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Author Archives: Anthony Hill

Is your old-school finance system holding your business back?

finance

If your paperwork piles up while you’re away from your desk then it might be time to streamline your business with a cloud-based finance package.

Paperwork is one of those necessary evils when you run a business. You might prefer to spend all your time focusing on your passions, but the business won’t get far if you neglect your finances.

There was a time when all of that admin work saw you stuck at your desk for hours, wading through piles of paperwork and dealing with desktop software restricted to a single computer. If your job involved spending most of your day away from your desk then all that paperwork would need to wait until the end of the day, week or even month.

These delays can play havoc with your cashflow if you’re putting off issuing invoices, processing payments and chasing slow payers. As a result you might be working harder than ever, yet feel like you’ve got little to show for it when it comes time to pay your own bills.

Thankfully the new generation of cloud-based finance packages make it easy to manage your business anywhere, anytime and from practically any device. All your data is securely hosted online, so you can pick up your computer, smartphone or tablet and have everything at your fingertips. You also have the advantage of paying a monthly subscription for your finance system rather than buying the software outright in a lump sum.

The more finance processes you can automate the smoother your business will run, for example by automatically reconciling a customer’s payment advice against your bank statements and notifying you of outstanding invoices.

You can turn any handheld device into a portable payments terminal using a tiny contactless card reader, letting you do business on the spot while importing the transaction directly into your finance system.

Meanwhile it’s easy to track your expenses on the go, processing them straight from your smartphone rather than throwing all your paper receipts in a box until tax time.

A cloud-based finance package saves you time and effort every day, but you’ll particularly appreciate the benefits when it comes time to pay your quarterly Business Activity Statement or annual tax bill. Instead of spending days shuffling paperwork and scouring spreadsheets, you can now draw together that information with a few clicks.

There are several cloud-based finance packages to choose from, some offering optional advanced modules such as inventory and payroll. It’s worth seeking advice from your accountant and doing plenty of research to find the best fit for your business, rather than jumping in the deep end and hoping for the best.

Keep in mind that you’re not just looking for a finance system which meets your current needs, it needs to scale to meet your future needs so you don’t outgrow it quickly. That way you can get back to doing what you do best, knowing that your cloud finance package is taking care of business.


Is there room for a streaming media player in your office?

appletv

Streaming media players like the Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast might seem more at home in the lounge room than the boardroom, but these tiny wireless gadgets offer a great way to fling presentations and other content around your office.

No matter how articulate you are in the boardroom, sometimes it’s more powerful to show people what you mean rather than just talking them through it. A new generation of slick presentation tools have helped us escape from PowerPoint hell, but there’s still the challenge of getting your presentation up on the big screen.

It’s easy to spend a lot of money setting up an expensive networked multimedia system in your office, but before you splash some cash it’s worth considering whether a simple streaming media player like the Apple TV or Google’s Chromecast could be the solution to your problems.

They’re best known as the easiest way to get streaming video services like Netflix into your lounge room, but these devices also let you mirror the desktop from your computer, smartphone or tablet. You can plug a player into any monitor, television or projector with an HDMI video port, giving it a wireless overhaul so it’s easy to fling video to it. This is even more convenient if you regularly waste time during meetings waiting for one person to relinquish control of the big screen while the next person fumbles with the cables they need to connect.

As you’d expect, the Apple TV is a very Apple-centric device, designed to play nicely with iPhones, iPads and Macs using Apple’s AirPlay streaming format. You can easily mirror the screen from any of these Apple devices, and many iOS apps have built-in AirPlay video support.

If you’re only interested in AirPlay then an old third generation Apple TV should do the job, and you’ll find them for less than $100. The newer fourth generation Apple TV starts at $239, but in return you gain the ability to run a wide range of third-party apps.

There’s no official Android support for AirPlay. You’ll find third-party apps in the Google Play store that support AirPlay video streaming, such as Allcast, AppleTV AirPlay Media Player and AirScreen – AirPlay & iTunes, but the results can be hit and miss.

Meanwhile Google’s Chromecast is more flexible—it’s designed to mirror the screen from an Android device, Windows PC or Mac, plus mirroring is built into the Chrome desktop browser. You’ll pick up the Chromecast for around $59, or you can step up to the $99 Chromecast Ultra, which supports Ultra HD resolution.

