Categories
business

October, 2020 – Focussing on …

Welcome … or welcome back !

This article is the next in an on-going series, where I take a look at what I see as being your areas of focus right now.

This article covers October, 2020.

Brexit preparation

In amongst everything else which has been (and continues to be) going on this year, if you do any business with countries within the European Union, then you will need to be reviewing your preparedness for Britain leaving the European Union. By this time – October, 2020 – I would expect that you would be pretty confident that you are done, but if not, this probably ought to be one of your top priorities.

There is lots of ground that you should be covering here, but I would look to be able to identify every component of your products, as the single most important item.

Consolidation projects

Like last month (September) consolidation is always a good area to be working on.

Documentation … write it down !

Ditto for documentation.

Business Continuity, or Disaster Recovery

This is a perennial favourite, and has special resonance in 2020. Disaster Recovery (DR) or Business Continuity planning always used to mean having other office space in (some sort of) readiness should the worst happen. I suggest that that no longer makes sense for a great many businesses.

When Covid hit hard in March this year, a great many businesses discovered that a remote staff using laptops connected to a corporate network could run a business pretty much as well as before the lockdown. This was a surprise to many, and caused a lot of thinking about what on office closure (the disaster from which you are recovering) might look like. A faster adoption of the cloud for end-user-compute and for all business applications seems like the obvious answer.

I want to talk about this whole area of working from home (or at least away from the office) in another article – I find it fascinating. There are pros and cons for both the business as well as for the employee.

So, what does all of this mean for you and your focus now. I recommend that you look at your business and figure out what – if anything – is reliant on a specific physical space. If you do manufacture, then you may well have some reliance on physical space, but even there, you may have options. If you are in the supply chain, and distribution in some way, then you probably have some reliance on a specific physical location.

But if your reliance is on having a server room, or something similar, then you really need to be working on how to move away from that. There are plenty of options here, and you really need to be exploring those options.

As ever, if you want to discuss these or any other issues, do get in touch – Rathlin – [email protected] – www.rathlin.net – 01604 805 912 .
That’s all for this month; I’ll be back in November with more to focus on.

Categories
business project planning

… so what is a consolidation project ?

Following my September focus post, a couple of people have been in touch asking about what I mean when I say that focus right now should be consolidation projects – what are consolidation projects ?

So, herewith a short post, looking at what I mean.

I think that the primary type of consolidation project that carries good “bang for buck” is looking at your business processes, and refining and improving them, either with technology, or simply streamlining them. In terms of effort expended on the project, I think this is where you will get the biggest reward, and where both you and your customers will notice your efforts.

Other consolidation projects that you could consider might be reviewing and (possibly) revising your domain name estate and your DNS set-up.

If you are happy that both your domain names (what you have; who they are registered with; how often they need to be renewed) and your DNS are all covered, then are you happy that the documentation around it is solid ? What if your key person becomes unavailable (the mythical “falls under a bus” scenario) – could the next person pick it up ?

So in conclusion, identifying and reviewing your business processes as well as documenting your business are your friends in terms of consolidation projects.

Categories
business

September, 2020 – Focussing on …

Hello there

This article is a quick look at what I see as being your areas of focus right now, as at September, 2020.

Consolidation

For most SMEs, I see consolidation being the key activity happening across your IT ecosystem right now.

There will be some cash rich businesses that will be (or perhaps should be) pursuing discretionary projects, but for most businesses that I am talking to, the focus right now is definitely on polishing what you already have, rather than building new functionality.

By discretionary projects I mean projects which bring new functionality to your business; by consolidation projects, I am talking about those projects which polish or improve existing functionality.

Maintenance

When you are working on consolidation projects, I urge you to consider maintenance.

In common with very many businesses this year, one business I am aware of has been working out how to engage with their client / user base online. In order to do this, they have purchased a new domain name, and set up a whole lot of infrastructure around that. I am not able to recommend this approach – this is very likely to leave a legacy of maintenance which I believe will cause headaches down the line. Better to have found a way of using their existing ecosystem, and using that as the basis for new engagement.

