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the challenge

Brent McPhail, a partner in Brave Control Solutions, talks with employees.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue .

Brave Control Solutions doesn't have a dedicated IT staffer on board. "As we sit today, we are too small a company to have full-time IT," partner Brent McPhail says.

But Mr. McPhail expects that to soon change for the 13-employee company, a Windsor, Ont.-based electrical-engineering firm he founded in 2008 that generated just over $1-million in revenues in 2011.

"As we grow, and we add more users to our network, there's a whole host of challenges that come along with that," says Mr. McPhail, who expects to add three more employees to the company by January.

Mr. McPhail says that having a dedicated IT professional at the company, which specializes in industrial automation technologies, would help with its day-to-day tech needs: setting up new computers, managing software licences, dealing with backup systems and printer headaches, and handling its intranet.

These tasks now fall to tech-savvy staff members, and while the firm has a strong "do-it-yourself" mentality about anything technological, DIY is not a long-term solution, Mr. McPhail admits.

"No matter how smart we think we are, we aren't trained as IT professionals," he says. "Just because we can do it doesn't mean we should."

Mr. McPhail cites cost as a major obstacle to hiring an IT staffer, esitmating a full-time salary would run $40,000 to 60,000 a year, plus benefits.

For that kind of money, he worries that he doesn't have enough work to keep a hire fully occupied. "There's not 40 hours' worth of IT work in our company in a week," he says. "And No. 2, we can't sustain [this] salary without [a hire] bringing anything to the bottom line other than a supportive role."

To this end, Mr. McPhail's ideal IT staffer would perform a dual role: day-to-day management of internal computer systems, as well as higher-level IT planning for the company.

"We are completely missing out on all the new and innovative software and apps that people have created, that we don't even know can help us with our business," he says. "We really don't have an IT plan."

The Challenge: How can Brave best meet its IT needs in the most cost-effective way?


Tony Verberk, business support manager responsible for IT operations at Halifax-based Nova Scotia Power Inc.

Your situation is certainly not an uncommon one, and the idea of bringing in someone that can not only handle your day-to-day break/fix requirements, but also being able to provide you with strategic guidance that brings value to the company, is every small business owner's dream.

Unfortunately, you're talking about two different skill sets. While a full-time technician that can keep your environment up and running and help with your intranet may be someone you can bring in at your price range, it is unlikely that you will find anyone with enough experience to bring a truly valuable strategic vision to the company within the same price range.

One option to consider looking at is a mature student that can work part-time at the office while taking classes. You won't get the strategic visionary you're looking for, and rightly so at your price, but you'll likely find someone keen to work, be less prone to getting bored and dissatisfied with the job, and come in at a great value.

Brandon Kolybaba, CEO of Halifax-based

Traditionally, it's very common for small businesses to consider hiring [an] IT person at 15 to 20 full-time employees. Cloud computing is disrupting that model by automating and streamlining the processes and tasks associated with the overhead work involved with managing an organization's IT systems. It's not uncommon at all in my view that within small businesses (with less then 50 full-time employees), a dedicated IT resource would almost certainly be under-utilized.

Cloud adoption is most prevalent in the small business category because this kind of a challenge becomes a driver for more nimble small businesses to explore creative solutions and, as a result, embrace offerings like Box, Workday and Google Apps. With these types of cloud-based solutions, it's very common that even in non-technically focused organizations, there will often be a few individuals who embrace technology and are very able to take on ownership and management of these types of SaaS [software as a service] offerings as they are designed to be managed by business users, not technical users.

Marawan El-Asfahani, managing principal and CEO of Oxygen Design Agency, Toronto,

Hiring a person full-time is not the way to go. There are options out there, and one option that we have gotten ourselves into is hiring an IT business, but bringing them in on a retainer level.

In having a fixed retainer, we agree to budget certainty during the year. We set business goals around technology with this company, and they have to meet those objectives. At the beginning, we know that greater time will be spent to meet those goals. But once the IT objective is met, that time should taper off to just maintenance, which reduces fees over the course of the year.

Speaking business owner to business owner, I know what it's like to have a non-revenue-generating expense within your company. But I've got to tell you, a retainer for $25,000 to a small IT business for the year is phenomenal. IT businesses would love to have that, and they would really work hard for that.


Work with an outside IT firm

Hire an outside firm on a retainer basis. This can help bring in expert advice and service while keeping costs down.

Adopt cloud-based services

Hosted e-mail, enterprise resource planning and document-management services are often less expensive to maintain than in-house solutions.

Separate day-to-day IT tasks from longer-term IT planning

The person who fixes the printer may not be the same person who provides high-level strategic thinking.

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