Better your business

Windows Middle East caught up with some of the region's key SMB suppliers to find out how small and medium sized firms can best avoid problems, increase productivity and of course save cash...

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By  Matthew Wade Published  August 30, 2005

|~|SMB-roundtable---m.jpg|~||~|Bringing you the benefit of their combined experience this month are: Hamid Hassan, SMB segment manager, HP Middle East; Ayman Abouseif, managing director of Gulf States, Oracle; Yousef Khalili, Middle East and Africa commercial manager, Cisco Systems; Khaldoun Shamaa, business development and marketing manager, Emirates Computers; Soubhi Chebib, director of IBM brands, GBM/IBM; and Peter Kwisthout, marketing and channel director, SAP Arabia.

WINDOWS: Firstly, so our readers know, how does your company define an 'SMB'?

Hamid Hassan: In terms of demographics, a business that employs less than 500 employees is considered an SMB. In terms of spend, one that spends less than $250,000 on IT per annum is considered an SMB.

Yousef Khalili: A company with 20-100 employees. Companies with less than 20 employees we define as 'SOHOs' (Small Office/Home Office businesses).

Khaldoun Shamaa: It would be easier to define what an SMB isn't. There probably aren't more than 50 or 60 large corporate accounts in the UAE for instance. The rest are SMBs for us.

Chebib: We define a Middle East SMB as a company that has up to 250 members of staff.

WINDOWS: What are currently the hot tech topics for the region’s SMBs?

Hassan: Wireless and mobile technologies, which free businesses from the need to use wired cables to connect their network and offer their employees the flexibility to work from anywhere, and secondly - business protection.

Kwisthout: How they can improve their productivity without the significant budget and resources investments typical to large corporations.

Abouseif: The buzz topic in the SME (small and medium enterprise) market is doing more with less initial investment, creating efficiency at work, low IT management overheads, and getting a quick return on investment.

Shamaa: SMBs seem to be attracted to mobile and wireless solutions and applications, the internet as a marketplace, enhanced communications, and interactivity/collaboration between employees, partners and customers. SMBs also like to have it all in one box from a one-stop shop (an all-in-one multifunction printer and the right software seems to be an attractive offer for SMBs). They want it simple, affordable and working.

WINDOWS: What are the key products or technologies needed to set up a small/home office (i.e. for five staff say)?

Khalili: Generally speaking, networked PCs or Macs, most likely laptops. We’d also suggest data storage and back-up provision, and the ability to work wirelessly over a secure VPN (Virtual Private Network), such as those provided by Cisco or Linksys. Wireless technologies are preferable in a small office, as cabling can be expensive to install. A SOHO set-up should also consider printers, collaboration and productivity software, virus protection, internet access and broadband services.

Shamaa: A small/home office basically requires: a secure LAN (wireless maybe) with internet access; a departmental server and PCs; a network printer; office productivity software, plus any applications the business requires. Last but not least, an IT support company to rely on.

Chebib: It would typically require between US$15,000-20,000 and include the following: a reliable internet connection and firewall; an e-mail and collaboration solution; a small CRM/customer database; an entry-level and easily customisable accounting/inventory management package; supportive hardware (i.e. a small LAN with an entry-level server and a few clients); an office automation package and a messaging/correspondence system.

WINDOWS: What are the biggest IT challenges small businesses are now facing?

Kwisthout: The IT decision maker is often the owner (or at best has or two IT people) and so he needs to rely on those who have the competence and skill to play an advisory role.

Abouseif: A lack of understanding around IT trends and dedicated IT resources, a lack of SME-focused vendors in the Middle East to make automation easier, legacy issues, finding affordable infrastructure, and ongoing IT maintenance costs.

Khalili: Challenges such as compliance issues, data security, cost containment and of course knowing how technology and the internet can help the business.

Chebib: The increasing attrition rate amongst IT staff, fast obsolescence of technology, limited choice of vendors who can provide end-to-end solutions, and small teams with few skills who have to cope with the complexities of, and changes in, technology.

