Big Data. Small Budget. 3 Possible Solutions for an SMB

Big data has revolutionized the way we look at information. Unfortunately, access to the collective set of tools that define this craze is not always easy to come by. Below I lay out three possible ways an SMB can take advantage of the Big Data revolution.

Rent a Cluster
Resource Cost: Potentially High, Labour Cost: So-So, Nerd Props: So-So

If you’re very familiar with the scope of your data crunching project, trust in your team’s ability to write/deploy solid code, and don’t mind spending the extra money on occasion, then maybe a 3rd party computing cluster is for you. Services such as Amazon’s Elastic Map Reduce, Microsoft Azure’s HPC, or Qubole offer you an elastic, on-demand environment to run your code. The benefits are obvious: easy to manage infrastructure, ability to grow/shrink with your data set, ability to grow/shrink with the complexity of your code, and rock-solid performance. The problem with cloud-based computing clusters is that they can (very) easily become expensive. Just moving data around can cost you a few dollars, so make sure your team is able to produce quality code. With that said, we run big data clusters in an Amazon VPC running Spark, and it works very well for our needs.

You Don’t Need a Stinking Cluster
Resource Cost: Low, Labour Cost: Low, Nerd Props: Low

The fact of the matter is, big data is not for everyone. Properly mining data requires a talented team, patience, and a deep understanding of your data. Incomplete data analysis leads to incorrect conclusions. Fortunately, you don’t need access to expensive resources in order to take advantage of the big data revolution. A number of larger enterprises have already done the heavy lifting for you and the results of their analysis are all over the web to review. Websites like Google Trends offer you access to a plethora of information which has been mapped, reduced, analyzed, and made available in lovely chart/graph form. Want to learn more about your particular market segment? A simple Bing or Google search can be your gateway to a world of knowledge. Want to know more about user behavior on Facebook? Just search the web. Chances are, the best work has already been done by researchers at Universities, Think Tanks, and Global Corporations. Just because you’re not mining the data yourself, doesn’t mean it’s not relevant and valuable.

Setup Your Own Cluster
Resource Cost: Low, Labour Cost: High, Nerd Props: High

Modern, open source data crunching platforms are purpose-built to run on all sorts of hardware. Better yet, they’re easy to install and setup. Whereas 15 years ago, the majority of your time would be spent building the actual  computing cluster (i.e. a Beowulf cluster), now, you can focus your efforts on collecting and analyzing your data. Although we’re now a SparkDB shop, in the past, we have implemented Hadoop for crunching data. Both are easy(ish) to get setup. The problem: all distributed computing platforms are only as good as the resources that you throw at them. The name of the game here is “distribution,” so the more nodes (computers) you have, the better. Fortunately, most SMBs have access to a large pool of computing nodes right under their noses. With some basic hardware – gigabit switch, dedicated gigabit Ethernet card, and cables – your unused employee workstations can be run as hadoop nodes in the evening. We recently setup a Spark cluster on three machines and a good time was had by all. The one caveat here is that you will probably want to enable dual boot on these unused machines.

How To Stand Out As A Tech Consulting Firm

As a newer employee to the technology consulting firm, Ruckbau, I started to become interested in what sets one consulting company apart from the next. And because we are based in the Bay area, a mecca for IT, there tends to be some big competition, as you might expect.

Therefore, I wanted to know how businesses choose at all? What makes one firm “jump out” from the other? Is it the website quality, the verve, expertise, or references? If it is the references, what do potential clients need to hear?

After exploring the intricate web of articles, blogs, IT sites, and business pages that discuss this very subject, I have decided to come up with an abridged list of qualities IT firms seem to need to catch a potential client’s eye.

  1. What’s the point of the mission statement?

My whole life, whether in academia, working at NGOs or research firms, I have constantly heard, time and time again, the importance of a mission statement . The “holly” mission statement supposedly provides value, clarity, and comprehension for clients, grant organizations, and web surfers alike to understand who and what your business is all about. However, remember that saying “actions speak louder than words” ? Well it seems the same is true for mission statements. I have heard of weeks invested in developing and devising a business’s mission statement, only to have a team of people forget it once it was plastered on the wall. What customers (and employees) want is to read, hear, and experience from the firm they choose that the firm itself truly lives and breaths their mission and goal. Makes sense right? To sum up what you do in one sentence, confidently, and further, be able to elaborate about it in a meaningful way, not scripted- just passion. This creates trust on the client’s end. So get your company onboard, start some team building exercises that will help everyone critically engage with what it is that your company does. Because a tech company is just a tech company until you got something else to say for yourself.

  1. What do you offer?

This goes hand-in-hand with the mission statement, albeit, the more detailed and tailored version. “The proof is in the pudding”, as they say. Enumerating what you do in clear bullet points and plain english on your website is imperative to get clients to stick around and read more. Because remember, it might be the most sophisticated, articulate content you ever wrote, and you may be an absolute genius in the field, but if no one is picking up what you are throwing down, your efforts go to shame. Some of the particular descriptors you might want to consider tailoring your offers to on your site should adhere to- functionality, technology, and product scope- with a focus on budget, accomplishments, references, and expertise. If you got it flaunt it!

