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If the experts are to be believed, business startups need a fortune in seed capital. If this was the case back at the turn of the century, small businesses wouldn't have started, much less become the very thing that has made this country great. This is the last of a five part series on technology in small business. We'll look at other ways technology can help a new business and some local sources for info or help.


GotVmail (www.gotvmail.com). GotVmail is a completely new way to use your phone. Imagine having a 1-800 number with more features than most Fortune 500 companies' phone systems all using your existing home, office, or cell phone. Take a call while at the lake with the kids, transfer it to sales in Denver. Route another call to your partner in Detroit. In addition to advanced routing, it has many other incredibly handy features. The basic plan will run you $9.95 per month.


Vonage (www.vonage.com). VoIP is a technology which uses the Internet to route phone calls at little to no cost, and Vonage is a VoIP service provider. One plan has 1500 minutes outgoing, unlimited incoming calls, no long distance fees, and incredibly cheap international calls. I can chat with relatives in New Zealand for 5 cents per minute. Some of the other plans even offer free calls to the France, Italy, and the British isles. The basic business plan runs $39.99 per month.


Net10 (www.net10.com). Prepaying gives you the ability to aggressively control costs. It has excellent customer care, fantastic coverage in Huerfano County, no contracts, and no phone costs over $80.00. While some organizations might be better served with an unlimited plan from a major provider, most need much less. You pay ten cents per minute with no hidden fees. A basic plan is $15.00 per month, and you'll pay $23.60 to get it started with a basic phone.


GoDaddy (www.godaddy.com). These folks have some of the best service in the web industry. If you need a domain name (www.yourbusiness.com) these are the people to see. The owner, Bob Parsons (www.bobparsons.tv) is a veteran, Marine, entrepreneur, and CPA. If that sounds like an interesting combination, it is, but his marketing advice is sound and free. A domain name costs 9.95 per year.


InMotion Hosting (www.inmotionhosting.com). These folks are the best web hosting company I have found. Their level of support is second to none. A basic business package is $6.95 per month.


The Huerfano County Chamber of Commerce (www.huerfanocountychamberofcommerce.com) at 400 Main St. is an excellent source for information and networking. Located in the train depot with Colorado Workforce, they are also an excellent starting point if you need qualified employees.


Your Public Library (www.spld.org). Should you need to know anything, they have a book on the subject or can get one for you. Need a quick answer? They do research. Need a computer? They have fast workstations available for use. Need something printed, copied or faxed? They do that too.


SBA (www.sba.gov). You'd be surprised at the amount of resources available at the SBA website. They have everything from forms, contacts, advice, and training just a click away.


Finally, most of the software listed in this five part series is available on a free CD at the Public Library and Chamber of Commerce in Walsenburg. Alternatively, drop me a line at aharper@nextweb.co.nz and I'll get one out to you.

If the experts are to be believed, business startups need a fortune in seed capital. If this was the case back at the turn of the century, small businesses wouldn't have started, much less become the very thing that has made this country great. This is the fourth of the five part series on technology in small business, and this time we'll examine some real world examples. How much can you really save? Are there any other benefits?


First, we need to add a couple of entries to the list of free open source software for business. While Nola Pro is an extremely powerful accounting package, GNUCash (www.gnucash.org) and Grisbi (http://www.grisbi.org) are targeted to home and small business use.


On to the case studies. We'll assume that they are starting a business from scratch and all computers are purchased preloaded with Windows XP or Vista. A full version of all software must be bought in the beginning, and subsequent upgrades will occur on a typical three year cycle, except financial software which must be upgraded annually.


A small insurance agency has five workstations, where one is the owner, three are agents, and the last is the secretary. None need anything other than an office suite, basic accounting, and some contact management. GNUCash and Open Office can perform these duties with ease, saving $762.00 for the first computer and $299.00 for the other four. This comes to $1958.00 in savings at the beginning, and an average of $550.00 per year thereafter in upgrades. Over five years, the savings come to over $4000.00.


How about something more technical? Let's say you are a small engineering company, again with an owner, secretary, and three engineers. Instead of using Microsoft Office, Quickbooks, AutoCAD, and Adobe CS4, you can save $10317.92 initially and around $2200.00 per year in upgrades. Over five years, the savings come to nearly $20,000.00 while giving you more capabilities.


