Getting IT right. Small businesses gain top-notch tech solutions with outside expertise.
by Jerry Davich
It all started in the early 1980s for Jeremy Carnahan, with a Tandy 1000 SX that his parents bought for their Shell service station.
While spending plenty of time drawing pictures in the paint program, found within DeskMate, he also learned everything possible about the files on the MS-DOS boot disk. By the late '80s he was completely immersed in the bulletin board system culture, downloading shareware programs, playing online games and chatting with local “BBS” users. A few years later, he built a computer strictly to run a BBS.
“The experience taught me quite a bit about user management because of the various personality types of our user base,” he recalls. “These days I spend time learning about new technologies and how they can integrate with our clients as well as our own business.”
These days he serves as president and CEO of Impact Solutions in Valparaiso, which first booted up in 2011 with cofounder Chris Deehan.
“Our intent was to provide our clients with all of the benefits of an enterprise-grade IT department without all the hassle and high cost of staffing one internally,” he says. “Our service offering is unlike other IT providers in that it includes everything necessary to allow our clients to focus on the growth of their business.”
This is crucial for small businesses in the Digital Age, which puts new 21st century demands on traditional 20th century challenges. Most small businesses must now also deal with the high-wire balancing act over software and hardware pitfalls. Information technology firms, such as Impact Solutions and many others in Northwest Indiana, provide these businesses with a much needed virtual safety net.
“Our goal with each client is to delve deeply into their business to determine what each person's specific needs are and address them accordingly,” Carnahan says.
Gavin Bristol, sales engineer for NITCO, says more small businesses are embracing social media while using customer relationship management (CRM) software to ensure customer satisfaction.
“Happy customers lead to more sales whether you sell tires or have a plumbing business,” he says. “Follow-up and marketing are two areas where I see businesses looking for better IT solutions to keep track of those things and improve them.”
The biggest challenge for any IT company is to educate business owners about the necessity of using the latest technology, Bristol says.
“Most IT companies find that due to lack of knowledge or understanding, they are most often an afterthought in the mind of a small business,” Bristol says. “Being proactive, not reactive, about IT challenges is the best way to keep ahead of issues, and often less expensive in the long run.”
Tim Bucher, president of Buchertech in Valparaiso, says this business need has continually evolved over the past 30 years.
“While back in the early PC days many businesses did not operate computers, this would be hard to find today,” he says.
Through the years, different tools have arisen to make businesses more productive: Word processing and spreadsheets in the 1980s; email, networking, accounting and databases in the 1990s; virtualization, graphics programs and other applications in the 2000s; and internet-based systems, such as online marketing via social media, as well as various “cloud” solutions since 2010.
Bucher, who oversees a staff of 15, focuses on providing small businesses with the IT tools that large companies use to make them more competitive in the marketplace. One of those tools helps keep businesses safe from the rising dangers of the internet.
“If you would go back in computing 25 years, you would see virtually zero security products in place,” he says. “Now, even small businesses should have the following protections: high-quality firewalls, anti-virus and anti-malware programs, patch management, and spam blockers.
Not to mention what's called “physical security,” including a password protection system, ongoing backups that are image based to replace a compromised network, an ongoing methodology of educating and reminding users to practice “careful computing.”
“Most important is planning, protecting, improving and understanding IT in the business context of risk and reward,” says Stephen Massa, senior partner for Golden Tech, which has offices in South Bend and Valparaiso.
Such risk-management should include being hyper aware of potential threats and security breaches. Consider what is actively protecting your company, and what type of recovery system will get you back to business if needed.
“Efficiency items for the small business make the difference between breaking even or growing your business, in most cases,” he says. “These are about automating the processes and workflows so that sales, operations and finance are friendly to each other, even in a very small business.”
Also keep in mind accessibility to needed information in static equipment, mobile devices, and communication efficiency amongst coworkers, partners, vendors and the customer-facing environment. The goal should be devices that give what you need as simply and quickly, whether it's a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone or other media.
