as the ability to run programs and store data in 'in the internet' instead of on your local device. The cloud means that you don’t have to install different programs for individual computers. It also means that files and data from your own computer can be stored on a remote computer or “cloud storage provider” over the internet, and accessed from any device.

What does the cloud it mean for your business?

There are many benefits to having all your programs and data available in the cloud...  and device and a few notable drawbacks.  First, let's look at the benefits.

1.       You don’t have to worry about IT requirements:  there’s no need for a dedicated in-house IT staff, everything is automated, and you can allocate your limited staff to more business oriented functions, rather than worrying about keeping computers running.

2.       Applications are automatically updated: cloud software vendors will update the software you use automatically. So no more complex installations once every year or so. This also means your staff get to take advantage of new capabilities immediately.  Of course, this also means that your staff will be frequently seeing changes in the software they use. Normally, this would require extra training, which is downtime for small businesses. However, most cloud software vendors release only small, incremental changed, so that people get just a little bit of new functionality to learn every so often. This means that training and improvement is gradual and consistent. A much better idea that the 'big bang' approach to software upgrades.

3.       You don’t have to worry about overwhelming your hard disk:  cloud storage providers not only give you extra disk space, but also help you manage data effectively. Most cloud storage services will do all sorts of fancy things behind the scenes, such as de-duplicating files, performing backups, replacing failing drives (without damaging files), etc.

4.       You can access your files anytime, anywhere and capitalize on collaborative work: since the data is available in the cloud, collaborators can access and contribute to a task from anywhere and at any time. They don’t have to physically access the computers at the office.

5.       You can reduce costs by saving up on power requirements, data storage, space (reduced hardware), and do away with software updates, maintenance and repair costs.

However, cloud computing does have a few drawbacks:

1.       Working with the cloud means you need a decent internet connection:  For many small businesses, a standard ADSL 2+ connections are good enough for 3-5 computers. Just. Using only basic cloud service.  However, the more cloud services you use, and the bigger the files and more computer you add to the business, the more bandwidth you will need. In some locations - often those where nurseries are located - it is simply not possible to get more bandwidth. In this situations, cloud services will need to be limited.

2.       Cloud services require an 'always on' network:  If your network connection goes down, you lose access to your business applications and data. However, this is not nearly as big a problem you might imagine. As a backup plan for if (or when_ your fixed line internet connection goes down, you can purchase a "4G wireless" network hub.  Should the fixed line internet connection fail, you can simply power up the wireless device and you'll be back in business.  Such devices are cheap: Telstra as a unit that costs about $100, and you can get a year-long data contract for $180 which will see you right for any network failure emergencies. This approach to having a backup network is really solid - I know of emergency services and large enterprises that use this very trick for their remote sites. It's cheap, and it works!

3.       Cloud needs trust: Moving to the cloud means that you put some faith in your various cloud providers’ ability to secure and protect your business' information.  A better way of thinking about this is, to ask yourself: who has more experience in keeping computers running and data safe, my local IT guy or a mega-corporation which does this for 500 million people?  And unless you keep highly sensitive information that you do not want American Intelligence Agencies to be able to access, it's a good bet a cloud vendor's security will be better than anything you can build yourself.

4.       Changes how you buy computing:  In the past, we would buy software outright and use it for years, but most cloud services require a monthly or annual subscriptions.  This changes the way in which you not only buy technology, but how you account for it. Computing becomes a business expense, rather than an asset to be depreciated. In some situations, cloud solutions appear to be more expensive than keeping the technology in your office. In other situations, cloud solutions are much, much cheaper.  Its swings and round abouts.

Business Scenarios

Let’s take a look at some scenarios for you to consider:

All on the same page: Most of the time, we collaborate with someone else while working on a project. For example, working on a landscape design or writing up promotions.  There are cloud solutions, such as Google Apps and Microsoft Office365, which allow people to all work on the same document at the same time. There are also cloud solutions which automatically synchronize documents – such as drawings and photos – between different people’s devices.  These simple solutions make a HUGE difference in the speed at which work can get done.

Natural disasters: Floods or other natural disasters will wipe out computers and also valuable financial records and customer data along with their back-ups if these were kept nearby. We saw this during the Queensland floods. Cloud computing means your data (and backups) are situated a long, long way from where your computers are.  Since most cloud service providers are located in different countries and have all data backed up in different states, there is almost no possibility of files you store with them being lost due to a disaster, short of global thermal nuclear war.

Spring Clean your Business: Some of your files might be outdated and no longer relevant but you keep them anyway. They take up space and make it hard for staff to locate important client files.  Some people mistakenly believe that moving these old files to a backup external hard drive is viable long-term solution. It’s not. Hard drives – especially those useful external hard drives - have a limited lifespan of just a few years.  To really protect your old data, you would need to continually (well, annually at least) copy the old data to multiple drives and check that the copies were successful.

The alternative is to take all of these old files and place them on a cloud-based storage services. This means that the data is readily available when you need it. Better still, the cloud storage vendors are masters of continually checking their storage and moving data around so that it is never vulnerable to hardware failure.

On the road: Opportunities to network and promote your business come up in unusual places: at a party, playing golf, standing in line at a local coffee shop.  Cloud services enable you to have this information readily available on your smartphone or tablet.  Having your files available on the cloud means that you don’t have to wait until you are back in the office to get information to hot prospects. You can share downloadable files such as flyers, brochures, catalogs, order forms, and other pertinent information to potential customers. If you have a team of staff that collaborate, the ability to share files between themselves and update them in real time is a very valuable feature.

In short, you should be looking at cloud solutions for your business. Take the lead from the above examples scenarios, a good place to start is to look for a “cloud storage solution”.  At the very least, putting your important files onto a cloud storage service will mean your data is far more safe than it currently is.  At best, it will change the way you do business.

 

Bleeding Hearts

Kascha Sweeney

 

Last month I raised the issue of identify theft and online security. The timing could not have been better - or worse, depending upon your point of view - because the day the article came out, the Internet was shaken with the discovery of the “Heartbleed” security flaw.  Heartbleed is a serious issue and poses very real, and ongoing, risks to all businesses… but especially to smaller businesses.  And it’s a stark reminder of just how careful you need to be to project your identity information when online.

But just what the heck is heartbleed and why should you even care?  And what should you do about it?

Without going into all the technical details, heartbleed is really just a tiny little bug in a tiny little bit of software. Unfortunately, that software is used by two thirds of the Internet web sites to encrypt information sent from a web browser to a web site.  

While the heartbleed bug was made in December 2012, it was only reported in April 2014. That means for the past two years everything you’ve typed into many web sites you’ve visited may have been visible to snoopers: your passwords, personal information in sign-up forms, bank accounts, lists of friends, love letters, photos of cats... the lot.   The reason why I stress “may have” is that it is not known if criminal groups knew of this bug and were using it for identity theft.  There is no hard evidence that this is the case, but as we know, cybercriminals are pretty good at hiding their activities. What we do now know is that the American NSA knew of it, and exploited it to gather intelligence.

Regardless of who knew about heartbleed, and when, it’s mere existence represents a clear and present danger to every internet user and small businesses.

The good news is that all of the major websites - from Yahoo and Google, to DropBox and many banking  services - affected by heartbleed were able to patch their services within days of the discovery.

However many web sites run by small businesses were still unpatched weeks later, simply because small businesses do not always have the technical resources to jump on a security issue at a moment’s notice. If your business has a website, even one hosted by another company, you should get it checked. A quick way to do this yourself is via this online tool: https://lastpass.com/heartbleed/.

The reality is that by the time you read this article, almost all of the websites will have been fixed.  So does that mean you can relax?  Absolutely not.  

Because if hackers have had access to your personal records in the past, they still have them!  This is why it is so massively, outrageously important for you to change all of your passwords. If you’ve not done this yet,  do it today. Yes, it’s a pain in the neck, but that pain is a hell of a lot less than finding your bank account empty. I’m not fooling here. I have hundred of passwords and it took me more than a day to change them all. It was worth it.

While you are changing your passwords, you should also ensure that every site you log into has a different password.  If you use the same password over and over again, hackers only need to find one vulnerable web site and they have access to everything. By having a different password for every site you visit on the internet, you can be sure that if a hacker manages to steal information from one web site, they cannot then use it to access all your other information.

And it is information that hackers are seeking. The more information they can learn about you, the easier it is for them to steal your identity. For example, in Canada it is known that the government’s tax records database was breached due to the heartbleed bug. But why would hackers do that? Surely they would only target your bank account?  Wrong!

As discussed last month, identity theft is the number one growth industry of criminal gangs.  For these gangs, simply breaking into your bank account and robbing you is nowhere near as lucrative as taking out credit cards and loans in your name -- buying things and leaving you with a bill that may not show up for months.  We’ve seen gangs buy cars using stolen identities, then reselling them ‘as new.’  It’s almost the perfect crime. We’ve even seen stolen identities used to rent properties (which are then used by drug dealers), which not only left the poor identity theft victim with a huge rental bill, but also put them on the rental blacklist and had them under investigation by police!  (In fairness, the cops are pretty damn good at realizing when someone has been victimized in this way… but even so, it must have been very stressful!)  In short, these gangs are not simply after your cash, they are after your credit!   

So, it’s up to you to minimise the ability of criminals to learn about you. Online, the best prevention is to ensure you use different passwords and make sure your passwords are complex enough to avoid being easily found.

However, it is not humanly possible to remember every password you are likely to use, so my recommendation is to use a ‘password locker’ - a software package that stores all of your passwords in a single, heavily encrypted file.  

There are many password lockers (also called password managers) available - some are free and others require a small annual fee.  The password locker I use is called KeepAss (great name, I know) which is a free, open source (and thus peer-reviewed to ensure there are no backdoors or NSA traps!) application. However, KeePass is a bit of a cow to install and use, and during ‘the grandmother test’ resulted in a lot of confusion.  Unless you are a geek, you may wish to consider some of the other well-respected commercial password lockers, such as:  

To summarize: Heartbleed was a serious threat that most likely has been fixed on every website you will visit… but the damage may have been done.  The best way to protect yourself as a consumer and as a small business is to change all your passwords. While doing this, get serious about password management and ensure that every web site is given a unique password. Use a password locker to keep track of all your passwords. If your business runs a website, check to see if it is still vulnerable to the heartbleed bug.



 

An Easier Way to Get a Business Website

Kascha Sweeney

 

Developing a web page for your business has always been a bit of a pain. In the past, I’ve outlined the various things that you need to do to put your business online: buying a domain name, getting a web hosting company, pointing your domain name to your website through a “domain name service” provider, setting up a web content management solution, getting a template for your website, and so on. It’s not easy for the non-technical, small-business manager. In the past, I’d have suggested that you go and find a local specialist to help.

Well, this geek is not too old to learn new tricks. A few weeks ago my daughter introduced me to a service that has eliminated almost all of the complexities of setting up a website. The service is called SquareSpace. And boy, have I been impressed!  The service allows you to quickly create a website by selecting from one of many different preset templates which you may then customise. The service even allows you to register and host a domain name of your choosing without the complexities normally associated with domain name services. Best of all, SquareSpace is one of the easiest and most practical website content management tools that I’ve ever encountered for small business. In short, SquareSpace does everything that is on my shopping list for small business,  but it simplifies by the process so that even my father could set up a website!

