The 2008 Small-Business Survival Guide


My fellow small-business owners, we may be battered, we may be bruised, we may be scared out of our minds. But at least we are still in the game.


And the good news is, the technological revolution in small-business tools came just at the nick of time with readily available digital tools we can use -- right now, this week -- to get control of the crazy situation and keep our businesses, well, in business.


Here are three steps you can take today:


Use a free online collaboration tool


With all the hubbub, it is easy to forget that we live in a miraculous digital age with ever-cheaper PCs, PDAs and cell phones. And all these digital thingamabobs are connected via the Internet. Market events aside, assuming you have paid for your computers and equipment -- and you can afford $40 a month for broadband access -- the cost of exchanging the information you use to develop and manage your products can be astonishingly cheap.


In fact, the road to saving money is paved with any number of free online tools -- that's right, free! Before you pour that next cup of coffee, surf over and try Microsoft's Office Live Small Business. Or Google Apps. Or Adobe Buzzword. These are the state-of-the-art right now. They cost nothing in their basic versions. Test them. Get your people to use them to collaborate, and start slashing needless e-mail, file versions and other time-consuming, money-wasting double entry of data.


Bottom line: If you use voice and e-mail to describe information in documents that are then updated independently -- say, that stupid, marked-up spreadsheet with all those ugly numbers you got from the sales people today -- install one of these collaboration systems now. And get everyone working on a single document in real time.


Your data is digital. Make money treating it that way.


Put that mobile phone to work


The great undiscovered small-business work tool is the mobile phone. Sure, traditional push-to-talk communication features in Sprint Nextel or Verizon are good starts, but there is no beating that 240 million of us have cell phones that can be turned into office tools with subtle-yet-powerful features like text messaging and mobile-productivity systems. Better yet, wireless carriers love to sell multi-phone accounts and other products to small businesses. You will be stunned to see how much you can leverage out of, say, AT&T with something as simple as a half-dozen cell-phone order.


Bottom line: If you do your homework, you will find your carrier probably offers a full suite of productivity tools customized for your business. Check out these full lists from Sprint, Verizon and AT&T. Then call a rep with your carrier and set up a meeting. You'll thank me.


It's OK to be a phone cheapskate


If times are really tight and you have few employees, experiment with chipping in on employees' personal cell-phone bills rather than keeping all your dedicated company landlines. Once you start using an online collaboration tool, chances are you will use your phones less. That means less need to keep hard office extensions. You may be able cut back to a few cheap VoIP phone systems from a provider like Vonage. Yes, it blurs the line between work and play -- and be careful about the tax treatment there -- but I see shared personal/work phones all the time. And it saves you real money on a multi-line phone system.


Bottom line: Kids aren't stupid. And most don't have hard-line phones. If you're squeezed for dough, you can do without them, too. Ask your people today, and if it feels right, turn off those hard lines by Halloween.


In total, it comes down to this: The larger economic trends may say otherwise, but technologically speaking, this is not 1929. There really are things you can do to control your destiny. And if you think about it, any small-business owner who is really in the game has already seen far worse than this downturn. After all, you started that business of yours from nothing -- with the tools you had in hand. You did that. You can do this.


Yes, we all should be planning for tight times. I expect to see payments to be delayed. And I know I will have to innovate to keep the deals I have. And the sad truth is, not all of us -- maybe not even me and my little digital world -- are going to make it. We're good, but only heaven knows. But I made a deal with myself over the weekend: If circumstances overwhelm us and we go down, we go down. But until then, I am going to try as hard as I can to set an example around here by continuing to think and innovate and trying to find better ways to solve problems for clients.


And honestly, what did we all expect from this world? A nursery rhyme?

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