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Small business owners need an online presence to survive these days, but regulating a website becomes difficult when you don’t know a lick of HTML. Targeting this demographic, Intuit has announced the latest upgrade to its Intuit Websites platform, providing tools that make it drop-dead simple to create websites and boost online visibility.
One thing most small and mid-sized businesses will agree upon is the necessity to keep costs down wherever possible — but without comprising the company’s ability to stay productive and competitive. A potentially costly area is in computer software, whether it’s a spreadsheet program, anti-virus protection against malicious threats in cyberspace, or other tools entrepreneurs and businesses might rely upon, including financial applications, online backup, disc burning utilities, or photo editing programs. “It’s a great time to look for free software,” says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research, a New York-based technology advisory firm. “There’s so much available, and quality products, ranging from office suites and Web browsers to image editors and sound recorders.” Office suites They might not offer the same feature set as Microsoft Word and Excel, but downloadable programs such as Sun Microsystems’ open-source OpenOffice.org or online tools including Google Docs & Spreadsheets are no-cost but powerful alternatives for word processing and spreadsheet management. With Google’s offerings, for example, users simply begin a new document or spreadsheet or import an existing one, including .doc, .rtf, .xls, .odt, .ods, and .csv files. You can access your documents and spreadsheets anywhere in the world you’ve got an Internet connection and Web browser — but yes, you need to be online, so you can’t work on a sales report while at 30,000 feet (at least you can sync these files with your BlackBerry, though, to continue working on the plane). “These programs will meet the needs of an average user and are going to do the job really well,” says Gartenberg. “You can do a lot for free.” Gartenberg says, however, that there are drawbacks. “You often need to be connected to the ‘cloud,’” he says, as in cloud computing, in which dumb terminals need a connection to a network of computers to take advantage of more sophisticated functionality. “They might not have all the bells and whistles found in commercial programs. And you don’t necessarily have a vendor to go to for support if you need it.” Online storage Many companies spend hundreds — or hundreds of thousands — of dollars on backup solutions to ensure company information is protected against theft, fire, flood, viruses, power surges, or accidental delete. Depending on the size of your business and the number of files you need to backup, you might opt for online storage, which can help protect from local problems. Microsoft has recently unveiled up to 5 gigabytes (GB) of free storage per month with its new Windows Live SkyDrive. Not only is this password-protected online file storage solution easy to use but you can access your files from any Internet-connected computer in the world, which can prove very handy for you and your traveling employees. Need to send large files to someone? Along with Windows Live SkyDrive, which also offers a “sharing” feature, try the free YouSendIt.com (with or without the Outlook plug-in) to “e-mail” up to 100 megabits (Mb) of data to someone. Anti-virus, anti-spyware Just as you wouldn’t leave your front or backdoor unlocked at home, your office PCs be running without decent anti-virus and anti-spyware protection, respectively. Reliable free options exist, including AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition and Avast! for antivirus protection and Ad-Aware 2008 for spyware. “AVG has a good product for those who want a free alternative to paid software,” says Adam Hils, principal research analyst for security, privacy, and risk at the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. “It might not have as deep a feature set as paid antivirus software but does the job for many people.” Hils mirrors Gartenberg’s cautionary note about the lack of support often found with free software, but advises to look for an online community of users, usually linked or on the product’s webpage, for answers to frequently asked questions and other troubleshooting tips. “Or, in some cases the software is free but the support costs something, which is an option for some businesses,” adds Hils. Money management and more Here are some other free programs you might want to try to help your business meet software needs: While it’s no Quicken or Simply Accounting, small businesses in need of some finance software might want to check out GnuCash, which runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. The program handles the management of customers, vendors and jobs, supports double-entry accounting, and can import QIF and OFX files from other accounting programs. Put down that disc burning software package at your local big box retailer — instead, download JetBee, freebie software that can burn CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, and HD DVDs. Burn commands can be added as a right-click menu option within Windows. If Adobe’s PhotoShop will break the bank but you’re in need of decent photo editing tools, consider Google’s Picasa, Adobe PhotoShop Express or the powerful GIMP. And before you buy a pricey audio recording suite, be sure to try to download and install the amazing — and free — Audacity software.
