Moving Blog.

October 2nd, 2009

I am re-posting my existing content, and all new content, to a nice new wordpress hosted blog.http://charlandtech.wordpress.com/Please update your RSS feeds and shortcuts.

Dysfunctional Case Study: “My server runs pretty well”

September 17th, 2009

I met a gentleman about a year ago through a web contact form. We’ll call him Joe.

Joe owns an insurance agency in Western Mass. He’s a real techhie type himself, and took great pride in knowing all the facts and figures about his hardware and software.

Nice, recent server, about a year old. Business-grade firewall. Up-to-date protection software.We got to a discussion of his needs. I presented a few options… Option A was a package I call “Tools & Tape.” For a set monthly fee I would install remote control and monitoring software on his systems. I would confirm that backups were running properly and periodically test restores. I would set up and maintain his e-mail protection and web site.I would maintain his systems with current anti-virus, Windows updates, and application updates. This was an inexpensive choice for a few hundred bucks a month to cover his whole network.

Joe passed on it and told me, “My server runs pretty well, I don’t see the value in monitoring.” I tried several different analogies, but there are some people who just won’t see some things.

I found out today that Joe had a major problem over the weekend. Friday night the server auto-installed some Windows Updates and the server restarted. After the restart he couldn’t get to anything on the server.

His way:
Server goes down Saturday night (or early Sunday morning). Joe goes into work 9am Monday morning and can’t get into his stuff. Joe reboots. Tries a few other things. Googles around for an answer. Waits a few minutes and reboots again. Maybe tries a few more things.

Now it’s noontime. Joe goes for lunch. Calls a local computer fixer for help. They can be on-site the next day. Joe sends his receptionist and salesperson home early. Not much they can do without the computer, after all.

Tuesday comes. The computer fixer shows up late morning, kicks the tires, and realizes it’s something he can’t handle. We’re now coming up on noontime. The fixer calls a second-tier server guy. Another hour or two go by. The server guy remotes into the server but he’s going on vacation and can’t spend any more time on it. Tuesday ends and Joe’s staff are still twiddling their collective thumbs.

Wednesday morning. The server guy calls another server guy to pinch-hit during his vacation. New server guy connects in a little after noontime and solves the problem after three hours of fiddling.
Alternate Reality: If Joe had signed up for Tools & Tapes

Given my track record with managing patches and updates for my clients, it’s very unlikely that a bad update would have “broken” Joe’s server. But we’ll presume that it did happen…

…The monitoring system would have alerted me early Saturday morning that Joe’s server was not responding. CT staff would be paged every hour until someone started to look at the issue..

..CT staff could have alerted Joe that there was a problem and that we feel it’s something we need to look into. Joe’s server is configured so that we can see the screen and power on/off/reset the machine even if it’s down. In this case we would sign onto the server, and start work..

..CT staff have defined escalation targets. If we’re working on a problem and get stuck we have Microsoft Partner Support on speed-dial, and we’re not afraid to use them..

..we would (almost certainly) have had Joe’s server back up and ready for business before his business opened on Monday.
Two obvious points:1. If Joe can sell insurance (and service his customers) without these computers, then why did he spend $20,000 on this setup two years ago? Joe’s desire to save $500/mo by passing over a Tools & Tapes plan did indeed save him money. Such a plan would have cost him $5,000 at this point.

How much did Joe spend today?

$300 for computer fixer, on-site visit and escalation to server expert dude
$450 for server expert dude, remote resolution of issue
——-
$750  total outside labor

But Joe really spent a lot more, didn’t he? If his $1 million dollar a year agency lost 3 days of sales and ticked off multiple customers by not being able to process claims, policies, or help his clients for three days…

By my math a $1M/year agency loses about $4,000 per lost day.

$1,000,000 / (50 working weeks/year * 5 days/week) = $4,000, right?

So I argue that Joe’s costs for this adventure were really closer to $13,000

He still paid his receptionist to answer the phone for three days saying, “Sorry, our computers are down, we can’t help you right now.” And he still paid his other expenses for the three days. And he still has no assurance that his network is problem-free; no assurance that his backups are running properly and verified; and no assurance that his network security is intact.