 

Is this new fang-dangled service for you?  Well, SquareSpace allows you to set up your website and play with it for two weeks completely free of charge – you don’t even need to enter your credit card details. This way, you get to see whether or not SquareSpace is right for your business before committing.

 

So how do you get started setting up your new website?

 

First of all go to www.squarespace.com and then select the “Get Started Button.” No surprises so far.

 

Next, select a template for your web site. Templates are the ‘look and feel’ of your website.  SquareSpace has many different templates to choose from. All are ‘responsive designs,’ which means they will automatically configure themselves for computers, tablets, smartphones and even SmartTVs. So not only do you get to build a new website, but you also get a mobile version of that website.

 

In other web content management solutions, such as my old favourite Dot Net Nuke, templates were generally add-ons which cost anywhere from $20 to $160. SquareSpace provides its templates free, as part of its service.

 

So, how do you choose a template that will be suitable for your company? Simply take a look at how other people have used them.  When you click on a template in SquareSpace, you have the option to “Live View” the template. This will take you to an example website that uses the template for real.   As you look at the various template designs, don’t get too hung up with the photos and text. Instead, think about how you navigate around the  demo site, how the fonts and headings may look with your own words on them, where the images are placed and how your own images could be used in a similar way.  In other words, look at the style and structure of the demo website, not the content.  Then choose the template that would best serve your online customers.

 

Also, don’t worry too much about choosing the ‘right’ template. You can change your mind at any time. Even after launching your website live you can select another template.  All of your web site content will automatically be converted to the new template. Easy!

 

To select a template, simply click on the template you like, then click the “Start With This Design” button.  You will then be asked to enter your personal details: name, email and a password. That’s it. No credit cards. No onerous company registration documentation. Nice and easy. I wish other sign-up forms were this simple!

 

Once you are logged in, two things will happen. First, SquareSpace will send you a confirmation email which includes the link to your new experimental website login. Don’t lose this email!  You will need that link to revisit and continue editing your website later on!  Second, you will be asked to fill in some basic information about your website, such as its name.  Don’t worry; you can change this later.

 

Finally, you will be taken to the SquareSpace website editing tool. A bunch of predefined pages will have been created for your consideration.  When you click on any of these predefined pages in the ‘Main Navigation’ menu, you will be given the option to remove the predefined page OR “make a page like this” which copies the page and then lets you edit the content to suit your own business needs. This is a really fast way to build your web site.  You can replace the headings and text with your own by typing directly on the page. Likewise, you can double-click on any image and replace it with a photo of your own.

 

In addition, you can add new content to your pages, including: text and headings, images, galleries (great for showcasing your specialist plants!), video (great for how-to gardening tips), product and shopping services, forms to collect information, newsletters (for communicating with your customers via email), google maps (great for showing people how to get to your nursery), calendars (good for running special events), menus (for those of you with catering), blogs, and even social media integration. Basically, there are enough plug-in features here to meet 95% of all small business’ needs. To add new content, you simply move your mouse around on the web page until you see a little plus signs (+) appear. A click on any of these will allow you to insert new content at that spot. You can also drag and drop content you have added to the page to new locations.

 

As you play with SquareSpace, you will begin to see that editing your website can be done without the need for the special techie or web designer skills… you can take over control of your website and the content. For a small business manager, this is a big plus, as it means you can be more reactive to your online market: you can try out different approaches and messages, without having to constantly go back to web designers.

 

Once you have your web site developed, or even partially developed, it comes time to get serious and pay for the service. SquareSpace has three packages: Personal (US$8/month), Professional and Business. For many small businesses, Personal is more than good enough.  Start with that package. You can always upgrade later if you find you need some of the extra features. Keep in mind, this monthly fee includes everything: website hosting, storage, templates, content management software, domain name, etc.

 

Once you have filled out the billing details, your account is immediately activated.

 

You can now register a domain name for your website at no additional charge.A domain name is what people will type in to get to your website, for example, www.mynursery.com.  To set up your own domain name, you click on the settings tool item (the little cog in the side panel of the website editor) and then the Domain menu item.  From here, you have the option to enter any domain name and, if it is available, SquareSpace will register it for you, set up all the technical stuff (DNS settings, hosting of the DNS, routing, etc) and then associate it with your website.  

 

This means your website will be able to be accessed with www.yoursitename.com. And you don’t need to know a thing about how it happened. It just works.

 

SquareSpace is not the only web tool on the market. Nor is it the cheapest. But it is economical and, most important of all, easy enough for small business owners to use without having to rely on techies or web designers.

 

In fact, I been so impressed the SquareSpace that I have already begun to move some of my traditional (and technically powerful) technology websites and blogs over to this new service. It’s not that I can’t run these other websites myself, as I must admit I am rather technically adept. But why mess with technology, when for about the same price you can get the same result with almost no effort?

 

 

Freeware Update

Kascha Sweeney

Want Free Software? The Green Geek’s New List

There are thousands of free applications that can help your business run a little more smoothly. Some of excellent quality and really help our the small business person. Others… well… let’s just say they are buggy and clunky. Worse, some of these free applications are loaded up with all sorts of stuff you really, really do not want in your business, from rather tame ‘adware’ (software that splashes online advertisements all over your SCREEN) to malevolent spyware  (software which will track your activities and even steal your personal details and passwords!)  So knowing which software is safe and practical for your business is important.

Some clues when looking for free software to be aware of the special terms that are used to describe them:

·         Freeware.  This is software which is completely and utterly free.  You can download it, install it and run it on all your computers.

·         Open source. Open source is software that is not only offered for free, its source code (the raw programming language that is used to make the software) is available for free as well. This means programmers can add new features.  In fact, most open source software is the result of dozens or even hundreds of programmers working together over a long period of time. It’s a perfect example of ‘many hands make light work… as a result, some open source software is very sophisticated indeed!

·         Shareware. This is software that you can download and use freely, but it has some form of limitation – such as only running for 30 days or perhaps having a few advanced features disabled.  Shareware is generally used to encourage people to upgrade to a full version of the product… it’s a way that developers can let you try out their software before you buy it. It’s a bit like test-driving a car.

·         Adware. Adware is free software that, in addition to doing something useful for you, also displays ads, usually as a banner along the top or bottom of the application. Basically, the developers make their money by selling ad space right within their applications.

·         Nagware. Some shareware or adware is also called nagware. This software is generally fully functional, but whenever it starts (or sometimes at random intervals) it pops up a window with a ‘nagging’ message, usually to encourage you to buy the full version of the software.

·         Malware and Spyware.  Some software that performs a nefarious act, often sending private information back to hackers.  Some Malware even hijacks your computer, spreading viruses or Trojans. Yieks!

When considering any new software from the internet, do a Google search to see what people have said about it, checking to be sure other people have not described it as malware or spyware!

Because of the inherent danger of downloading and installing software from the Internet, it is essential that you ALWAYS run a virus scan on any software you obtain, even if other people or reviews tell you it is legitimate: it is not unknown for criminals to make software that looks almost identical to a popular freeware application, but is packed with all sorts of nasty stuff, and promote it online are the real thing!  Scanning each and every download with an anti-malware tool is essential!  Depending on your anti-malware software, this may be done automatically. Even so, I usually manually scan any files I download, just to the sure!  It do this, I right click on the application I have downloaded and select ‘Scan File’ from the available options. Depending on which anti-malware package you use, the exact menu wording may be different, but it’s almost certainly there. If you don’t see that option, then perhaps you do not have anti-malware protection installed on your computer… WHY NOT?!

With that said, here are my favourite freeware applications for small business:

Best Free Word Processor, Spreadsheet & Database Suite

In the past, I would have touted Open Office as the best free personal productivity suite,  featuring word processing,  spread sheet, and presentation application. Open Office is totally free, and has a relatively high level of compatibility with Microsoft Office. The best place to download Open Office is from www.openoffice.org.   However, these days I would actually recommend Google Apps, which is not exactly free (though it’s quite inexpensive) as it is a cloud-based service and offers fantastic collaboration and storage. However, if you absolutely need ‘offline’ editing of your documents and don’t want to pay Microsoft a small fortune, then Open Office is still worth considering.

Best Backup Application

Again, in the past I rated the shareware version of Titan as a great backup tool for small offices or personal use.  These days I would recommend DropBox (www.dropbox.com) or CrashPlan (www.crashplan.com.au).  Both are cloud-based storage solutions. DropBox offers 2GB of free storage which may be enough space to back up your essential working documents.  CrashPlan offers unlimited cloud storage for a relatively small price, but it also allows you to use its software to backup any data between you and your friends’ computers for free. This means you can have a computer sitting at home (or somewhere else) and have the CrashPlan software automatically send each and every file on your work system to that remote computer. CrashPlan can also backup your computer to USB drive.  If you have serious backup needs, I think CrashPlan takes the cake.

Best Anti-Malware Software

There are a number of good anti-malware software solutions to choose from, but each has advantages and disadvantages. I would recommend AVG as the best choice for most small businesses, because it is easy to install and use. It works quietly in the background, updating itself and alerting you to virus threats only when needed. You can get a copy from http://free.avg.com/download-avg-anti-virus-free-edition.

Best Photo Editor

My favourite freeware photo editor remains PhotoFiltre, which I have been using for too many years now. The makers released a new version just this year, and the product just keeps on getting a little bit better!  It is small in size, quick and simple to use. You can get it from http://photofiltre.free.fr .  It is terrific for resizing and cropping plant photos. It is also very good at enhancing the brightness and contrast of plant photos, which makes a big difference for presentation.  If you want a more powerful photo and graphics editing tool that rivals photoshop, then take a look at GIMP (http://www.gimp.org/downloads/) .

Best Remote Access Tool

Have you even needed to get some work done over the weekend, but realised everything you needed was on the office computer?  The you may wish to consider installing a ‘remote access’ tool that lets you connect to, and use your computer as if you were sitting at your desk!  My favorite product for remote access by a long way is TeamViewer (www.teamviewer.com). It is super simple to use, secure, and allows you to set up unattended access to your computers.It is free for private use.

Of course, these are just a few of the common applications many small businesses need. No doubt, you will find yourself needing some unique or special application. Before rushing to purchase a commercial package, do a little searching on the internet to see if there are  free products that can do the job just as well. However, also be super careful to check the pedigree of these free products, and make sure you scan them all!

Choosing Your Customer Relationship Management Solution

Kascha Sweeney

There are literally dozens of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solutions on the market in Australia.  Choosing which one is the most appropriate for your business can be a stressful and worrying task.  Your customers are the most important asset you have and trusting them to a CRM should not be taken lightly.  Just as importantly, a CRM will define how you can interact with your customers.  It will become an essential part of how you run your business.

Before we look at the various CRM vendors in Australia, we should consider what functions are available.  I categorise the various features of our CRM into four broad categories, within which are many specific functions that you may wish to consider:

Contact Information: basic record-keeping for the contact; company and individual details; history of your interaction with each contact; links to the contact social networking pages; the ability to organise contacts into groups; display maps of client locations with travel instructions; the ability to relate contacts to their companies and companies to accounts.

Sales and Marketing Tools: the ability to produce invoices; automated email campaigns; produce mailing labels; and sales performance reporting; management of sales targets; identifying groups of contacts the special marketing programs.

Sales Staff Productivity Features: email integration;  daily schedules and to-do lists; the ability to access contact information via a tablet or mobile phone; integration with staff calendars; the ability to click to dial; links to phone systems so that an incoming call can bring up the customer record automatically.

