Build a Small Business Network to Help Your Business Succeed

Posted on November 25, 2019 in Uncategorized

As a small business owner you can often feel alone, even when surrounded by many people.

How is this possible? The answer is that many small business owners keep their business challenges to themselves. They don’t want employees, or customers, or suppliers, or family and friends for that matter, to know that they have business issues that might be difficult to manage.

If this describes your business environment, consider building a business network to help you manage your challenges and grow your business.

What is a small business network? In this instance it is a network of either similar or dissimilar small businesses that work together to help each other solve their business issues and also to help each other manage and grow their businesses.

Let’s examine an example of a small business network for similar businesses.

A group of between eight and twelve business owners in the same industry but in non-competing locations set up a peer business network. They get together (either face-to-face or online) at a regularly scheduled day and time (maybe monthly or quarterly) to discuss their small business strategy and issues and they each ask for, and get, feedback from the rest of the group — all experienced business owners of similar type businesses.

Some of the discussion might center on human resource issues such as training, hiring, firing, turn-over rates, and comparative wages or salaries. Other discussions might be on common customer centric issues such as turn-around times, over promising and under delivering, quality, service, handling difficult customers. Some sessions might focus on business planning, marketing planning, sales planning or results from plans.

To form this type of group, business owners could meet through national or international industry trade associations. To make this type of network work, the participants must sign confidentiality agreements and non-compete agreements — even though today the businesses are non-competing, there is no guarantee that tomorrow they won’t be competing. It is important that legal advice is obtained at the start of setting up this type of network — your group will need to know what is allowed or not allowed by government competition acts.

The advantage of this type of network is that all participants already know and understand the industry and can bring that knowledge and expertise to the discussions.

Now, let’s examine an example of a small business network for dissimilar businesses.

This type of network would work best in a group of not less than eight and not many more than twelve business owners (too small and the input is weakened; too large and it’s hard to have a voice or hear what’s going on). This group would get together on a regular basis (likely monthly) and review each business’ progress, operations, challenges, or the designated topic of the month. Since this is a network of non-competing, dissimilar businesses, the group could be local and meetings could be face-to-face.

An advantage for local meetings is that the group would be operating in the same economic climate and would have a thorough understanding of what that means to local businesses. It would be relatively easy to form a local group by meeting businesses through local small business associations.

Topics could be selected in advance by month, by quarter, by year and each business owner would attend a network meeting prepared to discuss issues surrounding that topic. For example, one month’s topic could be about reducing the cost of financing and sharing tips and tactics. Another month’s topic could be about the use of the best and most successful recruiting methods for that local area. Another month’s topic could be on creating a business plan and the necessary tools to do so.

In this type of network it is also important to have confidentiality agreements and non-compete agreements at the start of the network meetings. You will want to have the assurance that if someone leaves the group that they won’t share confidential information with others.

The advantage of this type of network is that you can more easily set this group up in your local market so that face-to-face meetings would not be difficult and that you might actually get more out-of-the-box thinking from business owners outside of the industry who are not constrained by past practices.

For both types of networks, use an outside facilitator to ensure that the group stays on track and that each member gets out of the network what it needs (its reason for joining). The concept of a business network is to provide small business owners with a small business advisory group to test solutions, find answers, change old ways of doing things, and more. In large businesses, that type of network support typically comes from other departments or management. In small businesses, a strong small business network is part of an overall business community that becomes part of the infrastructure for your business’ success.

Tips to Secure Your Small Business Network

Posted on November 24, 2019 in Uncategorized

Just because your business is small, doesn’t mean that hackers won’t target you. The reality is that automated scanning techniques and botnets don’t care whether your company is big or small, they’re only looking for holes in your network security to exploit.

Maintaining a secure small business or home network isn’t easy, and even for an old hand in IT, it still takes time and energy to keep things locked down. Here are 10 of the most critical steps you can take to keep your data from ending up elsewhere, and none of them take much time or effort to accomplish.