Streaming to a Chromecast from an iGadget is slightly less convenient. You can’t mirror the screen but you can mirror Chromecast-compatible apps—not just multimedia apps like Netflix and YouTube, but also Google’s apps like Google Slides for presentations and Google Photos for images and video clips.

Choosing between Google’s Chromecast and the Apple TV comes down to what devices you’ll need to connect—you might even decide it’s worth having one of each. Once they’re set up, it’s simple to get your big ideas up on the big screen in the office.


Fire up your VPN when using public Wi-Fi

mobilevpn

It’s best to play it safe when you’re out of the office using someone else’s Wi-Fi network.

Mobile data has traditionally been rather expensive in Australia so we’re in the habit of jumping onto free Wi-Fi networks wherever we find them—from cafes and shopping centres to sporting stadiums and airport lounges. These days mobile data costs have fallen and monthly download allowances are more generous, yet we still tend to use free public Wi-Fi when we’re out and about.

The trouble with using public Wi-Fi is that you don’t know who controls the network and whether they’re trying to eavesdrop on your online activities. In somewhere like an airport lounge, who is to say that the nearby “Public_WiFi” network isn’t really being generated by someone sitting at the next table, hoping that you’ll assume it’s a legitimate network?

Even if you are connecting to a legitimate Wi-Fi network in somewhere like a cafe, can you be sure that the network hasn’t been infiltrated by someone who is up to no good? The cafe owner might make a great latte, but what are their credentials when it comes to wireless network security? Would they even know if someone was lurking on the network, watching for passwords and other sensitive information?

If you can’t vouch for the integrity of a Wi-Fi network then it’s best to engage a virtual private network (VPN) to cloak your activities. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your device—your computer, smartphone or tablet—and the VPN server. The VPN server then acts as your gateway to the internet.

The benefit of this is that no-one else on the Wi-Fi network can monitor what you’re doing online, not even the network operator. They might be able to tell that you’ve created a secure encrypted connection, but they can’t peer inside to see what you’re doing.

There are plenty of free and paid VPN providers to choose from, although you tend to get what you pay for in terms of speed and security so be wary of using a free service to protect important business data.

Alternatively you might run your own VPN server in the office and let remote staff connect directly to that server. One advantage of this is that your people are making a secure connection all the way to the office, rather than just to a third-party VPN server in the cloud. Another advantage is that once connected to the office VPN, your people can access in-house servers and other systems that aren’t accessible across the open internet.

As Australia’s 4G mobile data networks become cheaper and faster there’s less and less reason to use public Wi-Fi hotspots, but if you do, it’s important to take sensible precautions to protect your privacy.


Watch out for old business scams in the new year

scam

From fake utility bills to bogus money transfer requests, scammers have their sights set on small businesses in 2017.

For all the advancements in modern technology, it seems the old scams are still the best scams. Con artists appear to have given up on trying to trick you into thinking you’ve won the lottery or landed some other deal which seems too good to be true. Instead they’re returning to the old fashioned business scams which seem too dull to be fake.

Fake invoices are always in fashion, whether they’re sent via email, fax or in the post. Sometimes they’re for advertisements supposedly placed in publications that might not even exist. Other times they’re for stationery or printing supplies that you never received or even ordered.

Usually the scammers don’t get too greedy; the idea is to hit you with an ordinary, realistic-looking bill and hope that someone in your organisation will pay it without giving it a second thought. If you fall for a fake invoice once, they’ll probably keep sending them.

Fake bills are also popular with scammers peddling ransomware who hope to trick you into opening an attachment or clicking on a link that contains malware designed to encrypt all the important documents on your hard drive. The scammer then demands money for the release of your documents, expecting payment in an untraceable currency like Bitcoin.

These kinds of scams come in all forms. Sometimes they’ll pose as an unpaid utility bill, hoping that you’ll open the attachment out of fear that the power company is about to leave you in the dark. Other times the scam might pose as a small windfall, such as a tax refund—large enough to sound enticing but not so much as to seem suspicious. All you need to do is fill out the attached form.