Deployment options: cloud based deployment, which means that you will not have any software installed in your office; or an on-premise server, which means that you will need to install special software on a central computer in your office.  You should also consider whether the CRM is web-client (meaning that you use a web browser to access its capabilities) or thick-client (which means you use a specially developed software for the CRM).  The benefit of going for a cloud based deployment with a web client is you can access your CRM from any device on the planet, provided you have Internet access, of course!  The benefit of going for a thick client, which most commonly deployed with on-premise systems, is that you get a more functionally rich user interface.

When choosing a CRM, you need to also consider what other applications you will be connecting to the CRM.  One of the most important applications to consider integrating with your CRM is your accounting system.  Being able to accurately pass sales information between your CRM and your accounting solution will ensure that your sales data is always up-to-date, and your sales analysis, accurate.

The following CRM’s are popular in Australia.  There are no doubt additional ones, but these of a few which I most commonly encounter in my travels

SalesForce.  SalesForce is one of the most popular – and most costly cloud-based - sales and contact management solutions.  However, it also has the most complete range of capabilities.  SalesForce features new social and teamwork capabilities for sales and marketing groups, which is ideal small for businesses with highly mobile workers.  In addition to the core SalesForce CRM, there are also many hundreds of add-in modules and capabilities available via its online store, called the ‘AppExchange”.  When you’re examining a CRM for your business, it is worthwhile taking a look at these add-in modules and capabilities to see if any would be useful for your organisation.  Sometimes that extra bit of customisation is exactly what you need to really make your business fly.  

The only real downside with SalesForce is its relatively high recurring cost.  Although SalesForce does have a low-end version at $5 per user per month, the reality is that many organisations will need the professional version, which is $95 per user per month.

Sage Act!   Save is the granddaddy of small business CRM solutions and has solid network of consultants and implementation partners in Australia.  It has both on premise and cloud-based solutions.  Like SalesForce, sage covers all of the capabilities that you expect from a high-end CRM.  However, it does not have the a large number of add-in modules and services (although there are some).  Sage ACT is also not quite as easy to extend and customise as SalesForce – although some people would disagree with me on that account.

The downside with Sage act is that in most instances, organisations wish to implement it as an on-site service, which has a relatively high upfront cost and can be difficult for small businesses to maintain.  If you were serious about Sage Act, I would recommend looking at the cloud service, unless the Internet access in your area is so poor that you have no other choice.  Of course, in this case, Sage Act is perfect!

OnContact.  On contact has a stronger presence overseas than it does in Australia.  Like Sage Act, on contact is available both as a cloud solution, US$49.95 per user per month, or as an on premise CRM solution, which cost a whopping $995 per user (though this is a once of cost.)  The solution is on par with Sage Act in terms of features and capabilities, though I would argue that Sage has a more robust network of consultants in Australia to help you implement the CRM should you need.

Maximiser CRM.  Maximiser CRM is more focused on leads and sales activities than viewing specific client information, something which is quite important for nurseries.  The maximiser client is very much in the “Microsoft office” style, so it is relatively easy to pick up for most office users.  Unfortunately, maximises integration capabilities are rather limited, especially for telephony.

Microsoft dynamics.  Telstra business offers Microsoft Dynamics CRM.  Dynamics is a relatively full featured solution, and as you would expect is well integrated to the entire Microsoft product ecosystem.  It works very well with Microsoft Office, and Outlook. Feature for feature, it is less expensive than SalesForce,  at about $66 per user per month.  However, in typical Telstra style, you have to have a minimum of five users!  For many nurseries and small businesses, this takes Microsoft dynamics out of the picture.

SugarCRM.  SugarCRM is available as both an open source (free) solution that you can install on your own server, as well as a fully managed cloud service.  SugarCRM is gaining some popularity because of its low cost point and “more than good enough” capabilities.  Unfortunately, SugarCRM’s mobile phone capabilities of relatively basic at this time, although it works perfectly well on a tablet.  On the downside, SugarCRM’s web-based user interface is relatively “terse” and although it is relatively easy to use once you’ve learnt it, it is certainly not as slick as Sage Act, Maximiser or even SalesForce.  

Zoho.  Zoho is another “more than good enough” cloud-based CRM.  Its web-based interface is simple, and it is relatively easy to customise the CRM to store exactly the information you want.  Zoho also has some plug-ins that let you build your own specialised business capabilities.  However, Zoho lacks many of the analytical features of product, such as SalesForce.  The good news is, there is a free version of Zoho for three users which may provide all you need for your small nursery!  At the very least, you should check out the free version to see if it’s good enough.

Armed with the above information you can now begin looking for the CRM solution that will best suit your business.  There is no right or wrong answer here.  My suggestion is use the free demos that are available from many of these solutions and a small set of your customer data just to test how well each solution works for your business.  Keep in mind that sometimes it’s the small, add-in features that really make a big difference.  You need to be constantly asking yourself “How does this tool help my business?”

Want happier customers who keep on coming back?

Kascha Sweeney

In today’s business environment, just getting by is out of the question. To be successful, you need to constantly look for ways to improve your business, streamline your processes, and maximize your profits. Sometimes you get information overload or miss opportunities because of small things that fall between the cracks. Most times, you wish for a little help in managing and delegating tasks. All the time you find that you need all hands on deck and you and your staff can get a bit overworked. Sounds all too familiar to you? Life can be better if you only had a way to take the load off of your hard working staff, help them out a bit so that they can work more efficiently than ever. Well, you can, with the help of some powerful little helpers called CRM systems.

No matter what your business, you will always want to have new customers, and you will want to keep the customers you already have. Which means you need to find effective ways to manage prospects and delight existing customers. And if you are serious about your customers, you should consider Customer Relationship Management, more commonly referred to as CRM.

CRM is used to describe any model for handling business-customer interaction through automation. CRM is not just about the technology - it’s equally important to understand it is about the processes you create to ensure that you give the right sort of attention to each and every prospect to get the sale, and the processes to ensure that existing customers keep on coming back to you.  The technology - usually called a CRM Solution - keeps track of all those processes, reminds you and your staff of when to follow up with customers, and automates the communication and promotions you have with your customers.  

All CRM solutions keep data that will help business owners manage customer relationships. How exactly do these CRM systems make this possible?
 

Records and organizes data

The heart of a business is it’s relationship with the customer, but even before a relationship with a customer commences, you need to start with essential information about the customer and their needs. When it comes to selling,  ‘knowledge is power’ and if your sales people have the right information at their fingertips, they are more likely to offer something your customer wants, in a way that they want it.  Conversely, too much information can get in the way of a sale. Information overload is a very real problem for a business as it can cause delays in decision making, and delays cost sales.

CRM systems help you organize this data and weed through information in order to get what really matters. All modern CRM solutions allow you to sift through customers to focus on just those with specific interests, or those who have not been contacted for a while, or that spend a certain amount of money in a given month, etc.  In addition, many CRMs also allow the salespeople to keep track of what each customer has purchased in the past, or on a seasonal basis, which is vital information for the horticultural industry.

CRM solutions store and organize this information and additional documents that might be helpful in building a strong relationship with each customer. This information is kept at a central location - either on a server in your office or cloud-based (we’ll look at the available solutions in our next article).  Holding customer information in one central location allows for collaboration between salespeople and support staff. No longer is important customer’s information held captive by a single staff member.

Leads generation

Customers begin as “leads” or “prospects”; someone you know from somewhere. As with any relationship you begin by exchanging details: a name, a phone number, interests. This begins the ‘getting to know you’ process, which is often referred to as ‘leads generation.’  

Marketing your products can be a lot easier if you know your customer’s preferences, inclinations and spending habits. This is known as ‘profiling.’ With the information captured by a CRM solution, a small business can start a ‘marketing campaign’ and keep track of the results. Most CRMs now support a variety of marketing campaign channels, such as online and search-engine ads, email, social media, telemarketing and even good ol’ fashioned direct marketing. As leads respond to the campaigns, the CRM captures their information and allows you to build a relationship to the point where a sale is made.

The marketing campaigns can be based on customers’ purchasing history, so you if you have a lot of products targeted for different users, the sales team can sell, upsell and cross sell effectively.

Automate the sales processes

As a small business, most of your employees have multiple jobs. As tasks and the number of customers grow,   tracking the work becomes increasingly difficult. CRMs have the ability to not only track, but automate a range of business activities including: employees tasks, scheduling customer interactions, setting appointments and sales calls. CRMs can automate task delegation, reminders, social media updates and email marketing.

When setting up your CRM, it is important to spend a little time thinking about what sort of tasks need to be performed to win sales. What happens when a client orders a product or service? What is the process to be followed when a prospect calls and asks for a product that is out of stock?  What do you do when a client returns a product?  All of these interactions can be standardised and largely automated. The CRM will remind staff of their tasks at each and every step, for each and every customer interaction. Of course, as businesses change, the automation can be modified accordingly.

Automation of sales processes encourages best practices like logging calls and keeping notes on each customer’s contact history. This will allow for consistency of customer service.

Accounting automation

Selling is surprisingly expensive, especially if it is a manual process. A good CRM solution should help save money (and reduce mistakes) by automating the sales processes. Small businesses can do away with manual accounting entries and connect their CRM directly into the invoicing and bill settlement process. With the help of a CRM, sales processing can be done at the customer level, with automated printing or emailing of quotes and invoices, and having the information automatically transferred to accounting.

Some cloud-based CRMs work with online stores, and completely automate the invoicing and payment process. However, for the majority of the nursery industry, this level of automation is still a little way off - although there are an increasing number of niche suppliers selling online.

Not simply software

CRM is not just software, it is a business tool - it is a strategy that, when used correctly, can help you manage your business better and maximize your profit. Review your business processes and take a good hard look to see if using CRM will benefit you and your company. The key is to finding which one is a good fit for your business needs. In the next article, I’ll have a list of popular CRM systems to help you get started in choosing the right one for you.

Is it Time to Give Up Microsoft Office?

Kascha Sweeney

Let’s save ourselves the trouble and get straight to the point. Yes, you can give up Microsoft Office, that trusty ol’ personal productivity suite that you have been using for years, and switch to Google Apps. In fact, as a small-medium business owner myself, I recommend that you go all Google. Here’s why…

As a small business, you know that one of the biggest challenges you face is keeping all of your information technology up and running. For nurseries, getting IT staff on location to install software or fix installation problems can be a real pain. It is for this reason that I encourage small businesses to look at dropping Microsoft’s Office suite and moving to Google Apps. Yes, I know that is a rather bold statement. Many of you are very attached to Microsoft Word and Excel. But let’s face it, whenever your computer breaks down, or whenever Microsoft releases a new version of office, there is always a mad scramble to try and quickly recover your information or relearn the software.

Let’s look at the benefits of going to the cloud:

Who Cares About Hardware?

In a perfect world, computers don’t break down or get stolen. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, and computers, especially the old clunky ones, will break down. What makes this a double whammy is the fact that you not only lose your device, but also ALL of the relevant information stored in it.   With cloud-based productivity tools, when your desktop breaks down you do not need to wait to get it fixed to begin doing your work again. You simply grab another computer and are up and running in seconds.

You just throw out the old machine and get back to work on another.  So while Google Apps can’t do anything about the lost or broken machine, it allows you to keep working. Most importantly, Google will have the most valuable asset - your documents -  ready and waiting. Documents are not tied to any one machine, and no matter what happens to computer hardware, the work files are still available.

