car driving towards hitchhikerimage sourceMy Huy Streetphotography. "Hitchhike." 01 September 2008. Flickr.

Don’t Hitchhike to the Future: Invest in It

May 30, 2013

Remember five years ago? There weren’t any tablets, the iPhone had just debuted, and then President-elect Obama insisted on bringing his BlackBerry to the White House. Just like today, the answer to our problems was felt to be in new and (more importantly for small businesses) cheap technology.

Here’s how a USA Today story from 2008 broke down the possibilities:

Yahoo offered free online small-business services. E-commerce firm Solid Cactus designed a professional-looking website (www.silkroadcollection.com). Google provided free online software to analyze Internet traffic to Silk Road’s website. And online marketing firm Constant Contact created an e-newsletter for thousands of customers. Total cost: $5,000.

That kind of savings is awesome at any time, making little-to-no-cost tech the default option for most businesses. After all, what’s not to like about free?

Here’s one reason to be wary of these kind of services: what’s free today may be gone tomorrow. For example, in 2011 Google revamped its free web tracking Analytics service to not share keyword data from users who searched while logged into Google (except to AdWords customers). Back then people saw a low drop in search data; in 2012, some sites saw half of all search queries return as “not provided.”

Keywords aren’t the only freebies Goole is cracking down on; the company recently announced the closure of its popular RSS Reader, and Google’s Checkout is next on the chopping block.

What about those “free online small-business services” from Yahoo? One of those was Geocities, a free website hosting service that grew to such popularity during the late ’90s that Yahoo paid $3.8 billion for it. In 2009 Yahoo pulled the plug: “As their FAQ states, GeoCities is not being decommissioned —— it’s being deleted. That means any data not personally backed up by its owners or readers will not be recoverable, ever.”

If you were counting primarily on any of those (or many other) free services to give your business a lift to the future, you’re certainly going to need to think again about how to reach your technology destination. But the other two tech companies mentioned in the above quote (Solid Cactus and Constant Contact) still offer the same services they did five years ago: Silk Road’s website is still up and thriving.

It’s simplistic to make the moral of this story “Pay a company for long-term online security.” Plenty of services shut down all the time, even paid ones. As Read Write Web recently opined, “The world of online services may be convenient, but there is always a risk of such services doing something your locally installed software won’t: drop off the face of the Earth at a moment’s notice.”

What’s an entrepreneur who wants to bring his small business into the modern tech world supposed to do?

First, be wary of entrusting all your business operations to a free service. On the Internet, as in life, there’s no such thing as a free lunch; “free” for you usually means your data is being served to advertisers (in ways you and your customers may or may not agree with). Sometimes that’s unavoidable; with approximately 1.11 billion monthly active users and counting, Facebook has become a major part of any company’s marketing arsenal. But for services like data storage or IT security, we encourage you to invest in a solution built for business.

Next, do your research. Was the vendor founded last week? Equally of note, was the vendor founded a decade ago, and has the website showed no change since then? What’s the vendor’s track record with businesses of your size and market vertical? Will you be able to reach someone if there’s a problem? For data storage vendors, you’ll want to look into how thorough the backup process is.

Finally, don’t chase every new trend the minute you hear a pundit pitch it as “the next big thing.” Instead, proactively plan how you want your business to move forward irregardless of technology changes.

We’re not suggesting you imitate an ostrich by any means. Instead, take a step back and realize that focusing on the tools can distract you from what’s ultimately important. Music has been and will continue to be valued, whether it’s on vital or bytes. Similarly, your business will always need to access important information. Decades ago that might have meant mainframes, now it might mean a cloud solution.

Plan how you want your business to grow, then talk to an expert on the best methods of getting there. There will always be unknowns in the tech world, but good research and partnerships can go a long ways towards ensuring you reach your destination.