  1. Get a Firewall

The first step for any attacker is to find network vulnerabilities by scanning for open ports. Ports are the mechanisms by which your small business network opens up and connects to the wider world of the Internet. A hacker sees an open port to as an irresistible invitation for access and exploitation. A network firewall locks down ports that don’t need to be open.

A properly configured firewall acts as the first line of defense on any network. The network firewall sets the rules for which ports should be open and which ones should be closed. The only ports that should be open are ports for services that you need to run.

Typically, most small business routers include some kind of firewall functionality, so chances are if you have a router sitting behind your service provider or DSL/cable modem, you likely have a firewall already. To check to see if you already have firewall capabilities at the router level in your network, log into your router and see if there are any settings for Firewall or Security. If you don’t know how to log into your router on a Windows PC, find your Network Connection information. The item identified as Default Gateway is likely the IP address for your router.

There are many desktop firewall applications available today as well, but don’t mistake those for a substitute for firewall that sits at the primary entry point to your small business network. You should have a firewall sitting right behind where your network connectivity comes into your business to filter out bad traffic before it can reach any desktop or any other network assets.

  1. Password Protect your Firewall

Great you’ve got a firewall, but it’s never enough to simply drop it into your network and turn it on. One of the most common mistakes in configuring network equipment is keeping the default password.

It’s a trivial matter in many cases for an attacker to identify the brand and model number of a device on a network. It’s equally trivial to simply use Google to obtain the user manual to find the default username and password.

Take the time to make this easy fix. Log into your router/firewall, and you’ll get the option to set a password; typically, you’ll find it under the Administration menu item.

  1. Update Router Firmware

Outdated router or firewall firmware is another common issue. Small business network equipment, just like applications and operating systems, needs to be updated for security and bug fixes. The firmware that your small business router and/or firewall shipped with is likely out-of-date within a year, so it’s critical to make sure you update it.

Some router vendors have a simple dialogue box that lets you check for new firmware versions from within the router’s administration menu. For routers that don’t have automated firmware version checking, find the version number in your router admin screen, and then go to the vendor’s support site to see if you have the latest version.

  1. Block Pings

Most router and firewalls include multiple settings that help to determine how visible your router and/or firewall will be to the outside world. One of the simplest methods that a hacker uses to find a network is by sending a ping request, which is just a network request to see if something will respond. The idea being if a network device responds, there is something there that the hacker can then explore further and potentially exploit. You can make it harder for attackers by simply setting your network router or firewall so that it won’t respond to network pings. Typically, the option to block network pings can be found on the administration menu for a firewall and/or router as a configuration option.

  1. Scan Yourself

One of the best ways to see if you have open ports or visible network vulnerabilities is to do the same thing that an attacker would do – scan your network. By scanning your network with the same tools that security researchers (and attackers) use, you’ll see what they see. Among the most popular network scanning tools is the open source nmap tool). For Windows users, the Nmap download now includes a graphical user interface, so it’s now easier than ever to scan your network with industry standard tools, for free. Scan your network to see what ports are open (that shouldn’t be), and then go back to your firewall to make the necessary changes.

  1. Lock Down IP Addresses

By default, most small business routers use something called DHCP, which automatically allocates IP addresses to computers that connect to the network. DHCP makes it easy for you to let users connect to you network, but if your network is exploited it also makes it easy for attackers to connect to your network. If your small business only has a set number of users, and you don’t routinely have guest users plugging into your network, you might want to consider locking down IP addresses.

The benefit of assigning an IP is that when you check your router logs, you’ll know which IP is associated with a specific PC and/or user. With DHCP, the same PC could potentially have different IPs over a period of time as machines are turned on or off. By knowing what’s on your network, you’ll know where problems are coming from when they do arise.

  1. Use VLANs

Not everyone in your small business necessarily needs access to the same network assets. While you can determine and set access with passwords and permissions on applications, you can also segment your network with VLAN or virtual LANs. VLANs are almost always part of any business class router and let you segment a network based on needs and risks as well as quality of service requirements. For example, with a VLAN setup you could have the finance department on one VLAN, while sales is on another. In another scenario, you could have a VLAN for your employees and then setup another one for contract or guest workers. Mitigating risk is all about providing access to network resources to the people who are authorized and restricting access to those who aren’t.

