The Best Products & Services for Small Business

This post will be fairly brief, just a list of the products and services that I use and implement for customers. Everyone has favorite brands, and reasons for them. As I’ve worked in the small office environment for a long time, these are the brands that I have found reliable and deliver the best price/performance in a business office.

If you’d ask me what I recommend for your small business or church office, below are my answers. (I get no compensation for mentioning any of them.)

PRODUCT / SERVICE
BackupComputAssist, iDrive
ComputAssist for business, iDrive for home. But most important, some kind of backup & recovery solution for everywhere. This is the most important thing you can do for your digital life. If you don’t have a tested recovery solution, drop what you’re doing and fix that now!
Desktop operating systemMac OS X, Windows 10
Consider Mac OS X if you are not tied to a Windows-only line-of-business app.
Server OSDevuan Linux
Free & free, stable, reliable, cross-platform, efficient, secure.
PCDell, Lenovo, Intel NUC
Small-form-factor PCs are great for almost eveyone, energy-saving and quiet. Dell has the Micro, Lenovo has the Tiny, Intel has the NUC. All highly recommended.
LaptopMacBook Pro, Thinkpad T
As with PCs, switch to Mac unless you have a business application that only runs on Windows. Those of you who know me say, “What, no Linux?” Nope, not for everyday end users. It’s great, it’s all I use for myself, but the marketplace has trained users to expect one desktop environment, one control panel, one file manager, etc. (whether it’s Windows or Mac.) The diverse world that is Linux presents so many choices it’s baffling.
Small office serverSynology Diskstation
Phenomenal small servers that can do so much more than serve files. Backups, VPN, camera surveillance, web apps and virtual machines are all in their bag of tricks.
PrinterBrother
All printers have their bad days. I’ve had fewer with Brother than most. Brother is also the most cross-platform, work-with-anyone brand I have found. And they don’t disable your printer if you use third-party cartridges.
RouterUntangle z4 hardware
A feature-complete router/firewall/threat management system that’s still fairly easy to use, owing to their very good browser interface. They have a free or subscription based model. Both are good, but go with the subscription for business.
Workstation/laptop driveSamsung SSD
For me they are a no-brainer. Good performance, reliability and price package. Need an SSD? OK, what size Samsung would you like?
Office suiteLibreOffice
A Free and free, open-source office suite that can do what you are likely to need in a small business. Does it match MS Office feature-for-feature? No, but give it a trial and see if you miss anything. The one missing piece is an Outlook replacement. But I encourage you to quit desktop Outlook and start using a browser for email anyway.
Web browserFirefox
This web browser is the only one that is open-source and supported by a non-profit company. Mozilla’s mission is to deliver a secure, free, open-source browser without monetizing you by collecting your private data.
SearchDuckduckgo
DDG is “the search engine that doesn’t track you.” They retain no history of your web searches. They don’t sell your data to advertisers. It’s been their mission from the beginning.
Web site frameworkWordPress
There was a time when WordPress was bug-ridden and insecure, and no self-respecting web author would use it. Welcome to now, where WP is mature, powerful yet easy to use, and in use by dabblers and professionals alike. There are so many templates and plugins to add to its framework, and it can save you so much time, you’d need a specific reason to use something else.
Inexpensive cell phone planPureTalk
I discovered this MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) a number of years ago. Like many today, they offer simple no-frills plans for a great value. Get all the minutes and gigs you need at a huge discount from the big name providers.
Inexpensive home phone serviceVoIP.ms
I saved this for last, because to take advantage of it you’ll need to do a little studying. VoIP.ms provides the phone-over-internet service, and you provide the digital handset or adapter for your home. They have all the tutorials you need to get set up, and will port your number in for free. I average less than $5 a month for home phone using their services.

I hope this list is helpful to you. I’ve saved you a bunch of research, and you won’t go wrong with any of these options.

Old Computers – False Economy?

Here at ComputAssist, my mission is to remove technological barriers that stand in the way of you doing your mission. One barrier to accomplishing your mission may surprise you—old computers!

Typical computer lifecycles in large enterprises run as little as three years! Before the warranty expires, the machine is replaced. In small business, however, the norm is more like, “run it ‘til it’s dead!” Six or seven years is not uncommon, and I have seen as long as fifteen! Do you realize a strategy like that may actually cost you money?

A regular replacement lifecycle for computers will keep you up to date and avoid lost staff productivity. Doing the math it’s simple to see that a new PC can easily pay for itself in the first year by saving an employee just a few percent of his or her time every day. Not to mention avoiding downtime from hard drive and other system failures.

An example using typical numbers: 2.5% time saved x $20 per hour x 2,000 hours annually = $1,000.

That’s assuming a new computer saves the user just 12 minutes a day! And more efficient new hardware means you’ll likely also save on reduced electricity usage and lower building heat loads.

Granted, there are other factors to consider, like CapEx vs OpEx, the labor hours required for the replacement, and hardware and software compatibility issues. You’ll need to run the numbers for your office and make your own determination.

Consider making computing hardware a part of your budget and plan for replacements on a regular cycle. (Hint: if your PCs are still beige, this means you!) If three years is too short a cycle for you, consider a maximum of four or five.