The Office in the Palm of Your Hand

Google Apps come pre-installed on Android Smartphone and Tablets. You can also access your documents and applications on any device with a web browser: iPhone, iPads, Windows phones, etc. By having your work documents available on your mobile devices, you can stay productive even when you are not in your office. You can quickly edit a document from your tablet while waiting in line. I have even run multiparty conference calls with my sales team, using Google Apps’s Hangout feature, while sitting in a coffee shop between client visits.

Goodbye to Upgrades & Patches

One of the bugbears for small businesses is the constant cycle of upgrades to desktop software. It is very difficult to buy a computer with exactly the same set up as the one you’re currently using. One day you may be using a Windows XP machine running Microsoft office 2003, and the next day a new machine with Windows 8 running Office 2010. And the difference between these two machines is like chalk and cheese! Switching back and forth between the two machines becomes a nightmare, not to mention the document incompatibilities. This challenge is even greater because you do not have an IT department to help you reinstall software, and migrate files.

Moving to cloud-based applications like Google Apps eliminates this problem. For a start, there’s nothing to install: no special hardware, no client software. You just use whatever web browser is available.  There are no updates or patches to install. Whenever you refresh your browser you get the very latest version of Google apps.

Technical Management aside, moving away from the clunky old upgrade cycle of desktop software to the cloud greatly reduces training requirements. New features are added to Google apps incrementally: your staff simply see a new widget or tool as soon as it is released. This gives you time to get familiar with any new features gradually as you use the software over time. There is no shock new release with a totally new interface to try and get your head around. And of course, you don’t need to pay for the new upgrade. It just happens.

Better than Good Enough

One of the things that you will hear some people state is that Google Apps lacks many of the functions of Microsoft Office. This is true. However, in my experience Google Apps packs more than enough features for small business day-to-day operations. In fact, the features that Google lacks are often features that you either don’t use, or that actually get in the way of you figuring out how to use some software. For example Microsoft Word has very powerful page layout capabilities – you can create beautiful designs and letterheads. While Google does not have the same level of page layout, its layout features are more than good enough to write a report, prepare a price list, create quotes on proposals, et cetera. Likewise with spreadsheets, Google offers a good enough set of capabilities.

Based on my observations, what typically happens when people start using Google Apps is that they appreciate that each application is a streamlined but functional productivity tool. Then they discover that they can work collaboratively on a document or spreadsheet: multiple people can work on the same document. There is no need to email documents between staff members, there is no need to know who’s got what document open at what time. There is no “getting out of sync” with important documents because everybody is working on the very same document. Once people understand this feature of collaboration, they simply can’t go back to using desktop-based Microsoft Office files. The power of collaboration trumps the need for formatting tricks any day of the week!

The following table outlines the tools in Google Apps.

Word Processing:  Google Docs is a moderately sophisticated word processor, though arguably it lacks some of the more powerful document formatting capabilities of Microsoft Word. However, by using the document sharing function of Google, staff and external parties (contractors, suppliers, even customers) can collaborate on a document, even at the same time. Google Docs allows you to import and work with Microsoft Word documents, although some formatting can get messed up. It also allows you to save your documents as Microsoft Word or PDF files so that you can pass them to people who are not yet using Google.

Email: Gmail is arguably more robust and powerful than how you would be using Microsoft outlook at this time. In addition, Google’s email is automatically scanned for spam and viruses, further reducing IT support costs.

Spreadsheets: Google sheets works as well as your usual accounting worksheets which is sufficient for 99% of business functions (that’s a real number from a real study I conducted with larger enterprises). As with Google’s word processing, Google spreadsheets have limited formatting capability. However ability to share and work collaboratively on a spreadsheet outweighs formatting limitations.

Presentation: Microsoft’s Power Point takes the win here, since this tool is hugely based on formatting. However, you’d be surprised that Google can churn out a decent presentation.

Communications:  Google Hangouts is phenomenal for small business. It allows you to see when specific people are online, either on their desktop computer or their mobile, send and receive messages from them, and establish voice and/or video communications in an instant. During conference calls you can share documents and work on them together.

Drive: All your work documents – including those that are not in Google Apps formats – can be stored in the cloud. This means files are automatically backed up and that they can be accessed from any device, at anytime, anywhere. I have lost count of the number of times this has saved my bacon when a computer hard drive crashed, or when I was on the road and needed to grab an important document.

The main strength of Google is collaboration

Most start-ups and small businesses have employees who are not in the office, even business owners may have to work from home from time to time. These organizations may also have part time workers or people that help catch things that fall through the cracks. With cloud-based productivity tools, everyone can simultaneously work on that one single document that gets accessed all the time, like sales ledgers or inventories. There’s no need to attach to emails, save multiple versions and have multiple copies that nobody can keep track of. Documents can be edited in real time, even while employees conduct video calls.  Working with people on the other side of the room, in another part of town, or in another time zone is where Google really shines.

In Conclusion

Ok, I know this article sounds a bit like an ad for Google. It’s not. If anything my career has been based around Microsoft products for the last three decades. And I am a big fan of Microsoft in large organisations. However, for small businesses, especially nurseries, retailers, and those of us who cannot afford an IT department of our own, moving everything to the cloud is a logical choice. And Google is the leader in cloud at the moment.  

However, Microsoft also has its own cloud-based product the toolset called Office 365.  Office 365 delivers most of what Google has and is not skimp on the formatting of documents. Unfortunately, office 365 is considerably more expensive than Google. Google will cost you approximately $50 per user annually. Microsoft office 365 will cost you around $198 a month, for an equivalent setup.

Prior to jumping into Google Apps, it would serve you well to look at Office 365 and seriously consider its benefits in comparison to Google. Then look at your own business needs and determine which is good enough.

 

 

Office Productivity Tools

Kascha Sweeney

Every successful business starts with organized and religious documentation. We have come a long way from pen and paper and now, almost all businesses have integrated an Office Productivity Suite into their day to day operations. These applications have become so critical to running a business that choosing the right one is a key factor in building a startup.

There are very important processes critical to ALL businesses, and these should be included in the Office Productivity Suite you are planning to get. Lets have a look at some:

Word Processing - at its very basic form, word processing is just the ability to enter and change text - the way you’d use pen and paper. However, this application also has the ability to check spelling and grammar, find the synonym and meaning of words, indicate word count and page number, generate indices of keywords along with their page numbers, create tables with titles and page numbers, and number footnotes among others. You can even email in batches using a letter template and an address database through “mail merging” (more on that later).

Email - in the days before 1993, the proper term for this is Electronic Mail since messages are exchanged digitally over computer networks. Now, we do away with formalities and just call it: Email. As mentioned earlier, you can use this in tandem with word processing application to send out letters or messages in bulk. This is most useful when you want to let a lot of other people know about your business or your products. It is the gist of Email Marketing.

Spreadsheets - it is a powerful computing tool that organizes data into a table or a series of tables and lets you analyze the data you have using a number of commands available in the program. It’s just like an accounting worksheet but with super-powers. These sheets have built in mathematical functions, financial and statistical operations, and conditional expressions. It can even convert text to numbers and vice versa.

Presentation - more presentable than flip charts and more convenient than drawing boards, this program is useful for displaying or showing data using slides. Slides can contain texts, graphic images or both and is used to present ideas and information.

What to look for in an ISP

Kascha Sweeney

  • Service!  Test their help desk - how long to get through, can they answer your questions

  • Contact terms and conditions

  • Onsite Installation of wifi router

  • Cost

  • Contract lengths

  • Added bonuses (free hardware, etc)

STATS from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), media release 11:30 Canberra 09/04/2013 cat. no. 8153.0

http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/10things/10-things-to-look-for-in-an-isp/1766

http://isp-review.toptenreviews.com/

http://lifehacker.com/how-do-i-choose-the-best-internet-service-provider-480869389

 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), there were 12.2 million internet subscribers in Australia at the end of December 2012. This represents an increase of 1% since the end of June 2012 and an annual growth of 5%. With million and millions of internet subscribers all over the world, we find that Internet Service Providers have become a major part of our lives. Finding the PERFECT ISP or Internet Service Provider is as easy as finding a unicorn. While many do not realize this dream, most of us hold on to it and try instead to find the best ISP we can get. Here are a few points to ponder as you embark in your quest for finding the best Internet Service Provider for you.

Availability

You must first ask yourself “what type of Internet Service is available to me?” Consider the type of Internet Service that is available in your area. Do you want to get a DSL connection since you already have an existing phone line? Are you going to get a Cable connection in tandem with your Cable TV subscription? Do you live in an area where fixed line connection and mobile connections are impossible to get and your only option is getting a Satellite connection? Ask around, check what kind of Internet connection is available in your location. You can learn more about the different types of Internet connections in our last article. (insert link to Ch8: Getting onto the Internet article). Generally, you have more options if you live in or near urban areas.

Service

And then we get to the nitty gritty of it...which ISP provides the best service. After you’ve scouted and checked for Internet connections available in your area, it’s time to drill down to the details. Let’s start with speed.

You will have to compare both download and upload speeds. for A useful link is Speedtest.net’s Net Index where you’ll see the ranking of major ISPs in your location. Most subscribers get an ADSL connection where the download speed is faster than the upload speed but for businesses who use VPNs or regularly backup up very large files to the cloud, consider a SDSL connection (where download equals upload speed). Be careful about this parameter, most ISPs overpromise and underdeliver. Speeds vary with location so you may have to do some sleuthing and ask the opinion of neighbors to get a feel of which ISP delivers the best speed. Some sleuthing really does pay off. I would have been stuck with a crappy ISP had it not been for my friendly neighborhood hairdresser who said that they’ve had a lot of problems with the cable ISP I’ve been eyeing and that I’m better off getting someone else. True enough, almost everyone in our neighborhood was subscribed to this ISP and since Cable ISPs share available bandwidth with everyone in the vicinity - internet service is very, very slooooow.

Reliability

Reliability is also an issue and downtime is a reality that all of us have to face. You have to consider how easy it is to get help. Does the ISP offer 24/7 support? How easy is it to get in touch with their help desk? How many various ways can you contact them (phone, chat, email)? How fast can they send a tech to provide on-site support?

Contract terms

Contract Terms will tell you how long you’d have to be with a particular ISP or in many cases, how long you’re going to be stuck with their service. It’s may be a short term commitment but a commitment nonetheless. Make sure you’re very clear on their terms of services by asking questions like “do they have operational guarantees” “will a tech be available for on-site repairs 24/7?” or “what happens when service fails: do you receive credit off your bill?”. Address these issues before you decide on an ISP because your ISP will be a part of your life from now on.

ISPs throw in a couple of freebies when they want to get your attention. Mine actually offers 5 email addresses with 4MB of mail space each, along with email forwarding services and 5MB of webspace. I don’t use it. I don’t need it. I’m better off with other webmail providers (gmail and yahoo). What could be helpful though is if my ISP provided security software, offered parental controls and gave free Wi-Fi hotspot access.

Speaking of freebies, some ISPs offer free installation while others charge. The degree of difficulty of the installation process depends on the type of Internet Service you avail of.  Cable connections work over TV wires while DSL connections work over phone lines. Cable and DSL connections are pretty easy to install since the infrastructure is already existing. However, satellite connections require special equipment, relatively longer installation process not to mention more expensive equipment investment.