Suffice it to say, the BlackBerry has become an indispensable tool for millions of small and mid-size businesses, largely in part to its reliable push-mail solution that delivers messages to your phone as soon as they arrive in an inbox. But in order to maintain its competitive edge, the Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion understands it needs to open up its doors to third-party applications to help businesses remain productive while on the go. “There has been phenomenal growth in applications available for the BlackBerry platform,” confirms Tyler Lessard, director of independent software vendor alliances at Research in Motion. “We are signing new partners every day and being approached constantly by people who are looking for ways to increase the mobile capabilities of their applications using the BlackBerry solution.” The following are a few recommended applications that can help you and your employees stay in touch, keep organized and remain competitive, wherever business takes you. Be sure to check with your cell carrier for availability and pricing. TeleNav Rather than purchase a separate GPS unit to help you navigate from point A to B without getting lost, or finding relevant location-based info, a GPS-enabled BlackBerry lets you have it all on one device. Small and mid-size businesses “especially benefit from services like TeleNav because they save on travel time and they reduce the need for road warriors to call in for guidance,” says Carmi Levy, senior vice president for strategic consulting at AR Communications, a Toronto-based marketing communications firm. “[Employees] work more independently, consuming less office time and spending more time in front of customers.” eOffice from DynoPlex eOffice lets you easily access and manage all your documents, wherever and whenever — all stored remotely on your office PC, through a password-protected virtual hard disk on the Internet. As if it were stored locally on the smartphone, you can now retrieve, review, edit, and save documents — such as Microsoft Word or Excel files. “Attachments are an increasingly frequent reality for anyone who sends and receives e-mail, and although the basic BlackBerry OS allows Office files to be viewed, the experience is severely limited,” says Levy. “DynoPlex’s eOffice is often good enough that users can leave their laptops at home and travel lighter on business trips.” SpinVox This voicemail-to-text service can save you time because there’s no need to dial in to pick up your voice mail. Instead, an accurate transcript of the voicemail message is text messaged to you automatically so you can simply read the message on your BlackBerry. After all, you might be in a meeting and unable to answer that important call from a client, your boss, or a member of your staff. Well, now you can discretely glance at a text message which has the content of the voicemail message on your phone. Nuance Voice Control from Nuance Communications Consider it an alternative to using your thumbs to type your way through all of your BlackBerry’s functions — such as making calls, drafting an e-mail or adding a calendar entry — as you can use the power of your voice to take command. Your spoken words are transcribed into text for, say, an e-mail message, or you can choose to send your voice clip as an e-mail attachment. “Voice-activated control and navigation can remove the last barrier to on-the-road productivity — the tiny keyboard — from potential objections to wider mobile deployment,” explains Levy. WebMessenger from Apptix This all-in-one instant messaging (IM) client supports a broad range of services, including AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Google Talk, ICQ, and Jabber. For small and mid-size businesses with mobile employees that need to routinely interact with the home office in real-time, “the presence awareness offered by an always-on IM client can be a compelling driver of productivity,” says Levy. “Road warriors can get answers to their questions more quickly, which allows them to spend more time servicing customers and less time waiting around.” Other BlackBerry applications to check out: “We find that organizations are interested in applications that access [small business] CRM and accounting packages such as Goldmine, ACT, and Quicken,” says RIM’s Lessard. Impatica Showmate allows mobile professionals to deliver PowerPoint presentations directly from their BlackBerry smartphone. MobiMate’s Worldmate Live and Handmark’s PocketExpress can greatly enhance personal productivity and efficiency while traveling with tools that include flight status updates, rental car information, and world weather. Virtual Reach’s Viigo is an RSS reader that can track, download, and display critical pieces of regularly updated content, such as news, stock values, and sports.