We can also add Joe’s costs of patching, maintaining, and operating the server himself. Let’s say it takes him an hour a week to schedule operating system patches, manage backup tapes, review system and antivirus logs…he doesn’t have the benefit of my automated tools, after all. Again, presuming Joe’s is a million-dollar per year agency his average sales rate is about $500/hour.

So he’s pulling another $500/week from potential sales in order to “feed” the computer systems. That’s another $25,000 per year in missed opportunity.

So this week cost joe $12,750 in additon to the $25,000 opportunity cost he gives up by running computers rather than selling insurance.

Would YOU spend $5,000 to save $38,000?

Quick looks: Small Business Accounting Programs

September 13th, 2009

I’ve been taking some time lately to investigate some online (and offline) accounting programs for small business.I’ve been using Quicken Home & Business for years now. I’m currently on the 2008 version and I’ve been dutifully upgrading every other year unless there’s a wonderfully compelling new feature. 2009 does not appear to add anything of mention.Q H&B works well. My business is a sole proprietorship with several subcontractors, not much in the way of inventory to track, and I usually use subcontractors if additional labor is needed.Quicken handles the basic needs very well. I use

  • P&L reports by month/quarter/year
  • Sales (invoice) reports by customer per month/quarter/year
  • Sales (invoice) reports by product/service per month/quarter/year
  • Recievables screen isn’t the best but it’s usable
  • Direct transaction download from my bank
  • Statement reconciliation each month
  • Printed statements to my customers with open recievables

I try to enter transactions as I make them, or when I get back to the office…that doesn’t always work. So I often rely on transaction download from my bank.Most of my billing falls into two categories:

  • Recurring monthly services, and
  • Time & materials

I honestly haven’t taken much time to figure out billing for recurring monthly services via QHB. I used to have recurring transactions but they required more work than just re-entering the invoices. I suppose I should look into that one of these days.QHB has no time tracking functionality as of 2008. I found last year that, with no timekeeping process in place, I was “giving away” several hours per month that should have been billable.I started using Harvest for timekeeping. This does a nice job of timekeeping and invoicing (and does a great job with recurring invoices as well), but now I find I’m creating invoices in Harvest then copying and pasting into Quicken.So I started to look at other options:

  • Other timekeeping programs that integrate with Quicken H&B (none found)
  • Moving my business books to Quickbooks Pro and continuing with Harvest
  • Moving my business books to an online accounting service that integrates with a timekeeping system

A few other considerations:I like linux, I own an Acer Aspire One netbook, and would love to find an accounting solution that will work well on it. I’m also open to Quickbooks competitors; while I know and use Intuit’s products extensively I also know how ornery the software can be…and tech support is not always easy or efficient.Next time I’ll discuss the suitability of the systems I have reviewed.

Where’s my website?

August 18th, 2009

Another question I’m asked on a regular basis:

“I put up a website. All fifteen of my friends and relatives have visited it but no one else has found it. It doesn’t even come up on google!”

 There have been many, many books written about “Search Engine Optimization,” or how to make your website come up in google. One of the best sites I’ve seen is www.seobook.com but there are many out there.

The basics:

Google, bing, yahoo, etc generally use a few key things to determine what comes up in a search:

1. PageRank. This is the “power” of your page based on who links to you, and a lesser extent who you link to. So you need to link to relevant external web sites…and get external sites to link to you. You can search for terms like “improve pagerank” to get more info on this.

2. Content. Google and the other sites have programs called “spiders” that catalog the text in your pages. The more relevant words your pages have the higher they’ll rank in various searches (without going too far, then the page will be considered “keyword spamming.”) This also includes images…ideally your images should have “alt tags” a.k.a. descriptions or “alternate text.” They also put emphasis on the headings and page titles.