Cost

Finally we come to one of the, if not, THE most important factor to consider: the cost. You may have decided that you want a super-powered, faster-than-the-speed-of-light high speed connection with everything plus the kitchen sink. The question is: can you afford it? Remember, there are other costs to consider aside from monthly subscription. You may be paying for: installation, modem rental, extra cables, service calls etc. After looking at each ISP and finding, ceteris paribus, that you have exhausted all points of comparison - the cost of the service can become the deciding factor.

Understanding Internet Connections

Kascha Sweeney

In this article, I am going to assume your business already has an internet connection. It was probably put in years ago and you’ve gotten used to it. However, there has been a lot of change in the internet service provider (ISP) over the past decade: smaller ISPs have been acquired, rural access has seen a little improvement here and there, and of course there is the National Broadband Initiative (NBN).  Also, it’s a sure bet that your business is using the Internet more now than ever before, and as cloud computing becomes more common, you’ll be using your internet connections even more in the near future.  Therefore in this article I am going to provide you with an overview of the current technologies with which your business can connect to the internet. Your homework is to take a look at your current Internet service plan and decide if it still meets you needs, or is it time to change plans and get more bandwidth for your bucks.

ADSL

ADSL stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line service. It is called asymmetric because download speed is not equal to upload speed (download is faster than upload).  ADSL is no longer popular in urban areas, because in comparison to ADSL 2+ (see below), plain old lADSL is relatively slow. However, for many businesses in rural areas, ADSL is the best that you can get and for a small business with just one or two computers connecting concurrently, is good enough.

The pros:

Much faster and more reliable than dial-up connections. Is available in more rural locations than ADSL 2+ and is less costly than Satellite connections; all you need is a modem (plus a wireless router if you want wifi) which most ISPs will include for free when you sign up for a 24 month plan.

The cons:

inconsistency with speed and relatively limited bandwidth.

ADSL2

ADSL2 (ITU G.992.3 and G.992.4) adds new features and functionality targeted at improving performance and interoperability and adds support for new applications and services. Among the changes are improvements in ADSL's data rate, an increase in the distance ADSL can reach from the local telephone exchange, dynamic data rate adaptation, better resistance to noise, diagnostics, and a stand-by mode to save power. That’s all geek-speak simply means ADSL2 is a big improvement over the older ADSL.

The pros:

Better speed and reliability than ADSL.

The cons:

Speed dependent on ISP and internet plan.

ADSL2+

ADSL2+ (ITU G.992.5) is the next step up from ADSL2 and is now the most common connection type for urban households. ADSL2+ doubles available bandwidth for downloading internet traffic (it’s theoretically twice as fast as ADSL).  Unfortunately. ADSL2+ has a limited range. If your property is too far from the nearest ADSL2+ enabled exchange, you will not be able to get it.  In addition, many exchanges in rural towns do not yet have ADSL2+.  So while ADSL2+ is the most desirable type of Internet connection (well, second only to the NBN), there is a good chance it will not be available in the areas where nursery people work.

The pros:

ADSL2+ solutions will interoperate with legacy ADSL & ADSL2 equipment. However, it is the speed that is the real and relatively low cost of ADSL2+ that makes it the winning choice.

The cons:

not available nationwide.

Naked ADSL

Naked ADSL (or Naked DSL) is a term that refers to an ADSL (or ADSL2 or ADSL2+) service that can be installed on a phone line that doesn't have an active phone number attached to it. It's a service that's particularly worthwhile for anyone who does not use their landline to make phone calls, and also for anyone who uses voice over IP (VoIP) service (like Skype) instead of a regular landline to make phone calls.  The benefit of Naked ADSL plans are that you save money on rental of voice phone line that you don’t use. However, I have noted that the savings are generally minor: generally less than $10 a month when compared to a bundled voice phone line plus internet connection.

The pros:

The advantage of Naked ADSL versus a traditional ADSL or ADSL2+ Internet service is that you don't need a phone number attached to your line in order to get the service, which means you don't have to pay line rental (to Telstra, for example). A rental fee for the physical copper line still applies, but Internet service providers (ISPs) factor this into the pricing of their Naked ADSL plans.

The cons:  

You may miss having the fixed line connection as a backup voice phone line.

Wireless 3G and Wireless 4G

Also called Mobile Data and Mobile Internet, Wireless 3G and 4G connections use the mobile telephony network to send and receive internet .  For our industry, this is not just a matter of “getting Internet on the go.”  In some locations, it is actually easier to get a mobile phone connection than a fixed line. In these situations, connecting to the internet via a 3G or 4G connection may be the best option.  

The difference between 3G and 4G comes down to speed.  While most mobile providers offer 3G connections, which are ‘good enough’ for a single user, Telstra is slowly replacing all of its mobile phone towers to run 4G connections, which are super-fast in comparison. Of course, you need to have a phone or ‘wireless hub’ that works with the Telstra’s new 4G service.

If you were to use 3G / 4G connection for your office, you would need to purchase either a USB Wireless Internet modem for each computer you wish to connect to the network, or purchase what is called a “3G / 4G wireless hub.”    The devices, also called Wi-Fi Hotspots, will access a single 3G or 4G mobile connection, and then broadcast a small, local Wi-Fi network for several (usually up to 5) computers. These devices are fantastic for a small office that can’t get dedicated fixed lines, or for computing outside of the normal office (such as in the workshed).

The pros:

Quick set set up, portable and a much cheaper set up than satellite connections.

The cons:

Signal strength - and thus speed and reliability of connection - depends on location. Reception quality is also impacted by obstructions such as trees, buildings, landforms.  Any large obtrusive objects (like your tractor parked outside!) can actually interfere with your connection. It is especially difficult to get strong mobile data strength in valleys, unless your telco has a tower nearby.  For many of us in the country, it is a bit of a lottery as to which providers will give us acceptable signal strength in any given location: the ‘coverage maps’ are far from accurate in any practical sense.  So before you sign onto a mobile data plan, ask a friend who has a mobile phone connected to the provider you are thinking of using to come out and test the connections.

Satellite

In Australia, some locations - like our property which is just 6km from the local exchange - have poor fixed line connections and almost no mobile connection. In these locations, getting any form of ADSL is impossible (as the ISPs will let you know) and mobile data is also out of the question. In these cases, the only alternative is to use a Satellite-based Internet connection. This involves heavy investment in a satellite dish and special modem, and the monthly data allowances (how much internet stuff you can access) are generally very limited in comparison to ADSL2+ plans. As such, using a satellite hook up should be the last option.

The pros:

May be the only option for people living in rural and regional areas.

The cons:

The investment required for a satellite connection does not come cheap: running a little over $2000.  Also satellite connections are slower than 4G mobile data connections (or more correctly, there is higher ‘latency’)   since data travels into outer space, not just the nearest cell tower.  The satellite option should be your last choice for connecting to the internet.

The NBN

Finally, Australia has the NBN, or the National Broadband Network initiative. This new network aims to bring internet connections, that are vastly faster and more reliable than all forms of current wireless and fixed line technologies, by utilising optical fibers. Basically, the ‘pipes’ of the internet are to be changed from physical copper wires or radio signals that are impacted by distance, to optical cables that transmit data using light. Without going into too much detail, optical networks are more reliable and carry more data at a speed that is, well, light fast. One of the NBN’s key aims was to provide fast internet to rural Australians: the existing telecommunications carriers were not doing this, even with the older copper technologies, because it was simply not profitable enough for them.

Unfortunately, the NBN has become a political football and it is unlikely to survive the next election in its current form. For those of us in the country, it’s likely we will continue to have to weak connectivity to online services for at least the next ten to fifteen years. This means it will be a little more difficult (though not impossible) and a little more expensive to take advantage of the economic benefits of services such as online accounting, remote collaboration, digital marketing and sales, online education, etc.  

What’s right for you?

If you are one of the lucky few to have NBN access in your area, grab it with both hands. If ADSL2+ is available, that would be the next best option, followed by ADSL.

However, if you cannot get any of the above, the decision moves to looking at either satellite or 3G / 4G connections. In general, I would recommend trying the 3G / 4G mobile data approach before moving to satellite. While the data throughput of 3G / 4G connections may be (theoretically) more limited than satellite, in practice I have found the opposite. More importantly, the initial investment required for using 3G / 4G mobile data is far lower, and even if the performance proves insufficient, these mobile connections can be moved to other locations without any problem. Not so with satellites, which are both expensive (and require a skilled technician) to set up and fix in place.  



 

 


Mobile Phones - which one is right for you & your business?

Kascha Sweeney

Where do I begin?!

Almost every working adult today owns a mobile phone. According to a recent presentation at Stanford University by a respected venture capitalist named Mary Meeker, there are 5 Billion mobile phone users worldwide. Mobile phones are one of those essential gadgets that very few people can live without because of the convenience it provides.

Imagine back then when we used to conduct business on-site the old school way. In house office meetings and phone calls using the office landline was the way to go. Step out for lunch or for errand and you might miss a business prospect. Fail to answer the landline phone or return a message and you’ll forever wonder if that was your big break. That isn’t the case today. Today more than ever, people understand that time is money and that every minute wasted is an opportunity wasted. These opportunities do not have to stop while a person is travelling or working remotely.

For business owners and employees that are always on-the-go (sales, e-commerce, marketing, emergency services), a mobile phone plan is a must. For these people, having the freedom to communicate and do business anywhere, anytime is the primary reason why they own a mobile phone, and having mobile phones help keep them productive even while they’re on the road.

Still don’t have a mobile phone?

Does your company make a lot of long distance calls? Your company may save on call minutes by getting a mobile phone plan instead of calling long distances from a fixed line. You can save up on long distance charges and taxes. In contrast, if you and your business mainly operate locally and take a lot of local calls, it is best to hold on to your landline to manage those incoming calls.

Hate sharing the phone? If you’re tired of waiting for the other person to get off the phone, then get a mobile phone. Take note that mobile phone calls may still be cheaper than installing and maintaining a bare-bones landline.

Who should be voted out?

Business owners and managers would need to decide who gets a mobile phone (and who doesn’t get one). Not all employees need a mobile phone. A business owner needs to map out the company’s communication needs and figure out who needs a mobile phone plan. For starters, the people who would need to be contacted right away in case of emergency and in crisis management situations (such as senior management) should have a mobile phone. The sales force and marketing team would also need to be mobile and ready to take calls anytime.

What to get, what to get...

So you’ve decided that a mobile phone is a must for your business, the question now is which one should I get - and therein lies the rub!

While mobile phones are the norm, smartphone users are quickly growing. Gartner (February 2013): predicts that there will be close to 1 billion smartphones sold in 2013, which will mean that smartphones will outsell feature phones for the first time.

In some aspect, smartphones are the new personal assistants. With these super-powered phones, anyone can bring important information along wherever they go. Accessing emails and office data is a cinch. Business contact information, work schedules and other work tools are just a click away. It’s like bringing a secretary along all the time.

Not all phones are created equal

The task of choosing a mobile phone for you and your business may be an overwhelming one so sit down, grab a glass of wine and some cheese, or some popcorn and soda. With a plethora of superpowered-do all and be all-smartphones and gadgets to choose from, you will want to study the following very carefully:

Consider this list of smartphones and their business suitability key points to get you started.