  1. Get an IPS

A firewall isn’t always enough to protect a small business network. Today’s reality is that the bulk of all network traffic goes over Port 80 for HTTP or Web traffic. So if you leave that port open, you’re still at risk from attacks that target port 80. In addition to the firewall, Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) technology can play a key network security role. An IPS does more than simply monitor ports; it monitors the traffic flow for anomalies that could indicate malicious activity. IPS technology can sometimes be bundled in on a router as part of a Unified Threat Management (UTM) device. Depending on the size of your small business network, you might want to consider a separate physical box.

Another option is to leverage open source technologies running on your own servers (or as virtual instances if you are virtualized). On the IPS side, one of the leading open source technologies is called SNORT (which is backed by commercial vendor Sourcefire.

  1. Get a WAF

A Web Application Firewall (WAF) is specifically tasked with helping to protect against attacks that are specifically targeted against applications. If you’re not hosting applications within your small business network, the risks that a WAF helps to mitigate are not as pronounced. If you are hosting applications, WAF in front of (or as part of) your Web server is a key technology that you need to look at. Multiple vendors including Barracuda have network WAF boxes. Another option is the open source ModSecurity project, which is backed by security vendor Trustwave.

  1. Use VPN

If you’ve gone through all the trouble of protecting your small business network, it makes sense to extend that protection to your mobile and remotely connected employees as well. A VPN or Virtual Private Network lets your remote workers log into your network with an encrypted tunnel. That tunnel can then be used to effectively shield your remote employees with the same firewall, IPS and WAF technologies that local users benefit from. A VPN also protects your network by not letting users who may be coming in from risky mobile environments connect in an insecure fashion.

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Business Networking Doesn’t Work For Everyone Or Does It?

Posted on November 22, 2019 in Uncategorized

Have you ever spoken to someone in business who says “Oh yes – I tried networking once and it didn’t work for me.”

Over my years in business and having attending hundreds of networking events, I’ve heard this or a similar phrase many, many times. I’ve also been told that business networking doesn’t work for everyone and for a while I reflected on this point to see if I agree and actually, I don’t.

Now if you put it another way and say “not everyone who does business networking makes it work” then that is another matter. Also, “not all types of business networking events work in the same way for everyone” I can agree with that as well.

Whatever your business or profession, networking at some level can and will have a positive impact on you and your business, especially when you do it well.

Over my last 7 years in business, I have been an active member of a business referral group and I have seen numerous members come and go. Frequently I see people in the same business or profession who achieve very contrasting results from their networking activity. Why is this?

I’ve seen business owners leave declaring that networking is rubbish and a waste of time and then someone else has joined to replace them and they get so much business that they happily declare that the group has been their absolutely best source of business and they wish they had joined years earlier.

The difference isn’t their business or necessarily their professional competence. It is however their attitude. The successful Networkers are the ones who commit to and embrace the qualities and values of the group. They focus on helping others first and trust that they will be helped in return. They build trust and respect and because they regularly attend the meetings and support the group and its members, including at social events, they become well-known and definitely well-liked by their colleagues and associates.

When you start with a great positive attitude and add to that tried, tested and proven skills and techniques of rapport building, etiquette and personal communication among others, you dramatically improve your personal effectiveness.

In terms of not all networking events working in the same way for everyone, it really is important to find groups that you feel comfortable in. Networking is a powerful and highly effective way to generate referral business, wherever you do it.

Networking isn’t a quick fix to generate immediate extra business and sales when you suddenly realise that your orders have stopped coming in. Networking isn’t a hard sell ‘close the deal’ approach to business.

Networking is a slower process for cultivating trust and nurturing contacts and connections. Networking is highly effective at generating strong personal and business relationships that will deliver long-term repeat business on recommendation and referral.

Whatever your business is, having other people tell people they know about you and being happy to refer others to you, is a benefit that will leverage your own time and resources. When you add value for and help the people you meet, many of them will help you in turn.

If however, your focus is on a quick return, ‘a fast buck’, what’s in it for me approach, networking will not deliver what you are looking for.

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