3. Hidden stuff. There are things called “meta tags.” In Frontpage you’d go to “File->Properties” and you should be able to change the title, keywords, and description properties.So when you type a search, google runs its algorithms that combine these three factors and give you results based on the combination. These calculations are kept secret because bad guys are always trying to “play” the system using spam and other not-so-nice tactics.

These are the basics. You have 0% chance of anyone finding your page until these things are put in place. But like Othello or chess (or global thermonuclear war), you’ll get your butt kicked 99% of the time ‘til you learn strategy. Different people have different strategies regarding WHO you should link to, WHO should link to you, what words to use, what advanced techniques, etc. You can make this a full-time job if you want. What to use…and how good is good enough?Think about the way you search. You type some key words or phrases and hit “Search,” right? Then you look at the results and either go through 2-3 pages or start adding refinements to your search.If you’re not in the top 50 in your desired search (about two pages) then you’re not going to get any traffic. So you’re probably not going to be able to get a high search ranking for generic terms like “car” or “new car.” You need to further specialize to “new cars central Massachusetts” or “new cars Leominster, MA.”

So…First, check out some of the other great literature and books out there.

Second, start thinking of specific targetable search phrases you’d like to own. Look at the pages that own the #1-5 spots on those words now. Add keywords, descriptions, alt tags, and text to make your pages “compute” more like them.

Third, start linking to other sites that are relevant to your field. Also get links where possible to/from other sites. <My sites aren’t particularly “powerful” in pagerank but if you’re a client I’ll be happy to link to you.>

Fourth, start a blog. Make frequent postings about important goings on in your industry. Make sure you’re using the keywords and buzzwords that everyone else it talking about. Include links to outside sites (and other pages on your site) in your blog. But you NEEED to update it regularly!!!

There are also indexes like Yahoo, CitySearch, and several others where you can submit information about your business to be posted and linked to. These things can really help your pagerank and get you into the more directory-oriented services.

As I mentioned, these are some very basic starting points for getting a website noticed. There are many, many consultants who specialize in Web Design and Search Engine Optimization who can help with this.

Contact us for more information about these services…make your web site work for your business!

Playing the odds

August 11th, 2009

I hear a few common themes in this business:

“Our computers are running fine, we haven’t had any problems in three or four years. Our backup was set up when we first got our systems. Yeah, we’ll have to have you stop by sometime to check on it.”

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that a high percentage of computer components start to break down and fail between years four and six. Hard drives have microscopic parts that fly around at 7,000 rpm and are accurate to thousandths of an inch. For less than a hundred bucks how long do you think a disk will last? How much abuse do you expect a system to take? Will your disk start to fail first on harmless empty sectors? Key Windows system files? Your accounting database?

We come back to a basic tenet of risk, insurance, and life. Be Prepared. The ol’ Boy Scout motto serves us well in the IT business.

We can either prepare by keeping systems up to date and as “healthy” as possible…or prepare by knowing what we’ll do when the systems go down. Or a combination of both.

So we have two sets of questions:

  • When was the last time you checked the health of your systems? Are your computers running okay or do they hang, freeze, and stutter?
  • Where is your information? Do you have backup copies? When were they tested? What’s your plan if you can’t use your computer for a few days?

I offer service plans to cover both bases. It always works out better and ultimately cheaper to keep tabs on overall system health and capture error logs and problem reports early on. And it’s always critical to have a plan for storing critical files in multiple locations. For 99% of small business owners these services pay for themselves with the first problem…usually within 2-3 years.

Next time we’ll discuss some specific backup tools and strategies.

Insult to Injury

July 23rd, 2009
An actual e-mail I got the other day (mind you, I've never been a victim of such a scam...)

