Better question: Should you?
Look around. Wherever you are—whether it’s at work, a coffee shop, the airport or at home—the people around you are texting, emailing, updating and shopping on their mobile devices.
We’re living in a mobile world, and the tech bug has bitten small business owners, too. According to a 2013 AT&T survey, 98 percent of small business owners are using wireless technologies in their day-to-day operations, and 66 percent say their business could not survive—or it would be a major challenge to survive—without such devices.
With two-thirds of the small business world relying on mobile devices and programs for their operations, is the future here? Is it finally possible for owners to run their companies completely from their pockets?
We talked with small business owners who are doing just that. They use their smartphone as their primary work number. They check their email. They download financial reports. They video-chat with clients. It’s like being on a desktop computer.
Except it’s not entirely the same, and that’s why it’s dangerous.
Getting Started With Mobile
Randy Parker, co-founder of online marketing company Constant Contact and CEO of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based mobile marketing company PagePart, recommends that the first step small business owners should take toward a mobile strategy is tapping into a cloud-computing IT solution, in which data, applications and software are hosted off-site and can be accessed from any device with a Web connection.
For anyone attempting to go mobile, the cloud, where you store and access data and programs over the Internet rather than a computer, is a must. “Mobile is all about easy access to something that’s being run or hosted somewhere else,” Parker says. “It’s not about keeping all your data on your phone. It’s about your phone being your window into your data, which is securely tucked away in the cloud.” (Check out “Mobile Use by the Numbers” to see a breakdown of how smartphones are used.)
For Nicholas Addonisio, CEO of tech accessory NFIB-member business Titan Elite Inc. in Bohemia, New York, going mobile had an obvious benefit. “Most of our employees use smartphones, which allow for multitasking anyway, so having a phone call while looking up a price list PDF file is relatively easy using off-the-shelf smartphones and Web apps,” says Addonisio, whose small business distributes “rugged” computers (think, a computer you can toss in the back of your truck) and manufactures custom accessories that protect used-in-the-field devices.
Rhonda Abrams can name a few other benefits: increased productivity, lower and more predictable costs, less time in the office, keeping customers satisfied and fewer headaches. Abrams, CEO of PlanningShop, a resource website for entrepreneurs and small business owners, is an advocate for going mobile.
She knows from experience. In 2012, she converted most of her business operations—from payroll to document storage to email to shipping—to a mobile strategy. The goal? To give necessary employees access to company files any time, anywhere, in addition to reducing expenses and IT headaches.
A few years earlier, Abrams started small by moving her enewsletter service to Emma, a cloud-based service. Then, when other pieces of software needed upgrades, she moved them to the cloud. In 2012, she switched to Salesforce as her cloud-based customer relationship management tool, which helped keep client records in one accessible location. Her previous CRM manager, which she asked us not to name, required a pricey update in order to work on multiple operating systems. Instead of paying for the upgrade, she switched to Salesforce because it’s accessible through the Web and works with multiple operating systems.
Abrams also selected Intuit Online Payroll, Dropbox for her file-sharing needs and Hootsuite for social media management. To round out her tools, Abrams chose Microsoft’s Office 365, a cloud-based email and document-storage service with small business plans starting at $5 per user per month.
Most reports, spreadsheets and documents Abrams needs for her business can be accessed on her phone. But it’s not as though she—or her employees—have abandoned desktop computers or laptops. “I’m a writer,” she says. “I do my writing at a desk with a full-size keyboard and large monitor or from my decent-sized laptop.”
Still, the shift to mobile has been unavoidable. “Like most businesspeople, I don’t talk on my phone nearly as much as I used to, but I’m on my phone for email, texts and reading documents all the time.” Abrams’ office manager even calculates payroll from the comforts of her bed—all from a smartphone.
That’s why going mobile requires heading to the cloud. The cloud enables Abrams and her employees to access many files on their phones or on their desktop computers or laptops.
For Abrams, the switch to the cloud to make mobile possible has translated into savings. Because these services charge monthly fees, which Abrams says are very affordable, she can more easily plan her budget. There are no hidden fees, costly software updates or the possibility of losing data to physical theft or damage to a computer or server. Although Abrams hasn’t calculated exactly how much money going mobile has saved her since 2012, she says the company’s IT support costs went down.
For Addonisio, accessibility has meant better customer satisfaction. “Today, people put value on communication time. The quicker you can get back to someone, the better chance you have at completing a project or transaction,” he says.
The Risk of Going Mobile
The biggest concerns with a cloud-based mobile strategy: data breaches. In HP’s Cyber Risk Report 2013, 46 percent of apps use security encryption methods improperly, leaving data at risk for hacks. That’s more than a 75 percent increase from 2012.
This is why running your small business from your phone is different—and dangerous. “I know what the bad guys are capable of,” says David Willson, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based attorney, risk management and cyber security consultant with experience working with the National Security Agency.
However, Abrams believes business owners are actually assuming more risk by keeping all of their information on-premises. Before moving her company’s data to the cloud, “if someone broke into our office and stole our server, we would have lost an immense amount of data. It’s far riskier to have your data on-premises and have that be the only place,” she says.
That’s why Willson advises small businesses to use a hybrid approach, storing some data on the cloud and backing up critical data on premises. If the cloud provider is hacked, destroyed, goes bankrupt or has its servers seized, then the small business owner is left with few options to recover data. Most service agreements make it so the cloud provider will not be liable.
Willson advises small business owners to take a three-step approach to securing their data:
1. Perform a risk assessment. Understand the flow of data across your organization: How it comes in, who it’s coming in from, where it goes within the organization, who has access to it, how it’s secured while in the organization and where it exits. Make sure your cloud provider is a reputable company by checking online reviews and educating yourself about the technology. You should also ask several questions to your provider, such as: Has the company had a security audit in the last year? Was it internal, or did a third party conduct it?
According to HP’s white paper, “Minimize the Risk of Your Cloud-based Service,” a cloud provider should have “a thorough program for continual and ongoing audit” whereas a traditional regime of annual or monthly audits becomes meaningless in an environment that changes completely on a daily or hourly basis.”
HP also recommends that cloud providers should have third parties perform these audits.
2. Draft and implement the right security policies. They “must be short and readable or else no one will read them,” Willson says. These policies should include topics such as creating strong passwords. You should communicate these policies to your workforce, who should then sign the policies, acknowledging that they read and understand them.
3. Train employees on data security. Educate them on what data you’re protecting and why it’s important to protect it. “If you train your employees on how hackers can get in, then they’ll have an idea of why they need to have better passwords and better security practices,” Willson says. He recommends annual live training for employees on cybersecurity. If you have the onsite personnel to conduct such training, use your internal support. If not, you should consider hiring a consultant to provide this type of training.
Risks be damned. Abrams says the benefits of going mobile far outweigh the drawbacks. “Small business owners should realize that this can increase your productivity. There’s going to be a transition, but you have to understand that there’s going to be a big payoff.”