Boot-strapping IT for a non-profit (or other start-up)

Nowadays, you can’t really run any company without having a proper setup for e-mail, websites, shared folders, backups and all those things that comes with running day to day operations in an efficient way. For a start-up or an NGO that neither has access to an IT department, nor a lot of time or money to spend on infrastructure , it becomes even more crucial to find the right solution. To spell it out, it needs to be something that just works, and preferrably comes at no (or little) cost.

However, the good news is that there in fact are many such solutions that fits those criteria perfect already and as part of my fellowship at Waste Ventures I’ve been configuring these for our use. Since I’ve since received quite a few questions from others on how to set things like this up, I figured i’d share it as a blog post. 

Read on for my tips for all those services a company needs when bootstrapping their operations.

E-mail

This is your first concern whenever setting anything up. Whether you already own a domain name (mystartup.com) or whether you’re just planning on getting one, setting up e-mail access will be your first concern. For e-mail there is no better solution for start-ups than “Google Apps“. Having a Google Apps account mean you get an easy control panel, you get 50 e-mail accounts, 7gb of storage and all the jazz that people are used from their Gmail accounts. 

You can even register your domain name while signing up for Google Apps (and I’d recommend you do – it makes set-up so much easier). For the avid outlook users – Google Apps provides you with “IMAP” support, so that they can use their account offline as well as on their phones etc.
Google_apps
Shared folders

Most businesses have a need to share documents between each other. This is a basic collaboration feature, however it can cause any number of headaches. The first method is usually sending e-mails with attachments. This is particularly flawed, since it means that documents are stored “nowhere” (in people’s INBOXes – easily lost or deleted), they’re not being organized and access to the document depends on whether you where a recipient of the e-mail or not.

Second solution tends to be a shared hard-drive in the office. This is better, but still not very good. Hard-drives can fail (my last NGO AIESEC experienced this 🙁 ), they’re not accessible when you’re at home or traveling (leading to colleagues at the office e-mailing you the documents) and getting sharing to work (especially if you use Macs + PCs) can be a real pain. 

The best solution I found so far is Dropbox. This nifty software allows you to set up a folder that is automatically synced online and with all your colleagues. You can even share folders with outside users, receive large files as well as publish files publicly. The free version comes with 2gb storage, but you can upgrade to 50gb for only $100 per year (well worth the investment). Additional benefits of using Dropbox is that everything is automatically backuped with old versions of files being saved so you can restore back to that version you were editing two days ago (it works even for deleted files) so you get a free backup solution for your important files and folders!  

One drawback with Dropbox is that you need to use one user-account only (let’s say [email protected]) if you want to upgrade your storage and still allow all your colleagues access. 

Dropbox_logo

Shared folders – Collaborating on documents

Since you’re on Google Apps (you are, aren’t you?!) you can also use “Google Docs”. This means you have your own, private version of Google Docs that your users can use for any documents that are to be shared within the company. You can even create shared folders with multiple documents as well as upload other file types. In general for “permanent” file storage I’d recommend to use Dropbox mentioned above, simply because it is automatically available to your users also offline.

Calendars

Often you want to be able to have an office calendar, do meeting invitations and be able to share your calendars with your colleagues. Google Calendar facilitates this perfectly, and since you’ve set-up Google Apps it comes automatically configured for you. You can even simply search for a colleague to add their calendar to be viewed side-by-side with your own for scheduling meetings (or just answering that ever present question: where the hell is matt?!).

Calendars can be configured on the iPhone & other cellphones, on Outlook and in iCal for Mac. Invitations works just as you’d expect and you can create meeting invites to the e-mail addresses of your colleagues ([email protected]) which will automatically be entered into their Google Calendars. 

Google_calendar_logo

Website / blog

One of the easiest tools to build a simple web-presence, which still is quite dynamic, is to use a blogging platform. Blogging platforms are good for start-ups since they’re easy to update for almost anybody (meaning your website is not tied to a “computer guy”) and they often come in hosted versions (meaning you don’t need to get a separate web hosting provider, nor install cumbersome content management systems). In fact, I’d recommend blogging platforms for most simple webpages. 

