Posts Tagged ‘Business’

A Buyer’s Guide to Business Computers

October 27th, 2014

For companies looking to buy workplace computers, the decision used to consist of two basic choices: Laptop or desktop? Windows or Mac? Now, the options for employees’ computing needs are becoming increasingly diverse—and confusing.

The popularity of smartphones and tablets in people’s personal lives helped spark a broader rethinking of how work gets done, and what computing devices are best to keep employees happy and productive. On the wane is the idea of companies buying 5,000 of the same brand desktops for everybody, and repeating the cycle every five years or so.

“It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all world anymore,” says J.P. Gownder, a Forrester Research Inc. FORR +0.40% analyst who consults with companies on their technology.

That means more companies are mixing it up, tailoring their computer choices to fit a variety of jobs. One company may have a fleet of iPads for its salespeople to show coming shoe designs to clients, and conventional desktop PCs for its workers at the home office. Others are buying stripped-down laptops that rely mostly on connections to corporate networks via the Internet. And a small number of businesses are letting the employees decide what kinds of computers work best for their jobs.

Mr. Gownder’s basic advice to companies: Do an audit. Ask employees—through simple survey programs like SurveyMonkey, and during in-depth interviews—how they use computers, phones and tablets for work, and what they feel they’re missing. And he says companies shouldn’t forget to pay attention to what workers are doing and using without corporate permission. That may be even more revealing than what they say in a survey.

For businesses trying to balance costs with complexity and strategic goals, here is a rundown of five categories of workplace computing options, and the major benefits and drawbacks of each.

1. The Old Standby: Windows

Computers running the Windows operating system have been a workplace staple for three decades, and remain appealing to companies for three big reasons: familiarity, compatibility and breadth.

Most software—particularly older or customized corporate programs—has been built to work best on Windows. IT staff know how to work on and fix problems with Windows machines. Workers know how to use Windows (although Microsoft Corp. MSFT +2.47% ’s latest version, Windows 8, has prompted some retraining). The variety of machines using Windows means there’s practically a PC for every need.

Website publisher CBS Interactive has been shifting some of its computer purchases back to Windows PCs from Apple Inc. AAPL +0.37% ’s Mac computers. The CBS Corp. CBS -0.43% unit says it’s gravitating toward Windows laptops that are similar in look and feel to the slim MacBook Air, but with work-friendly features such as more ports to connect machines to desktop computer monitors.

With new types of machines—like PCs that can double as tablets, or those that seek the same long battery life and sleek look of the MacBook Air—Microsoft and its allies are trying to ditch their reputation for making the clunky, bug-prone workhorses employees hate to use.

Companies that sell PCs to businesses say the biggest gripes about Windows-based machines are in part due to the businesses saddling their workers with old and underpowered machines. Make sure to purchase machines hardy enough to run all the software employees need, they say.

2. Tablets

For many workers, tablets are an add-on rather than a replacement for their PCs. Experts say companies need to make sure tablets are worth the extra cost, since they are fragile and easy to lose.

For road-warrior workers, however, or technicians who hardly ever sit at a desk, tablets can be revolutionary.

Mary Kay Inc. says tablets have changed how its three million sales consultants pitch the company’s beauty products. Using a customized app called “Show and Sell,” created with New York firm ScrollMotion Inc., the Mary Kay reps tailor what skin-care products they show women. And they can connect a tablet to a TV so groups of women at Mary Kay parties can watch how-to videos about the products.

For the consultants, this is a big improvement from the days when they had to make women flip through a thick catalog to show a handful of products that were appropriate for their age or skin type. The consultants also can hand the customer the tablet to make a purchase right away. “That really helps make the sale easier,” says Sara Friedman, Mary Kay’s vice president of U.S. marketing.

But businesses can’t just give employees tablets without a plan. For instance, companies need to make sure that all of the software their workers use can be accessed from mobile devices. That can be a complicated and costly effort. General Electric Co. GE +0.79% , for example, made a significant investment to rework its applications to work seamlessly on tablets and phones.

And buyer beware. Just because the boss decides tablets are the ticket to productive workers, it doesn’t mean the devices will catch on. Even if the tablets truly are more useful than a desktop, broad acceptance often depends on what the managers themselves are using.

AMAG Pharmaceuticals Inc. AMAG -1.45% buys iPads for its workforce of more than 150 people, but many of them sit unused in people’s desk drawers, says Nate McBride, a vice president for the Waltham, Mass.-based company. Many of AMAG’s managers don’t have the time or the inclination to incorporate the tablets into their work lives, and employees follow their lead, Mr. McBride says.

3. Chromebooks or “Virtual” Desktops

Another mobile option is what the technology industry calls “thin clients”—machines where most if not all tasks are done over the Internet or via remote corporate-computing networks. Almost nothing is saved on the computer itself.

