Stupid small business tech mistakes, and how to prevent them

Don't fall victim to these 15, all-too-common mistakes that will cost money and could drive your business into the ground.

If you're not particularly tech-savvy, then purchasing, maintaining, and securing technology for your business can be a confusing situation to navigate. You may already know plenty about what you should do, but what about what you should not do?

Everything including not backing up your data, using social networking tools incorrectly (or not at all), and using pirated software can affect your bottom line in a bad way. Here are 15 tech mistakes that small businesses make over an over again, and what you need to do to prevent them.

1. Relying Too Heavily on the Cloud

Cloud storage is an excellent resource for small businesses. It's often affordable, and it allows you to access data when you're away from the office. However, relying too heavily on the cloud can be dangerous, as it means placing all of your important data in the hands of another company or person.

Even Yahoo's Flickr recently accidentally deleted one user's account--which had over 4000 photos stored on it--due to simple human error. Luckily, Flickr was able to restore the account fully later, but you may not be so lucky.

While the cloud is a great place to visit, you shouldn't make a permanent home there. Network-attached storage (NAS) drives and cloud storage services including Box.net are among the products that can be part of a solid storage strategy. Always save your important data in several places, including on physical drives--such as those that are virtually indestructible, such as ioSafe's disaster-proof external hard drives.

2. Failing to Back Up Appropriately

Speaking of backing up data, backup strategies are useless if you don't use them. Unfortunately, this is often the case with individuals and businesses alike. Just having a physical hard drive or a cloud-based storage account won't help you if you fail to keep your data backed up and your technology relevant.

Luckily, backup programs will do this for you. Back up your data on a frequent and regular basis, so you don't have to do it manually. It's especially critical to establish a good backup strategy if you're a small business with no dedicated IT staff to do it for you; data recovery is a painful, expensive process.

3. Not Protecting Employee's Phones

As smartphones get smarter, it's time to take a look at securing these miniature computers in our pockets. Because smartphones carry so much sensitive data, it's important to take steps to secure both your own and your employees' phones. Huge business secrets have leaked out because thoughtless employees have gotten a little tipsy.

Ensure that your company's smartphones are password-protected (Passwords like "1234" or "9999" don't count), have remote wipe capabilities enabled, and have a secure operating system (BlackBerry allows users to encrypt SD cards, for instance), just in case someone does leave a handset in a bar somewhere. For more granular controls, also investigate smartphone management software, such as NotifyMDM.

4. Taking Too Many Trips

Business trips can be expensive, even you happen to be an airfare ninja. Instead of hopping on a plane to meet your business partners, consider using technology to create a virtual meeting environment. Various Web conferencing and video conferencing tools enable you to hold a virtual conference and save on time and transportation.

Plus, studies show that telecommuting is good for both employers and employees. Employers will get better quality work in less time and for less money, while employees will enjoy a less-restrictive schedule.

5. Disposing of Old Technology Incorrectly

You can't just toss computers, smartphones, and other gadgets in the trash, because they contain hazardous materials that can damage the environment. In a worst-case scenario, disposing improperly of old tech can cost you in fines. But this doesn't mean you have to spend a lot of money for someone else to dispose of it properly.

Instead, consider cleaning up and reselling your old tech. Obviously this means your technology has to be in working condition, although some companies will still take phones with cracked screens. If your tech passes the standards of companies such as Gazelle or NextWorth, then remember to wipe your data first and then send along the gear, and you may get a decent check to use toward your office upgrade.

6. Failing at Social Networking

Social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook are excellent resources for small businesses to develop an online presence. However, they're not so excellent if you never use them, if you automate them, or even worse, if you use them to get into online spats with customers.

Having a Twitter account and only tweeting impersonal, promotional one-liners is almost as bad as having no Twitter account at all. After all, the key to social networking is the "social" part--not the networking.

Twitter can be dangerous, too. Just recently, Kenneth Cole made light of the current situation in Egypt with a tweet that said: "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo." This tweet offended many people, and something similarly insensitive could spell absolute disaster for a small business.

Social networks are a great, free way to build relationships with customers, so it's absolutely worth it to do some research before jumping into the fray.

7. Not Researching Your Printer

Many small businesses do a lot of in-house printing, but that doesn't mean you should run out and purchase the best "deal" of a printer that you can find. Researching printers before purchasing one can help you save a lot of money. To start, should you stick with a laser printer workhorse, or opt for an inkjet, or get both?

It's important to know how much the ink or toner will cost, because this will be the deciding factor in the long run. Many "cheap" printers will slowly leach money from your business with jacked-up ink or toner prices. It's also a good idea to consider refilling your ink instead of purchasing new cartridges each time.

