As recently as five years ago, setting up a new business and equipping it for a PC-literate workforce was a costly affair. You needed to acquire server hardware and pay various software licensing fees.
The availability of mature, cloud-based services means that the situation is radically different today. Businesses can access the capabilities they require with little capital outlay. With this in mind, here are six important "digital" steps that a modern business needs to take.
Secure the Necessary Domains
The first step for any new business today is establishing an online presence by registering a domain name bearing either its name or its brand. This is a relatively simple step that can be done with any ICANN-accredited domain registrar. As it is, the hardest bit is figuring out an appropriate domain name that best represents your business but has yet to be acquired by someone else.
As a rule, the domain name should be registered in the name of the business owner or a trusted associate. Be wary of tricks by unscrupulous vendors that bundle the domain name together with a confusing array of hosting plans or IT services and register the new domain name under their organization. To avoid paying an exorbitant "service fee" to regain control of your domain, it may be a good idea to register directly with well-recognized registrars such as eNom, GoDaddy or Namecheap.
A relatively recent trend is purchasing a second domain to serve as a URL shortener on social media networks. For example, the New York Times uses nyti.ms, while the Huffington Post uses huff.to.
There's no difference in registering a domain name to use as a URL shortener, though some country-level domains may have special restrictions, as well as a higher price. You just need to set the domain with a cloud-based service that can host the shortened URL for you. On this front, Bit.ly stands out as an attractive choice as it offers the service free when used with a single domain.
Promote Your Organization on Social Media
The prominence of social media makes it a reality that no new business can afford to ignore. Since registering a user account on most social media networks is free and on a first-come, first-served basis, the savvy small business owner will register an account on the most prominent networks first, even if he or she has no intention of engaging there just yet.
While the popularity of different social networks differs from region to region, it's safe to say that Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr rank highly in most places. When you decide to move ahead on the social media front, services such as Hootsuite and Buffer can help you efficiently manage your various accounts.
Enable Email Service
In terms of functionality, a new business looking to set up email today only has two primary contenders to mull over: The popular Google Gmail or a service based on Microsoft's Exchange Server technology. Though Exchange Server can be deployed either on-premises or in the cloud, we're only interested in the latter here, also known as Exchange Online.
There are many similarities between Gmail and Exchange Online. Both are supported by all the mobile platforms that matter, both can be accessed using a Web browser, and both have a long track record of excellent uptime.
The strength of Exchange lies in its full support for the Outlook client app on the desktop, which is still considered by many business users to offer superior productivity thanks to its built-in support for calendaring, contacts, tasks and notes. Moreover, multiple Exchange accounts can be managed to the same Outlook client. For its part, Gmail offers a highly optimized inbox that loads lightning fast in a Web browser. Searches are extremely fast on Gmail, which also sports a highly regarded spam filter.
Signing up for Gmail with your own domain is a straightforward process that can be done by opting for Google Apps for Business at $5 per user per month. For Exchange Online, either sign up for one of the Office 365 plans or opt for a third-party hosted Exchange vendor such as Intermedia.
For businesses where email is a crucial resource, it may be worthwhile to configure your secondary MX record to point to a backup provider. This will ensure that emails don't bounce even if the primary server suffers an outage. A backup mail server is typically set to channel these emails back to the primary service provider when it recovers.
Note that maintaining the integrity of one's MX records is absolutely vital, as it can be abused by hackers to surreptitiously siphon off email messages. This, in turn, can be used to infiltrate key systems via unauthorized password resets.
Set Up the Small Business Website
Businesses that seek only to deploy a simple Web front have a wealth of basic hosting services from which to choose. The most popular Web server is Apache, with PHP set up as the supported scripting language. Make sure it supports a database server, usually MySQL, as this will be required for a non-static website or for setting up a blog.
Businesses that expect a higher volume of visitors can turn to a content distribution network (CDN). CloudFlare is a popular choice, as it offers a free tier that promises basic website speed and performance, along with some protection from hackers.
It's increasingly common for businesses to establish a blog to keep customers updated on new developments or promotions. Fortunately, the rise of blogging platforms means it's easy to establish a blog these days. The best known would undoubtedly be WordPress.org, though a variety of other platforms, including MovableType, Joomla and Drupal, are also popular.
One important consideration, in terms of both know-how and time, is the capability of a small business to configure and patch its own website against newly discovered vulnerabilities. As such, it may make sense to consider commercial full-service offerings, such as WordPress.com, which include hosting, bandwidth and maintenance.
Flip the Switch on Cloud Storage, Privacy
In an age of state-sanctioned snooping, you can never be too careful about storing confidential business documents in the cloud. After all, it would be foolish to assume that the NSA is the only organization out there with the technical know-how for online spying. Unfortunately, the allure of BYOD leaves most users oblivious to the risks of storing sensitive data online.
For businesses that care, one service to consider is SpiderOak, a cloud storage provider that stores only encrypted data. Because SpiderOak doesn't know the private encryption key used to encrypt the data, it has no ability to access to the data stored on its storage facilities. Other services such as Mozy also offer the capability to encrypt data with a locally stored encryption key, though as a selectable option.
Be wary of storage providers that claim to encrypt all data but offer the capability to edit or view the same documents through a Web browser. This implies that both encryption and decryption key is held by the vendor which in turn implies that your data could be wide open should a hacker succeed in compromising their systems. For secure data, the storage vendor shouldn't be able to access your data in unencrypted form.
Finally, for all this talk of cloud-only services, it makes sense to always have at least one copy of the data archived offline. This is a necessary hedge against situations such as acts of sabotage or corruption, or against a particularly malicious hacker deleting everything from your online storage cloud.
Start Taking Care of Business
The above tips address only some of the basic aspects of setting up an online presence for your business. A fully functioning organization will need a raft of other services. Here's a short list of online services that may prove handy:
- Online email marketing to send emails and track results (MailChimp)
- Web-based faxing to send and receive fax messages (eFaxor HelloFax)
- Private instant messaging network (Lync Online or Trillian)
- Note-taking that's accessible from mobile devices (Evernote or Simplenote)
- Online time tracking that's accessible from multiple devices (Toggl)
- DNS services (Dyn or EntryDNS)
- Online collaboration (GoToMeeting)
- Online password storage (1Passwordor LastPass)
With so many compelling Web services available, it's hard to see a real reason for today's small businesses to purchase physical hardware.