How is this possible? Commercial software is specifically written to address a perceived need so the software company can make a buck off the consumer. Free software was written to solve a problem that was not addressed. The difference is the person designing and writing the free software usually knows their trade, while the person writing commercial software is a programmer first and may not have a deep understanding of the industry for which they are writing software.


There are other benefits. A former employee with a grudge filed a report with the Business Software Alliance (www.bsa.org) claiming that I was using pirated software. I had no problem producing software licenses for all the software installed when the inspectors showed up. When they realized I was using open source software, they left with an expression on their faces like someone shot their dog.


Next time we'll wrap up our series on technology in small business with information sources in our local area. You would be surprised at what is and will be available. Got an idea for a business? Talk to the Small Business Administration (SBA). You'd be surprised at the amount of resources available at the SBA website. They have everything from forms, contacts, advice, and training just a click away at www.sba.gov.

If the experts are to be believed, business startups need a fortune in seed capital. If this was the case back at the turn of the century, small businesses wouldn't have started, much less become the very thing that has made this country great.


This is the third of a five part series on technology in small business, and this week we're covering creative software. Creative software is used to draw, design, and visualize.  It is everything from desktop publishing to  Computer Aided Design (CAD). The software we'll replace include Autodesk's legendary AutoCAD LT 2009 (www.autodesk.com) and the Adobe Creative Suite (CS4) bundle from Adobe (www.adobe.com).


One reader asked: “...by what measure do you gauge the equivalence of open source or free software and an industry standard like MS Office?” Three factors. Can I do everything I did with an expensive product using a free one? Will there be a learning curve? Can I share documents with those who still use standard software? Much of the answers to these questions depend on what you really do with the software, but for 99% of readers the products are functionally equivalent.


First the bad news. If you are used to AutoCAD, nothing else works in quite the same way, though this applies even to different versions of AutoCAD. The good news is that there are excellent low cost and even free alternatives.


X-11 CAD Pro from Graytech Software (www.graytechsoftware.com) for $29.95 is a serious contender. If 3D modeling is your thing, AC3D by inivis (www.inivis.com) for $79.95 lets you design things in 3D. It works nothing like AutoCAD... it is much easier to learn. TurboCAD Deluxe (www.turbocad.com) is also good choice for $129.95. All three of these can read and write AutoCAD's .dxf file format.


BRL-CAD (brlcad.org) is the clear winner in the free category. It's had 20 years of active development and is more capable than anything else. The learning curve is a bit steep, but it was designed by the US military for their internal use and has the feel of a mature, polished product. Graytech's X-11 CAD Free edition is a good choice too, though it limits you a little compared to Pro.


Adobe CS4 is much easier to replace. GIMP (www.gimp.org)is an open source graphics editor on par with Photoshop. Adobe Illustrator can be replaced with Inkscape (www.inkscape.org), and InDesign has an open source counterpart named Scribus (www.scribus.net). Pagemill and Dreamweaver's functionality can be replaced with Nvu (net2.com/nvu). All of these are free to download. The only thing you'll loose by using separate programs is integration. Most folks never use those capabilities, since these are some of the most poorly documented features.


Next issue we'll talk about more cheap and free software, look at real numbers for a business startup, and discuss other advantages of open source software in a small business.


Got an idea for a business? Talk to the Small Business Administration (SBA). You'd be surprised at the amount of resources available at the SBA website. They have everything from forms, contacts, advice, and training just a click away at www.sba.gov.

If the experts are to be believed, business startups need a fortune in seed capital.  If this was the case back at the turn of the century, small businesses wouldn't have started, much less become the very thing that has made this country great. 

This is the second of the five part series on technology in small business, and this week we'll cover office suites.   An office suite is a family of applications that generally include a word processor, spreadsheet, database, and presentation modules.  In Microsoft Office, these are known as Word, Excel, Access, and Powerpoint respectively.  While the emphasis will be on Windows software, Mac and Linux versions are available.

A business needs an office suite, but Microsoft Office costs $499.95 for the package you need, and more if you do anything fancy.  Cheaper alternatives include Corel WordPerfect X4 (yes, it's still around) for $399.00, Sun Microsystems' Star Office for $79.95, and ThinkFree Office 3 for $50.00. 

IBM Lotus Symphony is the latest offering of a decent and mature product.  The Lotus software line began in 1983 and today it is a well rounded product with a mild learning curve.  IBM offers this product for free at symphony.lotus.com.