Scammers also love the old undelivered parcel routine, claiming to be a notification from FedEx or Australia Post alerting you of a package waiting to be claimed.

Other times scammers are looking to steal passwords and other sensitive information, such as tricking you into logging into a spoof banking website or finance platform.

Most of the time these “phishing” scams take a shotgun approach, sending the same email to thousands of businesses in the hope that someone will take the bait. Other times they’re “spear phishing” attacks targeted specifically at your business, with the scammers doing their research to target specific people in your organisation with personalised emails.

More sophisticated scammers are also hitting organisations with Business Email Compromise scams, breaking into your email system in order to wreak havoc.

For example, they’ll wait until a senior executive is travelling overseas and then forge an email to a subordinate in the finance department, instructing them to urgently transfer money to an offshore supplier. The money is long gone before anyone realises that it’s a scam.

Unfortunately there’s no shortage of people out there looking to scam small businesses, so it’s important to train your people to treat every communique with a healthy skepticism. You can’t be too careful when it comes to doing business online.


Are you on the best business mobile plan?

mobilegraph

Rather than blindly sticking with the same telco year after year, wedded to the same plan, it’s worth shopping around to see if you can get a better deal.

Depending on what your business does, things might slow down over the summer break or it might be the busiest time of year. If there is a bit of a lull, now is the time to do some strategic planning for the year ahead – which should involve re-evaluating whether you’re getting the best deal from all your service providers.

Communications can be a significant cost for tech-savvy businesses, but there’s always the temptation to chalk up your mobile phone bill as a “necessary evil” and leave well enough alone. That’s exactly what some telcos want, they deliberately make their bills and plans overly complicated in the hope that you’ll put it all in the too hard basket and stick with your old plan even if it’s not the best deal for you.

Keep in mind that business mobile plans aren’t just for big companies, they’re generally open to anyone with an Australian Business Number. Even if you’re flying solo you can probably still get an ABN, which lets you weigh up the merits of your telco’s business mobile plans compared to the consumer plans. You might also be able to combine your business fixed-line and mobile communications on the one bill to make things easier and save a few dollars.

If you’re coming off a 12 or 24-month mobile plan you’ll probably automatically rollover to month-by-month payments, perhaps with a slight price drop if your plan involved paying off a handset. At this point it’s worth doing your homework, as your telco has almost certainly introduced new deals since you signed up for your last plan. Often they won’t tell you when a better plan comes along, they’re happy for you to languish on the old plans rather than signing up for a better deal.

Signing up for a new plan might entitle you to a new handset, but if you’re happy to stick with your old handset for another year then you might find that signing up for a 12-month Bring Your Own Device plan offers better value than the default month-by-month deal which kicked in when your old plan expired.

It’s important to study the fine print, which is much easier now that all telcos are required to offer a Critical Information Summary – a simple explanation of your plan which makes it easy to compare plans and know exactly what you’re getting for your money.

Don’t pay too much attention to claims like “$1000 worth of calls each month” – this figure is meaningless unless you know how much you’re paying for each call. More expensive plans offer cheaper call rates, so if you make a lot of calls you might save money by opting for a more expensive plan rather than sticking with a cheap plan and exceeding your call cap.

Once you exceed your cap, calls can get quite expensive. A look back over your phone bills for the last 12 months should give you a good idea of how you use your phone.

One key advantage of business plans is that you often get free calls between your business mobiles, making it easier for your people to stay in touch. You might also be able to pool your call and data allowances between your handsets, so less goes to waste.

Along with calls and texts it’s also important to consider your monthly mobile data allowance. Sometimes you’re forced to sign up for more calls and texts than you really need, just to boost your mobile data allowance. It’s worth weighing up the cost of extra data packs to see whether it’s more economical to sign up for a cheaper plan and then pay for the occasional data boost during the year.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution and telcos like to make things complicated, so a bit of research can go a long way to saving you money on your mobile phone bill.


Use technology to strike the right work-life balance this summer

worklife

Even if you can’t get away from it all these holidays, the right tech can help you make the most of the sunshine.