As a side note, this has highlighted the issue of how, as an organisation, it is possible to share across your user base without creating domain accounts for all of your users. I will look at this another time.

So, my take away here is do nothing at this time, which may appear to be expedient, which will later cause you a maintenance issue.

Consistency

Something else which I urge you to consider is consistency. This is important in your day-to-day operations, but should also form part of your thinking when considering consolidation or discretionary projects.

A good for instance here, is naming conventions. If you are creating new user accounts within your domain, stick to a good naming convention – do not mix differing conventions. At best this will confuse users and people that you interact with, but at worst can lead to serious mistakes.

Take care, and enjoy the remainder of September. I’ll be back in October with another article.

Categories
business

Process Bliss

This article concentrates on a new-ish online service called Process Bliss. I will talk about what Process Bliss is; what the pricing is; what value Process Bliss provides to you and your business. Finally I will talk about how Rathlin can help you in using Process Bliss – in setup, in on-going usage, in training, or in the management of the service.

What the service is

Process Bliss ( https://processbliss.com ) is an online service which allows you to create and record step-by-step business processes, for use by you and your employees. Whilst there are other similar services available online, the beauty of Process Bliss is its simplicity.

Process Bliss allows a business to ensure processes are written down, simply, and in one place, which is easily accessible – and usable – by all staff.

Pricing

Before I get into the value that Process Bliss can deliver to your business, a quick word on pricing. Process Bliss uses a fairly straight forward per user, per month pricing model. Currently – September, 2019 – this is £ 8 per user, per month, with a discount for paying annually, rather than monthly.

Value

I hope that you are already convinced of the value that solid business processes can add to your business. Assuming that you are, then what does Process Bliss give you that some other options do not.

According to Process Bliss :

  • Process Bliss puts all the information needed to complete tasks in one place
  • Process Bliss helps new employees get up-to-speed quickly
  • Process Bliss doesn’t control the user

You create ‘templates’ then any time that your staff need to follow a process – end of month accounts; on-boarding a new member of staff – your staff use the template to do the steps associated with that process, so that all steps are recorded as they go along. The whole process is fully auditable.

This has the added advantage that you (as the business owner) are able to see, and have the peace of mind, that process is being followed.

This is all just great for ISO 9001 certification.

Once in Process Bliss your recorded processes are simple to adjust or update; compare this with updating bulky documents.

How Rathlin can help

If you like the sound of Process Bliss, then you can head over to the Process Bliss website – https://processbliss.com – and get started.

If you decide that some help would be useful, then Rathlin are able to help by :

  • Hosting some initial workshops to drive out what you and your people think your core processes are
  • Set up your initial processes within Process Bliss
  • Set in place some guiding principles for capturing your key business processes within Process Bliss
  • Help you identify one (or perhaps two) power users within your business who will champion use of Process Bliss within your organisation, and who will be the first point of contact within your organisation for Process Bliss
  • Carrying out any training around the use of Process Bliss

Conclusion

In conclusion, this is not a service for everyone, but if you do place a real value on having well documented processes, which are easily accessible, and which means that you can have confidence that process is being followed, then Process Bliss could really help your business.

Categories
business

How did you create your website ?

Since first publishing this article (July, 2019), I have received some great feedback, which has caused me to revisit the article, to do some tidying up, and also to give this new introductory paragraph. It was suggested to me that this article as it stands, is not suitable for people who have no prior knowledge of domain names and hosting. So, I’m going to leave this article in place, for those of you who have some awareness of the issues, and I am going to pull together some articles which go a little slower to assist the many small business owners, who have no prior knowledge of domain names, and the issues surrounding them.

As a shop window for your products and services, your website says a lot about you and even more about your business. So how did you go about creating this invaluable marketing tool?

Many small to medium sized businesses employ the services of a web design (digital) agency to create their site. This can be a really good option – after all these people do this sort of work all day every day, and are professionals in their field, right? But, just as you would with any other service you outsource, there are some important things to consider before making that decision.

