Surviving and thriving in an increasingly hi-tech business world
Home-based offices and small businesses are increasingly dependent on a rapidly changing network of websites, marketing, e-finance, social media, browsers, web traffic and various kinds of software, applications, and tools.
The average business computer runs a version of Microsoft Office which includes Word and Excel. For many years, the Outlook email program was the standard for combining emails, contacts, and calendar functionality. But now, with the increased internet speed, online services such as Gmail, Google Apps, and Google Drive provide access to the same information from almost any network device (i.e. tablets and phones) without Outlook. For accounting, software like Quickbooks goes beyond bookkeeping to manage invoicing, payroll, taxes, bill payment, and deposits – all online.
But no home office or small business can afford to neglect computer security. No computer should be hooked up to the Internet without robust virus protection. In my opinion, the built-in protection from Microsoft (Windows Defender) is not adequate. Go with one of the main antivirus programs, and try not to fall for the “fake” antivirus scams or remote login scams. And remember: “Microsoft will never call you to tell you that your system has security issues.” If someone tries this, hang up.
If you still encounter issues, contact a local, trusted person for help. A good practice to remember is to make sure your software (including the operating system) and hardware is up-to-date. Recently millions of routers and other wireless devices became easily hackable due to a security flaw. In this case, you need to upgrade the “firmware” in your router in order to eliminate the threat. Additional cleanup and tuneup software, such as Malwarebytes and CCleaner, are helpful but be careful about the source for your download – always get it from their main websites, otherwise you might download stuff you don’t want or need.
But none of these measures will keep your data completely secure, if you don’t protect it with solid passwords and back-ups. Strong passwords should have at least 12 characters which appear to be a completely random arrangement of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Never use the same password for multiple sites.
And there is no such thing as too many back-ups. There are various types of backups; many are “in the cloud.” Backups are your only hope in worst case scenarios. The worst type of computer virus can lock your data with a military grade encryption and then hold it ransom for payment of, let’s say, half a bitcoin. If you pay, you are supposed to receive a program to decrypt your file but this is an expensive risky fix. I recommend you perform at least one backup on a local external hard drive which should be disconnected afterwards. Otherwise, an encryption virus might infect all accessible drives, including your online ones.
Do you want to Improve the performance of your business technology? If so, bigger hard drives are needed to handle increasing data loads. The largest drive currently on the market is 12TB (equal to 2.5 million times the text of the Bible in plain text format). Consider replacing your computer’s old “normal hard drive” with a solid state drive (with no moving parts), for a significant speed boost. This new type of drive is especially good in laptops, since they use less power and, in case of a drop, are less likely to break.
How can internet-based technology help your home office and business? To reach the most people possible, you need to be savvy with Internet-based services. Depending on your business, you may want to invest in an attractive revenue-driven website. Presence on social media has become equally important. But if you don’t have time for posting new content on Facebook, Twitter, etc., you can outsource this chore for a monthly fee.
To keep up with the speed of online sales and information, you also need the fastest provider and desktops, laptops, or tablets available. I was recently excited to learn Comcast is now delivering Gigabit speed in Fauquier. Fast internet will make remote logins into your office from the road or at home much more enjoyable. Also consider a Voice Over IP (VOIP) telephone system. It uses your internet to make and receive phone calls and can be arranged to handle multiple simultaneous calls through just one official phone number. You can even forward calls to your cell phone and make calls from your private cell phone without revealing your personal mobile number.
Despite all of these technology opportunities, I still believe the personal approach is necessary to distinguish small businesses in the cyber world. Recently, while visiting one of our local retail clients, I was surprised to hear the business is closing. One thing the owner told me kept going through my mind: “We became the showroom for the Internet.” When I asked him what he meant I was told: “People come into the store find some things they like, take a photo, and go home to order it cheaper online.” Another local business shared to compete with the online retail options the local store promotes products which are not available online and offer bundled deals, such as apparel that needs to be customized in person.
So what can local, small businesses do to survive and thrive in an increasingly online world? Small Business Saturday is a good start, but it might be better if it were not sandwiched between the two biggest sales events (black Friday and cyber Monday) of the year. Businesses may also benefit from promoting their neighborhood and collaborating in events which bring more foot traffic and clients to each other, such as fairs, festivals, and 1st Friday Warrenton.
Target your online marketing and entice clients to visit your shop. I think most people still prefer to deal with a live person and are willing to pay a bit more to be able to ask questions, talk through possibilities, and learn more about your products and services.