Four weeks annual leave over Christmas has become less and less common over the years as the nature of work has changed—especially if you run your own business. If you’re distraught at the thought of another summer chained to your desk while your loved ones enjoy the sunshine then it’s worth investigating how handheld devices, mobile broadband and cloud services might grant you a little more freedom.

Australia’s mobile broadband coverage has come a long way in the last decade, so chances are you can still get online when you’re off the beaten track. But don’t trust the mobile coverage maps, especially if you’re travelling close to the edge of the network footprint.

If in doubt it’s best to call ahead and enquire about the real-world coverage offered in the area. Even if your telco leaves you stranded at your destination, you might get by with a pre-paid mobile Wi-Fi hotspot from a competitor. Alternatively you might discover free or paid Wi-Fi hotspots in the area—from the local library or coffee shop to a Telstra Air hotspot—that might save the day.

Of course getting online is only part of the challenge, you also need to lug around the right devices and hope they’ve got enough charge to get you through the day.

If you’re still reliant on a desktop or notebook PC in order to stay on top of things then it’s worth investigating whether a more travel-friendly tablet or smartphone is up to the job. Not only are they more portable than PCs but they also tend to offer a significantly longer battery life—plus it’s easy to throw a mobile charger in your bag. If you need the best of both worlds then consider a Windows tablet like the Microsoft Surface Pro.

If you’re using your tablet like a laptop but typing on glass slows you down, consider adding a small Bluetooth keyboard to your travel kit.

To rest your gadget at that correct viewing angle you may also want a case or stand designed to hold it up. Some designs also feature built-in keyboards.

Keyboard issues aside, you might have tried in the past and found that mobile apps and services didn’t cut the mustard. It’s worth checking again, as many vendors have recently adopted mobile-first development strategies to support users working away from the office.

However, if you do find apps for all the services you need to access while out on the road, don’t assume they’ll meet all your needs. Test your workflow in advance to ensure you can perform all the necessary tasks or implement a workaround that will suffice until you get back to your desk.

If you’ll struggle to process payments or issue invoices and purchase orders away from your desk then this might be the excuse you need you upgrade from shoe-box account practices and other manual processes to embrace cloud-based device-agnostic services which are always at your fingertips.

We can’t all go off the grid for the summer, but with the right tech at your disposal you can strike a better balance between work and play.


Is the wait for the NBN hurting your business?

nbnmap

If slow broadband is hurting your bottom line then it’s worth investigating the National Broadband Network alternatives that might already be available in your area.

It’s been a long time coming but Australia’s national broadband rollout promises to eventually reach every corner of the country. Once it arrives in your street you’ll enjoy download speeds of somewhere between 25 and 100 Mbps, depending on which NBN broadband technologies are deployed in your area. But that’s little consolation if your business is hurting now and your suburb or town isn’t even included in the latest NBN rollout plan.

If you’re a large business then you might be able to afford to pay for your own dedicated high-speed fibre, DSL, microwave or satellite link rather than waiting for the NBN. If you’re a small business that can’t justify the expense of a dedicated link then you’re probably stuck on ADSL running over the copper phone lines.

Relying on ADSL means you’re at the mercy of your distance from the telephone exchange and the quality of your copper phone line—some lines have fallen into disrepair but at this point Telstra is reluctant to repair a flaky phone line unless you’re actually having trouble making voice calls.

A few broadband providers have popped up to cash in on the slow NBN rollout by tapping into the pent up demand for decent yet affordable high-speed internet access. Your options include fibre rollouts like DGTek, wireless providers like VividWireless and microwave services like Lightning Broadband. Some are only cherry picking the most lucrative neighbourhoods, so it’s hard to say if or when these NBN competitors will reach your area.

For now the easiest alternative to ADSL is to access the internet via the mobile phone networks from Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. LTE 4G mobile broadband is often faster than ADSL, for both downloads and uploads, but the trade-off is that it can be a lot more expensive so you need to use it sparingly.

You can access mobile broadband via a USB dongle, a battery-powered mobile hotspot or by generating a Wi-Fi hotspot using your smartphone. Some telcos also offer ‘Wireless Broadband’, which uses the mobile networks but relies on installing a new modem in your office. This can work out cheaper than mobile broadband, although you may be capped at slower speeds than you can get through other mobile devices.

