One morning while I was CTO at a small company, I was asked to set up systems for a new employee who was starting that day, and had already arrived at the office. This was complete news to me, but not a big issue. When I spoke to the new employee and said that I would set up her computer for our systems she said that no-one had told her that we were a BYOD company. This caused a scramble to find a temporary computer she could use. By mid-day I had the temporary machine set up and she was able to start her work.

This incident illustrated several significant issues common to many start-up and early stage companies:

  • The employee was faced with unexpected expenses. She might have walked away from the job on that basis
  • She was unproductive for the first critical day on the job
  • There was no opportunity of setting up systems in advance, since there was no advance notice of the hiring
  • Most other employees were left wondering how their jobs would be affected by this unannounced change in staffing

What went wrong? There were no on-boarding procedures in place. In fact, there were few procedures of any sort in place. Most things were done ad-hoc, despite repeated warnings that this would cause problems. Resources were never assigned to create and publish procedures.

Off-boarding procedures are perhaps even more critical. When an employee walks out the door the last time, it is critical that a planned hand-over of company materials and information be done. If the separation is amicable, nothing will usually go expensively wrong. However, if the parting is not amicable, expensive equipment may not be returned, and worse, critical information may be compromised or lost.

Based on our own experiences, we can assist your young company in setting procedures in place, with safeguards to protect you and your company. Contact us at joe (you know what goes here) MiFaras.com for assistance in creating, implementing, and using policies that will make for happier employees and lower risks to you and your company.

HR Policies and Procedures

Policies and Procedures for HR (Human Resources) issues are critical. Without them you will get into trouble. Most small businesses work on the “We’re all friends” basis of personal interaction. That seldom works long-term even between two individuals, let along a growing company. At a minimum, you should consult an HR professional with expertise in your jurisdiction, and ask what are the critical essentials.

How do you interview prospective employees? Which questions may you ask, and which will open you to a discrimination suit? How and how often do you review performance? Is your promotion process fair and transparent? What do you do with under-performing individuals? How do you deal with workplace harassment or illegal activities? How do you terminate an employee’s employment? What termination packages will reduce the probability of subsequent problems? What policies will make your business an attractive target for talented employees?

Related to HR policies are policies and procedures related to workplace safety. Your local jurisdiction’s legal requirements are only a minimum. Meeting the mere minimum does not contribute to acquiring and retaining top talent. Top talent want more, and are prepared to look elsewhere. Even if they work for you, they will not produce their best work if they are sitting in an uncomfortable chair with a draft or a noisy fan. Keeping employees happy and productive is much cheaper than dealing with high turn-over.

All it takes is one disgruntled employee or recent employee to turn your successful, growing business into an expensive legal quagmire. CYA: get this one right, right at the start!

Off-site Backups

When disaster strikes, you need off-site backups of critical data to keep your business running. Are you prepared? Whether the disaster be flood, fire, power outage, or anything short of total societal collapse, it’s likely you will want your business to continue.

Having local backups is important but insufficient. With modern cloud storage solutions commonly available and relatively inexpensive, there really isn’t an excuse to not be making regular off-site backups. There are 3 main options:

  1. Manually making backups onto removable media and physically taking them to a secure external location. Advantage: cheap. Disadvantage: it gets tedious and forgotten.
  2. Mirrored drives accessed over a VPN. An example would be mirrored NAS devices such as QNAP. Advantage: Set and forget until needed. Disadvantage: requires some networking and systems knowledge to set up, moderate costs both up-front and potentially ongoing.
  3. Cloud storage such as OneDrive for Business, Box, DropBox, etc. Advantage: Ubiquitous and easy to set up. Disadvantage: potential security and cost considerations.

No matter which approach you use, it is imperative that you use one of some sort. In the event that a falling satellite demolishes your office at 3am, you can then access your data from a remote site and use it to carry on your business.

Version Control

Even a single developer, working alone, should use a VCS – Version Control system. We’ve all had that “Oh crap!” moment when we had a slip of the mouse and deleted some important piece of code, or made some “minor” change that bites us in the backside. With version control, one can go back to a previous version and carry on as if we hadn’t done that dumb delete. For teams of 2 or more, particularly distributed teams, there is no rational other choice.

If you search Wikipedia for “Version Control Software” you will find that there are well over 30 contenders. Many are no longer in development, or are very industry-specific. Currently the best known applications are:

Subversion: Long a stalwart of the industry, it has been losing popularity for several years.

Microsoft Visual Studio Team Services: This is part of the overall Visual Studio suite. One of its components is a Git-compatible VCS. Development teams using Visual Studio may already have access to Team Services.

Git: Used by almost half of all development teams, this is the gold standard in VCS. The original author is Linus Torvalds, the founder of Linux. He named it after what he refers to as one of his own characteristics.

Mercurial: An alternative to Git, Mercurial is used be several well known companies such as Facebook.