If you use an agency to create your website, who owns your domain name? Is it managed by the agency? Is it even, perhaps, owned by the agency? On your behalf, of course, but still an important point to check.

Where is your website hosted? It will need some actual space somewhere. My recommendation is to find your own hosting solution, and to ask your digital marketing agency to work with that. That way you can be sure that should your relationship with your marketing agency come to an end, you will continue to have full access to your website.

Running Costs

Before I get into what I advise my clients, let’s take a brief diversion to look at the running costs of a website. For the purposes of this article, my example is a basic ‘brochure’ type website. When you have a website up and running to promote your business, there are some fairly simple running costs that you should be aware of.
Firstly, there is domain name registration – once a year, or more likely once every couple of years, you’re going to need to pay to have this registered.
Secondly, there is website hosting – you will need to pay this for as long as you want your website up and running.

Neither of these costs need to be very high – and especially the domain name registration fee.

Crucially, I advise keeping these two items separate – there may well be a time when you want to keep the domain name, but when you no longer need that website hosting. Keeping the two things separate, keeps things simple, and means that you are in fact able to have one without the other.

Rathlin Approach to website creation

When it comes to my clients and their websites, here is what I advise them.

The starting point is always the domain name. It’s fantastic if this is something catchy that ends in .com … but guess what? Most catchy .com names have already been snapped up, so this may not be an option. So, go with a domain name that means something to you, and your business. Now purchase this domain name! Do it through a reputable supplier. I use GoDaddy, but there are plenty of others.

The next step is finding some space to put your website. There are a great number of web hosting companies. I make use of HostPapa, but there are plenty of others. Get in touch with Rathlin if you would like some help with this stage, and we can advise.

The next thing you need to consider is how the website will actually be set up. My advice (as at 2019) is to make use of WordPress. There are other good website creation tools available, but I believe that WordPress is the most generic, and most capable of the options. Choosing WordPress means that you are able to use all sorts of talent to create your website. There are a very large number of developers who are able to create WordPress websites, and as such, this is now almost a commodity option.

If you have decided to work with a web / digital agency for your website, then they should be able to work with the parameters that you specify – ie: your own domain name; your own website hosting; and a WordPress website.

Some Additional Thoughts

You need to keep your website up to date. The simplest way of doing this is to write blog type articles of interest to your customers. This means you need to have some space to do this – and to publish them, without paying anyone for their help with this. WordPress allows you to do this.

You can plug in to a WordPress website, so that you can add an online ‘shop’, with products, which are simple to manage. Try not to get tied into a ‘hard to manage’ solution which you will need to pay someone else to look after for you; keep it simple, and manage it yourself.

You should document your website – what pages; what types of pages; what themes; what menus are in place. This will help you to engage a new supplier, should you need to at some later date.

When you engage a new supplier to update your website, or to start again from scratch, the more that you can write in a brief, the better the end result will be.

Conclusion

Adopting the approach of securing your own domain name, as well as your own (separate) website hosting, and then taking these, either to a digital marketing agency, or to a developer, will give you maintainability, flexibility, and control.

Having a solid website, which gives a great first impression of you and your business, is very important. There are a number of aspects which may not be initially apparent to all. Get in touch with Rathlin to have a team on your side to guide you through the complexity.

Categories
business tools

(Online) Tools to Use

This month, I am going to write about some of the online tools / resources / services that I make use of.

Tools come and tools go, but the ones in this list have stuck around for some time, and I think are worthy of consideration.

Note that the tools listed here are skewed towards running a business, and / or managing and delivering projects of work, and distributed teams of people.

Basics

Let’s start with the basics. Tools which are applicable to any and all businesses, and which underpin many activities. Most of these are ‘unsung heroes’ !

Google

For me, the basics are largely covered by the Google suite of products. This goes from searching, and mapping through the office suite of products – Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, as well as Gmail and Google Drive.