Received: (qmail 5567 invoked from network); 21 Jul 2009 00:57:49 -0000 Received: from unknown (HELO an2.alpha.pl) (81.2.202.226) by 0 (rfx-qmail) with (DHE-RSA-AES256-SHA encrypted) SMTP; 21 Jul 2009 00:57:49 -0000 Received: from User ([196.3.183.73])	(authenticated bits=0)	by an2.alpha.pl (8.13.6/8.14.2) with ESMTP id n6L0t9jR067777;	 Tue, 21 Jul 2009 02:56:07 +0200 (CEST)	(envelope-from market@pekuninternational.com) Message-Id: <200907210056.n6L0t9jR067777@an2.alpha.pl> Reply-To: <courierservice1@aim.com> From: "Miss. Kate Williams"<market@pekuninternational.com> Subject: SCAMMED VICTIMS COMPENSATION- REF/PAYMENTS CODE: 06654 Date: Mon, 20 Jul 2009 17:57:32 -0700 MIME-Version: 1.0 Content-Type: text/plain;	charset="Windows-1251"Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bitX-Priority: 3X-MSMail-Priority: NormalX-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook Express 6.00.2600.0000X-MimeOLE: Produced By Microsoft MimeOLE V6.00.2600.0000 Chief Compensation OfficerAfrican Monetary Agency In-collaboration with United Nations Compensation Committee(United Nations Anti-fraud Commission) Abuja, West Africa. Attention: , SCAMMED VICTIM/ $500.000.00 COMPENSATION- REF/PAYMENTS CODE: 06654 We are African Monetary Agency a delegate from the United Nations to Central Bank Nigeria and Ghana to pay1000 USA, Europe and Africa and Nigerian 419 scam victims $500.000.00 each, you are listed and approved for these payments one of the scammed victims, get back to us as soon as possible for the immediate payments of your $500.000.00  compensations funds.On this faithful recommendations, I want you to know that during the last UN meetings held at Washington D.C, USA, it was alarmed so much by the rest of the world in the meetings on the lose of funds by various foreigners to the scams artists operating in syndicates all over the world today, in other to retain the good image of this continent, all the west African head of states of west African countries, presidents and all members of the parliament of Ecowas states is now paying 1000 victims of this operators $500.000.00 each.  Due to the corrupt and inefficient banking systems in Africa, the payments are to be paid through USA and London Monetary Agency, under funding assistance by the Central Bank of Nigeria and Euro Bank in London According to the number of applicants at hand, 584 beneficiaries has been paid, half of the victims are from the United States and Asia, we still have many left out to be paid the compensations of $500.000.00 each only.  You are hereby warned not to communicate or duplicate this message to him for any reason for whatsoever; the US FBI secret service is already on trace of the criminals.  Contact Mr. Ronald Dickson with the details Below and And ask him to give you details on how to pay the Cost of Transfer of Your fund into your Bank Account.The cost of  transfer will cost you just $150. Do not be deceived by anybody to pay more than $150 for the Cost ofyour fund transfer (COT).His Name, mobile Numbers and Contact Email address is as bellow: NAME:   Mr. Ronald Dickson Email:    courierservice1@aim.com TEL:      009 234 805 222 7199.   ''         +234 805 222 7199.  Please send him the following details for further processing:  Finally, make sure that you reconfirm: 1. Full Name: 2. Full Address: 3. Occupation: 4. Age: 5. Sex: 6. Telephone Number: 7. Nationality: 8. Place of Residence: 9.Your Bank Details, and attach a scan copy of your Id.  You will receive your compensations payments via Bank to Bank transfer, I shall feed you with further modalities as soon as you Contact Mr. Ronald Dickson.  Yours faithfully,  Miss. Kate Williams Chief Compensation Officer, African Monetary Agency in Collaboration with United Nations Compensation Committee, (United Nations Anti-fraud Commission),Abuja, West Africa.

Thinking ahead…Mass sales tax changing soon!

July 20th, 2009

If you’re a Massachusetts business, I’m sure you have already heard that our sales tax is increasing as of August 1. If you sell beer, wine, or liquor you’re in for a double-whammy as the sales tax will be charged for these beverages now.

Don’t wait ’til 8/1

Saturday, August 1 will not be a good time to figure out how your software handles tax rates. There’s a good chance your tech person or accountant will be tied up with other people who need to make this change. Or your Internet will be down so you can’t google an answer. Or you’ll charge 5% to pacify your first irate customer of the day (which will cost you money and throw off your reports).