The most visible examples of this are Chromebooks, which are simplified laptops powered by Google Inc. GOOGL -0.86% ’s Chrome operating system. Companies including Citrix Systems Inc., VMware Inc. VMW +1.59% and Inc. AMZN -8.34% also sell “virtual desktop” software that gives employees remote access to a handful of work applications or a mirror of their corporate PCs from any Internet-connected device.

The downsides of thin clients are many. Chromebooks and computers using virtual-desktop software sometimes are incompatible with software that was designed to be installed on the computer itself, such as the teleconference service GoToMeeting from Citrix. And while lots of work-related apps for tablets were designed to function offline, the thin clients are nearly entirely dependent on having a good broadband or cellular network connection.

For business users that can make do with limited computing features, however, thin clients’ big benefits of low cost and control outweigh the risks.

Chromebooks are inexpensive to buy and replace, and it’s easy to fix problems remotely, says David Hoff, senior vice president of technology at Cloud Sherpas, an Atlanta-based firm that helps companies buy technology from Google and other providers. Chromebooks typically cost $250 to $350 each, plus $150 a machine for business support. Managers can set up a list of common Web bookmarks for many employees at once, or restrict which websites or other functions the Chromebook user can access.

Full-size iPads, by comparison, cost $499 and up for the latest model. And while iPads can also be managed remotely, it’s not as easy as it is with a Chromebook.

Mr. Hoff says his firm is seeing the most adoption of Chromebooks by companies with lots of mobile employees who previously weren’t using computers at all. One of his clients, for example, is a chain of franchised deli restaurants that has a few hundred managers who pop from store to store and don’t have a regular desk or an IT staff to help when things go wrong. For them, he says, Chromebooks make sense because the managers’ needs—and their resources—are limited.

4. Macs

The knock on Macs in the workplace has been they’re expensive, they lack built-in tools to manage large numbers of computers at once, and sometimes aren’t ideal to use with common workplace applications, many of which are tailored to work best—or only—on Windows PCs. Some of those objections are easing, particularly as workers do more with software designed for the Web.

Jason Wudi, chief technology officer for JAMF Software, a Minneapolis-based company that provides tools for businesses to manage Macs, says companies don’t often set out to buy Mac computers, but often do so in capitulation to employees.

“We go where people are already demanding and dragging in their user devices,” Mr. Wudi says.

In some industries, such as media or technology firms, potential new recruits also expect a Mac on every desk, and not having them can be a barrier to recruiting.

5. Bring Your Own Device

For a small number of companies, the best approach to workplace computers is not to favor any particular type at all. Companies tell workers to buy and bring to work whatever they want. Typically, employers will offer a stipend to offset all or part of the cost.

The do-it-yourself movement at companies started with smartphones, but the wave has started spreading to computers, too.

But if companies give workers the money, and they buy a really cheap tablet that can’t run any of a company’s corporate apps, the scenario may not help the company. IT support also can be tough if an organization has a fleet of different devices.

The trend reflects worker unhappiness with being forced to use what their companies give them. More than half of workers, and roughly two-thirds of younger workers, say the computers they use at home are better than their equipment at work, according to Forrester Research surveys.


Startup challenges for a small business

September 22nd, 2014

Steve Orenstein knows all too well the startup challenges of setting up a small business as he went head first into setting up his own IT support company at the tender age of 19.

“Having very little money to fund the business made things very difficult at 19, I would often have to use credit cards to get by and to help manage cash flow,” he said.

“Having had no experience in building a business, it took time to build up credibility where people didn’t care about my age and they focused on how I was able to deliver a service to them.”

Whilst running SMO Technology, Steve noticed that there was a need in the market for a cloud-based job management and scheduling tool that simplified the process of managing workers in the field. This became the philosophy behind Steve’s next startup, Connect2Field.

After just two years, Steve managed to secure first round funding by private equity investors in Australia and New Zealand, which allowed him to grow the business further. Steve says that developing a strong network is a crucial factor in securing investor backing.

“Develop relationships with people who trust you and you get along well with.

“When I raised my first round of funding I had already been in business for many years, so I had a good network of people and was also able to reach out to family and friends,” he added.

“Today, there are also many startup funds like Sydney Seed Fund which you can approach. This is a very good option in getting access to very experienced people who have been in startups before and can provide mentoring, along with funding.”

Investor funding allowed Steve to hire more staff but he wanted to avoid the expense of using recruitment agencies. Steve instead looked to social media, which he says proved to be a valuable tool for hiring talent and growing the business.

“I’ve got my own personal Twitter profile and anytime I’ve been looking for staff I’ve always tweeted about it, and someone who’s followed me has responded back, and said they’d be interested and would like to talk to me. I’ve made contact with them and gone from there and hired people through that.”

Having investors onboard meant that the company now had a board of directors consisting of specialists from various fields, effectively giving Steve access to a well rounded knowledge base.

