Freedom to work and roam

Small businesses can operate from anywhere by embracing internet telephony, wi-fi and mobile technologies
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The Independent Online

Technology buzzwords such as convergence or unified messaging mean little if you are standing in a muddy, rain-swept field somewhere in Lancashire. Being able to finish the job quickly and head back into the warm are more likely priorities.

But converging technology is exactly what allows Blackburn-based TriCad to operate successfully. The surveying and architectural drawing firm has three partners but no office and no secretary.

Instead, founder Mark Drummond and his colleagues do their drawing and administrative work from home. Technology provides the communications and, critically in a business where much of the fee-earning work is done literally in the field, a way to process jobs more quickly and keep costs low.

Drummond founded TriCad in 2003, turning it into a full-time business 12 months ago. He and his two fellow surveyors use advanced smart phones running Microsoft Windows for calls, satellite navigation, to take on-site pictures and for e-mail and transmitting files. The phones can even capture measurements from the firm's surveying tools over a Bluetooth radio link.

"The technology goes very nicely, when compared with measuring tape and paper," Drummond explains. "We find there are very few errors in the data when we get back home, and you have a backup. Before, we have had drawings damaged; customers have even driven over them."

TriCad sets out to be both more cost effective and customer friendly than conventional architectural or surveying practices.

As well as speeding up the drawing process, Drummond has had software adapted so he can show sample plans or ideas to clients on the phone, rather than unrolling reams of drawing paper.

On a building site, the phone is more practical than paper plans or even a laptop, he says. The technology also keeps costs down, as smart phones are cheaper and less prone to damage than laptops, and time saved by inputting data on site allows the firm to charge less.

Some reports suggest that small businesses aren't paying enough attention to technological advances that could be of benefit to them (see page 2). TriCad is an example of what can be achieved with careful procurement of the right equipment. Such firms might not even see themselves as at the cutting edge: they have simply put together a solution that lets them work in a more efficient and practical way.

In certain areas, small and micro businesses are ahead of some of their larger rivals, according to Jonathan Steele, CEO of The Bathwick Group, a hi-tech research firm.

A recent research report by Bathwick, carried out for Orange, found surprisingly high levels of usage for some technologies, especially virtual private networks (VPNs) and internet telephony (VoIP). Almost all companies with up to 10 employees use a mobile phone and have a broadband internet connection, three quarters use a wireless wi-fi connection and 52 per cent use a laptop for mobile e-mail.

"The usage figures for mobile phones and laptops are in line with other surveys. What has changed is the interest in VoIP, VPNs and wi-fi," explains Steele. "VoIP is the momentum technology in all of these."

Cost savings are a draw for VoIP. The technology lets subscribers make phone calls over the internet, often at rates significantly lower than those for mobile or conventional, fixed-line phones. However, cost alone is not the only factor.

"The option, which you have with VoIP, of using a laptop and a wi-fi connection and having the same phone number wherever you are, is attractive," suggests Steele. "You can do that with a mobile phone of course, but it costs more for people to call you. With VoIP you could have, say, a London number wherever you are. And with so many micro businesses working virtually, it does bring with it a sense of permanence."

The need to create an infrastructure without the cost of a permanent base is also driving the use of technologies such as virtual private networking, so that staff can access their data from anywhere over a secure link. TriCad, for example, does not run its own e-mail server but uses a "hosted" e-mail system.

The ability to connect to an industry-standard e-mail system such as Microsoft Exchange from home, from a laptop or from a mobile phone is making it easier for small companies to work virtually, but also to have the communications facilities of a larger business.

"The take-up of technologies such as virtual private networks is less of a surprise when you consider how mobile many SMEs are," says Jason Ellis, head of convergence at Orange's business services division. "We are seeing more mobility than five or even one year ago. Working at business premises is just one option."

This is certainly the case for TriCad. "If I have a project in London, instead of waiting for a colleague to drive home with the drawings, the data can be e-mailed over and we can start drawing. It allows us to work on jobs other firms might not be able to," says Drummond.

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