Friday, May 12, 2006

Cool small business solutions

I took a tangent while researching and have seen the future of IT for small businesses. In a small business or organization, it can be expensive to implement some of the technology used by large organizations. An entrepreneur will be focusing on survival rather than maintaining servers and other hardware. In a small business, hiring the work out to a contractor or having an IT staffer can be equally expensive. Collaboration and systematic communication make it possible for big organizations to do things much more efficiently.This isn't related to life in the Rio Grande Valley. It's more along the lines of geeky stuff that excites me. If you're a small business person or need to keep people on your team on the same page, this may help you learn about some possibilities.

In my experience with networks and productivity software, I have found that a MS Outlook type program is very helpful when it comes to collaboration on projects. You can automatically check somebody's schedule and request an appointment in an open slot; you can assign tasks; and so much more. If you are using Outlook without the Exchange Server, you don't have access to many cool features that allow the big guys to wipe the floor with you. Outlook by itself is helpful, but you can unleash so many more features by adding the Exchange server.

Another cool thing that the big businesses have are PBX systems. These are the phone systems that allow you to transfer calls between extensions, have multiple location rings, voicemail, and allow you to put somebody on hold while somebody else picks up the line. It can be relatively expensive for a small business to implement a PBX system. The best you may be able to do is have the call roll over to an open line if the main line is busy. You may also be able to set up an answering machine or forward calls to an answering service. These are hardly clean cut communication solutions. It's basically a patchwork of solutions rather than a unified system like a PBX.

The only thing a small business needs to open the door to technical solutions is a broadband connection with a good firewall. Cable, for instance offers fast internet service and is now selling phone services. DSL may also fit the bill nicely. Satellite is fast, but the lag could be a problem. Whatever broadband solution you have, it opens the door for you to have an affordable and robust communication system like the big guys.

Now it is possible to hire out the administration of a MS Exchange server. For about $15 a month or less per user, you can have a hosting company set up and maintain your Exchange services. This means that you don't have to own a server and shell out a few hundred dollars to buy the software. You don't have to pay a geek to come in and set up your system or make adjustments whenever your needs change. You don't have to remember or pay somebody to remember to come back-up your system. Your monthly subscription includes all of that. AND, you don't have to buy End User Licenses for each of your employees. Imagine buying a copy of Outlook for each of your employees. At a couple hundred dollars a hit, it can really hurt. The hosting companies include an EUL and copy of Outlook free of charge. It's part of your monthly fee. For a small business, a hosted Exchange server is a great equalizer.

What about the PBX? Well, now there are software solutions for PBX systems. There are phones that connect to a computer network and communicate using VOIP. In some systems, you have a server that acts as the brain and you buy extensions for each of your employees. The server basically routes calls according to what you set up on a browser interface. This is neat and more flexible than having separate phone and computer network cables. All you do is run network cables for all your needs. Lately, with the popularity of VOIP, there are solutions that function like the Exchange hosting. Your PBX is hosted outside of your business and routed to your individual extensions. You can even have a receptionist control panel. You manage your system over a browser. You would then have access to the same features as a large business with a PBX system, except yours is virtual. You would have call forwarding, voicemail, call transfers, multiple location ringing, and other features that can be managed over the Internet. What is even better is that if you have broadband connection at home, you take your handset with you and plug it in. You can make, receive, and transfer calls as if you were at work. Your clients would not know the difference.Even better is that you really don't even need an office to do these things. As long as all your "employees" have broadband service, you can enjoy the same conveniences across the country that you would enjoy down the hall. If you have a sales rep in Brownsville working from home, you can transfer the call from McAllen just by dialing the extension. Here is a service that offers this convenience.

The Internet has revolutionized the way we live our lives in this day and age. But, it was not a complete solution. What has rounded off the convenience of the Internet is the surge in Internet broadband service. Without high speed connections, the Internet would only be a source of information. Broadband has made the Internet a valuable cost-saving resource and equalizer. You no longer have to buy and maintain systems like the large businesses do. You can now rent these services at a fraction of the cost and enjoy the same benefits.

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