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To Serve Small Business

Seven Problems For Small Businesses

  • December 1, 2005
  • By Kim J. Brand

You probably don't remember the Twilight Zone episode where aliens arrive from outer space apparently only bringing friendship and help. They offer new technology and solutions to all Mankind's problems. In return, they only ask for us to trust them.

Their leader leaves behind a book written in the alien's native tongue. Right away, the best cryptographers set to work decoding the strange language. Experts conclude after multiple tests that the aliens are indeed telling the truth.

The UN agrees to welcome more aliens to Earth and hundreds of humans prepare to go with them to their planet. By now, only the title of the book has been deciphered: To Serve Man. Tensions are eased as the motives of the aliens are discovered to be completely altruistic.

As the episode draws to a close, we see the main character about to board the spaceship. His assistant, who has news from the team working on the translation of the book, rushes to meet him and screams: "Don't get on the ship! The book, To Serve Man, IT'S A COOKBOOK!"

IT service companies have been telling small businesses 'trust us' for a long time. And from our perspective, we've been doing the best we can given the tools we had. When new versions of OS software were released, we wanted our customers to have the best so we upgraded them. (Even when the new versions included superfluous features the customers didn't need; who can afford to use a product that has been end-of-lifed?) When flaws were found we patched them. When reliability issues were discovered, we spared no expense (at their expense) to resolve them. Break-fix revenue became recurring revenue. Restrictive license agreements were just part of the landscape.

With nowhere else to turn, our customers trusted us to deliver reliable and economical IT solutions. Was their trust misplaced? Happy with the status quo, failing to investigate or innovate alternatives, have we simply been feeding off our customers?

John Terpstra extensively documented the size and needs of small business customers in his recent LinuxPlanet series: "The Yin and Yang of Open Source Commerce." Terpstra's thesis is that the Open Source community has largely ignored the much larger opportunity in the SMB/SME market by concentrating its efforts on the enterprise.

The potential for Open Source solutions in this space is huge--our value proposition is attractive to millions of businesses. Small businesses are looking for alternatives to what they perceive are products that are no longer developed for them. Rather, the perception is that their needs are being ignored and their loyalty taken for granted.

Here are seven problems I believe IT professionals in general, and the OSS community in particular, must solve to better serve our small business customers.

  • The incentives in the server OS reseller arrangement are wrong for the customer. Basically, the reseller is motivated to sell and service a product that requires constant maintenance. The customer has (until now) had no alternative but to pay high prices for blocks of time and subscription-based (use it or lose it) support... even higher prices for ad-hoc service.
  • Customers feel abused by license agreements. They don't understand why a server that serves two dozen users costs more than a server that handles a dozen users. Logic dictates that the cost to manufacture the software is the same--after all the manufacturer isn't supporting it. Furthermore, the license terms they are compelled to accept give the publisher broad rights to audit their use of the software while obligating the maker to few (if any) warranty commitments.
  • Resellers are being squeezed. They must hire very talented and expensive staff, frequently renew (at great expense) technical certifications, compete with hardware vendors that bundle operating system and application software at prices they can't touch and battle with customers that are reluctant to continuously invest in systems they believe should 'just work.' In addition, resellers frequently need to discount their charges because of errors (or the perception of errors) made by their technicians that are a direct result of systems that are simply too complex and/or unreliable.
  • The principal desire of every small business customer is for the safety of their data. This desire is more compelling than cost savings. Customers are reluctant to try something new; they believe that buying a well established/widely supported product like Microsoft's server operating system is a safe choice--even if it is more expensive, associated with security flaws, contains superfluous features that add complexity and cost and includes onerous license terms.
  • While Linux and Open Source Software represent tantalizing alternatives they are nothing if not new and different. Open source development and support paradigms are poorly understood. Questions about compatibility, licensing and the availability of technical assistance cloud the choice with a perception of undue risk. (On balance though, opinion leaders and large/respectable companies have begun to chip away at these perceived risks.)
  • The level of integration of present solutions is low. Small business customers are typically sold server hardware, server software, backup software and hardware (from different manufacturers,) installation services, maintenance, monitoring & support services as well as financing--all from different sources, all with different license agreements. 'System' support is notoriously difficult to find--each component an island. When problems arise, the customer is typically placed in the middle and assumes the responsibility to solve them. Needless to say, customers are poorly prepared, and usually averse to the cost of being in the 'vendor' gap.
  • Large vendors have successfully pushed the risk of owning a server onto the customer while they have absorbed all the margins. Faced with what they believe are no alternatives, customers accept warranties that return their server back to the state it was in when it was delivered. For businesses with a broken server, that may get their computer running, but it doesn't get their business running. For most, effective backup systems and disaster recovery are misunderstood and poorly implemented.

I have a hard time explaining to my small business customers how this sorry state of affairs has evolved. With the brightest minds and richest companies in the world seemingly dedicated to the needs of small businesses, how can we not be any closer to a solution we can all be proud of? Would any of us agree that the most popular servers sold today are as reliable and worry free as they should be? Can we afford to let our customers suffer any longer?

At the end of Terpstra's article he asks: "Do you have what it takes to match the needs of the moment?" I believe the OSS community has what it takes. My company, for one, is ready to answer the call. Together, we can deliver what small business customers everywhere really need: technology solutions that help them be more productive, focused on their needs, free of threatening licenses and with expectation-shattering performance and reliability.

Kim J. Brand is the Founder and Managing Partner of Server Partners, LLC, in Indianapolis, Indiana, which features the FileEngine file server product line and other IT services.

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