If there’s an economic recovery under way, no one has bothered to tell the small business world. Money is tight, budgets are minuscule and optimism is muted. Despite the amount of hype around the latest gadgets, and growth in such markets as tablets and mobile apps, Gartner’s Vice President of Research Richard Gordon said corporate IT spending is likely to remain flat for the foreseeable future. Spending should grow less than 2 percent in 2012 and about 4 percent annually thereafter, through 2016.
To stretch your small business tech buck, follow these money-saving IT tips.
Upgrading even a dozen computers to Windows 8 will cost you only $40 a pop if you make the switch before January 31, 2013. But after that, the price will skyrocket to $200 for a physical DVD. The catch, of course, is that Windows 8 is so touch-centric that users will likely push for new hardware, too, and that investment won’t come cheap, no matter when you buy. If Windows 7 is working for you, there’s nothing so compelling in Windows 8 to force the move. Besides, you won’t be alone: IDC estimates that just 10 percent of enterprise PCs will be running Windows 8 by 2014.
If your business relies on screen-sharing or other webcasting programs to communicate, the back-end tools required for these sessions can run a pretty penny. Webex alone costs $49 a month per license for meetings of up to 25 people. If you need to broadcast your screen to hundreds of viewers, the price can quickly mushroom. Fortunately, less expensive options have arrived on the market. For instance, Join.me offers a free version of its sharing tool that supports up to 250 viewers at once. If you need fancier features, such as meeting management and international support, the Pro version runs $149 per year.
Hiring a Web designer to build a custom website can be exorbitantly expensive for a small business. But it’s also tough to take a free, off-the-rack blog theme and turn it into something professional and unique. To give your website a professional look without spending a fortune, claim the middle ground courtesy of a commercial theme from WordPress.org. These themes include the basic template, plus various levels of support, depending on the kind of customization you need. Generally, that costs just a few hundred bucks. If you’re looking to start a more specialized site, such as a job board or a merchant site, this can be a very cost-effective way to do it. Many Web hosts offer basic design services as well, though these offerings vary considerably.
The old model of hiring a regular employee, or even an on-site contractor, to handle work that isn’t steady, day-in and day-out, is busted. It’s vastly more efficient to outsource simpler tasks to contractors who can pick up jobs when you need them and who won’t burn through your company’s cash twiddling their thumbs when business is slow. For simple, labor-focused jobs, Taskrabbit is your best bet. Functions such as running errands, moving boxes or building furniture typically run less than $100. For more knowledge-based jobs, check out such sites as Desk and Elance, which let you outsource work to qualified candidates located just about anywhere in the world. For example, a logo-design project will generally run $25 to $200, depending on its complexity.
File servers are expensive to buy, complicated to maintain and often impossible to secure. Fortunately, you no longer need one. Online file sharing is now robust enough for the mainstream, and services such as Box and Dropbox mean you can jettison the iron for a cloud-based solution. Fairly mature, these services have lately been looking to beef up performance, a common request among users not accustomed to waiting for files to download or, particularly, upload. For example, Box’s new Box Accelerator system claims to boost upload speeds tenfold thanks to better routing protocols and a new global network infrastructure. Box’s basic business plan provides 1TB of storage for $15 per user, per month, including varying permission levels for different folders, just like a physical server.
For two decades, Microsoft Office has been the global standard for document creation, management and sharing. That’s finally changing, thanks to a couple of major alternatives. The primary driver has been Gmail and Google Drive (formerly Google Docs), which companies looking for budget alternatives have adopted in droves. The switch isn’t just happening on the desktop, either. With a smartphone or tablet, you can do just about anything via these services that you can on a PC. The most-recent updates added folder management, easy presentation control and offline access to your documents. Those looking for a more familiar email interface may consider Microsoft’s Hotmail reboot, Outlook.com, which upgrades mail-management features that are arguably better than Gmail’s. Either way, you’re saving a boatload: individuals and small companies can claim all of these options for free.
Despite all the tech advances over the last 30 years, a telephone switching-system, or PBX, remains one of the most expensive and complicated devices in any small business. Fortunately, you can ditch these monstrosities altogether thanks to a host of outsourced, Internet-based, virtual PBXes from such companies as CallFire, Grasshopper and RingCentral. Under these services, the company provides the phones as part of a monthly fee, or you can use employees’ existing smartphones. Fees are based on the number of users ($20 to $40 per user, per month, depending on company size).
The industry standard for website analytics may be Adobe’s SiteCatalyst, but your small business probably doesn’t need the overwhelming amount of detail this service provides. Nor are you likely to be interested in paying the hefty price tag (which Adobe doesn’t even disclose publicly ). Google Analytics offers 80 percent of the power of Adobe’s system and, for most businesses, costs absolutely nothing. Savvy business owners will also want to keep track of social media engagement through tools such as SocialMention and Facebook’s integrated analytic tools. Both are free.
With the Amazon Prime program, shoppers can save on shipping costs, thanks to free, two-day shipping for an annual membership fee of $79. There’s no reason you can’t use it for office supply and tech purchases, too. The Prime program covers printer paper, ink, blank DVDs, cables and even more expensive stuff such as external hard drives and laptops. If you make even one office supply order a month, you’ll likely save at least $40 a year in shipping costs using Prime. As a bonus, Amazon still does not collect sales tax in 42 of the 50 states.
There’s no need to pony up $30 or more per computer for anti-malware protection. Free alternatives, such as Avira Free Antivirus 2013, AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition and Avast Free Antivirus, can all handle the most-basic security tasks. And they do a decent job at keeping infections out of your PCs. Sure, you won’t get support options, but when’s the last time you actually called McAfee for help, anyway?