I make extensive use of the Google suite of tools, and I am a big fan. I advocate their use wherever I can. If you are an individual user, then it is a no-brainer; you get some magnificent tools, at zero cost. If you are a small to medium sized business, then it is slightly less cut and dried. It used to be the case that for small business users, Google ran an introductory offer, which covered most of your needs, for zero cost. You now have to pay something for it, and it is monthly/annual and is per user based – so costs can mount. The massive thing which I think counts for lots is the ease with which you can use your domain name as your email address, and have it all managed by Google. This means that you get to use Google’s spam filters, as well as search capability. Even though you now have to pay for this service, I still think it is worth the money.

The alternative to Google’s suite of products – Google Docs, etc – is Microsoft’s suite; the Office365 suite. Again, very good, and arguably more familiar to users. My preference is for the Google suite, but that is not to everyone’s taste.

Wikipedia

So ingrained now with all of us, that it is easy to forget that it is an online tool, or repository of knowledge. Fantastic. And this despite early scepticism of its use / usability / accuracy, etc.. I am certain that there are areas of Wikipedia which are not accurate, or which are subject to malicious updates, but overall it is a fantastic tool.

Wikipedia is such a very useful tool; most of us use it as one time or another, but no one considers that it is a really valuable asset. Imagine if we had to go back to a time of using encyclopedias in order to look up some reference point in more detail ! I try to show my appreciation for Wikipedia by making periodic donations to them.

Stepping Up

Now we get into web services / web applications / online tools which go beyond the very basics, but which perform some useful function.

Doodle

This is a great web service which allows you to set up vote options, and to have people select options.

An example :
Trying to arrange a meet up; there are three dates/times that you can do.
Put the dates/times on a new poll, and invite your friends to vote.
Voila – you can see pretty clearly which date/time is preferable.

The sweet spot of this tool is when you have a decision to make amongst a relatively small, defined group of people, which has a variety of options. This tool allows you to quickly cast the options and poll the participants, thus arriving at consensus.

SurveyMonkey

A simple way of creating a survey to send to people to gather lots of opinions; and then the analysis on the back of the responses. This is a fairly stock tool which many people will be aware of, and is very good at what it does. Note that there is competition in this space from new businesses, as well as from harnessing Google Forms.
The pricing for SurveyMonkey goes from £ 0 upwards depending on what you want to do, and how much analysis you want to apply to the results.

Conclusion

I’m going to close this article here. There are a great many more applications which are available, and which do great things. Some of my favourites are Slack, Trello and Zendesk. I will come back to these other apps in future articles.

In short, there are a great many superb online tools available now to businesses large and small, which in years gone past would have cost massive amounts of money to develop, host, and operate.

Categories
business

Why the drive towards the Cloud ? Why are you being advised to move towards the Cloud ? What does “move towards the cloud” actually mean, anyway !

So, you’re a small to medium sized enterprise. 10 (or more) years ago, you were advised to buy and install a networked server to store all your files on, and to make sharing between employees/users simpler. Marvellous ! You did this, and for a time all was good. But over time, the overhead of managing your server got greater and greater. You’ve had to make sure you have backups (you DO have backups, don’t you ?) You’ve had to make sure that you have applied all of your operating system patches (you DO do this, don’t you ?) You’ve had to make sure that you’re anti-virus software is up to date and that the monthly virus definition files are all in good working order (again, you DO do this, don’t you ?).

You have also noticed that the server has slowed down a bit – it seems to be ‘clogged up’ with lots of small log and data files, all of which slow it down.

Given that you bought the server 10 (or so) years ago, you may have noticed that memory and CPUs have moved on greatly since then. You may have noticed that Microsoft have produced new operating systems since then. Have you upgraded to the latest operating system ? Is your operating system still supported by Microsoft ?

All of this has been leaving you feeling that you are having to devote more of your time to IT and IT maintenance than you should be. Your job is your core business – NOT to become some kind of IT guru. You may have passed this headache to a third party company. If you have, you can be sure that you will be paying handsomely for it.

All of this is the background to why you are now being – strongly – advised to move to the cloud.

What is the Cloud ?

