Unless you’re a technology company, there’s a high likelihood your small business doesn’t have a CTO or dedicated IT person on staff. Yet with so many aspects of business moving to digital platforms or to the “cloud,” most small business owners are faced with choosing, vetting, and buying software for the business—and it’s not often as simple as it sounds. The software you choose, and how it integrates with other systems, will ultimately shape how efficient operations and finance is within your company.
Most business owners are not techies, and for the most part, you don’t have to be. But it does help to have a foundation in how most modern software platforms work, so that you can make the most informed decision about which platforms are best for your company. Having a well-integrated “tech stack” can not only save you money, but can also save your employees time. When building out your technology stack within your business, ask yourself the following questions:
What will your main system of record be?
Your system of record should be the central location for your operations’ most important data metrics, whether that’s customer sales, inventory, project budgets, hours worked per client, etc. For retail businesses, this platform could be your point-of-sale system (such as Lightspeed) or e-commerce management platform (Magento). For service-based businesses, this could be a project management system (Asana), time-tracking tool (Harvest), or customer relationship management system (Salesforce).
Before choosing any platform, create a simple list based on the following: What are the data and metrics that I need to track? What reports will I need to generate? What are the functions in my business that I need to automate? Which departments need to pass critical information to each other? From there, it is possible to sketch out what your technology stack looks like, and how it works within your company and its departments.
If you have too many systems of record, this can muddy your data and make it difficult to grasp how your company is actually doing. For example, if you are tracking project budget and expenses through one system, but billable hours and time-tracking through another system, you will need to manually compile the data in order to understand how profitable your project is. To avoid those types of headaches, and to prevent the data from giving you a false picture, keep one primary system of record, and integrate secondary systems to it.
What platforms do I need to integrate, and how easy is it to integrate them?
As more and more platforms have moved to the cloud, integrations have become a critical component of any company’s technology stack, as it allows data to easily move throughout your company’s various systems automatically. Most platforms connect to other platforms via an API, or application program interface. Although most business owners don’t have to have intimate knowledge about how APIs work, it’s still good to know the importance of their function in allowing two systems to “talk” to one another.
Many platforms have built-in integrations to one another—for example, the website platform Squarespace has a built-in integration with Stripe to run payment processing and Shipstation for shipping and fulfillment. The connections to these platforms are built into the interface, and it is relatively easy for the data flow between the systems.
Absent built-in integrations, companies can link platforms using integration or “connector” software such as Zapier or Automate.io. It’s a great solution if you’re using many of the popular business cloud platforms available, but keep in mind that the software itself has some drawbacks. If you require more complicated integrations, you can also contract a software developer to build out custom ones for you. Keep in mind that with custom integrations, platforms may limit the number of API calls, which counts every instance one platform requests and receives data from another system (for example, when invoices sent via Harvest time-tracking are copied to Quickbooks). For data-heavy businesses, it’s good to have an understanding of how much data may be passing through your various tech platforms.
What are the hidden costs?
Many of the newer cloud platforms are priced on a scale, sometimes based on the size of your company (number of users), sometimes based on the amount of actions you want to take (number of transactions or amount of data), or sometimes based on the features you want. And some software comes in various versions in addition to tiered plans, so make sure you fully understand what is included with your plan before purchasing it—for example, Quickbooks Online offers tiered plans, but even the most expensive Quickbooks Online plan lacks the features that Quickbooks Pro or Premier has.
More complex technology platforms may require a bit of customization to adapt the platform for your business, which will require contracting with a developer that specializes in the platform. Many platforms, such as Salesforce, have preferred developers that they can recommend as part of the process. Costs for customization can vary widely, so be sure to price shop around—you are under no obligation to use the preferred developer.
Also be aware of other additional development costs, such as API licenses or the costs of integration software like Zapier (if you are going to be needing it to tie together your systems). If you’re running an e-commerce business, you may have to watch out for security issues regarding extensions (such as with Magento’s platform).
How will my team learn how to use the platform?
Staff training for any platform always involves some sort of cost, whether that’s in training costs or in employee time. Although some software is relatively intuitive, there are many platforms out there that require intimate knowledge or special skills. Before signing up with any platform, ask for a free trial (or if that’s not possible, a live one-on-one demo) so that your team can familiarize itself with all the features. It’s also the perfect time to discover what features may be missing, and how well the system will play with others that you are currently using.
Once the platform is integrated within the company, encourage your team to attend webinars, online courses, or workshops that help them understand how to make the most of the platform’s features. The more comfortable people feel using the platform, the more it facilitates buy-in from the team. Ultimately, that is what will maximize efficiency and productivity—when your team and technology work together as one.
Resources for business technology
To find out what similar companies are using in their technology stack, we recommend sites like Stacklist, which features commentary and reviews from growing companies on the various apps and platforms that they use within their business. Another good site to research is G2 Crowd, which has one of the web's most comprehensive databases of software reviews.