Monday, March 31, 2014

Questions to ask a computer consultant before you hire him

Today's office run on information, and for many businesses, a significant amount of this information is vital and confidential. Therefore, it's vital that you hire a competent, responsive, trustworthy computer consultant, and you should do your homework on your options before you experience a major system crash or potential data loss.

Despite the challenges constantly changing technology poses to the casual computer user, computers are much more user friendly and versatile than they used to be with a plethora of different built-in programs to help recover data, restore programs, quarantine viruses and address a host of other problems that used to be much harder for the average person to deal with. More intrepid users have never had lower or cheaponer technology hurdles as open source software is free and continuously being expanded. Still the average business owner is knowledgeable about his business, not necessarily about computers or technology. And as he would want to find someone trustworthy to work on his car, as his life literally depends on the work done, he needs to find a quality computer "mechanic" for his company's needs as well. Customers who have

Vetting computer consultants is, in many ways, like vetting other employees; you need to determine if they are dependable, trustworthy, responsive, responsible, and comprehensive. Here are the things you must determine:

Responsiveness: You should ask if the consultant has a live operator, or if there are only scheduled hours for customer service. How soon will they respond to telephone or email inquiries? How soon during a data or systems emergency? Do they take the time to explain to their clients what is wrong with their computers or systems and how this might be avoided in the future? Will they give details as to what the problem is, in everyday English that people who are not technical will be able to understand? Is their customer service based locally or is it outsourced to another country?

Diligence: Will the consultant be proactive with your system, avoiding problems before they crop up, maintaining and updating hardware, software, virus definitions, and backups, regularly checking them all to make sure everything is functioning and there are multiple copies of important data? Is the consultant's organization large enough that it can function just as smoothly when someone goes on vacation or gets sick?

Liability protection: Is this consultant's company fully insured so that if, in the unlikely event mistakes happen, your business is protected from financial harm and could be compensated for lost time and productivity?

Trustworthiness: How does this consultant's company vet their own employees? Do they do full background checks? Are they required to remain current on their certifications? Have they had any previous incident with breaches of data?

Comprehensiveness: The consultant will take responsibility for the functionality of which systems, networks, or machines, specifically? Which will remain your responsibility?

Obviously, you should never hire based on brand recognition or price alone. Plenty of people think they know computers and can fix whatever you need for cheap. How much your data worth to you? How much is your data's security worth to you? The neighbor's kid may know computers; if so, hire him for smaller projects, not your overall system security. But big names are no guarantee of good service - ask the woman who sued Geek Squad for leaking her nude pictures online. Or the owner of the missing laptop Geek Squad tried to cover up.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Millenials and Entrepreneurship

Here is Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, being interviewed about Millennials, opportunities for start ups, and the sudden burgeoning of entrepreneurship among young people.  This blog has covered before the situation young people are in coping with the present bad economy. Ohanian point, that the lack of economic opportunities means that there's no opportunity cost for entrepreneurship, and that this is the silver lining in our economic cloud is an interesting one. He also points out that the barriers for entry into business have never been lower because of increased access to consumers and open source software.

Michigan Future, Inc. put out a report several years ago with the purpose of attracting knowledge workers to Detroit and thereby encouraging the revitalization of downtown Detroit. Their "knowledge workers" are Ohanian's audience as well - young, very bright, creative, willing to work hard and take risks. In the past they've gone where the jobs are and taken their energy and drive with them, reducing the fortunes of smaller cities already on a downward spiral and enriching larger cities with, arguably, enough knowledge capital. Now, however, with good jobs hard to find nationally, they have incentive to stay where they are and build their own opportunities.

The less fortunate part of this is that knowledge workers - people who can create with "a laptop and an internet connection" are only a small subset of the general population. Most would be small business entrepreneurs still need some capital to get started. Even if you have the knowledge to build a parts washer to spotlessly clean engine liners, you can't do it without investment capital. While some small businesses can be run from home, manufacturing plants, auto garages, medical care centers, and organic farms, to name but a few, cannot, and those are the businesses who will hire workers who are not knowledge workers but still need employment. The economy won't get better until there are jobs available to the average worker, not just the specialty one.

It is, however, a blessing for very bright people who don't want to move away from their communities to find their livelihoods. And, eventually, many knowledge workers do generate jobs from their risk taking. Reddit only has 28 employees, but Ohanian has other projects that fund average people looking for a break.  It's not an overall solution to the nation's economic problems, but for those people he's helped get exposure and funds it's been life changing. We need to see more of this virtuous cycle of economic activity.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Business cards - Are they worth it?

You seem them everywhere, in every business, in fishbowls in restaurants - you probably have more than a handful stuffed in a drawer somewhere in your house. But do you ever look at them? Business cards: are they just an unnecessary expense?

We asked John Potter of Grand Rapids Area Professionals for Excellence (GRAPE), a business networking group in Grand Rapids, MI, and he said, "If you're using business cards as a marketing tool, then your expectations may not be met, but if you're using them as a contacting tool, then they can be useful. It's simpler and more professional for me to hand my business card to someone I've spent a half hour talking to at an event than writing my email or phone number on a stray piece of paper. I'm glad to have business cards for that purpose. Just don't spend a great deal of money on them, because they get forgotten and tossed aside much of the time."

Business cards now come in more a lot more than just the standard form (or media). Numerous options are now easily and cheaply available to make your card, and thus its representation of your brand, stand out. But should you go for standard, unique, or full-on special snowflake? Or is this just flashy or even alienating to your potential customers?

Consider the business that you are in. How likely is your clientele to care if you don't hire a professional to design your logo? If your business is marketing, it's important to make the investment. If your business is auto repair shop management, perhaps putting your marketing dollars elsewhere may do more good for your bottom line. If a funky card would put off or even shock the majority of your clientele, it's a liability, not an asset. You may live in an area with heavy competitive for funeral home services, in which case comprehensive branding might be necessary. But probably not.

It can be fun to design and redesign and order business cards, but even if yours are original and make people comment on them and remember them, evaluate how often and how successfully they convert into leads and sales. If the answer is "not very often," rethink this part of your branding and advertising budget.