Adrian Weckler’s guide to technology for small businesses
10 tech health checks for your business
1 How to smoothly upgrade your old work laptop
People put off upgrading to a modern, fast, secure laptop because of the hassle factor in moving files and documents. “I know where everything is on my current machine” is a common refrain. But you’re risking a breakdown if you keep using an old machine, especially one over five years of age.
Transferring files is now much more easily done than in the past.
A few downloadable services can do the heavy lifting, making sure that all your old files (and many of your programs or applications) are copied from one PC to another. They’ll even keep the same user profile and locations so everything seems familiar.
Laplink’s PCMover (laplink.com/pcmover) is one such option, starting at €23.95. However, like other such programs, this is done through a web link, so you’ll need a reasonably good broadband connection.
If you don’t want to spend money but just want to save some files, you can use one of the many free online storage services such as Dropbox or Onedrive. (Google Photos and Flickr give you almost unlimited free space for photos and videos, if that’s a sticking point.)
2 Update your IT security processes and make sure you have proper back-ups
In the last two months, separate waves of ransomware attacks have pillaged IT systems across Europe.
One of them, Wannacry, badly hit vulnerable institutions, such as hospitals and schools.
As a rule of thumb, the more up to date your IT systems are (newest operating system, recently checked security software, ‘two factor’ authentication for sensitive password-protected information), the better equipped you are to deal with such threats. But it’s critical to have a working, up-to-date backups of the data you can’t afford to lose. This isn’t that hard to do.
Online back-up and recovery services, such as Iron Mountain or Keep It Safe, perform a lot of the heavy lifting and are aimed at small businesses. If you’re a sole trader, alternatives such as Crashplan.com are an effective, user-friendly alternative.
3 Switching to a paperless office is doable for small firms
A switch to more paperless methods is easier to do than before and can pay off in less time wasted shuffling and filing paper documents. Docusign and other ‘digital signature’ software have full legal effect in most business transactions and there is a growing number of small firms that will accept such signatures. Even legal firms, considered the worst offenders for clinging to paper systems, are now doing it.
“We don’t send physical letters. We simply send everything by PDF or by email,” says Larry Fenelon, managing partner of Dublin-based Leman Solicitors, which has under 40 staff.
“If we receive physical correspondence, we date-stamp it, scan it and then it goes into an online intray, where it gets named, dated and assigned to a file. Docusign is a great tool.”
4 Clean out or update your accounts, both online and telecom
According to the most recent Comreg figures, there are still 3,000 active dial-up internet services and well over 100,000 active ISDN lines in Ireland. Many of these are legacy connections that businesses still have going.
Some may connect devices payment terminals but others are simply overlooked, hiding in the morass of monthly bills that business managers pay without sufficient scrutiny.
Similarly, it’s time to review which online accounts you’re actually using and close some of them down. Do you still need that Yahoo or Hotmail email address? Is the information you supplied to that Zoominfo or LinkedIn account still accurate?
5 Payment systems: you no longer need an expensive ‘merchant account’ with an Irish bank to take credit cards online
Thankfully, those days are fading. Services such as Stripe now let your website accept proper credit card transactions – like any other ‘serious’ business – without you having to jump through endless, tortuous hoops by one of the big three Irish banks. Take advantage of this: if you’ve always thought about trading online, allow your website to do so with one of these services.
They’re easy to incorporate for whoever is maintaining your site.
6 There is more funding available than you’d think if you have a good idea
Ireland is awash with competing funds and state grants for companies with actionable, innovative ideas and plans. Combined, private venture capital firms and state bodies, such as Enterprise Ireland, are placing almost €1bn per year into thousands of Irish start-ups and established companies. Outfits such as Frontline Ventures typically invest between €200,000 and €3m in early-stage software companies. On the state side, Enterprise Ireland invested an average of €140,000 in 229 Irish companies last year.
If you applied for one of EI’s €50,000 equity investment schemes, your chances weren’t bad: one in eight applicants was granted the investment.
Local Enterprise Boards widen the net with many more locally available grants and aides.