Androids:

Samsung Galaxy series: 

The newest addition to the Samsung smartphone family is the Samsung S4 and runs on Android 4.2, Jelly Bean. With its powerful quad core processor, 5 inch HD screen, expandable memory and 13 megapixel camera, it lets you have almost everything you want in a phone except cook your dinner. It is also one of the most secure smartphones out there. It features Knox which lets you create as many encrypted vaults as you want.

HTC: 

HTC One is one of the most secure smartphones out in the market today with features like full data encryption, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor and a remarkable 18-hour talk time. Though it doesn’t come with a microSD slot, it comes in 32GB and 64GB versions - a whole lot of storage space that would put hoarders to shame.

Windows: 

Windows Phone 8

The newest Windows Phones boasts of a shared Windows core with Windows 8, meaning all of your Office 2013 apps will sync painlessly through the cloud. Imagine composing a Word document on your computer and easily picking up where you left off on your Windows phone.

Nokia Lumia: 

The Nokia Lumia 920 differentiates itself from other Windows phone by its wireless charging and its high screen sensitivity. You can use the Nokia Lumia 920 with a gloved hand, perfect for those cold days. If you’re all about practicality, the Nokia Lumia 920 comes at a relatively more affordable price compared to other powerful smartphones and carries the same core features.

HTC Windows Phone X8: 

The HTC Windows Phone X8 also has a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and shares the same core features with other Windows Phones but it’s sleek design and portability makes it perfect for doing business on the go. It has all the powers of a Windows Phone in a thinner, smaller, and lighter design.

Blackberry: 

Blackberry’s strength is its powerful email security. That, combined with it’s full keyboard and push button email features make it (still) the most trusted device used as company phones.

The Blackberry Z10: 

The Blackberry Z10 is probably the most secure smartphone. It features a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus 1.5 GHz dual-core processor and 2GB of RAM. It has Blackberry balance, separating and securing work items from personal information. Your work data and your personal data each get a separate place in the Blackberry Z10’s heart.

iOS 

The iPhone 5 is the sexiest iPhone ever...so far. It now has 4G data speeds to complement the Safari browser and improved phone hardware and software. It comes with the free Apple Configurator app. This is great for smaller organisations with no IT department because it is designed to control multiple iPhones.

Phablets:

When you see a device that’s too big to be a phone yet too small to be a tablet, what do you call it? It’s called a Phablet. The term “Phablets” is more than just a buzzword and definitely not a fad. Some people just want it all! They want all the features of a superpowered phone in a larger screen. These devices are perfect for more screen-intensive activities (note taking, annotating, sketching etc.) and smaller phones just don’t cut it.

Samsung Galaxy Note II:

The Samsung Galaxy Note II is the newest phablet by Samsung. It has a 5.55-inch large display and a self storing stylus. It features a Quadcore processor, expandable memory, and runs the Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. It is slightly thinner but heavier than it’s big brother the Samsung Galaxy Note.

Virtual Phone Receptionists

Kascha Sweeney

There comes a time in every business when you know you’re going to be in it for the long haul. Not matter your business -  wholesale grower, retail or trade - the day will come when your business starts getting more phone calls that you can personally handle while still doing all the other work that needs to get done. And all that work must this done while trying to sound happy and perky over the phone. It is, after all, up to them to create a great impression.Between answering calls and managing office work, small business owners may find themselves short-staffed, with one person only having time to answer calls and nothing else.  If this sounds like your business, a virtual phone receptionist may be just what the doctor ordered.

 

What is a virtual phone receptionist?

 

Virtual Phone Receptionists are not your old-school answering service.They are services staffed  by real people who have access to powerful software tools, who simultaneously do the following:

  • Receive customer calls

  • Utilise formal quality assurance processes for managing calls, to ensure that no customer request will fall through the cracks

  • Pass calls on to the right staff member at the right time

  • Manage your calls by knowing when you can take them and when you are NOT to be disturbed

  • Answer basic questions about your business and assist your customers by finding a helpful solution

 

While all Virtual Phone Receptionists answer calls straight up, others enhance their services with specialised call management technology out of reach of many small businesses. These include the ability to manage multiple incoming calls at the same time. The combination of telephony technology and expert call management makes it impossible for your business to miss a call...ever. All calls are answered and all business opportunities are taken without missing a beat.  This service allows you to drop any extra fixed lines and call hunting plans that you have, which in turn saves money... which you can then use to help pay for your virtual phone receptionist!

 

A business handling large call volumes can be hard pressed to have sufficient staff to man the phones all day. This is even more of a problem if the business operates 24/7 or offers emergency or out of work hour services. Virtual Phone Receptionists can be available to cover all shifts, 24/7, weekends and holidays too -if needed.

 

Importantly, customers and clients do end up having to leave messages on voicemail. Our own studies shat that less than a third of customers leave voice messages. Having a live person talk with customers every time they call, taking orders or making bookings on the spot, can dramatically increase business results.

 

Virtual Phone Receptionists can also answer basic questions about your business or point your customers in the direction of the most helpful answer. If a solution isn’t available immediately, they can call you to find out the right information and, if you are too busy, call the customers back and give them the information they are seeking, which demonstrate excellent customer service. They can even arrange a call between you and the client so that you can personally answer questions.

 

An often overlooked benefit of a virtual phone receptionist is that of business overheads.  While virtual receptionists are a cost, they are generally a lot less than hiring a full time staff member and, importantly, there are none of the additional costs associated with staff, such such as space, electricity, office equipment, tax, etc.

 

But it’s not as easy as it sounds

Working with a Virtual Phone Receptionist has some challenges. Since VPRs work remotely, you need to give clear and specific instructions for them to perform exactly as you want. They don’t, nor ever will, know your business like you do. Before using a virtual receptionist, it is vital that you and your staff have a long hard think about how you answer calls, what sort of information your customers request over the phone, and how you want a receptionist to respond. All of this needs to be written down clearly and concisely. Many of the virtual phone receptionist agencies will help you create ‘scripts’ for their staff, guiding you through this process.  While this may seem like a chore, it is actually a great way to gain clarity about your business and your customers, regardless of who answers your phones.

 

For small  to medium sized businesses, especially those with specialist product knowledge, such as propagators and landscapers, in-house employees will need training in the CTI’s (Computer Telephony Integration) used by Virtual Phone Receptionists, as well training to understand when and why calls will be routed to them by the virtual receptionists, and in how to follow up with any calls the receptionists put through to them.

 

You may experience some variation in receptionist quality.  Staff turnover at Virtual Phone Receptionist firms is quite common, and this various of staff can be accompanied by differences in work ethics and productivity levels. There may even be language barrier issues (very rare, but it has been known). Before entering a contract with a virtual phone receptionist firm, be sure to ask them for references and try them out.  Also, check the contract to be sure you can demand a replacement, or terminate the service, should a receptionist (or group of receptionists) not be meeting your standards.

 

Finally, you should only embrace a virtual phone receptionist if you are willing to work closely with them on an ongoing basis. During your journey with the virtual receptionist, it is a certainty you’ll discover things that are not quite right: your scripts will need to be rewritten; information will need to be updated and changed; your own staff will need more training.  Just like any on-site staff member, you’ll need to develop a close working relationship with your virtual phone receptionist.


 

Is it for you?

Virtual Phone Receptionist can be perfect for:

  • Non traditional business settings like mobile professionals: landscapers, associated traders

  • Start up businesses that are watching their overhead while, looking for low risk ventures and testing the waters.

  • Emergency / after hours service providers: tree loppers, weekend services, etc.

  • Small nurseries that need all hands on deck.

  • Affiliate traders with e-commerce that need a dedicated customer service line.

 

Not even remotely unheard of

Here are some links to Virtual Phone Receptionist Service providers to get you started. This is not an exhaustive list and there are any more service providers out there.

 

Australia

http://www.virtualheadquarters.com.au/

http://yourphonescovered.com.au/

http://virtualadministrationservices.com.au/

http://www.silentpartner.com.au/

A list:

http://www.smallbusinesshq.com.au/find/serviced-offices/receptionist-services.htm

 

UK

http://www.verbatim-cc.co.uk/telephone-answering/service-options/virtual-receptionist/

http://www.ereceptionist.co.uk/resources/virtual-receptionist

http://receptionhq.co.uk/products-receptionist-answering-service.php

http://www.virtualreceptionist.co.uk/

http://www.purejam.co.uk/

http://www.bestreception.co.uk/

http://www.messagebase.co.uk/

 

US

http://www.callruby.com/

http://www.davincivirtual.com/receptionists

http://myreceptionist.com/about/

http://www.avanties.com/virtual-receptionist

http://theadmincenter.net/virtual-receptionist.php

https://www.answerunited.com/Solutions/VirtualReceptionist.aspx

http://www.alertcommunications.com/virtual-receptionist-advantages.php

 

Fixed Lines vs Mobile Phones

Kascha Sweeney

Telephones. We can’t do business without them.  But I am going to make a radical suggestion: you are very likely paying far too much for your phone service, and not even getting the telecommunications that your business really needs.  At the heart of that statement is the knowledge that the telecommunications industry has changed dramatically over the past decade, and especially in the last three years. Mobile phone networks have become very cost effective and are actually cheaper than fixed lines in many situations. This begs the question, do you really need both a fixed phone line and a mobile phone?

In the residential space, fixed home phone lines are slowly becoming obsolete, especially in urban areas with excellent wireless coverage. In fact, the younger generation get fixed phone lines simply as part of a bundle deal on their internet connection. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) shows that one in five consumers have considered dropping their fixed lines to save money.

Business owners have been much slower to follow suit by reducing the number of fixed lines to cut costs. Some of the resistance to mobile phone plans in business has been the ease at which roaming staff can accidentally rack up absurd phone bills, or the huge bills they are paying from their landlines for calls made to mobile phones.  But the reality is, these high-cost situations are simply a matter of bad-planning and lack of knowledge about the details of phone plans. With a little bit of education and some policy on phone use, it is possible for a small business to substantially reduce it’s monthly phone bills, while improving client contact, by turning to mobile plans.

Why keep a fixed line?

There are a number of reasons why you, as a small business owner, would keep a fixed line. First is that customers perceive having a landline number as a sign that the business is more established and more professional. When including contact details in printed or digital media, a fixed line is an important confidence fact. Also, by only releasing a fixed line number, you can reinforce the point that your business can only be reached during business hours: publicizing your mobile number means your business is on call 24/7 which is only a good idea if your business provides out of business hours emergency services, but not so great if you want uninterrupted evenings. Of course, you can manage this by switching your mobile phone to voicemail, but simply the fact you have a mobile number published will set a certain expectation among customers. So, if you want privacy after hours, a fixed line will be required.

Also, having a 1800 number, that are only available on fixed lines, can be a good way to attract business, especially if you are in a highly competitive service industry, such as landscaping, mowing, etc.

If you have a larger business, with many incoming calls, you will need to have  circular line hunting (also called “round robin” call forwarding). That is, customers call one number and if that is engaged, the call automatically switches to the next available line without delay. Of course, this also means you will have more than one person in the office, working the phones. Currently, round robin call forwarding is only available on fixed line phone plans.

In all of the above scenarios, it is interesting to note that the reason for having a fixed line is to manage incoming calls. This is important to realise, since the bulk of most business phone bills is actually for outgoing calls.  Therefore, you may be able to keep your fixed lines for incoming calls, but find cheaper and more flexible ways to manage your outgoing calls.

