Should a Small Business Run a Server?

There was a time when every office was an island connected by the most tenuous of connections to the rest of the world. In this environment files and mail can only be viewed rapidly and conveniently by storing the files and mails within your own for walls.

For most small businesses who are not working with video archives or specialized applications there is now little need to operate a server locally.

File storage can be achieved both for shared and personal files via a cloud service called DropBox ($10/month for 50Gb) as well as others. The files are cached (That is, Local copies kept on the users machine) to achieve speedy access from multiple machines. Folders can be shared. This allows local editing tools such as Open Office (Free) or Microsoft Office ($149+) to be used locally with more effective window management as well as ‘cut and paste’.

E-mail can be provide from cloud or dedicated hosting by Clear Crescendo using IMAP and Thunderbird to provide access from multiple machines.

The leading accounting package is QuickBooks Pro ($159.95) and the other online offerings don’t offer the same level of functionality and integration, particularly for US businesses as the main online competitors are from other regions. QuickBooks does offer an online solution at ($9.95/month) with reduced functionality which at present offers the best solution. If the business is large enough to want to have multiple users within the office on different machines accessing the same QuickBooks accounts then it will be necessary to operate a server or for one of the users to play the role of being the server for QuickBooks.

Other than for specialized reasons most small businesses with less than ten office staff are not going to see sufficient benefit from operating servers on their own site and are better off configuring online services.

Getting what you need from your website

Working with an advertising agency or well known digital media company isn’t an option for most small businesses. The strategy and the time needed to work with the provider often fall to the business owner. The technical questions can be resolved by the vendor but the strategy needs a wider perspective.

To choose the best approach you need to consider what you are trying to achieve with your website and understand what can be achieved with different budgets.

A website can be used to achieve a number of different objectives:

  • Providing credibility through online presence
  • Making your business findable
  • Defining your brand to enhance credibility and demand
  • Reducing the cost of pre-sales support
  • Reducing the cost of customer service

Website’s can combine a number of different functions to achieve these goals:

  • Informational – Describing your service, products, sales locations and contact information. For example an online business card, a catalog site or an auto companies display of a model.
  • Branding – Supporting attitudes about your business with styles, stories, graphics and images that position your brand appropriately.
  • Self Service – Allowing people to place an order, check the status of an order, order a brochure, estimate materials or otherwise complete a task where the user provides data to the web site in order to accomplish a task.
  • Community – Sites which allow users to leave information for other users and which cause users to return to the site.
  • Marketplaces – Sites where one user is matched with another in order to have some kind of interaction. For example to sell a product or to answer a question.
  • Entertainment – Games and entertainment normally have the objective of encouraging users to visit or return to the site.

These functions vary in complexity and costs. Some functions can be achieved through configuration of available software and others through development of some amount custom code. This results in a dramatic range of price tags depending on the choices made.

A minimal site needs to provide contact information and a description of the business. This provides some credibility when the URL is used in advertising or on business cards. The complexity of the site can give some impression of the size of the business but even a large business can be represented with a minimal web site if the text describing the business ( Often an ‘About’ page ) provides appropriate content. It isn’t always necessary to spend any more if web presence and credibility are your only objectives.

Making your business findable requires Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Instead of people finding your business by already having the URL (Web Address) from advertising or promotional literature most reader traffic comes from search engines, still primarily Google. The initial structure of your web site can help it be found by appropriate search queries. Assessments can be made of the likely searches people might use to search for your type of business and focused key words selected which are going to allow your website to appear higher on the search results page and as a result receive more traffic. These keywords are used in appropriate places within the structure of the page both visibly and technically in order to improve the chances of appearing in the results for these terms.

Having provided basic hooks to the search engine within your site there is value in writing related content around these terms and even more importantly in encouraging others to refer to your web site on related websites in relation to the appropriate topics. For example if dentist’s web sites write about, and link to, a type of denture then Google will know that the web site about the denture is considered important and also that it is related to dentists. People may write about you after reading about you on your site or through classical public relations or the provision of free materials which they incorporate into their sites.

If you want your business to be found via the online world rather than just supporting the physical world business then search engine optimization will be important to you.

Building branding with your site can be achieved cheaply through selecting appropriate styles of graphics and providing an effective story which explains the purpose and mission of your business. Additional benefit can be achieved with more complex graphical elements though the cost can quickly rise particularly given the variety of tools (PCs, Macs, Phones) which people are using to achieve access to your site. Words, a logo, photographs, and a simple style will be cost effective for most brands.

Self service features which are purely e-commerce or the completing of a form which does not have the ability to update at a later date can be achieved at a modest price. The ability to define more complex interactive non shopping experiences typically results in custom development with a significant project cost and management needs.

ClearCrescendo is able to help you at all of the above levels. Please call us to discuss the options if you can’t find the answers you need on our web site.