What a Tech Buyer Really Needs
Before Getting the Gear, Get a Guru
The most important step toward getting that perfectly equipped office isn't buying some PCs and a printer and hooking them together. Nor does it involve buying the coolest new gadgets -- a Palm Pilot can come later.
No, the first thing you need is a consultant, a technology guru to help you make sense of the myriad options, prices, and upgrades. And if you think it's not worth the cost, just ask Mike Becce. He figured that since he's a PR guy who represents high-tech companies, outfitting his nine-person office with the right technology would be a snap.
"I was dead wrong," says Becce, founder of MRB Public Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., which recently became part of a larger agency. "Service and support is a nightmare for small businesses. And then there's always the issue of being sold things you don't need."
If Becce had it to do over again, he says he wouldn't purchase a single thing as a small-business owner until he had hired an in-house techie or, if the budget wouldn't permit that, a part-time consultant. The fact is that with technology changing so quickly, business owners are finding they need someone to plot the course, negotiate the purchases, act as liaison to all the vendors, and provide support afterward.
How do you find the right person? Start by turning to your network of colleagues, other small businesses, trade associations such as the local chamber of commerce, or someone specifically in your industry. Look to any technology distributor you have been satisfied with -- a computer retailer or a reseller. Ask them who they've used and develop a list of candidates.
Next come the interviews. Look for someone who keeps things simple. You want your guru to be knowledgeable but someone who isn't having a love affair with technology and can explain it in terms you understand. In practice, this means stay away from anyone who installs software or networks that are highly customized.
"The last thing you want is to have a office system that only one person in the world can make any sense of," says Ray Boggs, director of small-business research at International Data Corp., a Framingham (Mass.) technology market research firm. Similarly, if you start to hear buzzwords like "virtual private networks" or "fault-tolerant," look elsewhere, says Boggs. Those are lofty terms for expensive network connections and backup systems. When a consultant starts with those kinds of recommendations right off the bat, it means the agenda is to sell you as much technology as possible.
On the flipside, be leery of anyone who suggests something too basic -- for instance, a peer-to-peer network in which each PC is tied only to one other PC. It may save you some money compared with a real network, but it's bound to be slower and will crash more often. If your candidate recommends a modest server system -- one $2,000 to $3,000 PC dedicated to serving up applications, hosting the printer, and providing backup for all the employees' PCs -- you've found a consultant who understands how to make an efficient, cost-effective office.
What will this kind of advice cost you? The price varies by region and the size of your office, but it shouldn't be outrageous. "In general, consultant maintenance fees should run about 10% of the cost of the hardware and software you bought," says Craig Williams, chief executive of Optical Image Network Group, a consulting firm in Springfield, Ill. "My fee for a small business is about $1,000 for a year, and that will buy you about 20 hours of my time, unadulterated, which is usually plenty to set up and maintain a small office."
Be wary of any additional fees. Williams says if you buy hardware through a consultant and you're already setting up a maintenance contract, the installation should be free.
Too pricey, you say? You can still try to do it ourself. We asked several business consultants how they'd equip a typical small business with 10 employees and came up with the following checklist. The total cost would be less than $25,000, and your outlay could be even less if you lease some of the equipment. The details:
- A PC for each person, $15,000 (and perhaps $3,000 less if you negotiate a bulk purchase)
- One server, $2,000
- A printer for the boss (so confidential memos will remain private), $1,000
- An office printer/copier, $1,500
- A shared E-mail system, $500 for a router installation
- High-speed Internet access, either via cable-TV lines, or an ISDN line (integrated services digital network) from the phone company, $1,200 per year (costs vary widely by region)
- Fax software for each computer, $1,000 total. WinFax Pro from Symantec Corp. is the top choice. Each person can receive or send a fax without having to get up and go to the printer, where it invariably gets lost amid a blizzard of other faxes
You might be tempted to save money by skipping the server. Don't. Networking is a must these days because it makes file management and document sharing much easier. And, perhaps most important, this kind of client-server network provides a system with room for you to grow. If you hire another employee, you simply hook one more PC to the server, and that person has all the computer services needed.
Similarly, it may sound cheaper and easier to just have each person dial out directly to the Internet from the PC over a phone line instead of using a shared system, but that's a false economy. You want all E-mail and Internet traffic to be routed through your server and then sent out via a single line, such as an ISDN line, cable-modem line, or DSL (digital subscriber line, also available through the phone company). Your traffic moves much faster, and troubleshooting a single server is always a better bet than having to fix modem problems on each individual PC.
After all, you want to spend more time managing your company, not the technology. That's something you hardly need a guru to tell you.
Rivka Tadjer is a freelance writer specializing in technology and small business.
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