-- Q: Unfortunately, it seems like it is time for our company to invest in a new computer system. I know I am supposed to be frugal right now, but we need what we need. Can you offer any help on saving or otherwise doing it right? We made an expensive mistake buying some wrong stuff last time and I don't want a repeat of that. — Jessie
A: I think the first thing you have to consider when making an investment in IT for your small business is the purpose of the system. The answer may not be as simple as it might seem at first blush.
You may think that you need new computers to better handle your increasingly mobile workforce, for instance, and that is a good answer. But I would like to suggest that it also may be short-sighted.
Businesses use IT for two different things. The first is internal – your computer system must integrate and facilitate communications between your employees and teams. Secondly, externally, your system needs to help you market and sell your business and assist your communications with customers.
That means you may need a system and software more powerful than you may realize.
What you probably want are PCs and servers that are optimized for small business, that offer "always on" connectivity, that maintain top performance, possibly even VoIP, and something that will allow you to have a robust Internet presence.
Which begs the initial question: How can you afford to get what you need, and maybe what you want as well?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Consider an upgrade or tune up:If money is really tight, you can extend the life of your current system for a few hundred dollars or less.
2. Buy more memory:Along the lines of No. 1, increased hard drive capacity, either internal or as an external hard drive, can help speed up and un-clutter almost any system.
3. Go green:If purchasing a new system, buying one that is highly energy efficient can save you substantial sums on your energy bill. Flat screen monitors, Energy Star systems, and so on will help you, as well as the rest of us.
4. Lease:This is my favorite cost-savings idea. It came from a chat I recently had with Steve Schuckenbrock, the chief information Officer at Dell. Schuckenbrock explained that since most small businesses only keep a computer system for three to four years, leasing can be an affordable, smart alternative to what could be a major expenditure of capital.
Moreover, not only can you finance the hardware, but you can also finance software and services, thus a system and strategy that works both internally and externally can fall within the budget.
Schuckenbrock explained that there were other benefits to leasing your computer system:
• It stretches your IT dollar further. For instance, $5,000 could net you about three computers on a purchase, but nine if you lease.
• Leasing is flexible: You can lease for 24, 36, or 48 months, and at the end of the term options range from a buy out to a return to getting a whole new system.
• It keeps you up-to-date: There are few things more frustrating than having a fairly new computer that nevertheless lacks the capacity to run the latest Big Thing. Leasing avoids that unenviable position.
• You are always under warranty: Service contracts come with most leases.
Here's an example: Davis & Wilkerson is an Austin, Texas based law firm that recently leased 50 desktops. According to Mary Smith, the operations manager at the firm, "We are able to maintain a competitive edge by having the most up-to-date technology." Moreover, she says that leasing allows them to "add systems to the lease as new attorneys join the firm."
Bottom line: Making the right IT choice has never been more important. Make it a smart one.
Today's tip:Side note: One of the things that really impressed me after conversing with Schuckenbrock was his company's clear passion for small business. Whether it is because it began in Michael Dell's dorm room or because we are a major piece of Dell's business, that they are committed to helping us succeed is clear.
Ask an Expert appears Mondays. You can e-mail Steve Strauss at: firstname.lastname@example.org.And you can click here to see previous columns. Steven D. Strauss is a lawyer, author and speaker who specializes in small business and entrepreneurship. His latest book is The Small Business Bible. You can sign up for his free newsletter, "Small Business Success Secrets!" at his website —www.mrallbiz.com.