8. Taking the Groupon Way Out

Groupon and other social-shopping Websites can seem like a godsend for struggling businesses. Just offer your product or service up at a deeply discounted price, and get hundreds or thousands of brand new customers.

But if you're a small business, don't be so easily wooed by the potential advertising and new customers. Many small businesses are finding that offering Groupon-like deals can be a nightmare. A number of things can go wrong, especially if you don't have the staff, time, or budget to accept hundreds of new customers purchasing your services for a fraction of the usual price. Offering a Groupon deal that you can't deliver on will not only cost you money, it will cost you your reputation.

9. Slacking on Security, Security, Security!

Your business may be small and unassuming, but that doesn't mean people aren't ready to steal your secrets. Along with securing your employees' smartphones, it's important to make general IT security a priority.

Make sure that you know the ins and outs of your operating system's security features, and that you have updated firewalls and antivirus programs in place.

It's also important to practice safe computing. E-mail and social networking accounts are particularly vulnerable to viruses and spam, so keep different passwords for different accounts and don't click on any sketchy links. This might seem like common sense, but more than half of small businesses have no IT security guidelines in place, according to protection firm AVG.

10. Paying for Photos

There are plenty of reasons small businesses use stock photos, such as updating Websites and creating original blog posts, advertisements, and so forth. But before you purchase those two or 20 stock photos to pretty up your company's blog, check out free sources, such as photos labeled with a Creative Commons license.

Many Flickr users upload their photos under a Creative Commons license, which means you'll likely be able to use their photos in exchange for attribution. To find Flickr photos with Creative Commons licenses, go to Flickr's "Advanced Search" page and check the box at the bottom of the page that says "Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content." If you plan on using the photos for commercial purposes, or if you want to modify them in any way, check the corresponding boxes. You can also search beyond Flickr by looking up Creative Commons pictures on Google's Image Search.

11. Buying Extended Warranties

If you don't know a lot about technology, then purchasing an extended warranty to cover your new gadget may seem like a good idea. However, it's been proven over and over again that buying in-store extended warranties is generally not worth it.

Obviously, it will always depend on what you're buying, what the warranty covers, and what type of person you are. If you're purchasing a smartphone and you plan to bring it on a lot of whitewater rafting trips, then you may want to think twice about that (and check if the warranty covers water damage). But if you're purchasing a new PC that's going to sit on your desk at work, you probably don't need that warranty.

12. Ignoring Your Online Reputation

Small business owners know that reputation is everything, and this also applies to your online reputation. Even if you don't think you have much of an online presence, customer review and consumer advocacy sites allow your customers to voice their opinions on the Web without your explicit consent.

That's why it's important to monitor your business's online presence regularly, and research how your company appears in search results. What you don't know could be hurting you. If you do find out that your online presence is less than savory, you'll need to take the appropriate face-saving steps to rebuild your good name.

13. Choosing the Wrong Tech Support

Tech support is a tricky subject. After all, if you're a small enough business and you "know a guy," why bother hiring a professional, right? Maybe. Gartner research has found that small businesses generally try to use as little IT help as possible, but this is not necessarily a good thing.

While you can use your cousin's girlfriend's dog-trainer's little sister--or even hire a remote professional on a per-problem basis--if you plan on expanding your business at all, it may be a good idea to hire a part-time or full-time professional. Not only will you be able to build a better relationship with an in-house IT pro, but you'll also be able to expand technologically and upgrade your company seamlessly.

14. Skipping the Training Session

It may seem like I'm stating the obvious, but technology is useless unless you know how to use it. Purchasing an expensive new printer or desktop will only be a waste of money if you and your business don't know how to use it to its full potential.

Employee training is especially important if you don't employ full-time IT support, because your workers will be on their own if something goes wrong. This doesn't necessarily mean you need to bring in an external trainer--though the investment might be worth it. Just make tech training a priority and ensure that everyone learns the fine points within the instruction manual.

15. Using Pirated Software

Purchasing software and the associated licenses for your small business can be daunting. It's often expensive, and it's easy to obtain applications instead through less-than-savory venues. That said, using pirated software can score you a hefty fine from the Business Software Alliance watchdog group.

However, this doesn't mean you have to overpay for software. Instead, check out alternative options, such as using free software, buying unused licenses, or paying monthly for services. Also consider purchasing used software, but make sure you know the intricacies of software licensing agreements.

If you happen to be guilty of one--or several--of these tech errors, don't worry, because you're definitely not the only one. However, now you know what mistakes to look out for and how to fix them when you see them. Ultimately, fixing these errors now will help you save money, create a more efficient workplace, and keep you from serious crises down the road. After all, technology is supposed to help--not hurt--your business.

Follow Sarah on Twitter @geeklil or on Facebook.

This story, "Stupid small business tech mistakes, and how to prevent them" was originally published by PCWorld.

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