Another very important reason for keeping a fixed line is for data services: fax and Internet.

Big phone bills... Mobile Phones to the Rescue!

If you look carefully at your monthly phone bill, you will notice that the outgoing costs are the biggest component of your bills. It is also likely that an increasing percentage of those outgoing costs are to client’s mobile phones.  So if you want to reduce your overall phone bill, you need to focus on reduce the costs of outgoing calls. There are two ways to do this: reduce the number of calls being made, which is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing as a small business; or dramatically reducing the cost per call.  

Unfortunately, with fixed line plans, there is very little ability to reduce the cost of outgoing calls. There seems to be almost no competition in the fixed line space, with all vendors offering very similar outgoing call rates. But it is a different story when it comes to mobile phone plans, where some plans allow unlimited calls to both landlines and mobile phones for set costs. At the high-end, incumbent telcos such as Telstra offer unlimited call mobile phone plans for $129. Nimble competitors such as Kogan Mobile (which is actually reselling Telstra’s own network) offer the unlimited mobile phone plans for as little as $25 a month!  If you make more than about 75 outgoing calls a month switching to an unlimited mobile phone plan will almost certainly save you money.  

To give you an idea on how much money can be saved, I recently dropped one line in our business that we were using for outgoing calls and replaced it with a mobile phone. It saved us just over $300 a month. But more importantly, because the mobile plan is a fixed price, there are no surprise bills at the end of intense months.  I can budget accurately.

Finally, let me state clearly that most ‘small business’ mobile phone plans are dreadful and over-priced. It’s almost like the telecommunications companies know that small business people don’t want to be bothered reading the fine print and therefore these plans, often bundled with fixed line services, screw small business people over with long-term contracts and inflated call rates. There. I said it. (Yes Telstra, I am talking about you!)   So if you do plan to investigate the option of switching all your outgoing calls to mobile phones, be sure to look at all the plans on offer and not just take the deal your telco is pushing.

Reducing the number of fixed lines and some easy alternatives.

In addition to rationalising your outgoing calls with fixed price mobile phone plans, I also find that many small businesses pay monthly line rental for fixed line services they rarely use. Take a look at your phone bill and ask yourself, do I really need all these lines?  For example, if you currently have separate lines for fax and Internet, then consider combining these services on the same line. Likewise, if you have multiple fixed lines for incoming calls, take a close look at how often both lines are in use. Ask yourself, do you really need that extra line and the extra cost of line hunting, or would a single line with a polite voice mail be nearly as good?  Even more interesting, ask yourself if you need to be answering your calls at all... could you get a professional virtual assistant to do that for you?  We’ll investigate that option in a later article. You may also consider the use of Voice Over Internet Phone (VoIP) services, which route phone calls over the internet.  Again, this is a topic for a future article.

In summary, you should examine your phone bills from the perspective of the value of incoming calls, and the cost of outgoing calls. Seek to maximise the value of incoming lines, while using the great terms and conditions of mobile phone plans to minimize outgoing call costs.

Green Geek Buying Tablets for Your Business

Kascha Sweeney

So far in the turning over a new leaf series we have focused on the desktop and notebook computers in your office. However, there is another wonderful device that you may wish to consider: the tablet.

Since its introduction, the iPad has changed the way people access their important information. Gone are the days when we had to lug around a 2kg notebook and wait 3 to 5 minutes for it to boot up whenever we wanted to access our calendar or look at a document.  With iPads, we got lightweight, instant-on access to our documents and essential applications, such as email, web browsing, diary, contact lists and so on.  But what we did not get was a full desktop experience. In other words, what we got was the ability to consume information, but not work with it extensively.

The good news is, the market for tablets has exploded in the past three years and we now have tablet computing devices that are just as powerful as a notebook computer! The question is now, what tablet is right for your business?

Just as with choosing a notebook computer, your first question needs to be: what do you want to do with the tablet? Another way of asking this is to say what applications do I need to run while I’m using the tablet? Let’s not confuse this question with the “how many applications in the App Store” debate that we see many technology journalists going on about. Instead what you should consider is what applications does your business need to be made mobile. For example, if you are running a customer relationship management (CRM) application, such as Act by Sage, and it only ran on the Windows operating system, then you may wish to use a Windows 8 tablet. This way, you could continue to access your customer database even when out of the office! However, if you are running a cloud-based CRM, such as Zoho, then you could choose any tablet that would run a web browser: and that’s pretty much all of them.  But, you need to make sure that the tablet always had wireless Internet connection.  The key thing here is that the business application must be at the forefront of your thinking about what type of tablet you get. (Although I would also argue that cloud-based applications give you much more flexibility in terms of what devices you can use with them.)

There are three main types  of tablet on the market: the iPad from Apple, which runs the iOS operating system; Android tablets, which are made by many different vendors, most notably Samsung, and its operating system is from Google;  and finally Microsoft tablets running Windows Eight. In fact, Microsoft has two different versions of its operating system for tablets: Windows 8 which is exactly the same operating system as you run on a desktop computer or a notebook, and Windows 8 RT, which only runs a limited set of applications from Microsoft’s special application store.

Each of these tablets have their own strengths and weaknesses.

The iPad has arguably the largest following, and its App Store is jam-packed full of useful and entertaining applications that you can download to the device.  Unfortunately, the majority of these applications are not necessarily oriented towards small business. However, like all tablets, it is an excellent device for accessing cloud-based business applications, and as I will argue later, you really want to be using cloud applications wherever possible.

Android tablets are arguably more powerful and flexible than the iPad, and cheaper to boot! They are configurable and their inclusion of ‘widgets’ makes them very productive tools.  However, there are many different vendors offering android tablets on the market. Some of them for rock bottom prices: I’ve seen android tablets as low as $95!  However, if you’re planning to use a tablet for business purposes, I would strongly recommend that you look at a tablet with a minimum of 16 GB of memory and 3G wireless data connection. This is because you will almost certainly want access to your information and applications while out of the office – granting mobility to business owners is one of the main advantages of tablet computing. Once you start looking at this level of tablet, you’re beginning to look at the $400-$800 range of android tablets, and King of that hill is currently Samsung, with Asus coming a close second.

The current batch of Surface  tablets from Microsoft are running Windows 8 RT. Unfortunately, Windows 8 RT has not proven to be very popular, largely due to the fact that it does not run traditional Windows desktop applications , Windows RT does run Microsoft office applications in a way that is both simple and elegant. However, I would strongly advise against going for a Windows RT device. For most business purposes, you’re really looking to the Windows tablets to give you a full Windows desktop / notebook experience, something that neither the iPad nor the android tablet will do.  If, on the other hand you want a tablet packs all of the functionality of a notebook or desktop computer, then you should look at a Windows 8 tablet from the likes of Dell, Toshiba, Asus or Samsung.  These full Windows 8 tablet devices pack an amazing amount of power into a truly mobile experience. If need to run desktop applications on your tablet, then Windows 8 tablets are definitely the way to go.

Once you’ve decided what applications you plan to run, and thus the “type” (operating system ) of your tablet, you can begin considering the different form factors for your new device . Form factor refers to the shape, size and physical features of a computing device.  We now have a plethora of different tablet form factors: 10”, 8”,  7” and 5 1/2” screens;   front facing and / or back facing cameras;  optional attached keyboards; the list is almost endless.

There is no one “right” form factor. The reality is that whatever device you think will work best for you is the right one. However, I would strongly encourage you to ensure that whatever device you procure has the capability of running a 3G wireless data connection, or alternatively you should be looking to procure a 3G wireless hotspot (we’ll discuss this more later) since you want to be accessing your applications and data while on the road.  A simple question you can ask is, will this tablet slipped neatly into my bag or the glove box of my truck when I am travelling?

Another thing that you will need to check is the battery life of the device. IPads give you about eight hours of battery life. Galaxy tablets will give you anywhere between 4 and 10 hours of battery life, depending upon the make and model. Windows 8 tablets tend to have the same battery life as Ultrabooks – around 6 hours. If you plan to be using your tablet extensively during the day, or alternatively using it over several days while on a trip, then you may wish to consider a tablet that has better battery life, often at the expense of computing power.

Finally, tablets have had a massive impact on the computer market. This year we have seen a 14% decrease in desktop and notebook sales globally as tablets have taken over! However, we are just in the first few years of this revolution. Tablet devices will get increasingly more powerful and more flexible over the next few years. So if you do buy a tablet today, be prepared for it to be superseded tomorrow. This is not a bad thing, but I don’t want you to have buyer’s remorse. When you buy a tablet you should think of it as a disposable piece of office equipment, much like a pen or writing pad. Tablets don’t last as long as desktop PCs or notebooks, and the market is changing every day. So treat them as a business expense rather than a business asset. And then start taking advantage of the mobility and flexibility they give you for running your business.

Buying a New Personal Computer

Kascha Sweeney

In the vast majority of small businesses, there is a plethora of desktop and laptop computers lying around.  While some of these computers may be relatively new, the bulk of them will be about 100 years old.  Small businesses rarely dispose of ageing computer equipment, even if it is barely workable.  The mantra “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is alive and well.  Unfortunately, what many small businesses do not realise is that after a computer has reached the five year mark, it is not only technically decrepit (when compared to the latest models), but also has a much higher chance of failure.  And it is not the cost of the computer that is the problem.  When failures happen, it is the cost of lost data and lost time as staff scurry around trying to get a replacement and recover documents and important information.

I strongly advise you to take a look around your office and identify any desktop computers that are more than five years old.  Likewise, look for any laptops that are more than three years old.  These computers should be replaced.  Even if these are still working, they are risk to your business.

The question now becomes what sort of computer will you replace these ageing systems with?  That all depends upon the job that these computers are performing.  

When examining your desktop computers  you should ask yourself, “Am  I tied to the office because I need to come in and work on this particular computer?”  For example, the desktop  that holds the accounting information is often an anchor for business managers, forcing them to come back to the office.  In these situations, you may wish to consider replacing the desktop computer with a laptop or ultrabook.  While laptop computers do not last as long as desktop computers (as discussed in our previous article)  they deliver the flexibility to run your business, no matter where you are.

However, there are some functions in your business where desktops will be essential.  For example, dedicated printing solutions, point of sales terminals or computers connected to special equipment. In these cases, desktop computers are certainly the way to go.

When buying either portable or desktop computers, there are a couple of key technology factors for you to consider.

The CPU, or Central Processing Unit, or simply the Processor.  This is the “brains” of the computer.  If you’re buying a Windows device, then you have the option of two brands of CPU (Intel or AMD).  Either brand is fine.  For the majority of business tasks, every new laptop or desktop computer has a CPU that is many times more powerful than required.  Don’t get carried away with trying to buy the biggest and fastest processor for your business machines.  For example, you may see a laptop computer offered with an “i5” processor or the newer, faster “i7” processor.  Unless you plan to be editing videos or playing video games, the i5 will do just fine.  

However, one thing you may want to look for is the number of “cores” in the processor.  These days, computer CPUs are actually a stack of multiple processors, allowing them to perform multiple calculations simultaneously.  Typically you will be purchasing “dual cores” (two embedded processors), but you can also be offered “quad core” (four processes.)  Don’t let all of this technical mumbo jumbo confuse you.  Dual cores are more than enough for running accounting packages, web pages, editing, and even calculation hungry applications like “Dragon speaking naturally” which lets you  control your computer and type by voice!  However, if you do plan on using multimedia applications or graphics and intensive applications, quad core CPUs are helpful.

