Starting and running a successful small, home or online business these days means that you are going to have to rely on technology to handle most things - if not everything.
There isn't a single aspect of the modern business that doesn't have software, online software, cloud solutions, or innovative hardware and gadgets to save time, streamline processes, maximize efficiency, and save on costs.
The problem, especially for first time business owners, is knowing which technology is the right one for your company, and how to use it effectively to ensure that it provides value and/or good returns.
This article provides a bird's eye overview of the world of business technology with a focus on helping SMEs and online businesses understand their options to make better choices.
Business software is undergoing a massive change from the traditional method of selling software packages that you buy at a store, to selling online software (cloud based) subscriptions.
The problem with traditional software is that it is essentially out of date within a year. Support and services gets more and more expensive, and it becomes costly to keep upgrading (or even migrating to new systems entirely).
Having to buy software for your office is no longer something you should take for granted either - especially if you want to keep with the times.
Instead, look to online software services that can allow you to store company data safely and securely while accessing it from anywhere at any time.
Online software has the added advantage that it helps remote workers in distributed workplaces (useful if you want to attract the right people with work-from-home job opportunities).
In addition, before you choose any software package, it is worth taking time to explore alternatives. For example, Microsoft Outlook has been the standard in small office email for years - but there are open source alternatives like Thunderbird, freely available service like Gmail, and even Office 365 (cloud based office software from Microsoft).
Finally, it's also worth noting that cloud based, online software has the additional advantage of being flexible when it comes to integrating with other business software applications.
This opens up new opportunities for automation and increased efficiency - think along the lines of integrating your eCommerce payment handling facilities with an online accounting solution so that reports, tax and other administrative tasks can be managed in real time.
As fast as software moves, the Internet evolves even quicker. New technologies pop up faster than you can keep your finger on them as user trends chop and change.
Currently, the entire Internet is undergoing a metamorphosis into a mobile technology with more people accessing it from smart devices than traditional PCs.
Web development platforms and tools have come to the point where traditional software, like CMS (Content Management Systems), are not really a viable option. The development cycle for traditional website platforms often means that whatever version you use will require expensive upgrades and patches down the line - within a couple of years.
Not only that, but downloading and developing with a website framework requires a fair amount of technical knowledge and experience - which is not something business owners necessarily want to invest time in.
Once the site is developed, the next step is to find a quality Web hosting service to provide server resources and bandwidth for the site. This can be a difficult, frustrating and expensive exercise.
Fortunately, there is a way around this, and millions of startups have latched onto the benefits offered by hosted website builders.
Hosted Website builders
Hosted site builders offer everything required to create and run a live website (regardless of whether it is a professional site, portfolio, community portal, blog, or eCommerce site) - including domains, hosting, Web design, and a raft of other things.
But, the short learning curve for online site builders is only one of the major benefits. The other being the fact that development in hosted site builders is ongoing at no extra cost - so you can be sure your site will always benefit from the latest technologies (such as responsive Web design to support mobile devices).
From a marketing and sales perspective, mail list management and proper email marketing facilities are as important as the website itself.
But, email is responsible for delivering the world's spam, and it is becoming more and more important for genuine businesses to utilize email services that help them communicate with customers and clients (as well as each other) without running into technical and legal problems.
Managing and growing company email lists is one are where I would recommend going straight to a leading provider - there is little chance you will be able to do a good enough job on your own.
While hardware is developing at a tremendous pace, with new innovations and improvements coming online almost daily, there are some really important issues to take note of - before you start investing in expensive items.
Firstly, some hardware has simply become redundant. Expensive telephony and communications systems that require huge PBX installations are no longer needed at all.
Cloud based office communications systems can manage everything with more flexibility and at a fraction of the price - putting enterprise level phone and fax facilities within reach of SMEs.
Not all hardware has become redundant - like PBX systems - but, the value proposition of hardware has changed over the last few years, to the point where buying it may no longer make financial sense.
In the past companies were prepared to make long term investments in hardware because it meant they owned it and weren't subject to long term payments. That's fine, if the hardware retains its value in the long term.
The problem is that hardware, like software, becomes dated very quickly, and the fastest most expensive equipment today may be hopelessly behind the times in a few years.
With that said, don't be put off from buying hardware if you need it. If there is something that will cost a bit upfront, but save man-hours going forward, then do the calculation (i.e. is the time this product saves going to pay for itself?)
Finally, it is also important to look at what the latest trends are. In particular, mobile based technology is making huge strides in the world of commerce - with mobile payment devices making traditional till systems seem a bit antiquated.
Hopefully this summary of how to keep tabs on the rapid pace of change in all spheres of business technology will help you to find and invest in the right tools that will contribute to the success of your company.
What other aspects of technology do you feel are important for startups and entrepreneurs?
Share your thoughts in the comments.