Creating Distinction

The end of one year and the beginning of the next is often a time for reflection and setting personal goals. As a business owner, manager or staff, it’s a good time to set some business goals as well.

I’ve been reading quite a few books lately and want to share an excellent one.

Create Distinction, by Scott McKain

Create Distinction book

Scott McKain is a marketing consultant, best-selling author and keynote speaker who advises companies on standing out in an overcrowded marketplace. This book on marketing explains his approach to helping small businesses rise above the crowd and get noticed.

How do you stand out from the crowd?

With the widespread use of internet search by consumers, and the ease with which most services and products can be cloned, what can a small business do to achieve customer awareness and even fandom?

McCain argues that high-quality products and great customer service are the minimum requirement today. Once you have achieved those, you are simply at parity with your competition. Yes, you must have a great product and stellar customer service. Quality and service are not differentiators, they are the minimum expected. You need great quality and service just to survive. But you need more.

He uses the examples of Starbucks and Apple. Starbucks sells coffee, but everyone knows Starbucks. Apple sells computers, but everyone knows Apple. What have they done to become “a category of one” in their industries?

Typical differentiators are not enough

McKain says there are four ideas behind creating distinction:

  • Clarity
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Customer experience

Distinction is rare because copying is easier. Your competition adds a new feature, longer hours, a free add-on, and you respond by doing the same. Most companies are competing against competitors instead of for the customer, “not losing to the competition” rather than delivering what customers crave.

When people are overwhelmed with boring similarity, they begin to perceive that what is different is better. When faced with a bewildering array of similar products and services to choose from, they notice that one is different, and assume it is superior. By being different, you distinguish yourself from everyone else and win the customer’s attention. Then you can deliver your superior quality product and excellent customer service and remain distinctive.

A couple of things I took away from the book:

You need to tell a story about your service. People want to know you first, not buy from you. The trust comes first, the sale after. Use clarity (focus) and creativity to make your story unique, communicate that to your audience and listen to their response, and then deliver that amazing, memorable customer experience.

Small business marketing is different. Don’t imitate the big Fortune 500 companies. What works for them is irrelevant to you. They may be able to blanket the market with a message that says nothing more than, “Hey, we’re Pepsi.” But small businesses do not have the resources to “farm the world.” With a small budget, targeting a niche becomes very important.

In Create Distinction, McKain provides a method to spur you on in making your small business stand out to prospects as one of the best.

View this book at Amazon.com.

Using Windows 7 after Jan 14th 2020

The Windows 7 operating system is reaching end of support. Microsoft will soon begin displaying a warning on your computers that still run this OS:

I strongly recommend that you replace your Windows 7 PCs. Older PCs should be recycled, newer Win 7 PCs can be upgraded to Windows 10. But if, for whatever reason, you must keep using Windows 7, here are a few must-dos. These are good practice for anyone, but as a vulnerable target, they are particularly important when you are using Windows 7.

Here is the condensed version:

  • Don’t click links or open attachments in emails
  • Examine all search results very carefully before clicking
  • Run up-to-date security software that includes Internet protection

Most attacks on Windows 7 PCs will come via email or hacked web sites. So treat your inbox like a minefield, and your searches like a covert operation.

Windows 7 and Email

No matter how safe an email appears to be, you must not click any links or open any attachments until you are absolutely certain that the email is genuine. Every link and every attachment must be suspect. You cannot go by appearance — the attacks can look identical to a legitimate message from your bank, a shipping company, or a friend from your address book.

You can evaluate links, buttons and clickable images in an email by pointing at them without clicking. Most email clients will show a tool-tip or hint somewhere on screen that displays the actual content of the link. (Go ahead and try it with the links in the sidebar to the right. Remember, point, but don’t click.)

Using my bank as an example, let’s say I receive an email that tells me to check my account, with a link to First National Bank. If I then hover my mouse pointer on the link, a tip will pop up showing where the link will actually take you. If it’s genuinely First National, the link should look like this: https://fnbo.com/somepage… The fnbo.com part is the bank’s actual domain name. If the link is to anywhere else, like https://someotherplace.ru/…, you know it is a malicious email.

Windows 7 and the Web

When using a web search page, be extremely careful where you click! Don’t just look at the big bold titles of search results — just as with email links, check the URL (usually shown below the title.) It should have a believable domain name in it, related to what the title shows. Be wary of links that don’t end in .com, .net or .org. They may be legit, but country-code domains (.ru, .cn, .br, etc) are sometimes used for malicious purposes.

Sometimes you hear or are given a web address to visit. It may be a radio ad or billboard, or a friendly recommendation–“Hey, you should check out example.com!” When you already know where you want to go, do not type the address into a search box. This is almost guaranteed to return imposters and look-alikes. Instead, use the address bar at the very top of your browser window to enter URLs.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ksnip_20200110.png

Windows 7 and Security (AV) software

It goes without saying, but I will stress it anyway–a good security program like Bitdefender, ESET or Sophos is absolutely necessary on your Windows 7 PCs after Microsoft support ends. It must be the latest version, with an active subscription and up-to-date threat data. You need the most effective defense you can have on a vulnerable system.

The best option is still to not use Windows 7 anymore. But the real world sometimes overrules best practices for a variety of reasons. If you must keep using Windows 7, please follow these recommendations to stay as safe as you can.