At its simplest level, this is using someone else’s servers, which are accessible via the internet (this is what most people mean when they talk about the cloud). The ‘someone else’ here is most likely to be Microsoft (Azure), Amazon (AWS), or Google (Google Cloud Platform).

Making use of these ‘cloud’ servers / services, means that someone else (see earlier for likely definition of ‘someone else’) takes care of operating systems, operating systems updates and patches, backups (an aside on this in a bit), and anti-virus issues.

But there are more issues to consider as well.

Can I Have an Example , Please ?

One example is Facebook – this can be regarded as being a cloud based application; Facebook takes care of all of the infrastructure issues, and allow you to make use of the social media application.

Microsoft’s Office 365 is cloud based computing – this is offering many of the functions that you are used to like MS Word, and MS Excel, but via a web front-end (web user interface), and without needing to install or maintain any software on your servers, or kit.

Google Docs, Drive, etc. is all cloud based computing.

Why Move to the Cloud ?

The main rationale for moving to the cloud, is the reduction in management and maintenance that you have to do. You no longer need to provide space for servers; you no longer need to provide climate controlled, secure space for servers. You do not need to think about / concern yourself with having an uninterruptible supply of electricity to power your servers. You no longer need to consider backing up your servers; keeping your server’s software up to date. In short, it is all about handing these headaches over to someone else – someone whose main job is to focus on this sort of thing – thus allowing you to focus on the things which are actually important to your business.

Things to be aware of

If you do take the decision to move to the cloud, there are things that you need to be aware of; there are implications and consequences that you should be aware of.

One of the first and perhaps most obvious ramifications of adopting cloud based computing, is that if you have no connectivity, you have no access to that particular functionality. This is mitigated in a couple of ways – firstly, connectivity these days is generally pretty good – secondly, some cloud based software has some limited offline functionality (I’m thinking here of the Google Docs suite of software). Within the office environment, this is less of a worry, but for your road warriors, it may be a consideration.

Now I’d like to talk about release cycles ! Let me take a simple example. You start to use Google’s Gmail email client (web) application; you get used to it; you begin to like it. And then Google make an upgrade to it. And it throws you off balance. Now you may be someone who is an early adopter; who is comfortable with change. Then again you may not. Whichever you are, by going down the cloud route, you have no (perhaps a very small amount) of control over when you adopt a new change. More generally, if you adopt the cloud philosophy (which I hope you do), then you are in the hands of someone else’s release cycle. When you are maintaining Microsoft’s Word, Excel, PowerPoint suite yourself, you have complete control over when you upgrade – when you move to the latest and greatest version. In the cloud world, you have very much less control over this. The positive way of looking at this is to say that no longer can your business be held back in the dark ages by someone’s reluctance to embrace change.
Depending on which cloud based software you are dealing with, and who the underlying company is, you may get little (or no) notice of changes to the user interface. You may also find new features appearing with little or no notice. Generally this is beneficial, and to be welcomed, but if you are in a business where you have been used to rolling out full training of new features, then this may present you with some challenges.

The user interface changing is one aspect of having less control as a result of using cloud services. Another related issue only applies if you have custom software which makes use of the cloud software. Again if the cloud software changes, then you may need to make changes to your software to accommodate the change to the cloud software. Generally in this sort of case, you will be talking about some kind of cloud based API, which is likely to have a better / more managed release cycle policy than simply a user interface type change. In this sort of situation, even if you do not need to make changes to your software to accommodate the cloud based software change, you may well need to carry out some regression testing – or at the very least have to consider whether you need to do some regression testing. So again this is a situation where change outside of your control (ie: change to the cloud based software) involves you in effort and work which you would not have to do in the traditional on-premise paradigm.

Under the heading of “Things to be Aware of” Data comes pretty high. If you are using cloud services, then you need to be aware of who owns any data which is created/stored, and where it is stored. Data is increasingly important – both the actual data (names, addresses, etc.) as well as “metadata” – data about data. As a UK company, you are subject to laws relating to data. It is therefore important that you know about your data. Similarly, the location of your data is important.

