Managing technology comes last on the to do list for many small companies. You want to focus on front-end business while hardware and software magically work behind the scenes. For your tech backbone to function, however, it needs steady support. Finding the right IT expert can not only save money over the long run, but also make the difference between merely surviving an emergency and powering ahead for growth.
Many mom-and-pop or home-based ventures rely on family and friends for tech help. In a crisis, some call a third party service at a mall or big box store. Larger companies may lean on an informal pool of on-staff "experts" or a part-time consultant.
"The main trend we're seeing for small businesses is to use as little IT help as possible," says Joslyn Faust, an analyst at Gartner research. "It seems like technology is catching up to that preference. With cloud computing and software as a service, there's much more of an ability to not use a lot of IT staff at all."
Rather than calling an expert to come over to your desk, for example, you could use free remote access software to allow a pro to control and fix your PC from afar. Web-based services, mobile computing, and virtualisation also provide flexibility and cost savings that make it easier for entrepreneurs to get off the ground.
However, the time may come when tech growing pains can interfere with basic functions. Nobody wants to learn the hard way, for example, that the lack of a backup strategy has led to a wipeout of client records.
The need for IT help is changing, not disappearing. Your important tech investments may increasingly be in services rather than machines. Instead of providing nuts and bolts PC support, the person you bring in might work on higher level challenges, such as establishing cloud-based backup or unifying communications across smartphones, tablets, notebooks and desktops.
The breaking point at which you need professional help depends on your company. A five person startup may need nothing more than occasional tune-ups, or yearly guidance to draw up a long term tech blueprint. If you have close to 100 computer users on the payroll, on the other hand, you're probably in the market for a full-time technician.
No matter the scale of assistance you need, think of it as you would any other relationship. First, get to know each other. Then, make plans for the future.
"One of the biggest things we do is to try to become part of their environment," says Jeremy Hayward, who provides small business tech support with SNS Technologists. "I try to look at what's going to happen in six months, what's projected for sales and staffing levels. It's not all technical. We try to translate day-to-day business needs into technology that will help you do better."
Where to look
Seeking outside help can be scary, like trusting a car mechanic when you don't know what's rattling under the hood. Word-of-mouth networking is a start. Just ask clients and vendors with tech needs similar to your own about who they use for IT advice.
You won't find a friendly, dedicated online directory of IT pros, but searching for "tech support" on local reviews services such as Yelp.com can help. For $29 a year, you can use AngiesList.com, which specialises in user-rated construction and home repair pros but also includes a 'Computer Repair & Services' category. Or, if you prefer, try posting a free ad on Craigslist in the 'Gigs Offered' section under 'Computers' to invite replies from professionals to your inbox.
If you tend to have a lot of gear from a certain brand, check the maker's website for local partners or resellers that might also offer business support services, such as on HP's Partner Locator page. Some electronics companies, such as Dell, provide support and consulting within their small business guides.