New computing technology is released literally every day. Computers, like cars, become outdated seemingly as soon as you close the deal. Massive upgrades of new computers or other hardware may be cost-effective for large organizations that can take advantage of bulk discounts. But small and mid-size businesses usually don’t qualify for those reductions and so the purchase of new hardware needs to be decided on a case-by case basis, taking into consideration wear and tear, business needs, and your ability to write off new equipment. “You should only upgrade for one reason: When your PC or software no longer does what you want it to do,” advises Andy Rathbone, author of the book Upgrading & Fixing PCs for Dummies. “Software doesn’t wear out — unlike tires or shoes. Instead, the PC’s the weak spot, and most businesses upgrade when a new PC costs less than repairing the old one.” Here’s what you need to consider before upgrading your systems. Don’t believe the hype Vendors, advertisements, and even colleagues can push for fancy, unnecessary upgrades. “In the past, people fell for the hype and upgraded simply because they didn’t want to be left behind,” Rathbone says. That made have some sense in the past, when computing power grew so quickly that upgrading could save a business time and money. Today, however, businesses are realizing that they don’t need to upgrade every year, or even every few years. Of course, tech-dependent companies will do more upgrades than, say, an accounting firm. “Still using word processors and spreadsheets? Then you’ll be fine with PCs from the late ’90s,” Rathbone says. “If your business runs on specialized software — custom sales point software, for instance — you can keep your software package alive by replacing parts on an older PC for years.” Focus on security, not age Assuming your business computers are still humming, the primary concern should be on whether they can run the operating system and application software your business needs. Software updates can provide new virus protection, improved functionality and extended warranties. “If you’re using Windows 95, it is unsupported and is insecure,” says Gary Chen, small and medium business strategies analyst at the Yankee Group, of Boston. “The general lifespan is around three to five years — five on the long side — but most small businesses will try to get the most out of it.” If your computers can handle a software upgrade, that may buy you a few more years of service. “Most software comes with a discounted upgrade version: If you own the previous version, you can buy the newer version at a cheaper price,” Rathbone says. Windows, Quicken and many major programs offer deep discounts. Be sure to download the free, incremental upgrades regularly offered online. Hold off on computer upgrades until necessary Unfortunately, computer distributors aren’t as liberal with upgrade discounts — at least with small businesses. “For 25 or less computers, there are no trade-in programs,” Chen says. “With a large enterprise, you’d have that agreement with a large vendor like IBM. IBM has an asset recovery division. It is not a trade-in, but like ‘These are the assets and we’ll give you some money for them.” That doesn’t mean smaller enterprises don’t have other, less direct options. For instance, computers can be donated for tax breaks. Eco-conscious companies can also work with manufacturers to safely dispose of equipment. “Older PCs, particularly their monitors, are now hazardous waste in many states, and it’s illegal to toss them in the trash,” Rathbone says. Experts recommend the following programs: Dell,
Sometimes the simplest tools can make the biggest difference in how productive your business is. Every year, I pick five software or hardware tools that promise to make the biggest bang for the smallest buck and recommend them to business owners. These are tools that you don’t have to be a geek to use. This year, however, I see so many fabulous technology tools — or technology-related tools — that I couldn’t limit my list to just five. This year’s list has 10. Here are my choices for the top 10 tech tools for 2007. iPod Shuffle – The newest iPod on the market is a tiny inch-and-a-half long gadget that clips on your clothes for convenience. It has 1 GB of memory and stores up to 240 songs. And it only costs $79. Load it up with songs or business podcasts, and you’ll always be entertained and informed, whether on a plane, waiting in a doctor’s office, exercising — wherever. My question is: why wouldn’t you get one? Laptop wheelie bag – I used to think nothing of lugging a seven-pound laptop plus a couple of pounds of cords and gear over my shoulder while traveling. No wonder I often had a stiff neck for days afterwards. Then one day a friend gave me a beautiful leather briefcase on wheels — and I was hooked. If you do much traveling with your laptop, a wheelie bag means you arrive at your destination without feeling like you need a chiropractor. Bluetooth headset – If you watch much TV, you’ve probably seen the commercial with the guy who says, “Bluetooth! What is Bluetooth? I don’t know!” That’s how I felt for the longest time. But one day a colleague explained that Bluetooth simply let me have a wireless headset for my wireless phone. I bought a Bluetooth headset recommended by my cell phone provider, and life has never been the same. I can clip the headset on, walk into another room away from the phone and still continue my conversation. Ah, liberation. Free Google account – Have you noticed the growing number of free tools available from Google these days? You can get everything from email (over 2.5 GB of storage) to spreadsheet software, to image editing software and much more. Set up a Google account and access everything from one account. A “must have.” Kate Spade notecards – Today, 80 percent of my correspondence is electronic. But to stand out in an electronic world, go counter-culture and send handwritten paper thank-you notes. Choose something stylish, modern and classy, like Kate Spade Classic cards. You will be memorable, I guarantee it. U.S.Postal Service website – And when you are sending those handwritten notecards, remember the dramatically improved U.S. Postal Service website. You can calculate and purchase postage online; print mailing labels with postage; schedule a pickup of a package, and track delivery. You can even create direct mail campaigns from start to finish, all from your computer. You may never need to set foot inside