Competition started Star Office too.  In the 90's Sun Microsystems wanted to undermine Microsoft, so they bought a German software company who had a product that worked like Microsoft Office.  As time went on, Sun made more and more improvements, and according to many if its users, now it's better than Office in many ways. 

The project later split into two branches.  Star Office is a top notch office suite with excellent support from Sun.  Open Office, does nearly as much and is free, though you will have to pay for support if you need it.  It is available for download at www.openoffice.org  We made the switch to Open Office a couple of years ago, and there was practically no learning curve.

Software hosted on a server and used through the Internet is a relatively new trend.  Examples include Quickbooks Online, Microsoft Office Online, Deskaway (www.deskaway.com) Google Docs (docs.google.com), Zoho Office (www.zoho.com), and ThinkFree (www.thinkfree.com).  The advantage is that the document is available on any computer and only one version of the document is flying around no matter how many people are collaborating on it.  The disadvantage is that you're relying on an online service.  If something goes wrong, you may not have access or the ability to use the documents you created.  Many of these are free to play with, but pay for serious use. 

Next issue we'll cover creative software.  Between Adobe Creative Suite Master Collection ($2499.95 on discount) and Autocad LT 2009 ($4699.95), you can spend $7200.00 plus, or save your money and use free or low cost alternatives!

Got an idea for a business?  Talk to the Small Business Administration (SBA).  You'd be surprised at the amount of resources available at the SBA website.  They have everything from forms, contacts, advice, and training just a click away at www.sba.gov

If the experts are to be believed, business start-ups need a not-so-small fortune in seed capital for generic startup expenses, plus all the items specific to their trade or industry. If this was the case back at the turn of the century, no one would have started a small business, much less become the very thing that has made this country great.  It's got to be easier than that... and it is.

Consider that small business today:

  • Represents 99.7% of all employer firms.
  • Is 53% home-based.
  • Employs half of all private sector employees.
  • Has generated 60% - 80% of net new jobs annually over the last decade.
  • Employs 41% of of high tech workers.
  • Pays 45% of total U.S. private payroll.
  • Produces 13 to 14 times more patents per employee than large firms.
  • Creates more than 50% of non-farm private gross domestic product (GDP).
  • Made up 97% of all identified exporters*.
This is the first of a five part series on technology in small business, helping a start up business spend less and do more.

Hardware is difficult for a start up to save money on. While it's unnecessary to buy the latest and greatest if all you'll do is run your business on it, your lender may insist on new equipment because he will need to place a certain value on the goods you purchase with his money as collateral. If you lender will allow it, or you're on your own nickel, buy lease return computers and you'll save $500.00 - $2000.00 per computer. Buy new printers and monitors, as these don't always age well.

Saving money on software is easier. There's an amazing amount of free software out there that's not advertised. There is some argument about the total cost of ownership (TCO) of free software, so I will include what I spent on these solutions. You can do the math yourself.

Every business today needs accounting software. QuickBooks Pro multi-user (quickbooks.intuit.com) will cost $549.00, and more if you need payroll or point of sale (POS), as high as $1899.85 when it's all done. Yearly updates and occasional upgrades will cost yet more.

Nola Pro (www.nolapro.com) is an accounting package that has been around since 1973. This mature and well tested product is free. The company makes it's money selling documentation, customization, and services, and even those are reasonable. I'm not an accountant, and I got my accounting system up and running in a day. Printed manuals and modules to tune it to my uses came to $38.85. Version upgrades are free and annual tax table updates will run me $5.00. Yes, you read that right.

Next issue we'll cover office suite software. Microsoft Office 2007 costs $499.95, but there's a free alternative!  Got an idea for a business? Talk to the Small Business Administration (SBA). You'd be surprised at the amount of resources available at the SBA website. They have everything from forms, contacts, advice, and training just a click away at www.sba.gov.

U.S. Bureau of the Census
Advocacy-funded research by Joel Popkin and Company (Research Summary #211)
Federal Procurement Data System
Advocacy-funded research by CHI Research, Inc. (Research Summary #225)
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey
U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration

Time Management with Technology

We were promised technology would solve problems and we'd have time to relax. While this happened, we saddled ourselves with more tasks during the day, yielding even less time for ourselves and our families. In order to not work a 60-80 hour week, we need to slow down or learn good time management. While it's a nice thought, slowing down is not possible for most of us. There are several time saving tools available though, and while these usually don't reduce the number of hours spent at work, they can keep work from taking over your life.