Even if you simply want to modernise your small firm’s tech or online capability, there are hundreds of “innovation vouchers” worth €5,000 available from Enterprise Ireland (the next deadline for applications is in September).
7 Update your devices to the latest operating systems
The latest online access figures for Ireland show that almost 5pc of our PCs are still using either Windows XP, Windows Vista or a defunct version of Windows 8. While lots of these machines are services specific utilities (such as ATMs or hospital scanners), some are still in use by small firms running shop or office gear.
In some cases, this is dangerously negligent and opens up a chunk of your ecosystem to all sorts of nasty malware and cyber attacks. Remember: Microsoft is no longer providing security support to these systems.
8 GDPR is not just for big corporations
You’ve probably read about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), an EU law coming into force next May. In a nutshell, it tightens up rules on data protection and data privacy, while massively increasing fines and penalties at the same time. Whereas small firms only had to worry about a slap on the wrist before, they now face administrative fines of thousands of euro straight from the Data Protection Commissioner’s office (as in, no court date).
We’ve written a lot about this separately, but you need to bone up on the new obligations you’ll face under the new law. You may also need to allocate related duties to a member of staff. There are a few international court cases under way that also may ultimately make you change your online storage or cloud providers.
9 How to make sure you never lose any phone contacts ever again
There’s one trick that anyone with any smartphone can do in 30 seconds to ensure contacts never again go walkabout with a lost or stolen phone. Simply save them into Google Contacts.
This is quite easy to do now, either on your old or new phone. Copy your sim contacts onto the phone (iPhone or Android) via ‘settings’ and then copy them again into your Google account (which is the same as your Gmail account). This now allows you to access your saved phone contacts on any phone, simply by adding your Google account in settings.
10 Start taking an online sales strategy more seriously
The phrase ‘that online stuff doesn’t apply to my business’ is one of the most dangerous utterances among Irish business owners. According to the most recent figures from Amarach Research, Irish people are abandoning offline methods of business, with online sales here doubling in the last two years. A third of sales here now occur online, compared to just 17pc two years ago. This is expected to rise to 40pc by the end of this year.
Whether you like it or not, your peers are already doing this. A recent report from the European Commission indicated that Ireland ranked first of 28 EU countries when it comers to small firms incorporating technology at work, a jump from third place last year. It said that Ireland scores especially well in ecommerce and online sales, compared to EU rivals.
A third (32pc) of Irish small to medium-sized businesses sell products or services online, said the Commission. This is twice the average among European small businesses.
It’s time to start taking your online channels much more seriously.
How to master your work mobile
1 How to cut your mobile bill in half and retain all your service
A great many Irish business people are still stuck paying €60 or €70 for their monthly plan, unaware that prices have halved in the last five years. Your operator will try to roll your plan over at the higher rate, offering discounts on phones.
But unless you’re getting a completely free iPhone 7 or Samsung S8, you should not be paying over €50 per month for your monthly plan.
If you are, you’re overpaying – all operators have plans with lots of data (over 10GB) and all calls and texts for under €40 per month.
To get the lower rate, simply rebuff your ‘account manager’s’ attempts to swiftly renew your plan. Tell him or her that you’re switching to a rival service that costs €30 per month and watch how quickly they cut the price of your plan. Don’t worry about disruption – they can’t mess with your phone number (which is effectively yours, not theirs).
2 Look out for expensive loopholes in your EU roaming allowances
As we all know, roaming is supposed to be free across the EU now. But most Irish mobile users still face roaming charges for data, the only thing that really counts for keeping in touch with your business when abroad.
While one operator (Vodafone) offers the same amount of data at home and across the EU, a rough rule of thumb for other operators is that you get around 2GB of roaming data for every €10 in your monthly bill. So if you have a €30 tariff, that’s around 6GB of roaming data (assuming you have at least 6GB of domestic mobile data).
One other thing to beware of is the actual service levels of roaming partners. While Irish operators insist that 4G speeds will be honoured abroad, there are many reports of sub-standard service for roaming Irish mobile users travelling in countries such as Germany, France, Spain and the UK.
