In 1989, I had been working for a large metropolitan weekly newspaper for the better part of a decade. I was a jack of all trades when it came to the graphics department: graphics camera operator, paste-up artist, typesetter – all essential tasks when it came to putting together a paper for publication – until desktop publishing came along and turned the publishing industry on its ear.
When it was announced that everything was about to change for our entire team, I saw the writing on the wall. At that point, I was one of those rare geeks who had actually gone out and bought a personal computer: an IBM clone with not one, but two floppy drives. I had recently also added a 30-pound, 10MB hard drive (to the tune of $500!), and I was using the whole rig to write a novel.
I was state of the art.
Armed with this thorough knowledge of computing, I convinced the head of our department to let me take a shot at being the “Computer Guy.” I had no idea how Macs worked, which was the type of machine we brought in to replace everything else, but somehow I managed to hold on to that position, eventually managing a great number of Mac and Windows PCs throughout the entire facility. I learned on the job, and ended up with a great deal of responsibility.
Here’s one thing I learned: business leaders don’t like to spend money unless they have to. Not only that, but during that period of time, when desktop business technology was still a relatively new concept, there was not a lot of understanding of how such things worked, or exactly what their value was to the company. Every conversation regarding computer upgrades, software upgrades, or anything else involving technology purchases was a battle. Management just couldn’t get their heads around the idea that technology constantly changes; that in order to compete, a company needs to always look forward to new possibilities.
It’s been well over two decades since I left that newspaper and started Alchemy Consulting Group. In that time, I have watched a gradual shift in thinking as younger people have moved into leadership positions within all types of businesses. No longer is the prospect of a computer or networking expenditure greeted with suspicion. Instead, it’s just considered the cost of doing business, something to hand the accountant at the end of the year for depreciation purposes.
But there are still some things many of these young visionaries need to learn – like how to budget for software, and how to make software decisions in the first place. You see, business software is, by far, the most important factor when it comes to solving business problems and increasing productivity. Setting aside the fact that you can’t run software without a device on which to install it, it’s the software that your team relies on to get things done, day-to-day.
In building and installing countless custom software systems over the years, I have watched businesses struggle with the concept of an ongoing custom software budget. Not only do most small businesses have no idea what custom software costs, they have little tolerance for the idea that they should plan for investment in ongoing support and development. After all, if you have already invested in brand new software, why would you need to continue paying for it into the future?
Here’s the truth: custom software for your business gives you a huge competitive advantage. In essence, the company with the best software often wins, due to factors like increased speed, higher level of customer service, and lower error rate, to name just a few. But you have to leverage the “custom” part. Your business is constantly changing, little by little, every day. Each time you figure out a new way of doing things, make some sort of exception for a certain client, or simply decide to take a fresh look at your numbers, you’re drifting a little bit farther from your original business model.