Editor’s note: Craig Landwehr is a business systems professional with decades of experience in both public companies and small startups. Craig’s experience includes leadership roles in operations, engineering, sales and support. He is now President of Better Biz Network,LLC and a member of the Lohmueller,Iinc.consulting team. Landwehr is also an instructor in the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s FastTrac Tech course — a 10-week training and mentoring program for early-stage entrepreneurs.

CED recently asked Landwehr to share his thoughts on building a cost-effective IT infrastructure for the latest in The Entrepreneuerial Spirit columns that are regularly featured in Local Tech Wire.

What would a start-up company with just a handful of people need to do to build a cost-effective IT infrastructure?

Leverage the Internet to the max! Start with a reliable, secure connection to the Internet. It is important for small business people to be able to focus on their business without worrying about technology and disruptions. Commercial grade reliability, security and scalability are of the utmost importance. The Triangle has several good Service Providers. I recommend local Internet Service Providers who can provide a Service Level Agreement (SLA) with the staff and experience to back it up. Yes, commercial grade is more expensive but is usually worth the incremental cost when you consider the cost of downtime and unproductive management attention.

How much should an early-stage company focus on Internet security?

As more and more financial transactions happen via the Internet, you can bet that deviant people will continue to find new and creative ways to hack into systems. More often than not, however, it is the simple, obvious things that people neglect, like keeping their software updated, leaving default security settings untouched, and leaving open ports to the internet. It is important to be conscious and prudent about security, particularly where intellectual property is concerned. There are various strategies and levels of security, but having both a software and hardware firewall are the minimum. Security is unfortunately a dynamic situation that requires regular attention. I recommend contracting a professional for a monthly check and audit of software patches, version updates, firewall settings, and virus definition files. A qualified contractor should also perform a simple audit to give you the peace of mind you need, and keep such issues on your radar screen.

What level of computers and software would you recommend a small business buy?

Computer and software selection is of course a personal choice, but I generally advise clients to keep it simple and mainstream, recognizing that whatever you acquire will likely be obsolete in 3 years. Avoid the latest processors which often come with premium prices and often dubious reliability, and again, leverage the internet and all the services it offers. Because mobility is often so important, consider laptops rather than desktop configurations, but be sure you get a configuration which optimizes battery performance. Prices are still dropping on hardware, and you can find some decent deals on the computers themselves with refurbished parts and equipment. Dell and most other computer companies offer factory refurbished equipment which carry full warranties and discounts via their websites. For a quick review and relatively unbiased comparison of features and prices I like www.cnet.com. Consider leasing versus buying, to conserve capital and incents you to replace every few years.

Regarding typical local area networks and office productivity software, entrepreneurs should again consider leasing vs. buying. There are now a number of stable companies offering collaboration software and personal productivity tools as a service, via the internet. For example, you can get Microsoft Exchange Email services for around $10 per person per month, and supplement that with the various other MS productivity tools for incremental fees. Then, as you scale your business, adding seats is a simple, painless process, not to mention all the backup, care and support costs you avoid.

What about phones services?

Most startup businesses no longer need conventional land-line phone plans. If you have already invested in the internet access infrastructure I outlined, you can leverage voice over internet protocol (VOIP) systems. You get all the features of more traditional, large scale PBX systems and the ability to integrate with mobile plans and back office systems, while avoiding long distance charges. You can sound like a much larger company to your clients, right out of the gate. To get the best price points, look at bundling such services with internet access.

Would you recommend that a small business lease office space?

In the Triangle we have plenty of shared offices for small businesses, if they choose to lease office space at all. However, with increasingly affordable and reliable Internet access in more places, and the ability to lease systems via the Internet, more and more teams are working virtually, renting conference room space only when they need to meet. This allows small businesses to look and behave like a company ten times their size but with greatly reduced overhead costs.

Are there any other IT-related suggestions you might have for an early-stage entrepreneur?

Yes. For companies that have a significant amount of business development work to do, seriously consider the on-line CRM tools. These software services can make your sales efforts dramatically more efficient and effective. With functions such as contact management, marketing campaigns, opportunity ranking/forecasting and website integration, you can project a very professional image, to the right people, at a very affordable cost. Such services start around $75 per month and scale with your business growth. As your needs evolve, modules for operations management, support, web stores, shipping and financials can be added on a per seat basis. These software services have evolved into the mainstream and are surprisingly robust. Since they incorporate a shared, integrated database, with customizable searches, your ability to manage company growth is better than ever.

So, what would you say the theme of this “lesson” is?

Get started with some good, basic habits and services. Make sure you make the most of contemporary Internet Services, and put your money into strategically aligned, commercial grade services. The money you save in downtime, technical support, and errors will have a very short payback.

Craig can be reached at craig.landwehr@betterbiznet.com

Better Biz Network,LLC: www.betterbiznet.com

Lohmueller: www.lohmueller.com

CED: www.cednc.org