My favorite is Posterous. Posterous is great because it allows people to update the webpage via e-mail. This means I don’t need to teach my colleagues how to use the blogging software, rather I can just tell them how to send e-mails to the service, and their e-mails will automatically be converted into blog posts. Posterous can even be linked to your Facebook page and Twitter account to ensure that they’re all kept in update. 

A technical must-do for the website: is the best, and even while you can do a million things using this tool, start with just installing it (Posterous makes it really easy and so does most other blogging platforms). Having it installed means that you will start collecting data from day 1 and even if you’re not using that data right now, if you do want to down the line, it’s invaluable to have gathered it. It’s free – so why wouldn’t you?

Posterous-logo

Social media

Well, social media is all the range, and sure you should set up a Facebook presence as well as a Twitter account. However, they’re only good as long as they’re kept updated. As I wrote previously, Posterous helps you out on the content side, ensuring all your colleagues can easily “Tweet” and contribute to your Facebook page, without ever having to know how to actually use the tools themselves.

On Facebook – what you want to get is a so-called “Page”. On that page you can add various apps and widgets to make it look nice. One advice is to make sure you have a landing page that is not your “Wall”. You can quite easily create a landing page without any programming skills using the Page Builder from Tigerlily

Facebook-logo

Newsletter

Most non-profits, and even many start-ups want to have a newsletter. A newsletter is a great way to keep friends/family/customers/fans/supporters updated on what you’re doing. Your website and your Facebook page should at least have a sign-up for your newsletter. One of the best tools I’ve found to to do this is Mailchimp.

Mailchimp offers you free access if you have less than 2000 subscribers, and it plays along great with Twitter, Facebook, Google Analytics and any of the other tools I mentioned before. Mailchimp has good policies on not spamming, and also has great-looking templates & integration with social media. Mailchimp also integrates with Google Apps so the best way to use it is to install it from the “Google Apps marketplace” (see below)

Please note: Sending your newsletter as a “CC” or “BCC” directly from your mail account is not a good model for anything more than 10 people. Since Mailchimp is free, why would you not want to use it?

Mailchimp

Other business apps

There are a ton of other business app your start-up needs, and I don’t want to go into too much depth into each one of these. However, a great source of good quality apps, since you’re already on Google Apps is the Google Apps marketplace

This is basically a service from which you can find and install applications that run “on your domain”. How this works is that they integrate with your Google Apps accounts meaning your users only need to use their regular @yourdomain.com logins as they would for e-mail to login to all these additional services. For many of the services they’ll place a link in the “More” menu available in the top-left corner when your users are logged in to their e-mail accounts online. 

Most of them have a freemium model where they charge you as you progress to having more users / more data stored.

 * Customer Relationship Management: Insightly, store your information on customers, sales opportunities, clients. 
 * Accounting: Rhino Accounting, take care of your books for the nice price of free
 * Project Management: Manymoon, plan todos, take care of projects share documents and other materials
 * Recruitment: Zoho Recruit, allows applicants to submit applications online, do screening, store databases of previous candidates

A system that just works

Using Google Apps as your base is a first, important step to having a system that “just works”. Whatever you think about Google services, this is one which is a great asset to start-ups and non-profits (NPOs can even get an upgraded version for free from Google). Not only do you get access to the Google servvices – Gmail, Docs, Calendar, using this as a base provides you with one password for all services you connect to it, meaning your users don’t have to remember different ones for different places. 

Using other “cloud based” tools like Dropbox and Google Apps, means that your physical infrastructure (hard drives, servers, …) can be reduced to zero, which in an NGO or start-up scenario is optimal because physical infrastructure always needs someone to maintain it. In most cases for the services I mentioned above they can be used offline, meaning that you’re not depending on a stable internet connection which in places like India might not always be available. 

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