Categorized | the i.t. files

What’s the most important document on your computer?

The answer will surprise you.

Kroll Ontrack Inc. just released a survey of 200 executives across the U.S. and Canada which business documents they would try to save first in the event of a computer crash.

81% said their first priority would be to recover their email files.

So I conducted an online survey of 24 small business owners and entrepreneurs and . . .

73% put email as their top priority, far and away beating out every other business document.

When it comes to the wire, it turns out email is the most important document you’ve got on your computer.

A curious result considering that most people including and especially managers and business owners treat email with the most limpid carelessness.

Do you, for instance, back up your PST files? I’m not talking every day, I’m talking, have you backed them up even once? (Do you know what a PST file is?)

In the first edition of Shoestring Venture: The Startup Bible, we had an appendix to our Web and Ecommerce chapter called “Email: The Ignored Part of the Equation,” where we covered issues about hosting services, backups, and organizing email to unlock its full value as data storage. About seven pages in length, we decided at the last minute to cut it for space considerations.

It is, however, going in the second edition.

As the Kroll Ontrack survey demonstrates, the business (and personal) value of email archives cannot be overemphasized. One reason email is such a vital resource is that practically every important document a business generates (except for its accounting books) gets transmitted through email at some point or another.

So, in honor of the singular importance of email, which businesses tend to blithely neglect (like death and taxes, they always expect their email to be there), but neglect at their peril, we offer a short summary of our great little tutorial on email that, alas, had to hit the cutting room floor before press time. We leave out all the resources that people can use to make all of this advice happen, so, if you need those resources . . . buy our second edition!

Your email address should not be someone else’s
If you were pitching your business and someone asked you for the address of your company, would you say, “Oh, I just hang out in Starbucks. That’ my business office.”

We’ll state this as baldly as possible. If you’re in business and you have an email address ending in “@yahoo.com,” “@hotmail.com,” “@aol.com,” or some other generic email, then there’s no reason for anyone to take you seriously. It costs next to nothing to have your own hosting service (as low as four bucks a month), URL matching your company name (as low as a buck and a half a month), and your own, full-throated, Fortune 500 level, multiple system email setup including a searchable database archive, spam detection, and backup system (free). Sure, Google and Hotmail are free, but if you’re in business, your email should look like it comes from your company, not someone else.

All emails are legal documents
And, as such, are subpoenable. “I can’t find it,” doesn’t go over well with a judge. I have worked with clients who have been sued or ended up suing someone else — in all those cases, the email trail played an outsized role in discovery, mediation, and/or trial. As legal documents, your email should reside in a searchable archive (not a PST file on your local computer) and a backup.

Would you use a big hole in the ground as your filing cabinet?
So, every time you sign a contract, you throw it in the hole. Every time you receive an invoice, you pay it, and throw the invoice in the hole. Letter from the IRS? Straight into the hole. Purchase order? You bet, file it in the hole with the rest of the paperwork.

That’s how most people treat their email. Because email comes at you from all angles and every quarter willy-nilly 24 hours a day, you probably just throw it all into one or two big “holes” in your email client and leave it at that.

Email clients, including and especially Outlook, offer very few tools for sorting your email rationally. There are, however, add-ons that allow you to treat email like the creature it is: valuable business documents covering the entire range of your business activity. It takes some effort to get this up and running and a little dose of daily discipline. But once you start organizing your email, you’ll be amazed how much productivity you’ll gain from it.

Backup means backup
I have, in all my travels, met only two or three entrepreneurs or small businesses that actually back up their emails. In larger, multi-million to multi-billion dollar companies, I’ve seen the same laxness (albeit, with an IT staff that at least is backing up local computers to a network storage device). If you’re a typical business owner or manager, email goes into a mail server and you download it to a local computer where it lives out the rest of its days in a PST file. No backup (or worse, a backup to the same drive holding the original PST file — what good is that?).

Setting up a redundant email backup system is the easiest thing in the world. You can set up one on your server (so the email and attachments are stored at a step in between the server and the local computer download) and one on your local computer. An external hard drive (ninety bucks tops), free backup system, and three minutes of set-up time will have your PST file archived on a separate drive every day or every hour.

Unlock the power of the data stored in your email
Finally, email is a big, messy, sloppy database of all the most important information in your business (or your life). It’s all there — like the big hole I describe above — but, because there is no efficient way to deal with it, all this valuable data storage might as well be written in Old Norse.

If you have set up with a hosting service allowing unlimited storage (why would you go with anyone else?), then there’s no reason not to store your email on the server side as well as on the local side. You can set up your server to store email in a database archive rather than a PST-like file. Unlike your local PST file, this searchable database will allow you to find emails and attachments as easily, well, as querying a database.

This takes quite a few more steps than just setting up a local backup to copy your PST file to another drive. You may even need to outsource this setup. And, if you want to be really safe, you can also back up your local PST file to the remote server. (Remember, you have a hosting account with unlimited storage space, no?)

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