Most people expect that running a small business means heading to the bank, hat in hand, asking for a five- or six-figure loan just to get started. A big chunk of startup and ongoing costs can be your computer and network systems and software.  Thanks to new technological innovations and a changing cost model for buying software, that may no longer be the case. Savvy business owners know that numerous cheap and free tools work just as well as their expensive, brand-name counterparts. Here’s a few ways to help prevent you from breaking the bank.

1. Open Source: Now More Than Ever

This trend has been a long time coming, and though we accept that you probably won’t drop Windows for, say, OpenSUSE Linux anytime soon, it is now practical and cost-effective to stop using paid software and make the leap to open-source alternatives. For example, there are several great, inexpensive alternatives to Adobe Acrobat.  CutePDF has many of the capabilities of Adobe Acrobat, for 1/5th of the cost.

Specialized apps have solid open-source alternatives, too, many of which are industry standards. For starters, take a look at LAME for MP3 encoding, HandBrake for DVD rips, and WordPress for blogging. With these apps, along with others out there, you can save yourself a pile of dough. And if you don’t like them, well, your credit card will always be there as a backup.

2. Kill Your Power Bill

It has become fashionable to discuss “greening” one’s business these days, but when you get down to brass tacks and the conversation turns to putting an array of solar panels on the roof, the audience starts to wander off. Major greening initiatives can cost thousands of dollars. You will likely recoup the investment in a reasonable amount of time, but it’s still a big endeavor.
The good news is that you can follow plenty of smaller steps to reduce energy consumption, lowering your expenses in the process.

Larger small businesses are wise to conduct a serious energy-use audit. If you have a small team or you work at home, though, you can take a few simple and nearly universal measures this afternoon and see the savings immediately.

  • Turn stuff off: Does your computer really need to be on all night and every weekend? Get in the habit of shutting it down. Replace largely idle computers—such as those working as print servers—with lower-power devices like print server-capable routers or network-ready printers.
  • Unplug: The problem of “vampire power” is now well understood, and though some device makers are working to eliminate this issue, it isn’t going away. Turn off electronics at the power-strip level, or use timers to cut power to devices when they aren’t in active use.
  • Upgrade: Many newer devices are simply better engineered. Even new computers usually require much less wattage while running faster than their counterparts of yesteryear.

3. Lease IT

Why buy when you can borrow? Inspired by the success of auto leasing, merchants are now getting into the realm of leasing computers and their peripherals with the option of buying out the lease at the end, or even better, upgrade to new hardware at the same predictable monthly payment. Vendors like Dell offer great leasing options, with a 3 year term and nothing down.

4. Visit Cloud City

No surprise here: Moving services to the cloud can be a massive windfall for you and your business, saving you money in several ways.

The most obvious is software. Even something as simple as Google Apps can eliminate the need to install software on every computer in the office—just tell everyone to point their Web browser to a website, and, presto, you’re in business. Much of the basic functionality of applications you install on your computer can also be accessed through a cloud-based service.

The cloud doesn’t just free you from software, it also lets you jettison expensive hardware. Cloud-based storage lets you park files online that would otherwise sit on an expensive and energy-hungry server in your closet.

Cloud City does have a few storms to watch out for.  Many applications that replace ones you use every day may not have all of the same functionality.  You will be more dependent on a reliable internet connection than you ever have before.  And there are security/privacy issues to look out for.  That being said, technology is heading toward a cloud based future and the business proposition will keep getting better over time.

5. Give Your Printers a Rest

People put those “Think before you print out this e-mail” messages at the end of their missives for a reason, and it isn’t just because of the environment: Printing is expensive.

Paper costs have been rising for decades, and prices for ink and toner can approach rip-off levels. This is especially true of ink jet printers, which are often sold dirt cheap because the margins on ink cartridges are 1,000% or more.  With the increasing acceptability of digital submissions and signatures, it’s time to ask yourself why you’re printing at all. Gather up all the documents you print over the course of a week, and consider how you used each one. Chances are good that most ended up filed away or discarded, and the rest are likely to sit on your desk for weeks as little more than clutter.

Relying on a printer can be a tough habit to quit, which is why you really need to look at all of your operations and processes and get buy-in from your staff. Employees will complain (and so will you). They’ll argue that printing is essential. When we audited our processes and worked toward a paperless office, we were surprised at how much unnecessary printing was being done.

Now Get to Work!

Hopefully you can utilize one or more of these tips to reduce your business’ overhead costs and expenses. To find out more ways you might be able to cut costs through smart tech planning, contact your IT provider for an audit of your computer and network systems. They should be able to do this free of charge, and provide you with a list of recommendations. It couldn’t hurt to ask, right?

Russ Levanway is the CEO of TekTegrity, Inc. TekTegrity is an IT Strategies and Management firm that provides premium IT services to businesses, government, education and non-profit organization in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Monterey and Kern counties. TekTegrity’s goal is to become your organizations long-term strategic partner by supporting your IT infrastructure with your bottom line in mind. Some of TekTegrity’s services include System and Workstation Installation, Virtual Hosted Servers, Priority Backup, Off-Site Data Replication, and Total Systems Management™ (TSM). TSM is an industry-leading managed services model that emphasizes proactive and preventative IT support at a predictable fixed monthly fee. For more information about TekTegrity, email info@tektegrity.com,visit www.tektegrity.com, or call 805-596-0135.