When Lisa Turner made the transition from the corporate world to running her own small business and working from home, she didn’t miss the snarling rush hour commuter traffic or working late almost every night of the week. But she did miss the information technology guy who worked down the hall from her office.
“One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a small business is finding affordable IT support,” said Turner, owner of LMT Media, a Brickell-based sales and marketing firm. “When I started working from home, I really missed having an in-house IT department just a phone call away when my computer crashed or my email didn’t work.”
The first time her computer stopped working from her home office, Turner immediately turned to the Internet to find help.
“I tried a few local independent consultants I found from a Google search,” said Turner. “That was an interesting experience to say the least.”
Turner’s search led her to hire a consultant whom she soon discovered was moonlighting and actually had a day job. “I figured he wasn’t working during the day because he could only work at night and the sense of urgency just wasn’t there,” said Turner. “If my computer crashed or my network went down during the day, it was always a real challenge trying to get a hold of someone to help me.”
One particularly harrowing episode nearly put her into a panic. “One day my network and email went down, and the IT guy I had at the time literally went dark on me. I had to track down his wife, who was able to track him down. It was scary.’’
Now, Turner uses Network Solutions, a large online marketing company, to host her website. “I can sleep at night now knowing that my entire business isn’t in the hands of a single person who could just stop returning my calls at any time.”
IT provider Ivan Mladenovic sees frustrated small business owners like Turner every day. Whether the problem is a broken laptop, a network connectivity glitch or software that isn’t working correctly, small businesses turn to Mladenovic to get the job done.
“IT support for small business owners is a void that major retailers like Best Buy are trying to fill,” said Mladenovic, whose South Miami-based computer repair business, Tech Bar, serves clients around the U.S. “But that can often be a pricey proposition.” While Geek Squad charges approximately $50 to diagnose an IT problem, Mladenovic charges $35 and deducts the fee from the repair cost.
Leah Adams of Parrish Designs, a wedding florist located in Miami’s Bird Road Art District, tried Best Buy’s service, Geek Squad, but was disappointed. “We had to take our equipment in to the Geek Squad and pay just to have it looked at to see what the problem was,’’ she said. “In the end, it was very expensive and it took a long time.”
Office Depot and Staples offer similar services — but like Geek Squad, the cost can run into hundreds of dollars to troubleshoot a complex, time-intensive problem at a client’s home or office.
Adams opted instead to find a local IT company to handle the firm’s needs. “Finding a local company was important to us, particularly one that was close to our business so that if we have a need, we can call and someone will be here in 20 minutes. The local option was a great fit for us.”
So what is a small business owner in need of IT support to do? There are several options, according to IT experts like Stephanie Sylvestre, an IT professional with over 17 years of experience. Sylvestre recommends cloud computing solutions.
“If you’re a small company with less than five employees or you work from home, you don’t have to incur the expense of setting up servers and building an IT infrastructure,” said Sylvestre. Your data is stored via a cloud-based business — which means that if your computer crashes or your network punks out, you’ve still got the information you need to run your business, provided that you regularly back up files.
Sylvestre recommends looking at companies like Rackspace, Amazon and Google that offer affordable cloud services for small business owners. “And most cloud companies also offer free technical support, some even offer it around the clock so no matter what time your computer, website or network goes down, you can speak to someone who can help solve the problem.”
Sylvestre also recommends developing an IT strategy for your small business. “You’ve got a marketing strategy, an advertising strategy and even a social media strategy,” said Sylvestre. “But most small companies don’t have an IT strategy. It’s a small investment in your business that can pay big dividends in the long run in terms of saving time and money.”
Vet repair and support companies before you hit a problem, she suggests. And when it comes to storing and backing-up data, consider both purchasing your own external hard drives and cloud options in terms of security, cost and time involved should your data be lost.
George Gremse, chairman of the nonprofit Broward SCORE, has worked with small business owners looking for IT resources for years. He recommends asking other small business owners for referrals.
“There’s nothing like the experience of other small business owners to help you decide who to hire,” said Gremse. “Once you get a referral from a business colleague, go online to sites like Yelp and Angie’s List to look at the experiences others have had with a particular company.”
Another option is to buy a block of hours from a trusted IT professional that you can draw against whenever you need, similar to a retainer, suggests Mladenovic.
“Many computer repair shops offer packages that include a certain number of hours each month or each year that you can use as things come up and you need support.”
Yet another option for small business owners is paying an annual subscription fee. For a yearly fee of $199.99, Office Depot tech support personnel will access your computer remotely and help you solve IT problems. AOL’s TechGuru service offers remote access tech support starting at $24.99 a month for one computer, while Support.com offers a similar service for a $399.99 to provide support for three computers.
Annual subscription services do have a downside though, particularly when it comes to privacy. “Can you really trust your computer in the hands of a stranger over the phone accessing your hard drive remotely?” said Mladenovic. “That is a question that you as a small business owner has to answer and be comfortable with.”
Leah Adams didn’t feel comfortable with just anyone accessing Parrish Designs’ computer network. “That’s why we opted for having a local company work with us,” said Adams. In the past she has used several local firms, but now she works exclusively with Mladenovic’s Tech Bar. “Yes, they can access our computer network remotely, but we also know where they are located and can come to their offices anytime. It’s that face-to-face customer service relationship that was really essential for us.”
For Sylvestre, finding quality IT support boils down to one thing. “To get the best value, you have to understand what the goals are for your company.’’ Then, she says, you can decide how much that’s worth to you.