Do some digging, ask the difference between your business needs and wants, and plan ahead to create an information technology budget that gives you confidence in the future.
We all have limits within our budget. Sometimes that means we avoid starting - or even considering - a new project because of them. And when you take into account your time constraints, a comprehensive technology budget can feel like a luxury.
Too often, I see clients postpone their technology strategy because it seems expensive, they're unsure of their options, and frankly, their days are already full. But then they get stuck in a reactive pattern. Each expense that comes up feels like a fire to be put out.
"We want to start a new customer service initiative – let’s get a software license set up."
"Our digital storage is full – how to we get more space today?"
You address technology challenges on the fly, but you're masking a problem, not fixing it. Clients improve their peace of mind when they investigate what technology can - and should - do for them.
I know it sounds like another one of those things that you should do but can’t seem to make a priority. In reality, I see businesses get serious about IT strategy when they are ready to grow or make an impact. If maintaining the status quo isn’t good enough anymore, they consider ways to increase efficiency and improve ROI. Then a technology strategy becomes one of those "low hanging fruit" projects to finally complete.
When you identify the underlying cause for a technology purchase, you gain clarity around the decisions you make.
I met with Rachel recently, a Controller at Grand Rapids manufacturer. We talked through her plans for technology. Her employees wanted Wi-Fi throughout the office. She was interested. After all, it seems like most businesses have Wi-Fi. But when she looked into the cost, disappointment set in. It would cost about $10,000. Those dollars would have to come from somewhere else in the business.
So we investigated why her team wanted Wi-Fi. Rachel explained that while it was a convenience for employees, it made a big impact for customers visiting the office. “Okay,” I asked, “So what areas of the building do clients visit?” Visitors spend the majority of their time in the lobby or conference rooms. It turns out that it would cost about $4,000 to get Wi-Fi in those areas- a much more manageable investment for Rachel and her company.
With a little upfront effort, Rachel resolved her business dilemma within her technology budget. The investigation and planning was key. Rachel’s case isn’t rare. I’ve seen the same problems for many people, but the end result depends on how you face the problems.
A roadmap for investment helps you move in the right direction.For those who take the time to think about a technology budget (which believe it or not, is not always the case), many immediately jump to the “how”. What fields should I have in my spreadsheet? They approach their budget like a grocery list, trying to check each item off. Milk, eggs, and apples = Laptops, email hosting, and Internet. Templates abound for how to build that budget, but anyone in the technology field will recommend that you consider deeper questions about your organization.
Ask yourself questions like
- Are we planning to grow?
- How will that impact our work?
- Why do we need certain systems or technologies?
- How do we weigh needs versus preferences/conveniences?
- How will that impact our mission?
With your answers, you can create a wish list. As you prioritize that list, a cost analysis will help with your timeline for investments. When you’re working on a tight budget for operations, you need to make sure each dollar is going to make an impact.
Let’s say you’ve developed a plan. That is great work! Just prepare for the fact that nothing lasts forever. It's best to think in phases of 3-5 years to evaluate your technology purchases. We recommend that our clients then revisit those plans annually as further clarity develops around the short-term plans and we make projections for the future.
You don't need to be an IT expert; you can count on one.
If you’ve gotten to this point, you've probably come across another hurdle in your technology planning. You may have an idea of your upcoming business changes, but technology changes rapidly too. You focus on moving your business forward, not every new trend. Words like IOT, wearables, and fiber Internet float around in major news sources, but they mean little to you today. That’s why many small businesses rely on a technology partner. And that word, partner, is important. Too often, we see people struggle with a transactional relationship with their IT support provider. The provider sets up your systems, but if you have additional questions or want to build a real strategy, you can’t get clear answers.
For example, I hear a lot lately about hosting your systems in the cloud instead of a physical server. It's a hot topic that certainly doesn't seem to be going away. In many cases, this makes sense for a business. If you have times when you need more storage (maybe you direct massive amounts of people to your website for a one-day purchase), you can easily move it up and down depending on your busy seasons. But in other cases, cloud hosting might not be a good fit. It might end up costing more to re-set your systems. Or sometimes, your company philosophy is to buy up-front and make a product last, instead of paying for licensing.
Your partner should guide you through decisions but not make them for you. I tell our clients that we’re here to help, but at the end of the day, they need to set the strategy. We point to best practices and good approaches, instead of starting with “do this” or “don’t do that”.
When you’re thinking about technology on a budget, knowing the reasons and resources behind your decisions is going to make a world of difference.