“I had a board of directors at Connect2Field and would go to a monthly meeting and share my direction for the company. I would speak to each one of those board members on a regular basis to get advice. And I chose each of those members based on their experience in different areas of business. One was in legal, one was in marketing, one in sales, and one in technology.”

However, Steve says that learning what advice to filter was a skill he had to learn pretty quickly.

“It’s good to be open to ideas, suggestions, and advice from mentors and advisors. However, I’d also say that it’s very important to trust your own instincts and make decisions based on the information you have at hand.

A mere 12 months after securing investor funding, Connect2Field was acquired by Ireland-based global software-as-a-service vendor Fleetmatics, in a deal worth AU$6 million.

Acquisitions are a lengthy process and Steve says that maintaining the focus on growing the business during that period proved to be very challenging.

“There’s a huge amount of legal work, documentation, and due diligence that you have to go through. Your entire day is being sucked up by speaking with lawyers and the acquisition,” he said.

“Being as organised as possible in your business is vital to making that process go really quickly.”

Steve is now focused on his next startup, Zoom2u, a fast on-demand courier service that promises real-time tracking and delivery of parcels within hours. The business is expanding quickly, with plans to launch in Melbourne and Brisbane by the end of the month.

Steve says that his business journey over the years has taught him many valuable lessons along the way.

“I’ve always believed in making decisions based on what you think will deliver the best results rather than making a decision based on a mentor, who may only have a small view into what you are doing.

“The other thing to remember is that, being an entrepreneur, you will ride a huge wave with lots of ups and lots of downs, it’s good to remember this so that when you hit some hard times you keep pushing through and eventually you’ll be back up on top. Being able to ride the wave is vital to success, lots of people can’t handle riding the wave and may jump out too early.”


When start-up follies come back to bite the mid-market growth business

June 6th, 2014

When you’re starting your own business, every cent counts. Most start-ups only survive the first few months or years if they’re run on a diet of austerity and hustling (they don’t call them lean start-ups for nothing). But if you plan to rapidly grow your business, you need to bootstrap with an eye to the future – by which I mean ensuring that your early decisions and processes are also able to scale.

Take the issue of business applications. Enterprise software counts among an organisation’s most important assets – it runs business operations and literally keeps the gears of business turning. Like any other strategic asset – if the business fails to effectively manage its software, there can be dire consequences financially and operationally. And small companies need to understand that software is one of the most difficult and complex of assets to manage.

Evidence of software management challenges can be found in recent research. Working with IDC, we ran a survey amongst Aussie firms with $100 million or more in annual turnover: the sort of businesses most entrepreneurs hope to grow their start-ups into one day. It turns out that nine in 10 of those businesses have been hit with remunerative penalties (what we call “true-ups”) for not complying with their software licences in the past two years – and of those, 65 percent were for a million dollars or more.

Most of these businesses, however, haven’t been intentionally breaching the terms of their licences. They’re what I think of as “accidental pirates”: organisations that have grown faster than their due diligence processes can keep pace with. As a result, things slip through the cracks: someone procures a tool on the wrong licence, someone else shares an app to a few too many staff members. Or a company uses an application in a virtualised or cloud environment – not realising the licensing implications of using the software in that way. And before you know it, you’ve got a million-dollar penalty on your hands.

This isn’t just about software, either. Rapid growth can be fatal if your operations and culture don’t keep up. Some entrepreneurs manage this by deliberately limiting growth or pacing their expansion, but that’s not always an option when getting first-mover advantage is critical. The trick, then, is to think about how easily your current business setup can scale up to match revenue and turnover growth, and do so from the beginning instead of retrospectively.

Let’s go back to the example of software. A typical start-up will gravitate towards free or almost-free applications, usually SaaS tools which allow members to collaborate and share information with only an internet connection. These apps, however, typically also have enterprise licences which kick in after you add a certain number of users to an account, and their costs are often significantly higher than free.
Proactively managing

This isn’t to say you should eschew a piece of software solely on this basis, especially if it meets a critical need in your business. But if you’re a founder, you should be putting processes and technology in place to manage your critical assets, before they get out of hand and potentially hinder growth. This is doubly so when dealing with SaaS apps, where remote storage of your data creates an additional layer of lock-in than traditional software.

In other words, your choice of software tools in the bootstrapping days can have a big impact on how your business matures. You also need to be proactively managing your software now – demonstrating that you are operating your company like a world-class organisation even before an IPO. And you should be considering the effect and frequency of compliance: almost one in two of the businesses we surveyed, for example, had been audited three times or more in the last 18-24 months.

I’ve talked about software licensing because it’s what I’m most familiar with, but the same issues apply to every aspect of the entrepreneurial process. Infrastructure, process, and compliance – these are the things which don’t usually worry start-ups, but can cause major stress for mature businesses. If you want to get your start-up to the big league, it’s worth making sure those bootstrap foundations can take the weight.


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