The Building Blocks for Growth

A Network Can Improve Efficiency and Responsiveness, As Well As Control Costs

Growth rises on the horizon for many small businesses, and one seizes the day, expansion often occurs rapidly. Preparation is crucial to success.

What tools are required for a company with 20 employees, for example, to grow to 100 employees within a year?

Along with adequate funding, a realistic roadmap, and strong leadership, many small businesses (that is, firms with 5 to 99 employees) realize that having advanced network technology is essential to successful growth, reports Steve Hansen, senior analyst for research firm In-Stat. A common form of this technology is networks with built-in security, intelligent routing and switching, and the ability to deliver data, voice, and video.

Hansen notes that such networks provide small businesses with cost savings, operational efficiencies, and the ability to easily add new locations. "The more efficient you can be and the more money you can save, the more resources you have available for activities that help grow your business," he says.

VPNs for Secure Remote Connections

An example of such technology: Virtual private networks (VPNs), which provide secure access to a company network from remote locations, such as branch offices or employees' homes. In-Stat reports that about 25% of U.S. small businesses had deployed an IP VPN as of February 2007, and an additional 30% plan to deploy the technology by July 2008.

A VPN user, InTouch Health is a small robotics telemedicine business that has experienced triple-digit growth over the last couple of years. It would be unable to achieve rapid growth without its network, according to Jennifer Neisse, InTouch spokesperson. The award-winning company relies on its VPN, broadband, and wireless network connections to support customer communications, guide its robots through hospitals, and enable company expansion.

InTouch Health now has about 50 employees and operations on four continents. "Having a reliable, accessible data network helps us quickly add more people to our company," says Neisse.

More examples of advanced network technologies that support fast company growth include the following:

  • IP communications. "This provides small businesses with an amazing advantage," says James E. Gaskin, a small business network technology consultant and author. He explains that applications such as unified messaging, find me/follow me, instant messaging, and video conferencing facilitate growth by improving productivity and customer service. He also says that small businesses that integrate their IP communications system with a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution can "appear big" to the outside world. For example, when a customer calls, the business' call-center employee can instantly see the customer's entire account history and respond with the high level of service that customers tend to expect only from large companies.
  • Real-time, online collaboration. Some small businesses avoid e-mail collaboration, weary of lengthy message threads, viruses, and spam, Gaskin observes. They prefer online collaborative workspace applications such as internal ‘wikis' and Web-based video conferencing. The applications help the businesses work more effectively with outside suppliers and channel partners that enable rapid growth, as well as increase productivity internally.
  • Wireless and remote access. Fast-growing businesses often have mobile workforces. Reliable and secure wireless network access helps employees stay in touch remotely, and locally as they roam about an office or campus. "The easier you make it to access data, the better information you'll have at all times, and the better decisions you'll make," says Gaskin.

Dollars and Sense

What resources are required to build a small business network? Costs start at several thousand dollars for an expert partner (such as a value-added reseller, or VAR) design and deploy a basic IP network; add about $1,000 per user for a basic IP communications system. Cisco Capital offers financing programs designed specifically for growing businesses.

Small businesses with scant internal IT expertise may want to use a managed service provider (MSP), an outside company that will design, deploy, and maintain the network and its applications for a monthly fee. The MSP may also offer a "hosted" solution, in which the business' network foundation (switches and routers) is physically located at the MSP's site.

"Until your company is big enough to have an IT staff that can spend time actively learning and providing security protection, you're better off outsourcing to an expert," says Gaskin.

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