A Quick Guide to IT Systems for Start-ups and SMEs

The next post in our series of guides for start-ups and small businesses focuses on IT, a topic of central importance that sits at the heart of all modern companies, regardless of their industry. 
Because IT is so important nowadays, it means it's imperative that companies get the right systems, hardware and software in place to ensure they don't suffer from dreaded 'downtime' and have room to manoeuvre when they grow. But that's difficult if you don't know the first thing about IT. 
Thankfully, Darren Kirby, managing director of Rockford IT, has shared his expertise on the subject. Darren has worked in IT for 13 years, working for the likes of NetSoft and DayMen International before moving to head up Rockford IT. There his responsibilities are to provide direction and support to enable and empower the team to meet their customers' needs and company growth ambitions. 
One of the first things start-ups need to consider is who will be their IT manager, and the skills and experience they require. It's crucial that they 'get' IT - understanding the role technology plays as a business enabler is key. They need to be technical enough to understand technology and support it, but they should understand the business needs and what is important to the company. With this they will understand the impact of a user who can’t work and be able to translate technical jargon into user friendly speak. It’s no good having a technically perfect solution that cost a lot of money and delivers no commercial value, or a project delivered late. They need have a good fit with the company, in a small team you need someone has a positive impact on the team who, shares the same ethos and values. 

Enterprise IT To Do List

There are a number of things that need to be on a business owner's to do list when it comes to enterprise IT:  
  1. Have a vision - get out and about and see what is possible and how IT can improve your business performance.  
  2. Create a business strategy that joins up the business plan with an IT strategy.  
  3. Plan how you will achieve your vision. 
  4. Find the right suppliers. Find suppliers who understand your vision and can add value.  
  5. Get the basics right first. Just like building a house, get the foundations right first and everything else works. Get the network infrastructure right, servers, networking and connectivity. They give you a solid platform to do everything else.   

Common IT Mistakes Made by SMEs

That list is what you should do, but what shouldn't you do? One of the biggest mistakes that I regularly see made by SMEs is being tempted by the false economy of cost saving. IT is often seen a just a cost, especially infrastructure. While we have to control costs carefully in a business, the art is buying good solutions at the right price. As with anything in life, you get what you pay for. A good example of this is buying cheap printers. They break, mis-feed paper and people spend ten minutes a day-plus making them work again. Over a year you have lost 43 hours - over one working week - just making the printer work. Time costs money. Investing a little bit more in the right technology, in this case the printer, can save many hours. With core infrastructure it is even more important - when it stops, everyone in the company stops working.  

IT Budgets

So, what should a start-up's IT budget be? Keeping the above in mind, the budget should be as small as possible. Cash is always a challenge for any start-up company, spending large sums of money on capital equipment is the quickest way to go bust before you’ve got off the ground. There are many great IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) solutions often badged up as Cloud solutions, allowing subscription-based services, which scale with your needs. These can give you the best-in-class service for a small monthly-per-user fee. For micro businesses there are many great free platforms like Google Docs and Dropbox and mobile apps and collaboration tools, which can be great enablers to get you started with little cost.

Safe and Secure

It has taken years for people to understand the need for anti-virus and anti-spam software, along with the importance of keeping on top of Windows and other application updates, and this is now the accepted norm. These are now old hat in the word of IT security. New types of attacks have become more much complex, creating a new problem called zero day attacks. When a new virus is realised in our highly connected world it can spread in minutes, while it can take hours or days for the antivirus companies to create a fix. This time difference creates a window of opportunity for the virus writers. The solution is using APT (Advance Threat Protection) on your firewalls - this identifies threats in a different way and gives you zero day protection. Other changes are module device users and BYOD. Working from your favourite coffee shop is a great use of time before a client meeting. But while you are connected to the free Wi-Fi you are insecurely transmitting company data and anyone can “listen” and intercept confidential data. Seek advice and guidance on how to ensure you are protected from security professionals. The good news is there are many inexpensive solutions to protect your world.  

Biggest IT Threats for Small Businesses

That said, data security is the biggest risk to small businesses when it comes to IT. We live in an information age - the saying “knowledge is power” has never been more appropriate. What happens if your company loses your customer list, order information, or current debtor list? How will you get cash in? Or send products/services to you customers? Protecting your data is a big subject, which we can’t do justice to here. Key areas to consider include: 
  • DR (Disaster recovery) and BCP (Business Continuity Planning) - This used to be solely the reserve of blue chip companies. Many people think DR is just about what happens if there is fire, and they then think "it will never happen to me". What about the key file which someone deletes in error? Or the laptop which gets stolen with the new product information on? DR / BCP does not have to be expensive or complex, but a mind-set and a few basic steps to protect data go a long way in an SME. 
  • Data Security - Make sure you have a good backup of your critical information, and that you know who has access to this information. If a single file is deleted by accident in the middle of the day, can you recover it? 
  • System Security - Who can login and are the antivirus and patches up-to date? Consider APT protection as discussed above, as well as secure remote working.