Not all solutions use what we'd normally call “technology”. For instance, there are mouse pads which double as note paper. It's an elegant solution, since it keeps paper handy, and we generally use the mouse with the same hand we write with. To queue the next day's tasks, a colored file folder holds notes etc, preventing these from cluttering my in-box, which is probably already overstuffed with today's tasks. My calendar is a white board. I draw calendar divisions and persistent information with a wet erase marker which, unlike dry erase markers, only erase with a damp cloth. I write data on my schedule with a dry erase marker and can erase things as needed without messing up the framework.


Sometimes we try to get a handle on the day before it starts, or we work in two locations. It would be nice to have a calendar, to do lists, and other resources wherever we are. Google allows you to do that. Once you sign up for the free service (www.google.com/ig), you have access to thousands of tools. Everything from sticky notes, to do lists, to news feeds and contact lists, can be added simply by a mouse click. Some of these tools require a little setup (the weather radar needs to know your location), but all are designed to be quick and simple.


Delicious (del.ico.us) is an online tool for research and collaboration. It works just like your bookmarks in your web browser, but you can access these bookmarks from any computer on the internet. You can share bookmarks between accounts allowing collaboration and data interchange. Bookmarks are sorted by tags, which identify related information. This organizes it all and the site can recommend related material.


Sometimes when we need to add an event to a calendar or take a quick note we aren't near a computer at all. Jott (www.jott.com) is an alternative to a pen and paper note which could become illegible or lost. It's allows you to call the service with your cell phone and it sends the transcription of your message via email. A little setup is required, but it's straightforward, yet flexible. You can make the system as simple or as complex as you need.


There are websites that are chock full of more time-saving organizational information. Some of my favorites are:


Musings of a Once Future Astronaut

Note:  This was a piece I wrote for the entrance exam at a college.  The topic was  about personal perspective change over time.

"When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut". How many youngsters have said those words? Growing up in America in the 60's and 70's, I know I did. At first I thought it was going to be easy. You know it all when you are ten years old.

The more I learned, the more I found that I didn't know. Before long, I realized that I could not do it all.  I would need to specialize my focus. While I maintained a vast body of facts and figures, as children are wont to do, I began to specialize in the electronics that made space accessible to mankind.

In high school I majored in electronics and went on to attend a trade school where I received an associates degree in electronics and computer engineering. Still undaunted in my quest, I realized that I needed to specialize yet again, this time in computers.

Over the next years I joined the Air Force, working on F-15 aircraft electronic systems. I saw the way both aircraft and spacecraft were constructed and controlled, and realized that the control systems in use was decades behind the times. There is much to say for "tried and true", especially in avionics design, but the systems I saw lagged commercial designs by 30 years or more.

I made suggested improvements to every system and procedure I had the opportunity to study. Many of these suggestions were implemented Air Force wide, improving the capability and reliability of the force. Over time it became clear my strength was not in the use of technology, but rather in the design and upgrade of complex systems. This demanded yet another shift in my perspective.

Today I have enrolled in another  bachelor's degree program in the hopes of completing something I should have long ago. I have come full circle. One major change is that I no longer wish to be an astronaut. I have designed systems astronauts use every day. I build systems that make things happen because of their utility, not in spite of their issues.

I realize that many of the changes in my perspective have to do with growing up, but there is another aspect. I have come to realize that any endeavor is a team effort. Most only see the "rock star", never seeing the people who made the show happen.  We saw the astronaut in the completion of a mission as the ultimate personal success story, overcoming the odds, as opposed to what it really is. It is the culmination of countless man-hours and the incredible efforts of thousands of people just like me.

One thing hasn't changed. I still want to fly where the blue sky goes black and the stars never dim.

Tech Savvy

What's Next

As a techie I frequently get asked what's next. What's the next step or toy? In this week's Tech Savvy, I'm going to make some predictions about what's coming in the next 1-5 years... It should be a fun ride.

Speed. Processor speed has remained stable for some time. About the highest you'll see, barring major breakthrough, is 3-4 gigahertz. The speed of the system will continue to increase using task delegation. The industry will develop specialized processors, thereby increasing the speed at which the system is capable of processing data. To a small degree this is already the case, but I expect to see major improvements in this area. The average computer will have specialized processors and multiple processors working in parallel.