This reporter has experienced the difficulties first-hand in Germany, with much slower speeds and service on both Three and Vodafone handsets. One bright spot is that most Irish operators have now indicated that they will not reintroduce roaming charges for Irish travellers to Britain when the UK leaves the EU.
3 Dump your Windows phone
Thousands of Irish business and public-sector phone users are stuck with Windows smartphones. This is largely the result of corporate deals struck to get the devices cheaper than iPhones or premium Android handsets.
Unfortunately, Microsoft and the phone industry have peeled back support for Windows phones, meaning there are very few new devices being made and virtually no Windows versions of major work apps you rely on. The sooner you bail out of the Windows Phone system, the better.
4 Ditch your rip-off low-data plan
Some operators have an outrageous scheme that keeps unknowing customers, who pay upwards of €50 per month, on ancient, miniscule data allowances, so that they can fall into pricing traps if they use their phone for online activity. Anything under 5GB of data per month could leave in trouble if you need to rely on your smartphone outside a wifi area.
This is especially so if you want to use a laptop when you’re out on the road and you can’t find a decent public wifi hotspot (see how to cut the cost of your dongle below).
For context, the average amount of data for a €35 monthly plan is at least 7GB to 10GB. Some plans offer up to 60GB for the same monthly tariff, usually with all calls and texts thrown in too.
5 Jettison your ‘dongle’, save a fortune
A few years ago, a dedicated ‘mobile dongle’ was a mainstream way of getting a bit of broadband to your laptop for a quick email hit. But there are still 348,820 Irish people with monthly subscriptions (anything from €15 to €50) to these services, typically held by mobile operators.
But in many cases, they’re entirely unnecessary. That’s because you can usually achieve the same effect by simply turning on your own phone’s ‘personal hotspot’. This turns your phone into a wifi hotspot for other devices. Whatever data speed your phone gets can be tapped into with your laptop. These days it is considerable – 4G mobile connections deliver well over 50Mbs in many city or town areas of Ireland.
This being the case, why are you continuing to spend hundreds of euro every year for your dongle service? Clearly, you need a reasonable amount of data (I’d recommend over 10GB) in your monthly plan to be totally safe doing this. But most modestly-priced plans offer this anyway.
10 useful work apps
Scanner Pro 7 (free with in-app purchases)
There are scanner apps and there are photo-to-text-translator (also called Optical Character Recognition, or OCR) apps. But this one does both in one neat app. It turns your iPad’s camera into a scanner by capturing a high-resolution image that can then be mailed, merged or tinkered with in a range of other ways as a PDF document. The OCR bit of it also translates any text in the camera’s photo into editable text: just take a snap of a page of text and Scanner Pro does a reasonable job of turning that into text you can work with.
Receipts and expenses are the bane of the business person. This is a very easy-to-use, well-laid-out app to log bills, credits, receipts, mileage and other common expenses. It gives you extra functionality, such as being able to import expenses from credit card or bank accounts.
Hotel Tonight (free)
Ever find yourself having to book somewhere on the road unexpectedly? This hotel-booking app is a specialist service made to offer discounted rates in a variety of hotel types on the day you need the hotel. However, it also lets you book in advance. It offers a few different options, from basic to luxury standards. It covers most cities and big towns in Ireland, as well as major cities abroad.
DocuSign (free with paid upgrades)
It is almost 20 years since ‘digital signatures’ were first flagged in Ireland. Even though many Irish institutions still look for faxed responses to signature-specific documents, a growing number now also accept digital signatures, such as those from DocuSign. It’s quite easy to use.
Slack (free with upgrades)
In some businesses, Slack has replaced email as a means of continuous work communication. The app, which can be used across any device and now includes Apple Watch support, basically speeds up messaging and file-sharing between co-workers. Other than its speed and simplicity, its strengths include being able to search for things quickly and integration with lots of other apps out there, including Dropbox, Zendesk and Google Drive. If you get used to this, it’s hard to return to email.