The other aspect of using a VCS is that of external hosting. Most VCSs support local hosting of the repositories, but Git has the advantage of also having inherent access to GitHub, by far the best-known public VCS hosting service. The default account is “free”, in which all the submissions are visible to the public. This is in keeping with its open-source philosophy. Private repositories start at US$7/month.

Recommendation: use Git and GitHub. Besides, who can resist the 5-armed Octocat of Git?

Development Tools

Some great software has been written with the most basic of tools. Simple text editors such as Notepad can do the job. Computer code is, after all, just structured text that is then interpreted or compiled to produce a result. That result can be data displayed on a local screen, in a printout, or stored in a file. Programmers who know their language intimately can be productive using any tools. The rest of us need help.

Modern programming usually takes advantage of IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) which assist the programmer in many ways. Code completion accelerates code writing and reduces errors. Refactoring allows changes to be made with internal integrity. Integrated database browsing and maintenance simplifies back-end data access. Links to version control allow graceful recovery and branching. Code builders and precompilers significantly improve productivity and reliability. These are just the most obvious tools within an IDE – there are many others, some common, some very language specific.

For Web and Mobile development the IDE is often determined by the language or target. Development for Apple products, for example, pretty much dictates that Apple’s Xcode be used. Microsoft encourages use of Visual Studio. Advanced text editors such as TextMate and Sublime Text are commonly used in Ruby on Rails development. For regular Web development, the most common platforms are Aptana, Eclipse, NetBeans, and JetBrains products. A current trend is to use Cloud-based IDEs such as Cloud9. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Some are “free”, others have a one-time or subscription cost. Most or all will support common frameworks such as Rails and Django, and the languages Ruby, Python, Java, JavaScript, C++, PHP, and HTML.

After trying most of the common IDEs, I have settled on the JetBrains product range. Starting with the free “Community” editions allows a programmer to get comfortable with the tools. If suitable, any single product can be purchased, or the entire suite. The pricing is very much structured to encourage purchase of the entire suite. The first year is a bit pricey, but subsequent years become quite reasonable. The subscription can be allowed to expire, and the current version remains active indefinitely. Simply put, the subscription gives one access to the regular updates and support.

Every development team has different needs. A careful analysis of current and expected needs should be undertaken early in the development cycle, and appropriate tools chosen early. A development tool suite which fits well to the development team’s needs will increase productivity, decrease frustration, and increase quality. Contact us at joe (you know what goes here) MiFaras.com for (relatively) unbiased assistance in selecting the best tools for your team.

Sales Funnel Management

Closely related to Contacts Management is Sales Funnel Management. Most CRM systems of any value will also allow you to track the sales process. The most critical tasks are to ensure that prospects are recontacted according to a plan, and that the related information is captured. If there are several sales people handling leads, it is also important that information is shared so that no lead is dropped because of “Oh, I thought Fred was taking care of that one!”

If the sales process itself is more important than retaining customer information, a Workflow product such as KissFlow may be a better fit. Workflow products manage the process, rather than the contact information. In most cases, a combination of CRM and Workflow produces the best results. Effective integration with email and social media simplifies both the lead management and the workflow process.

The final part of Funnel Management is reporting. Without process and efficiency reports, you don’t know how effective your sales team is, or where the weak areas are. Reporting doesn’t have to be anything complex – a simple status dashboard showing time since last contact, stage of process, and projected/actual revenue is a good first step. Showing the results by salesperson allows assignment of leads for maximum results, and pinpoints weak performers.

Sales Funnel Management allows you to make best use of your sales team, whether that is just yourself or an entire department. Either way, enforcing a process and tracking the results will increase your bottom line results.

Managing Contacts

Any company in growth mode must track leads and customers. Maintaining existing customers is far more efficient than finding new ones, so that must be the base to support growth. Building on that base requires an effective sales funnel. Knowing funnel statistics allows you to focus efforts for maximum return on investment.

If you do a search for CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems, you will see that there are hundreds of results. Many of those are completely viable. Many are industry-specific. Many cost a lot, are difficult and slow to implement, and are a PITA to use and maintain. You can find free, open-source applications such as Fat Free CRM, or you can spend a moderate amount per user per month on products such as Insightly, or you can go full-blown Enterprise level with products such as SalesForce.com or Microsoft Dynamics. In short, you can spend anywhere from “nothing” to US$300/user/month. That of course doesn’t include implementation or servicing costs.

Making the wrong choice can cost you hundreds of hours and enormous amounts of money. That’s just the cost of making the wrong software decision, but the costs of lost business can be far higher. Even with a system in place, if your staff find it cumbersome it won’t be used. Then you’re paying for something that just annoys people and still doesn’t contribute to your revenue.

How does one choose? You should engage a consultant with no vested interest, but one who has long and deep experience in a variety of systems. Someone who has knowledge of a variety of industries and who has worked in the entire analysis to implementation to support process will save you time and money. In other words, call Joe at 613-433-6470 or email joe (you know what goes here) mifaras.com. You’ll get honest and direct guidance on this important aspect of building your business.

