Are you making the most of internet resources? Kjetil Olsen of Elance Europe explains how small businesses can use the opportunities available to them
Despite the economic climate, aspiring entrepreneurs should be feeling cautiously optimistic. In 2012, the government announced new start-up loans for young entrepreneurs, a scheme that has since been extended, and numerous incubator schemes are making it easier for businesses to get started.
Alongside these offline opportunities, the web is also ushering in a new range of opportunities to help small businesses access knowledge, tools and even personnel, all available at the touch of a button. The growing prevalence of user-friendly online services allows businesses to reduce overheads and maximise growth potential. Small tasks can be taken care of with free open-source software, and cloud-based premium services can be cheaper than their offline counterparts.
The difficulty with such an insurmountable number of online tools is knowing where to start. Which tools actually streamline efficiency rather than introducing added complications? Through my experience working in the technology and employment sectors and as European vice-president of Elance, a platform for online freelancing, I've spent a lot of time considering the usefulness of the internet and how it can benefit businesses. Here are my top tips:
Web-based office suites such as Google Documents allow businesses to make paperless collaborative working the norm. This enables employees from around the world to contribute to a shared spreadsheet and access documents created hundreds of miles away.
Combined with online storage providers, such as Dropbox, Google Drive or Box, sharing documents with colleagues, clients or customers is easier than ever. These services allow businesses to synchronise data and upload and retrieve files via the web. As soon as a file is uploaded, the latest version is available on all devices, including PCs, Macs and most mobile devices. This allows businesses to take the first steps towards having a global set-up, supporting genuine and effective remote working.
Staffing a team
Online employment platforms such as Elance allow businesses to hire talented temporary workers for a variety of tasks from translation and business writing to fixing code on your website. Hiring freelancers who work remotely is an easy way to reduce overheads and quickly increase your workforce in times of high demand. Hiring a cloud-based workforce cuts costs, allows you to react flexibly to times of high demand and opens the door for freelancers to global business operations.
Internet voice-over networks, which deliver voice communication over internet protocol networks, are a great way to keep phone bills to a minimum. Skype or, if you're on the move, Footalk, offer options for making free calls to anywhere in the world. Some services also offer free video-conferencing to add a visual element to a conference call, linking teams together, irrespective of location.
Some of these services also offer calls at reduced costs to mobile phone users who are not using the app, meaning that even external communication with clients or partners can be cost-effective.
Managing your brand's identity
A solid visual brand identity is vital for startups. In a crowded market, it's important that professionalism and user-friendliness allow your business to stand out from the crowd. Additionally, establishing a thought leadership position is more important than ever in the online age, and a blog can be a great way of showing potential customers you're ahead of the competition. Easy-to-use publishing platforms such as WordPress or Joomla allow you to add as many themes as you like and can be simply integrated into your website.
Sales and marketing online
Online press office services such as MyNewsDesk give any company a platform to host news announcements and demonstrate that your business is ahead of the curve. Social media is also a valuable tool to spread marketing messages to the masses. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have been successful lead generation tools for many small businesses I've talked to.
It's worth remembering, though, that social media is a two-way process. No longer can companies be seen to be simply pushing out press releases; you have to engage with your audience and demonstrate knowledge in the industry.
Physical meetings are important too
The internet is a vast wealth of resource, but it's worth remembering that the digital route should only be one part of your business strategy. Building strong relationships through face-to-face meetings is invaluable and should remain a key part of building a network of suppliers and teams. Therefore, finding the right balance between the online and the offline strategy for your business is crucial.
Kjetil Olsen is the vice-president of Elance Europe
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