Power. The average computer system's energy consumption is about 150W doing nothing. With extreme use, a large computer system can pull as much as 1000W of power. From the “less is more” camp we have seen computers that pull around 2-8W of power in use, though their capabilities were quite limited. That's changing as we speak. The Everex gPC2 TC2512 is available at Walmart's Online store for $199.00 without a monitor. It's quite capable of being an office computer and consumes around 35 Watts of power. I expect this trend to continue and the efficient computers will soon compete favorably with the energy hogs in all markets.

Size. Have a look at the Apple Macintosh Mini, and you will see that small is beautiful. In addition to efficient, new computers will be only as large as they need to be. That will have a drawback since small machines are difficult to work on. You may have to take the unit to a service center or send it back to the factory for repair. Once there, it may be easier and cheaper to replace the unit rather than fixing it, leading to environmental issues.

Integration. We have systems that serve multiple functions, like satellite TV boxes with a recorder, and printers that function as fax / copiers. This trend will continue, though the integration will shift gears. Rather than focusing on consolidating multiple boxes, it'll change to a functional approach. Imagine a satellite TV / DVR unit that plays DVDs, CDs, and MP3s. It shows a clock on the screen when not in use, and functions as a reminder of upcoming events. It pulls weather alerts, radar, and other emergency info with its email and web capabilities while displaying broadcast reports.

Solid State. Moving parts break and fail long before well designed electronics. That's why there's a push to use solid state devices for storage. While using flash instead of hard disks is expensive, prices are dropping. Cooling fans will be used less, but eliminating them will only be possible on highly efficient units, since heat is the result of inefficiency.

Operating Systems. I see Microsoft trimming back its business and bloated software. The reasons folks stay with Microsoft is the learning curve, lack of support, and software compatibility issues on other operating systems. Both Linux and Mac Operating Systems have ways of making other software work with them, support is available, and they've become easy to learn. To stay competitive, Microsoft must create a slimmed down Windows compatible with older versions. Linux will continue to become more of a desktop operating system, though still primarily used by computer geeks.

Tech Savvy

Older Equipment

Some folks buy the latest car every year. They end up paying more, but they get a new car under warranty. For some this is an advantage, but I belong to another camp. I use things until they fall apart, then I fix them. I choose to buy things used rather than new, saving on average 90%. Computer equipment is no different. This week's Tech Savvy is about using older computers.

As with most things there are disadvantages. Older equipment is, by nature of the industry, larger, heavier, and slower. Sometimes the latest program or operating system will not work because the computer of operating system is no longer supported. Just like when a car is no longer supported by it's manufacturer, you need to find alternate ways of making things work.

Recently, I ran into just such a problem. I have an iPod and wanted to move some of my music from my computer to over it. Normally, this is simple; you install iTunes from the Apple website, and the rest is pushing a couple buttons. The computer is 8-10 years old and runs Windows 2000. The latest version of iTunes requires WindowsXP or Vista. No tunes for me, right?

With a little research I found websites that specialize in older versions of software. One of them, oldversion.com, had what I needed. I simply installed the correct version, pushed a couple of buttons, and the music was transferring merrily. Many software titles are available on the site. It's well worth a look.

Sometimes the problem isn't the operating system, it's the computer. I have a little 486 computer that I needed to use for a specific task. I could have installed Windows95 or NT, but finding the software I needed for the task for those operating systems was a bust. Are there are alternatives to Microsoft?

Linux allows the use of extremely old computers, but if you want to use a graphical interface (GUI), the minimum is a 486 with 32MB of RAM. It will be slow, but it will work. If you just want it for a specific task, like a weather station, it will work fine. Because Linux was written for low end hardware, a machine that crawls on Windows will run like a scared rabbit on Linux. There is a learning curve, but it's really not that bad.

Linux comes in hundreds of flavors, each with a unique look and feel, and with different system requirements. Feather, Puppy, and DSL are designed for small and older systems. Medium speed systems run well on Slackware, Wolvix (my favorite), and Mandrake. If you have a newer computer and want to try Linux, try Sabayon, Fedora, or Ubuntu (also a favorite). One warning: installing an operating system will usually remove all data on your hard disk. Back up your data before you proceed.

That's about it for this week's Tech Savvy. Next week's article is about hackers: What they really are, and why you need to know one.