How to grow your business successfully: tackling the challenges of UK SMEs
Every small company hopes to grow – but as your business expands, it also changes. For example, you might find yourself needing to take on more staff, which in turn could require a move to a larger office. But growth isn’t just about logistics: it also has implications for your technical resources.
Every company needs to keep its digital assets secure. However, when your business is just starting out, you probably won’t want to worry about formal security policies. “Security is a lot easier to manage when there are fewer people involved,” noted Jack Bedell-Pearce, managing director of data-centre specialists 4D. “If the business is just you and one other person, the potential for a security breach is minimal.”
As your business grows, however, so does your exposure – and if you haven’t had to worry about security before, it’s easy to overlook. “It’s one of those hidden risks that sneak up on companies,” said Bedell-Pearce. “They manage well when they start off – especially if they’re a technology company, where the founders all know about the dangers. But, as the business grows, they might hire somebody to handle the accounts, as well as non-technical people. A new employee might not know about tricks like phishing, and before you know it, they’ve been caught out.”
There’s no magic solution: you have to accept that, as your company grows and changes, security breaches will become more likely. This doesn’t always mean investing in enterprise-grade security provisions, but you should ensure that staff have a basic understanding of online security, including tricks aimed at naïve employees. “We do a lot of social engineering training,” explained Bedell-Pearce. “We make sure that we’re very careful to identify who we’re talking to, and only give out information once we’ve verified their identity.”
Another issue to consider is password security. With more people accessing networked resources, it becomes more likely that someone will choose a weak password, reuse a password across multiple sites, or reveal their credentials. You can reduce risks by using password-management software, which makes it easy for employees to use strong, unique passwords on every work-related site. There’s an additional advantage: “When someone leaves, it makes the process of a mass-password change a lot easier”, pointed out Bedell-Pearce.
A final consideration when it comes to security is Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD). This doesn’t have to be a big technical issue, but it calls for foresight. “If people are using their personal mobiles to sync work email, make sure you’ve got a policy that requires them to put a lock on their phone,” warned Bedell-Pearce. “That sounds like pretty basic stuff, but once a phone is lost without a passcode lock, it can cause all kinds of problems. It’s much better to introduce a policy from day one.”
Social media and customer service
When your company is small, social media can be handled very informally. As you grow, you may find you need to start taking social media more seriously – and this may be where you discover that your business lacks the necessary expertise or manpower.
There’s no shame in seeking external help. “It can often be a good idea to turn to an agency for support with your social media strategy,” noted Melissa Wolfe, senior consultant at brand consultancy Blue Rubicon. Alongside benefitting from an agency’s experience, outsourcing leaves your staff with more time to focus on their jobs. “Keeping up a social media presence might not sound like hard work, but doing it right means being constantly available and responsive,” Wolfe pointed out. “Until your social media becomes essential for your customers, you don’t want to be dedicating someone to the task full-time.”
A similar principle applies to customer service. As your client base grows, it won’t look good if your phone is always busy and emails go unanswered. “Some of our customers have benefited from using a managed call-centre service, which can be relatively inexpensive,” revealed Bedell-Pearce. “So when someone calls you out of hours, or when you’re busy in a meeting, another human can pick up the phone, say ‘welcome to…’ and take a message. It’s a nice little touch that can make your company seem bigger.”
One practical issue that emerges as your business grows is the management of computing infrastructure to keep pace with changing needs. However, this shouldn’t divert resources from your core business.
“As our SMB customers grow, they want bigger, faster, more capable networks,” said Tris Simmons, senior product marketing manager at Netgear. “But technology can quickly become a distraction as it becomes more complicated, or burdensome in terms of management time.”
The first challenge is simply identifying what to upgrade. “When things are running slowly, typically the first thing people do is blame the wireless. But it could be the firewall struggling to handle too many connections at once,” said Simmons. “Some businesses are throwing all their investment into 802.11ac infrastructure, but you have to ask what your users are doing: are they all streaming Netflix, or just connecting to internal networks?”
The answer may be to buy in expertise: “Consider a site survey from one of the big network providers,” suggested Simmons. “That can be just about wireless, or you can look at all your switching and storage needs, and explore where you want to be in three or four years’ time.”
This doesn’t have to be hard, and modern cloud technologies can help: “Let’s say you’ve got a Netgear business router, and you need to install an additional wireless access point (AP),” said Simmons. “Once you put that AP in place, it ‘phones home’ and you can configure it via the cloud portal. You can install multiple APs, in multiple locations, and manage them all in the cloud. SMBs don’t want to manage sophisticated controller hardware: it’s cost-prohibitive, and too technical for most people. In the cloud you can define your AP, set up your SSIDs, define the clients that can go on there and make the configuration changes you need.”
The cloud also helps with business-critical services. “A decade ago, when your business expanded, you didn’t really have many options, other than investing in a dedicated server,” recalled Bedell-Pearce. “The cost of installing Exchange, and setting up a file and print server, was all hugely expensive for a small company.”
“Now you’ve got the cloud, and you can use VMs to run a lot of these services relatively cheaply. You can outsource things: you don’t need to set up your own Exchange server; you can buy virtual Exchange boxes for three or four pounds per month. It opens up a huge amount of functionality without the capital expenditure.”
In short, as your business grows, you can benefit by taking advantage of the independent services that are out there, so your staff can concentrate on what’s important. “Focus on the things that your company is good at,” advised Bedell-Pearce, “and outsource everything else you can.”