“The most obvious standard needs are a website, email and other items you would expect any legitimate business to have in this day and age,” Massa says. “Next generation items are differentiators for a business. These give a competitive edge to the early adopter over the business that is late to the game or never shows up.”
These technologies can take the small business to a new level. For example, a 3D printer can show customers what a product will look like at delivery.
“No need to retool your shop to make a single item,” Massa says. “Simply use a 3D printer that costs a few hundred bucks, then make your revisions to the final design in no time.”
More small businesses than ever before are looking to leverage the digital cloud in an effort to reduce their capital investment, increase efficiency and expand services to both employees and their customers, says Chris Kotul, division manager of Chester Inc. Information Technologies in Valparaiso.
Services from Microsoft, such as Azure and Office 365, give small and medium business owners the flexibility to work from anywhere on any device, reduce their investment in expensive hardware, and ensure their data is backed up and secure.
The business world has been overwhelmed with reports of hacks at high-profile organizations such Home Depot, Target, Anthem and even the U.S. government. But those types of focused, high-profile attacks are actually quite rare in the cyber-crime world, Kotul says.
“What's much more common are everyday opportunistic attacks against small and medium businesses resulting in millions of dollars of loss and many businesses having to close their doors for good,” he says.
“Every day we work with small business owners and managers who have tried to take care of their IT needs on their own, to save a few bucks,” Kotul says. “What they may not realize is that saving a few bucks in the beginning often results in a big expense later on down the road.”
“You don't have to do it alone, and you don't have to pay Chicago dollars to get quality advice and service,” says Kotul, whose firm has been providing IT services to businesses in Northwest Indiana since 1981.
In contrast, many younger IT firms are saturating this region, most of them catering to smaller businesses while also being able to handle larger firms.
“Businesses of all sizes are continuing to increase how much they leverage IT programs to not only expand their reach in the market, but to make how they do business more efficient,” says Kyle Neal, co-owner and principal support engineer for the tech startup Region Technology Solutions, which employs seven workers.
“Small businesses in particular are beginning to see the need for websites, e-commerce stores, and a solid IT infrastructure in order to make their businesses thrive,” Neal says. “The surge in the small business area is because the generation that grew up with computers is becoming the entrepreneurs we are now encountering. And also because, as a society, we are becoming more and more dependent on technology.”
One of the biggest challenges for his firm, as well as other IT firms, is reaching an agreeable “price point” with clients, one they can afford.
“Most small businesses sacrifice security, reliability and redundancy because they purchase items intended for the home market,” Neal says. “Features such as multiple disk drives, secure access points, firewalls, and fully maintained and warrantied equipment get overlooked due to the desire to cut costs.
“Small businesses need to realize that their data is their business. If anything happens to their disks or a backup device, their data is at risk and that means their business is at risk.”
Carnahan, from Impact Solutions, agrees, noting that too many small business owners employ the old “break/fix” model.
“This means that the client not only suffers from downtime when an issue arises, they also receive a bill for their pain and suffering,” he says. “To add to that, when asked what their budget is for IT, most business owners respond with ‘We don't have a budget for IT.' Lucky for them, we take care of everything once trust has been built.”
Bucher suggests the first thing to do is consult with an IT professional, even for an appraisal of your needs.
“While you may well be able to create your own IT system, there are far too many areas of expertise needed to do it well,” he says. “While you might well create a network and be able to use it, the odds are very small that you have put into place the many safeguards and procedures necessary without assistance.”
Bristol echoes what every IT expert already knows all too well.
“Some small business owners are very reluctant to call for help, and they will get six different ‘techie' guys to look at an issue before calling a professional,” he says.
Bucher likens this common problem to a car without a spare tire.
“Yes, it can drive along just fine and, on appearance, it may look fine. However, when that car has a flat tire on a lonely highway is when clients realize that proper safeguards were not put in place,” he says.