  1. Value

If you are a curmudgeon because you have been working as a consultant for more than half your life and now have to compete with everyone and their brother (and said brother has only been consulting for the past two years), then you can probably provide a client with a lot more value than the average joe. Therefore, it is important you get that circulated- websites, word-of-mouth, yelp reviews- they all help! Businesses shopping for IT consulting companies definitely like knowing, for the most part, that their IT concerns are not in the hands of a novice. Let your curmudgeon colors shine!

You might believe yourself to be an expert in two very specific fields in the IT world, however, that doesn’t read to a broad range of potential clients. Although you want to be business savvy and honest about where your expertise lie, you also want to present technical versatility to show you are able to deal with a broad range of issues. Identifying that you can quickly adapt and assess any project is going to exemplify your experience, exposure, and credibility.

So what it comes down to at the moment is, online presence, along with the girth of your knowledge, holds the most weight in getting people interested . However, it is a fine balance between being overly specific and overtly generalized. The best advice seems to be- put yourself in your clients shoes. What would you want from a IT Consulting company? How would you navigate the influx of IT firms out there today?

Stay tuned for a follow up article!



Kayleigh Stack

Customer Liaison and Research Associate

Picking a CRM: The Shackles of Fantasy (Part 1)

Last week I met with a company to discuss their transition into a full-featured CRM (Customer Relationship Management) environment. Currently, they’re primarily using Act and pen and paper to track their thousands of contacts. Obviously, this is unacceptable. Post-it notes and napkins aren’t exactly efficient.

One of the great fantasy movies of all time courtesy of Wolfgang Petersen. Copyright Warner Brothers.
One of the great fantasy movies of all time courtesy of Wolfgang Petersen. Copyright Warner Brothers.

Their story is a typical one: for years, they’ve been meaning to step into a CRM – to move forward into a new age of efficiency and clarity – but they’ve never been able to pull the trigger on any solution. Like most organizations, they’ve been paralyzed by two competing fantasies – one of idealized success and one of catastrophic failure. The fantasy of failure is an easy one to understand: what if they step into a problematic system that ruins their company as whole? (After all, fear of commitment is not unique to 30-something year-old bachelors) Fortunately, this distopian fantasy is not hard to overcome, we deal with it so often in our everyday decision-making that we can see it for what it is – a phantom materialized by simple fear.

Fortunately, this distopian fantasy is not hard to overcome, we deal with it so often in our everyday decision-making that we can see it for what it is – a phantom materialized by simple fear.

The fantasy of success, however, is much harder to pin down. In fact, it is this delusional idealism that has been plaguing this company the most. Every time they’re about to choose a system to implement, they start comparing it to this utopian fantasy. Sure, this CRM can track my contacts and how I’ve communicated with them, but it doesn’t plug directly into my phone system; Or Salesforce is great for tracking most of the process, but does it sync with my coffee maker to make me coffee once a lead has been successfully converted. The more time they spend thinking about the solution, the more ridiculous the utopia looks.

So, how does someone break free from the shackles of fantasy? Well, like everything, I think the trick is to think logically. In Part 2 of this post, I will break down how I would organize my thoughts in order to make an informed decision on choosing the right technical solution (in this case, picking a CRM).

What is an SMB?

This is actually a difficult question to answer. The acronym itself stands for Small and Mid-size Business, but what that means is pretty vague. According to the small business administration (government), depending on the sector and the size of the market share of a business, a company making $20 million a year can be categorized as a small business. I know a lot of small business owners that would consider that a pretty large sum.

Messy Desk
Messy Desk (Photo credit: andhij)

Most of the organizations that consider themselves within the SMB sector, are actually micro-businesses. If your business was just demoted, I’m sorry. Here are some guidelines that I like to use. They’re based loosely on the European Commissions guidelines as well those used at Big-5 consulting houses.

  • Small Business: Between 5 and 50 employees (excluding sub-contractors); revenues NOT exceeding $15 million per year
  • Mid-size Business: Between 51 and 250 employees (excluding contractors); revenue NOT exceeding $50 million per year

If you need further clarification, here you may find some “you know you’re a small business” qualifiers…

You know you’re a small business when…

Below are some tell-tale signs that I’ve come up with to detect whether you’re a small business or not. 

More than 25% of your workforce is made up of family members.

Your home office isn’t an occasional substitute for your office office.

Your conference room table doubles as a dining room table.

Your marketing budget includes a line item for business cards.

Your corporate web site is a Facebook page.

Over 50% of your web traffic comes from your home IP address.

Your employee perks include delicious sandwiches made by your mom. (Wednesdays ONLY!)

Post-it notes
Post-Haste Enterprise Resource Planning (Photo by Watchsmart)

You have to go to your accountant (as opposed to her coming to you).

Business processes are managed through a complicated system of Post-it Notes. You’ve named this system, Post-Haste technology.

You call your employees on their cell phones and occasionally ask them to pick up office supplies on their way to work.

Your lawyer has your emails marked as SPAM.

You tell people that the big monitor really helps you work more efficiently, but really, it acts as a screen so your employees can’t see it when you cry.

Your secretary is really just your voice-mail message.

Your voice-mail was recorded by your Aunt Gertrude – she’s British!

Your invoicing system is called “Sheet A” in Excel and your vendor management system is called “Sheet B.”

Your Contact Management System is a notepad with your realtors face at the top of every page.

Your employee stock option plan involves allowing employees to raid the stock room once a quarter. “Have at it, kiddies!”

(Feel free to add more in the comment section of this post.)