WINDOWS: What are key buying trends you're seeing amongst the region's SMBs?

Abouseif: Our research suggests SMEs want solutions that are affordable, easy to implement and maintain, and that fit their business needs.

Khalili: SMBs in the Middle East are mainly investing in wireless technologies and IP communications. This is particularly true of SMBs in the retail and manufacturing markets.

Hassan: Hardware that is purchased independently and doesn't require outside assistance in terms of selecting, configuring and implementing it.

Shamaa: Out-of-the-box high-end solutions (ERP, CRM, networking etc.) - similar to those of the big IT spenders but scaled to an SMB's size and budget. In terms of products, the trend is towards wireless networking, laptops, all-in-one printers and business automation software.

Chebib: There is an increasing preference to deal with vendors who have the capability of providing turnkey solutions, i.e. a single point of contact for supplying hardware, applications and implementation services.

WINDOWS: What are the key changes an SMB can make to improve its efficiency and productivity?

Hassan: Deploy solutions such as wireless and mobility solutions to increase flexibility and mobility, save time, and increase productivity, responsiveness and collaboration throughout the business.

Abouseif: There are two major changes: automating back-office applications and systems (moving from paper-based accounting for instance to an automated system will improve efficiency); and automating employees' day-to-day work with systems such as sales automation. These may have been a dream a few years back, but they're achievable today.

Kwisthout: Automate and centralise key business information. As long as this data is in the hands of a few employees, it is gone when they leave.

Chebib: They should analyse where they can have the best ROI, or their operation's main pain point, and address this by selecting business solutions, not technology. This could be implementing an automated accounting system to improve cash flow for example, or a tool to monitor sales activity.

Shamaa: SMBs should focus on going mobile, getting their business transactions and relationships online, enabling collaboration and maintaining a secure environment and, most importantly, work with the right partners and suppliers.

WINDOWS: How can a small firm that doesn't have dedicated IT staff best incorporate essential new technology and use it effectively?

Abouseif: SMEs aren't likely to succeed without qualified IT staff unless they follow a pure outsourced model.

Hassan: Select a vendor than can offer local and specialised expertise, reliable products and solutions, and service and support.

Chebib: Partner with the companies you trust and which have a wide offering for SMBs.

Khalili: Start simple, then grow as necessary. Work with a technology partner similar in size to your business, as they'll likely have had the same challenges as you.

Shamaa: Consider managed services or outsourcing, or work closely with the right supplier who can support you and act as your IT extension. In this context, annual maintenance agreements should be in place to ensure the business is proofed against risk. Cutting down initial costs may sound attractive for SMBs, however they should invest for the future as they cannot afford to change their set-up as needed. It's recommended that they therefore invest in the right components, even if at a slight overhead in the beginning, and ensure they acquire products and services from a solid company that can support them.

WINDOWS: Keeping costs down is obviously key for smaller firms. How can savings be made?

Abouseif: SMEs traditionally consider the initial investment instead of the 'TCO' (Total Cost of Ownership), or the initial cost plus the cost of maintaining the systems, the people to run them, and the business cost in case of breakdown. Outsourcing is one of the proven ways of keeping costs down.

Khalili: For SMBs, price is king! But as with all things, planning is also key if you want to keep your costs down. Know what your priorities are as a business, both short term and long term, and do your research. What may seem like a cheap solution might give you long term issues so shop around.

Hassan: Ensure your investments are protected by choosing products that are easy-to-use (eliminating training) and that integrate with each other, avoiding costly proprietary hardware.

Kwisthout: SAP's ERP solutions for SMBs have a huge impact on reducing costs. By automating and making sure transactions are fast and efficient, there is a significant gain.

WINDOWS: What is the biggest (and costliest) technological mistake small businesses make?

Abouseif: Following the wrong advice in the initial stages of any project can be a major error.

Chebib: Making an IT investment decision based on pure technology and not the best business solution.

Shamaa: Addressing a problem only when it occurs - in other words acting reactively - and not embracing IT and making it a core strategy for success.
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