RAM, or Random Access Memory, is the short term memory of your computer.  While many people think that it is the speed of the CPU that gives the biggest performance boosts to their computer, it is actually a combination of RAM and disk speed that makes the biggest difference.  The more RAM you have, the faster the performance of many applications.

Where possible, try and obtain a minimum of 4 GB of RAM when purchasing a new desktop or laptop computer.  This is more than enough memory for the majority of business applications, but still gives you enough room to run the more intensive applications should you install them in the coming years.

Hard drives.  Hard drives are where you store your long-term information, where you place your files and databases, and where you installed applications. And the selection of hard drives is where things get really interesting!  

Traditionally, computer Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) have been used in both laptops and computers. These consist of magnetic disks that spin at very high speeds.  These drives provide incredibly high storage capacity at very low cost.  However, because these mechanical hard drives are based upon moving parts, they are extremely slow compared to the rest of the computer.  While CPU and RAM function at the speed of electrons, hard disk drives are bound by the spinning of rotating parts.  As a result, the vast majority of a computers’ performance is actually determined by the speed of their hard disk drives.

Solid-State Drives  (or SSDs) are an alternative to the traditional mechanical hard drive technology mentioned above.  SSD’s do not use moving parts, but instead utilise special silicon chips to store information.  In many ways they are a bit like RAM, but they do not lose information with a power is turned off.  The result is that SSDs can store and deliver information orders of magnitudes faster than HDDs.  Unfortunately, SSDs are also much more expensive than HDDs.

Over the last few years, solid-state drives have begun to be embedded in laptop computers.  The benefits have been lower power usage (which means the laptop battery will last longer) and an almost “instant on” capability.  You can take less than three seconds to start a laptop with an SSD, compared to the 30 or even 40 seconds for a similar device with an HDD!   

When purchasing a new computer, you should balance the opportunity to obtain a solid-state drive with how much memory that device needs to store.  The absolute minimum drive capacity should be 120 Gigabytes (120GBs).  However, if you plan to store a many photographs, video, or even a large numbers of spread sheets and databases, then you probably be looking at a drive above the 500 GB range.  Solid-state drives are relatively affordable in the 120 GB and lower range, but get incredibly expensive if you go above this capacity.

So, when you’re looking to buy a new computer it’s going to be a balance between cost, speed, and storage capacity.  If your computer needs to be switched on quickly, go for the lower capacity but higher speed SSDs.  If your computer is more likely to be turned on at the beginning of the day and left running, then an SSD is of less importance, and you can opt for the slower speed but high-capacity HDDs.

When buying a new computer, it is also worth considering screen size.  These days, 23 inch flat screens are relatively inexpensive for desktop computers.  And in the vast majority of cases, a single 23 inch screen is more than enough for a small business environment.  You may even wish to go for a slightly smaller screen to save desk space.  If you’re the sort of person who thinks bigger is always better, then you can look towards the larger monitors, but costs climb rapidly as you move past the 23 inch size.

With Ultrabooks and laptops, there is a temptation to look for the largest screen.  However, in these situations, bigger does not mean better.  Remember, the larger the screen, the more power needed and thus the shorter the battery life.  If you plan to use your laptop or alter book on a desk, the majority of the time, this is not such a big concern.  If you plan to be truly portable with your device and use it while on aeroplanes or while driving around visiting clients, then it may be better to go for a slightly smaller model with a longer overall battery life.

The above provides you with some of the technical ins and outs when looking for a new computer.  But where do you get your computer from?  Quite frankly, you do not have time to go to a computer shop and hunt around and “be sold” the latest gizmo.  Instead, I strongly recommend that all small businesses buy their computers prebuilt and pre-installed from one of the name brands’ online stores, or alternatively from a national retail chain. The deals are cheap, delivery is easy and, importantly, the devices are backed by solid warranties.  

When I’m looking to buy a new computer, I generally look to the following websites. Based on my experience with their technologies and service, I have rated these providers from one to five stars.

Direct from Vendors

Dell:  http://www.dell.com.au/     *****

Apple:  www.apple.com/au *****

HP: http://www8.hp.com/au/en/home.html ****

Lenovo: http://www.lenovo.com/au/en/  ***

Acer: http://www.acer.com.au/ac/en/AU/content/home  *

Major Retailers

JB Hi-Fi: http://www.jbhifi.com.au/  ***

Harvey Norman:  http://www.harveynorman.com.au  **


What Device is Right for Your Core Business Functions?

Kascha Sweeney

Take a look around your office.  Pay particular attention to the computers that are running your key business functions, such as accounting and sales.  If you’re anything like 90% of the businesses I have encountered, the most important functions within your business will be running on the oldest computers.  And for a very good reason: your core business software was the stuff that was installed in the very early days, and moving the software from one computer to another is usually outside the capability of most small business owners.  The fact is that the most important software for our businesses usually run on the oldest, and most failure prone, hardware.  

If we are going to modernise your business, one of the things that we need to address is this problem.  How do you make sure that the most important software is always available on the most reliable hardware?  And while we are at it, it may also be a good idea to examine if we need this software running on more than one device, for more than one person, or even available to you when you are outside of the office.

The good news is, there are now many new forms of computing devices and new ways of accessing  software, that mitigate the problems. Imagine being able to simply pick up an outdated and failing desktop computer, throw it out, then plonk down a new device and start working on your accounts or sales almost immediately… all without having to install lots of software or worrying about what files were saved where.  Achieving this capability is one of our aims for this series… but getting to this small business nirvana involves some smart choices.

The first of these choices is to consider what sort of computing device will replace the current desktop. There is now so much to choose from!

Over the past few years – and the last 12 months in particular -  we have seen many new types of light, highly portable devices come on the market.  iPads, smartphones, e-book readers, Android tablets, netbooks, ultra-thin notebooks, touch-screen flip-tops, are all examples of the myriad of new devices hitting the market.  While all of these devices a wonderful and have their place, not all will be right for YOU or your business.

Before we talk about how you choose, let’s do a stocktake of what computing devices are now available, and the benefits and limitations of each.

Desktops: These are the traditional computers that sit under or on top of your desk and they are not exactly portable. The price gap between desktop computers and laptops has closed considerably, so cost is no longer really an issue when choosing between a desktop and a laptop.  However, a desktop computer will generally outlast laptops (and all other mobile devices) by several years, making them cheaper in the long run. They also can have much larger screens, making them easier and more comfortable to use for long hours. Of course, their big drawback is they are fixed to a single spot.

Laptops and notebooks:  Laptops, or notebooks, have merged to be more or less the same sort of device, although notebook computers (with screens around 15”) are often slightly smaller than their laptop counterparts (with screens up to 17”).  Laptops and notebooks no longer sacrifice computing power for portability when compared to desktops and it is fair to say that all are more than capable of performing all of the important functions of a small business. Their real advantage is that you can take a laptop home or on the road, so running your business can be done from anywhere.  Unfortunately, laptops are far more prone to be broken or fail than a desktop (precisely because they are mobile).

Netbooks: Netbooks are miniature portable computers, with keyboards that are between 75% and 85% of the size of a standard keyboard, and with small, lower power screens. Their small size makes them very easy to carry around, yet also makes them a little difficult to work on. But they are cheap! Frankly, I would keep clear of a netbook for running important business software, because the ultrabook is a far better option…

Ultrabooks:  Ultrabooks are a relatively new breed of mobile computer. They leverage the design improvements of tablet computers (thin, bright screens, lightning-fast solid-state drives, etc), but retain all of the power of a laptop. The result is a full-function computer that can run business software well, that starts up immediately (like a tablet) and that is very portable. The downside is that they are expensive and less sturdy than a desktop.

Tablets:  Tablet computers, made famous by the iPad, are computing devices that have no keyboard. Instead, they have a touch-sensitive screen and, when needed, will display a keyboard overlay on the screen.  Tablet computers are not designed for performing complex tasks, but rather for consuming and interacting with information.  They are bit like a really smart, interactive book-slash-video-library.  In addition to iPads and Android tablets, there are now powerful tablets that can run the Windows 8 operating system, making them fully compatible with all Windows desktop software.  

The main benefit of a tablet device is that it is ‘always on’ and always with you. The downside is that they tend to be insufficient for running traditional business applications (like MYOB), but this limitation is fading as Windows 8 tablets become more popular, and as more software moves away from being installed on the device itself (ie. Cloud computing).  Another problem is that doing serious business work (typing and data entry) on a tablet is not exactly a pleasant experience, nor efficient. Tablets  are best at providing access to information, not creating it.

Convertables: These interesting computers are part-ultrabook-part-tablet. They have a touch sensitive screen that can stand upright and be used with a built in keyboard, turning the device into a laptop computer. Or the screen can fold down flat, or be separated from the keyboard, turning the device into a tablet computer.  The benefit is that they are almost as portable as a tablet, but can quickly convert to become more like an unltrabook or laptop when serious keyboard and data entry is required.

While all of this new, mobile, cheap computing power is all fine and dandy, the real question is, “Which type of device is best for running your important business functions?” To answer this question, first consider the following:

 

1.      How do I wish to work in the future?

2.      How and where will I expect my staff to work in the future?

3.      What are the important business functions I need to run, where should the business software that supports these functions be run, versus where should it be accessed from?

 

The first two questions force you to think about what is possible with the new realm of mobile devices now available. Don’t get hung up about the technology when thinking about these two questions… think about what you want and what may be possible.  For example, some businesses require you to be physically present on site to inspect deliveries or to manage production. But what if all the accounting and admin could be done from home, or by a bookkeeper who would not need to physically drive out to your office?  Would that make life easier?  Would it make the business more robust?

Next, after you have thought about how you want to work within your business, comes a consideration of the software.  The majority of small businesses in Australia use software that is installed and run on your computer (what we geeks called a ‘fat client). Later in this series, I will discuss the possibility of selecting software that is not installed on your computer, but that runs in the cloud.  Applications that run in the cloud have the advantage that they can be accessed from many different devices, without the need to copy files around.  My advice is for you to stop thinking about “software that you install” and start thinking about “what you want to do, and where you want to do it.”

After thinking about the software you need, match it up against the different devices available to you.  If there is a task you absolutely have to do - such as working with Excel spreadsheets - and a particular device does not do that well, then clearly that device is not for you!

Does size really matter?  If you want to have a full “desktop computing” experience in your pocket, forget about it.  The reality is that very small mobile devices, like tablet computers, not only lend themselves to a different way of working, but require it.  It’s all about screen size: you will not be able comfortably type up reports or do complex tasks on a device with a tiny screen and no keyboard.  No matter how powerful portable devices get, there will always be a trade-off in terms of functionality due to the fact that our big, clunky hands are not getting any smaller!  That is not to say to that portable devices are not useful; but they are useful in a different way to a full desktop or laptop computer.

Once you have answered the above questions, you will have a better understanding of what sort of device you need. In fact, many people end up having multiple devices: a desktop or laptop for complex office work, and a tablet for work on the go.

In our next article, we will examine what technical features you should look for when buying a desktop computer, laptop or ultrabook should you decide either of these devices is right for your business. And in later articles, we will examine selection criteria for tablets and convertables. For now, think about the three questions we’ve raised in this article and consider what sort of devices will best fit your needs.