How To: Be a Tech Consultant for Small Businesses

Tech consulting has become a thriving industry for several key reasons. First off, there are many businesses devoid of any direction to establish an efficient workflow. It only takes a few steps for small businesses to effectively utilize currently available online technologies and services. Unfortunately, similar to SEO work, technical consulting can be very expensive - often too expensive for the startup or small business. This article aims to help you benefit from this gap and provide affordable technical consulting aid to small businesses.

Putting the Web to Work

Some of the time, a tech consultant is just the person that knows about online services that can help a business scale that the businesses don't know about. Small businesses don't have the time to check popular and do all the web stuff I do, so how else would they know about the web services below?

Whenever I do tech consulting for clients (read: family friends), I often introduce them to these services right off the bat:

  • Everything made by 37 Signals - It's amazing how unorganized businesses can increase productivity with simple web apps like Basecamp allowing them to manage projects and collaborate regardless of whether they have 2 employees or 2,000.

    For those parties of 1, Backpack is a great service. Mentioning to your client that 37 Signals services have over 500,000 users helps your persuasive abilities tremendously.

  • Blinksale - This powerful web application takes care of everything related to invoices. Blinksale creates invoices, sends them to clients online, keeps track of payments, past due invoices - everything. For those Mac-savvy businesses, there is a great OS X application called Billable that is something to look into for invoicing.

    Other mention-worthy online invoicing services include Side Job Track and FreshBooks. Such online invoicing services can provide vital infrastructure for the maturing business with organized and professional-looking invoices.

  • Harvest - For the small businesses that would like to keep track their work time, Harvest is the way to go. It has an excellent interface and can organize time into things like billable, non-billable, employee hours and the like. Similar to the OS X app Billable, On The Job tracks time and can create invoices. Derek reviewed it back in July.

Backup, Backup, Backup!

Data reliability, integrity and preparedness are areas that businesses are most concerned with. Losing a month's worth of work can be devastating for a startup or any business really. For the really small companies with only a few employees, it might be beneficial to get an external hard drive for every employee and tell them to sync their files daily. Software like EMC Retrospect is often included on high-end external drives and is a robust solution. I recommend the Western Digital 500GB My Book Pro external hard drive. It comes with Retrospect Express and sports USB 2.0, FW400 and FW800 connections. There is even a 1TB version of the My Book Pro which allows you to set up a RAID 0 or RAID 1 configuration.

The next level of protection would be setting up a RAID 1 mirroring hard drive setup to prevent any possible data loss from disk failure. However, a RAID 1 setup won't keep data safe from a negligent employee. A RAID 1 hard drive setup as mentioned can be complemented with data storage not directly used with the operating system. This way, if the OS dies/corrupts for whatever reason you still have another place where you can retrieve your data.

For the reasonably sized startup or small business, an in-house server on the LAN is probably the best solution. A dual-core Xeon server with 10k or 15k RPM SCSI (none of that non-server-grade SATA crap that cheap web hosts use) drives would make a novel choice. Don't forget to tack on a reliable UPS. If the cost of a server is out of the question until your startup finds some venture capital, a 500GB NAS is much cheaper and can offer similar file-sharing functionality on the network.

Alternatively, if the small business is blessed with a potent internet connection, online storage is an affordable second line of defense after external hard drives, RAID 1 or what have you. I am referring to no other than Amazon S3. It costs only a few cents per gigabyte stored or transferred yet I will only consider it a viable solution when paired with said potent internet connection.

Online Presence, Brand

There's no question about it - they're going to need a website, a good one at that. Small businesses should plan to spend at least 2,000 to 3,000 and many hours with the web designer. It is imperative that the designer has a crystal clear idea of the business's values, mission, philosophy and what the site should convey.

For businesses on a tighter budget, hiring a designer to create the site design and then outsourcing the XHTML/CSS to an affordable service like Sitethrive can save some money.

If the business can benefit from personal contact, the web developer should have downloadable vCards on the website in addition to supporting the hCard microformat - just to be future-proof.

After the site is live and if the site's success is directly related to the business's growth and revenue (ie, it's an online-only business), the business should hire an employee that spends all day on the web. This employee can maintain the online reputation of the small business and ensure that people are saying good things and give their apologies/suggestions if people are saying bad things. The typical role of this employee would be commenting on blog posts regarding the business.

Similarly, taking advantage of customer-driven marketing is the key to a successful business. Take a look at the Firefox browser. Firefox has a huge following of supporters that actively promote it for no monetary benefit - they just love the product and would like others to check it out. I take part in customer-driven marketing for flickr. I love it and I want people to use it. Unfortunately, everyone in my family uses Shutterfly - I can't even begin to express how this pains me, but that's another article in itself.

However, I don't believe there is a sure-fire way to get customers to market for you other than simply creating a stellar product or service.