Dirty Little Secret

Shopify.com is a major vendor of shopping-cart technology, and a major Canadian success story. A blog entry last week clearly explains some of the issues I have experienced with large-scale “Enterprise” software. Have a look at this, then come back: The Dirty Little Secret Traditional Enterprise Software Companies Don’t Want You Knowing

Loren Padelford is the General Manager of Shopify Plus. I have never met him, but on at least this issue, I completely agree with him. Much of the work I did earlier in my career was in building small, ad-hoc systems to get around the failings of Enterprise software. The most egregious example was with a large multinational company which makes packaging for liquid consumer goods such as juices. When I was contracting to them they were two-thirds of the way through implementing one of those large Enterprise suites, supplied by a company based in Germany. They had spent about €600,000,000 at that point. Yes, nine zeros. Most of the internal processes and systems in the company had to be restructured to suit the software. I thought then, and I still think now, that this was insanity. But of course they were also paying me to fill the gaps, so I wasn’t complaining.

The moral of the story? Technology has moved on. Read Loren’s post (I know, you probably just scanned it. Now go back and read the whole thing!) Then email joe (you know what goes here) mifaras.com or call me at 613-433-6470 to discuss how you can use modern tools and technology to beat the big companies at their own game.

Secured Data

Most people don’t think very much about how and where they store their business documents. Word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations – they usually are saved on the user’s local device. This is bad. It is bad at several levels. A few of the more obvious are:

  1. reliability of access – computers crash. Single copies get lost.
  2. shared access – others need to see, work on, or reference documents.
  3. security of access – information in the wrong hands can be extremely damaging.
  4. archival access – finding older documents should be simple and reliable.

Most of us don’t deal with information that can change the world, or even impact our own lives in a significant way. Most of us aren’t handling super-secret strategy emails. Even so, any information can be used for negative purposes, or if not available at the right time, can impede progress. How many times have you said to someone “I know I have that information, but I can’t find it.” Or worse, “My computer crashed, and it took 10 years worth of company planning documents with it.” People have jumped off buildings for less.

What to do about this ongoing problem? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Store your documents in a shared drive or cloud service. This raises security concerns, but they can be handled. At least there isn’t a single location for the document. There are two major options:
      • On-site shared drives. A relatively economical solution, which doesn’t require an in-house server, is to use a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device such as a QNAP device. These appear in your Finder or Windows Explorer as another drive. Properly configured, they are only accessible within your network, although they can be made externally available with security.
      • Cloud services such as DropBox, Google Drive, or OneDrive make copies on a real-time basis so that the versions on your local machine match those in the Cloud service. The documents can be accessed with another device once properly authenticated. Google Drive and OneDrive are usually purchased as part of their respective office suites.
  2. Shared or Cloud drives can be shared selectively with people within or outside your organisation. This enables efficient collaboration.
  3. Sharing internal or Cloud drives is on a Group or Per-User basis. This can be as simple as adding an individual’s email address, to as complex as implementing an Active Directory security model.
  4. Either a Shared or Cloud drive has the capability of inherent archiving. In the case of a Cloud service, there may be an extra charge, depending on how far back you wish to maintain data. On a Shared drive, a back-up routine needs to be configured. Often these backups are to a different location, either Cloud, or another linked NAS. There are many options, each with a trade-off between complexity, cost, and convenience.

Pet Peeve: “Data” is the plural form. The phrase “The data is…” is incorrect. The proper phrase is “The data are….” The singular form is “datum”.

In short, data is your business’s life. Protect it or run the risk of compromising your business.

Office Software

Most people, when they think about office software at all, would mention only one of two names: Microsoft Office, or Google Docs. There are actually quite a few viable alternatives, including:

Each has advantages and disadvantages. For example, Corel WordPerfect is still used by many legal firms. However, it is only available for Windows, and has long been surpassed as “the standard”. LibreOffice is an offshoot of OpenOffice. It is free, runs on almost any platform, and has good compatibility. However, as with all open-source software, support may be an issue. SoftMaker is relatively unknown, and is not available as an online app. iWork has the reputation of being Mac-only, although it can be run via iCloud on other platforms.

That leaves the two elephants in the room – Microsoft Office and Google Docs (also known as G Suite). For business use, G Suite is a full-featured business applications suite, resident in the Cloud. The cost is moderate, starting at US$5/user/month. It is accessible on any Web-connected device. And that’s the catch. There is a Google Chrome off-line plug-in, but users of other browsers are out of luck. Another issue is that setting up accounts on a mobile device is tedious, requiring individual configuration of email, calendar, and contacts.

For most companies, Microsoft Office is the best choice. Within the Office universe, most small businesses will find that the Office 365 Business Premium package is the best choice. It is CA$15.20/user/month. In addition to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Publisher, it also includes email access with Outlook and hosted Exchange Server, Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams. OneDrive for Business gives individual and shared storage capability, and access to team sites. Setting up accounts on mobile devices is simple – a single setup covers mail, calendar, and contacts. Lastly, each user can install the actual software on up to 5 computers and 5 phones or tablets.

Unless you have a good reason to go elsewhere, go with Microsoft Office 365.