Technology: What Do We Really Need?

It's hard to keep track of all the new gadgets that are popping up at lightning speed. How do you know what's worth investing in and what isn't? And are there cheaper ways to be just as efficient?
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Ah, technology. I love it. It has made my life so much easier; I'd be lost without my Blackberry, which allows me to travel the world and stay connected at the same time. Sadly, my beloved little gadget is pretty much going the way of the pterodactyl, which means I'm in the market for some new equipment. And I'm overwhelmed by all the options out there.

That said, I'm fascinated by technology and I know I'm not the only woman who feels that way. A new study from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) found that eight in 10 women now express an interest in consumer electronic products, up ten percent from a 2007 study. What's more, women also exert a significant amount of influence in most consumer electronics purchases. According to the study, 61% of women initiate or are involved in the process of buying a consumer electronics product.

These figures relate to women business owners, too. In a recent EMPLOYERS(R) Small Business opinion poll, 38% of small business owners use Smartphones or tablets to help manage their businesses on a daily basis. Forty-one percent say they're interested in using apps like mobile banking, customer relationship management (CRM), risk management, payroll management and insurance policy management. Forty-seven percent of those in the transportation, communications and financial services industries are the most likely to be interested in using mobile apps to help run their businesses.

All of this is well and good, but here's what I want to know: How important are all of these things? Technology, after all, can be really expensive, especially if you're running your own business and need to watch every penny. It's hard to keep track of all the new gadgets that are popping up at lightning speed. How do you know what's worth investing in and what isn't? And are there cheaper ways to be just as efficient?

I asked some tech savvy women in the Count Me In community for their thoughts and their answers were pretty surprising--and hopeful. In fact, very inexpensive -- sometimes free! -- options exist.

Dava Guthmiller, the CEO and creative director of Noise 13 , a branding and graphic design company in San Francisco, pointed out that there are a number of inexpensive and free tech products that can benefit a small business.

For example: social media. Today, businesses need to have a social media presence, mainly Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, says Guthmiller. In addition, "If you're more in retail or lifestyle businesses or anything with a physical establishment, foursquare, Groupon, Bloomspot, or Gilt are great, because most of those discount offers are really great for building a mailing list and getting a very quick surge of clientele."

But she cautions that those offerings aren't appropriate for every business. "If you're going to do an online offer of any kind you really need to pay attention to the demographics of that list," she says. "And you have to be very good technology wise about sending out a newsletter or following up with those people. You can't run your business on offers or you'll go out of business!"

Video is also important for promotion, education and training purposes. And it's actually cheaper than print. "It's really easy to get out to people so you don't have to reprint training manuals constantly," says Guthmiller. The good news is that most mobile phones take video, and usually the quality is fine. And promotional videos don't have to be very long, and you can upload them for free onto places like You Tube and Vimeo. "It's kind of a piece of social media," she says.

Time-tracking or organizational tools are also worth the investment, but they don't have to break the bank. While many companies use Salesforce, Guthmiller says much smaller organizational tools are available, like Highrise or Asana, or mobile apps like Evernote, which eliminates the need (and expense) for Post-Its.

If you need to take credit card payments on the road -- say, you sell at craft shows or gift fairs -- she suggests Square, a mobile payment device that's similar to Paypal but allows users to take credit cards from anywhere there's an internet connections. "It's a white device that plugs your phone or computer," she says. "Square is taking off and people trust it." She also likes Eventree, a mobile check-in device that allows you to scan tickets by phone, so there is no need for an actual paper ticket.

Lindsey Tyner, the founder, president and creative director of Alt Creative, an interactive design studio in Austin, TX, also offered some sage advice on buying and using technology. "It's only worth the investment if it solves your problem and solves it adequately," she says. So, if for example you don't need to show your work on a laptop or mobile device, you don't need an iPad. But if your work does need to be portable, "Then I would say an iPad is a good purchase."

In other words: spend your money wisely. For instance, Tyner's office Internet system works beautifully 97% of the time. But three percent of the time, it fails. So she signed up for Clear Spot -- a portable personal wi-fi system. "As long as you carry it around and live in a coverage area you can get internet," she says. "I can use my laptop or ipad through this little hot spot thing." The beauty is that the payment plan is similar to a cell phone -- that is, you pay for what you use.

All great cost saving ideas for small businesses.

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