a Post Office again. Accounting software – Statistics say that over 50 percent of small businesses do not have accounting software, but still use paper ledgers or spreadsheets. Accounting software tracks and organizes your finances; makes it much easier to get prepared for tax time, and lets you run sophisticated reports that help you stay on top of your business. Without accounting software, I would not have half the reports and insight that I have currently — it would just be too labor intensive to run reports by hand. Intuit’s Quicken and QuickBooks are popular and used by six million small businesses. Microsoft is now offering its Microsoft Office Accounting Express 2007 as a free download. Virtual Switchboard – My business is a virtual one, in the sense that everyone who does work for the company does it from their own locations and my “headquarters” is really just the place where I happen to be working that day. With an inexpensive, software-based virtual switchboard, we are able to have one business phone number for all of us, even though we are spread out over the country. Customers and others can call one number to reach us all, and we can forward messages back and forth. The price is right, too, at just a few hundred dollars a year. PayPal -- Millions of small businesses — including mine — would find business a lot more expensive and laborious without PayPal. PayPal is the shopping cart that I use on my websites. I use PayPal to make purchases, especially on eBay and other places where I may not feel comfortable giving out my credit card information. I even use PayPal to do much of my invoicing, and receive payments from a number of customers. It is now an essential part of my business processes. Smartphone – Smartphones combine the features of a wireless phone with a personal digital assistant (PDA). You have more choice that ever and today’s smartphones are coming down in price. Smartphones and similar devices are the best choice today if you want to send and receive email regularly from your phone. Technology is no longer only for the tech-savvy among us. It is a necessary component of every small business today. It saves money and time, and gives your business a competitive edge. Embrace it and your business can move ahead farther and faster in 2007. Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.
Your employees may have cell phones and laptops, but reporting travel expenses is still the bane of every road warrior’s existence. The Travel Industry Association of America expects business travel to rise sharply in the upcoming years. Luckily, several online expense reporting sites have stepped up to make the traveler’s life easier. Steps to take before the transition Experts recommend determining exactly what you would like an online expense report to do for the company: Would you need the software to be accessible off-line? What expenses would need approval and which would not? Who approves what and can the considered software adjust the traffic as necessary? “Typically, planning steps include things like understanding what policies need to be enforced through the tools,” says Matt Brown, an analyst with Forrester Research, the Cambridge, Mass. research firm. For example, expense categories/types, expense limits, and expense reporting deadlines, etc., he says. Benefits and perils When the infrastructure is solid and secure, there are many benefits to Web-based expense reporting: Less paper use Improved data quality and accuracy Fewer administrative staff necessary Automated adherence to standards However, most Web-based services require an Internet connection during use, which can sometimes handicap the very people it would benefit the most: travelers. “For highly mobile workers it becomes a little more of a challenge,” Brown says. “The fees and time spent associated with connecting to the office network from airports, hotels, client offices, etc. can be a drag on the savings companies get from offering self-service expense reporting via the Web.” Accessing sensitive data at public wireless spots also brings up the security issue. “High-speed wireless cards that work on the cellular networks help this situation a bit, but the service plans on these tend to be expensive when you are talking about a large mobile workforce,” Brown says. Finally, companies with Web-based expense reporting services must still monitor the system for fairness. “The percentage of expense reports that companies audit still varies greatly based on personal preference,” says Business Travel News Online, an online trade publication, in a report earlier in 2006. “Increased corporate adoption of automated systems enables companies to incorporate their own rules to flag out-of-policy expenses and to help them comply with Sarbanes-Oxley reporting requirements.” Web-based expense management software Gelco Expense Management Gelco Expense Management handles the whole expense reporting process, from reporting to receipt auditing and reimbursement. Gelco Expense can transfer funds to a traveler’s financial institution within three business days and process corporate card payments directly. After travel the Gelco company can give 42 different expense reports or create a special one for your company’s needs. ExpensAble Expense Reporter, a Quicken-compatible program, keeps track of individual expense, time and mileage, organizes credit card data and can print regular reports. Available for PC, Pocket PC and Palm, Expense Reporter is best for individuals or very small businesses. ExpensAble Enterprise is a subscription-based service that organizes your company’s account data, expense workflow chart and reimbursement information. The service can be linked directly to corporate credit cards and faxed receipts. Extensity Extensity has three separate programs, Expense Reports, Payment Reports and Travel Plans, that may be purchased or used separately and together. Notably, Travel Plans is connected to booking systems and can set up any necessary trips. It automatically updates employee travel information when trips are booked through a traditional travel agent. The software also can make car and hotel arrangements. ExpenseVisor Focused on small businesses, ExpenseVisor is a more straightforward Web-based expense service than most available — no booking travel or extensive reports here. Available through any Web browser, ExpenseVisor converts currency, acknowledges vendor preferences and can print out weekly, bi-monthly, monthly or annual reports.