If slow broadband is costing your business in terms of lost customers or productivity then it might not be hard to build a case for switching across to wireless/mobile broadband—although it can be more susceptible to network congestion during peak times. You’ll also find a range of fixed wireless providers aimed at businesses, which focus more on reliability than speed.

In terms of price and performance you might find it more practical to rely on a mix of ADSL and wireless/mobile broadband, jumping between them depending on the task at hand; you’ll need to weigh up your needs and decide on the best tool for the job.

The NBN will reach your office eventually, but if you can’t wait then it’s worth investigating other ways your business might satisfy its need for speed.


Throw away those paper receipts with expense management apps

expenses

Rather than sift through the stash of receipts in your desk drawer at the end of the month, expense management apps let you file that paperwork automatically.

The dream of a completely paperless office lies beyond the reach of many businesses, but we can still aspire to the less-paper office. If you’re looking to banish more paperwork from your workflow then expense management might be a good place to start.

You’ll find plenty of expense management platforms out there so it pays to do your research. Like any new IT system you’ll want to consider how it will integrate with your existing systems, whether it works with the right devices, and whether it supports any specific needs of your business or industry.

Don’t leap in head first, instead run a pilot with key staff to see whether it meets your needs. Some expense management systems also support extra modules, such as the ability to generate invoices and purchase orders, which might be handy if you’re looking to consolidate your IT systems.

Rather than an expensive upfront investment, many expense management platforms are cloud-based systems which charge per user, per month. This makes it easier for small businesses to afford enterprise-grade services and scale-up over time, plus it can be easier to calculate your return on investment.

It might not be hard to justify the expense once you consider how long some staff spend manually calculating their expenses each month, along with the back office administrative hours spent processing those expense claims.

A well-rounded expense management platform can save time, eliminate double handling, reduce data entry errors and help detect anomalies that indicate which expense claims require closer scrutiny.

To help speed things up, many expense management platforms support mobile devices, allowing cameras to scan paper receipts and import them into the system. Some expense management platforms even have agreements with travel-centric service providers – such as taxi companies, airlines and hotel chains – that handle the entire process electronically and completely eliminate the need for paper receipts.

Keep in mind that embracing expense management isn’t just an IT purchasing decision, it’s also a change management challenge as you encourage your people to approach an old problem in a new way.

It helps for the project to have a champion in senior management, but it also pays to take a consultative approach – getting buy-in from end users – rather than simply dictating change.

The planning stage should include a needs analysis phase to ensure that you’re actually addressing the day-to-day pain points of the staff who will rely on the new system – both those responsible for racking up the expenses and those responsible for processing them. From here, sell them on the benefits of change, and take onboard their feedback, while bearing in mind that their adoption of the new system will determine its success or failure.

They say you have to spend money to make money, but that doesn’t mean you need to wade through all those receipts when an expense management system can do the job.


Is your business ready for Australia’s 2G mobile shutdown?

2gtower

If your business relies on Telstra, Optus or Vodafone’s ageing 2G mobile networks – perhaps not just for phone calls – then it’s time to make other plans.

It’s more than 20 years since Australia launched its 2G GSM (Global System for Mobiles) networks to bring the country’s mobile communications into the digital age. Since then, we’ve seen mobile data speeds skyrocket with the introduction of 3G and 4G, while 5G is already on the drawing board.

These days mobile spectrum is at a premium, so Australia’s telcos have decided that it’s time to decommission their 2G networks. Telstra is pulling the plug on December 1, with Optus following suit next April and Vodafone in September 2017. Australia isn’t alone, with AT&T in the United States also shutting down its 2G network at the end of this year.

Australia has dozens of mobile providers, but they all depend on the mobile networks of either Telstra, Optus or Vodafone, so it’s worth checking which of the three your business relies on.

To be honest, it’s unlikely that your business still relies on 2G-only mobile phones. Australia’s major telcos stopped selling 2G-only handsets a few years ago. Any Apple or Android smartphone should be fine but time is running out if you’ve hung on to something like an ancient Nokia 3200.

Most consumers should also be in the clear, unless they’re sitting on an old Nokia as an emergency phone.

