Small business advice based on your questions

Earlier this month, many of you responded to the opportunity to ask Michael Dell your top business-related questions. The small business IdeaStorm community voted, and the top five questions and answers are below.

You’ll notice the answers are from me, not Michael. We reviewed these questions together, and as the head of Dell’s Global Online team, he asked that I respond to those relevant.

We’re still planning on a vlog with Michael. Watch for that on the blog soon. In October, our Brazil, Canada, Mexico and U.S. Small Business Excellence Award winners will be in Austin, and we will share video from their best-practice sharing session with him.

Before we get going, we have a question for you:

  • Do you want more specific IT-related advice — like the questions you posed to Michael? A lot of our content so far has been more about the role technology can play in helping you grow and be more profitable vs. some of the specific IT topics brought up in the community’s questions.

We’d love to hear from you on how we can continue to improve this blog and provide the right, unique content that meets your needs and keeps you engaged.

While it’s not the vlog with Michael, I hope you find the information useful. If you have follow-on questions, I’m glad to continue the conversation.

Q. If your business isn't large enough for an IT department, what would you suggest for the best way to maintain your business (from sugarbear)?

First, we are working hard to simplify IT overall so you can focus on your business not the technology running it. You consistently tell us that easy to use computer hardware is the most important issue driving your IT purchases. We think we are hitting that mark with our Vostro and other business product lines and hope you’ll keep the feedback coming as we continue our focus on simplifying IT.

You can take advantage of services from Dell or our authorized partners. At Dell, we have small-business dedicated sales advisors and support agents, as well as ProSupport services that offer direct access to certified technicians 24/7 and small business software application assistance and configuration help. We are starting to rollout some very exciting Managed Services for Small Business in select cities. If you are in Dallas and soon to be New Your City, you may want to consider looking at managed services as a way to proactively monitor your environment and fix issues before they occur.

Local solution providers are also a good choice for small businesses. Dell has 25,000 registered and certified channel partners worldwide that can effectively serve as your “virtual IT department.”

Finally, use your network of other entrepreneurs or IT professionals – many of us rely on our more technical nephew or “trusted advisor” when we have IT questions we’re not sure how to solve. You can find more and more of these people in our community forums and chat rooms – plenty of great advice can also be found from the community’s accepted solutions.

Q. What core resources or methods do you feel should be employed to keep an IT staff organized? Web-based help-desk, in-house IT wiki (from Evan).

Community tools provide a number of ways for an IT Staff to stay (or start being) organized. Blogs can assist in deployments since they can log, day-by-day, what happens and provides a system of record for both issues and successes. Also, when identifying requirements for a new tool, blogs can help capture discussions and track committee decisions.

Forums and wikis are great for environment setup and issue resolution since they offer an architectural diagram that keeps track of issues and solutions. A centralized in-house wiki will provide you a sustainable tool for knowledge transfer.

Wikis are also helpful when it comes to team management. Tasks are unique, but people don’t change. With a team wiki you can do relational indexing to track the skill-set of your team.

Online IT-related communities like ITtoolbox and Microsoft TechNet are good resources for fresh ideas and content, especially for smaller IT departments that may not have a robust knowledge of all the various software, network and hardware systems a company uses. These kinds of communities allow you to share ideas and get help from others in your field.

Q. We have found that this level of integration offers a lot of advantages to us but the training resources for methods of deployment are few. Who offers the best quality training for small business IT employees (from Evan)?

Training – online or in-person – often comes down to budget. Another consideration on how to extend your training budget is to use a vendor or external resource to train your IT staff, and then have them educate employees on how to use the necessary applications and software. Microsoft offers IT training and certification through online courses, webcasts and in-person events. Dell Training offers Small Business training courses, as well.

I’d also suggest you build a feed in Google reader of really good technology tips and ideas. There is a ton of good thoughts and training in the blogosphere.

Q. When building a new medical office (13,000 sq ft medical office with 13 exam rooms and 30 computer stations using electronic medical records) what would be the most streamlined desktop system to use (from Jeannette Burris)?

I recommend the Optiplex 755 Ultra Slim Form Factor, with a 17in monitor and all in one stand that holds the computer behind the monitor.

Q. What is the best way and the best software to create my own site? Buy big bucks, or save a little (from AWWang)?

It all depends on what you want to do and how quickly you need to scale. There are plenty of great hosted options from companies like Rackspace and GoDaddy. For a company blog, you might even want to look at options like TypePad and Blogger. For a small additional cost, you can really customize the look-and-feel creating a professional site.

Another option is to work with a professional web firm who can create your site – your hosting costs can be relatively inexpensive. If you have access to your own Web developers, you definitely want to look at one of our SMB servers. There are tons of professional applications from Microsoft and Adobe that you can use to build your site, or you can go open source with software like WordPress.

Bottom-line is that this is probably the most important marketing investment you will make, so take the time to get it right. And creating your own site today requires more than just a good site design. Your site should have relevant content that improves SEO (search engine optimization) and addresses the needs of your customers.

About the Author: Andy Lark