This work app performs especially well on tablets. It lets you import almost any kind of document or webpage and then clip text snippets or paragraphs to a clipboard on the other side of the screen. It’s fully editable later on. You just highlight the text and then drag it over with your finger. You can then attached the snippets together or simply keep collecting them. You can also ‘pinch’ the document to bring together the highlighted quotes or paragraphs. Finally, you can share (or export) the paragraphs to online services or email. An in-app €10 purchase lets you work off multiple documents or web pages at the same time.
There are lots of note-taking apps, but Evernote has an edge because it’s integrated into so many other services. The app works right across almost every type of device, meaning that you can access all of your notes, memos and documents (from years back too) on any gadget you like. It also allows voice notes and images. If you find you’re using Evernote a lot, it’s well worth downloading Evernote Scannable (a free, separate app), which scans documents and sends them right into Evernote.
If you fancy holding impromptu video conferences but don’t want or need the fancy effects or resolution of the likes of Cisco’s Webex, Google’s Hangouts is an excellent option. You can include up to 10 people in a conferencing session (voice or video) and you can also dial in people on ordinary phones if you want (although you’ll pay a network charge for that). You also have a limited ability to attach or display files, such as jpegs. You can even kick users out of conversations if you want to control the flow better.
Google Drive (free)
Google Drive is something of a utility these days. When all else fails in storing or saving something, it’s a very handy resource. It supports word-processing documents, presentations and other formats. As a cloud app, it then allows you to access and edit documents almost anywhere, including offline.
Adobe Acrobat reader (free)
You can pretty much save any document into a PDF. Once you do, just open the document in Acrobat Reader and you can then highlight text, scribble notes or draw things on the documents. The reason this is so useful is that the Irish business landscape is littered with PDFs. From Revenue guides to tender documents, there’s no escaping them. To be sure, there are plenty of ‘pro’ PDF apps that give a little extra functionality, but I’d try this one before investing in any of the others.
3 perfect laptops for SMEs
Apple iPad Pro 10.5 (from €749)
This is easily the best laptop-replacement device you can get on the market. Not only is it the fastest machine in its category but it’s the best-suited to casual work use and leisure. In 10.5-inch or 13-inch versions, the iPad Pro has Apple’s A10 chip which, for speed, beats about three-quarters of the laptops out there. Multitasking between programs and apps is also much better with iOS’s split-screen functionality. The newer 10.5-inch model has a significantly bigger screen than a traditional 9.7-inch iPad but is only marginally larger in size. This is because the ‘bezels’ (the non-screen bits at the side) have been narrowed to give more space over to the display. There’s also way more power, more storage and new technology in the screen via a 120Hz refresh-rate, meaning smoother scrolling and content motion. The Smart Keyboard (sold separately – other keyboards also work fine) doubles as a cover and makes typing speedy. The screen quality is close to the best on the market while it has four speakers and Apple’s TouchID fingerprint recognition system. Once you use one of these devices regularly, it’s hard to go back to a laptop.
Microsoft Surface Laptop (€1,169)
Microsoft has been putting it up to rivals such as HP, Dell and Lenovo with its own new computers. Its latest model is the ‘Surface Laptop’, a thin, light, powerful laptop that focuses as much on aesthetic appeal as on the engine under the hood. As a result, it has a fairly pleasing ‘Alcantara’ material-covered keyboard. Although it’s a touchscreen laptop, it’s not designed to fold right over like some competitor devices. But it comes with a lot of oomph, with Intel i5 or i7 processors and between 128GB and 512GB of storage. Battery life is as good as almost anything else and you’ll find that you will reliably get over eight hours of use.
HP Elitebook X360 (€2,100)
If you want a high-end work laptop that you can also live with around the clock, this may fit the bill. Designed for workaholics, it features a wraparound 13-inch screen that makes it double as a large tablet or a multimedia display. It comes with a battery-powered stylus pen, often a pricey extra purchase with touchscreen devices. Although most probably still don’t use styluses with laptops, it’s considered to be a growing niche. Because this doubles as a large tablet, it means you can use it effectively to sign PDFs that come your way. For such a powerful machine, it’s quite light at 1.3kg. The backlit keyboard is nicely ergonomic, with large keys spaced out. For the user, there’s a satisfying muted click to each key. The HD screen quality is excellent: a 4K option is also available.