However, there are a few other issues that businesses should consider.

For starters, there are remote parts of Australia which only have 2G coverage, or where the 3G/4G signal is so weak that handsets tend to roam back to 2G when you’re using them inside. If your business operates in these areas then the 2G shutdown could occasionally leave you stranded. If you run into trouble, it’s worth talking to your telco about which handsets offer the best reception and/or external antennas for vehicles.

The other thing to consider is that phones aren’t the only devices which rely on the mobile networks. A lot of old machine-to-machine services also rely on 2G, from vehicle tracking and security alarms, which report back to base, to vending machines that phone home when they’re running low.

If you rely on services that depend on the 2G networks then you should be notified by the service provider or the telco. If you’re concerned, it’s a good idea to be proactive and do some research before the shutdown comes into effect.

Don’t wait until the network falls silent to discover that your business still relies on Australia’s old 2G communications.


Google cloud storage Coldline keeps your precious business backups on ice

coldstore

Google’s new business-grade cloud storage options are a cost-effective way to backup those files that are important but you can temporarily live without should disaster strike your business.

You can’t over-emphasise the importance of offsite backup for precious business files. Should fire, flood or theft claim your office and all the computing devices within, it’s vital that you have backup copies of your important files stored elsewhere. Cloud storage offers a convenient and affordable way to do this, but not all online storage options are created equal.

Consumer-grade cloud storage/backup services tend to offer flat-rate pricing, but enterprise-grade services like Google Cloud Storage, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure offer different pricing levels depending on how urgently you need to access that data in an emergency.

Files that are updated regularly and that you’ll need to recover ASAP should disaster strike are considered “hot” backups, whereas archival backups are considered “cold” backups. If your business suffers a catastrophic data loss you won’t need to retrieve these archival files immediately, as long as you know they’re safe and sound.

Amazon’s Glacier charges only $US0.07 per gigabyte per month to store data that you don’t need to access immediately and now Google has matched this pricing with its new Coldline storage option. Microsoft Azure also offers hot and cold options for its cloud storage.

These services aren’t aimed at the general public; Google Cloud Storage is not the same as Google Drive and Microsoft Azure is not the same as OneDrive. Large enterprises might sign up directly with these business-grade storage services, but if you’re a small business then it’s more likely you’ll sign up with a third party storage/backup service that uses something like Google Cloud Storage, Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure behind the scenes. Sometimes they’ll even give you a choice of which storage service you want to use.

You can certainly save money using these online cold storage services, but it’s important to read the fine print so you know what you’re getting yourself into. One of the trade-offs is slower retrieval times, so you might not want to use them for mission critical files. You can also pay higher retrieval costs for cold storage – some storage services slug you a fraction of a cent when you upload or download data, on top of the monthly storage fee.

Cold storage is unlikely to be appropriate for all your business data, but it might be a sensible option if you’re storing massive file collections online that are driving up your monthly bill.

It’s worth taking the time to assess the various kinds of data your business stores online and then devising a backup/storage strategy that uses a mix of hot and cold storage to ensure your business is making the most of the cloud.


Recent News

fibre

You don’t need to stick with your current Internet Service Provider when you switch across to the National Broadband Network, but your ISP will do its best to twist your arm. While the NBN aims to offer many Australians decent broadband for the first time, for the country’s ISPs it’s a once-in-a-generation game of musical… More 

Fotolia_73676056_M

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) recently issued a general warning around the use of electronic gadgets inflight after an incident where a passenger’s headphones exploded inflight en route to Melbourne from Beijing. They didn’t release a whole lot of additional details regarding the make or model of the headphones, or whether there were any… More 

finance

If your paperwork piles up while you’re away from your desk then it might be time to streamline your business with a cloud-based finance package. Paperwork is one of those necessary evils when you run a business. You might prefer to spend all your time focusing on your passions, but the business won’t get far… More 

nbn

For years now we’ve been promised a bright shiny NBN future of broadband for all. It’s been bogged down by political boondoggles (no matter which side of the political fence you sit on) and an often significantly delayed rollout schedule, but the reality of the NBN is starting to hit more and more Australians as… More