Neither will Monday, August 3. Given a few minutes we can figure out where this entry is stored and the best way make the change with minimal impact to your business.

Quickbooks: Not as easy as it seems

To change sales tax rate in Quickbooks (any version) is a three-step process. Parts 1 and 2 can be done before the changeover day, but the third part needs to happen the night before (or morning of) the 31th and 1st.

Why is this so complicated? Because Quickbooks treats sales tax as an item. In order to correctly reconcile and report on sales tax the old item needs to remain as it was (otherwise your reports would show 6.25% sales tax charges from 2001).

Quicken Home & Business follows a simpler procedure because it does not use the same level of detail in Sales Tax reporting.

In many Point-Of-Sale and other business applications, sales tax is usually found in “Company Setup,” “Store Settings,” or Other Options.

For unknown software we recommend:

  1. Taking a backup of the data
  2. Generating a full batch of reports if possible.
  3. Change the sales tax rate.
  4. Run another set of reports, review the sales tax account balance and ensure that prior sales, etc are not affected.

If you’d rather not deal with this headache, or need help developing a plan, contact us to speak with a business tech expert today!

Data Protection 101. Part 2b…Disaster Operations Planning

July 15th, 2009

Backups. That’s the first and last thing I talk to clients about. Backups don’t excite most people. They don’t add capability or improve productivity. Most small business owners I talk with don’t think about backups at all. Last time we talked about some of the “bad things” that can happen.

 

Disaster Operations Plan

 

Whether it’s written or not, everybody HAS a “Disaster Operations Plan.” In most large businesses it’s a printed document. For small businesses it’s usually, “We’ll talk to our insurance agent then look in the yellow pages and find a computer guy to work some magic and fix it all. And we’ll hope that we can keep our people busy while we figure out what needs to be done.”

 

I’ve been doing this long enough to know two fundamental truths:

  1. Computer devices fail. It’s not a question of if but when.
  2. There is no magic. Your chances of keeping your data (and keeping your business) increase by a huge amount with a bit of planning.

Questions we need to ask before bad things happen: 

What are we afraid of? This line of thinking applies equally to paper documents, computer files, and any other “thing” of value:

What do we need to protect?

Where is it stored now?

What bad things can happen to it?

How can we prevent these bad things from happening, or reduce the impact?

Can we carry on without it? How?

What about a large-scale catastrophe?

Where are these plans written? When have they been updated? How recently was our plan tested?

 

Answering these questions gives us a starting point for creating a concrete plan. Start thinking about these issues…don’t put it off! You can always contact us to discuss your specific needs with a technology specialist!

 

Next time, an overview of backup strategies.

Data Security 101: Part 2a, the Importance of Backup

June 30th, 2009

Why do I obsess so much about backups?

They’re the single most important thing you can do to protect your business data. From anything:

  • Careless user deleted files? No biggie. Recover from your latest backup.
  • Malicious user deleted files? No biggie. Recover from your most recent backup before they messed with things.
  • Server crashed and corrupted the accounting file? Take a deep breath then recover from your most recent backup.
  • Virus copied itself onto all your files? I’ve seen worse. Rebuild the machine then recover from your backup.
  • Windows Update killed your system? Reinstall…and…you guessed it, recover from your backup!
  • Hurricane destroyed your office? Make sure all of your people are okay, then guess what? Recover from your off-site backup!

A properly-planned and executed backup routine acts as insurance for your business. No matter what goes wrong…if we’ve got a good, tested backup we can bring you back to a “known good” point.

Which is not to say that other protection is not important; we don’t want to get infected with viruses, encourage poor internet control, or allow physical abuse of the computers.

If these things happen, though, we need to be able to recover recent enough data to keep you in business.

Care and Feeding

June 24th, 2009

I noticed the other day that my blog wasn’t accessible via RSS feed. The problem is corrected. Evidently I put some “extra” characters in my posts that weren’t handled by wordpress.

Look for much better posts on a more regular basis, starting later this week!