One final consideration that I would like to make known to you relates to having an audit trail. If you make use of an online accounting package, that is able to pay invoices directly (for instance) then you are very likely to want to know that you can – if you need to – go back through an audit trail to check who authorised any given payment. Again, this is just an example – having an audit trail is likely to be important whatever cloud based software you use.

Conclusion

I am certain that making use of ‘off-the-shelf’ online/cloud based software is the way of the future for small to medium sized businesses. But I also know that as a business you should go into this with your eyes open, and be aware of the things that you need to look out for. The alternative to embracing this new world of online / cloud based software is that you remain stuck with software which may be familiar, but which will consume more and more of your time to manage and maintain.

Categories
business

In 2019, should you be writing your own software … or even getting someone else to write custom software for you ?

This article deals with the business of being a business and having custom software.

Let me start by saying that if I was trying to persuade you that you should not be making use of custom electricity, or generating your own electricity, this would be a very short article !

My view is that you should NOT be writing (or even continuing to have) your own custom software these days – I aim to persuade you of this argument, in this article.

There are some exceptions to this so let’s get those out of the way to start with.

If you are a software house, and your business is writing software, then clearly you do need to have custom software; you can stop reading !

If you are a business whose main (or even only) product is software based, then you are very likely to need your own custom software. This would apply to a business that sold products via an online channel only – in this case, the business is a retail one, and not a software house, as such, but the software underlying the business is so integral to the business that the business would be negligent in not having a very close interest in the software, and – probably – having some custom software. In this case, the software to support the business is a key asset of the business.

Outside of these exceptions, as a business owner, I would need a lot of convincing that my business required custom software.

What do I mean by Custom Software

In days gone by (5+ years ago !) it was common for all sorts of businesses to have applications which had been created specifically for them – either by external software companies, or by internal teams who created software applications. Very often these applications covered key business functions like accounting, or human resources management, or similar.

So this is what I mean by custom software – software which has been written/created specifically for this particular business.

Custom software can get into a business in all sorts of places – I will put an article on how custom software gets into the business on my road map.

Reasons Why

So why do I advocate NOT having custom software as part of your business ?

To me there are two key reasons :

  • If you are going to write software, you should write it well – it should be high quality. This involves you in a set of processes and procedures which take time to set up, and which require commitment (investment) from all parts of the business to get right. Creating / producing poor quality software is a big mistake, and one which is increasingly visible to your customers. I believe that creating poor quality software is more expensive (in the long run) than creating high quality software – as well as creating a real reputational problem.
  • The people that you need to have available to you to write good quality software are expensive resources. Doing it properly takes time, effort, cost and knowledge – do you want to / need to be investing in that knowledge ?

Another article that I have tackles the aspects of creating software which si high quality and some of the processes and procedures you need to have in place.

Some Exceptions

You may want a closer control on your own website, and you may need to carry out some customisation here. For these exceptions – which I would expect you would want to see a business case for – you will need to keep a tight control on customisation, as well as on the software.

You may have some aspect of your business which is unique, and which does rely on / require a software system to control it, or to manage it, which cannot be procured through the open market. In this case, you have no choice but to go with setting up the systems and procedures which will allow you to create solid, high quality software.

So What to do Instead ?

Having gone into great detail about what is bad and why it is bad, you are very likely to be sitting there thinking that this is all very well, but what then do I use for my accounting, for my HR, for my management ?

The answer is that I advocate using applications which exist out there on the open market. There are a number of great systems available to all businesses, which offer functionality and solutions far in excess of what you could create and support on your own.

Take a look at my article on these options for some suggestions.

Conclusion

Taking all of the discussion in this article into account, I believe that for most small to medium sized businesses in 2019, it is NOT sensible to write or to maintain custom software. I believe that a key activity of any business with custom software is to fully understand what business purpose is served by the software, and to seek other solutions.

Where it is decided that some amount of custom software is needed, then I would expect a solid business case to support this decision, which would detail any benefit to the business, as well as the costs required to develop – and maintain – this customisation.