Small business guide: How to collect, analyze and protect your company’s data

Many of the new trends in marketing, financing and recruiting share a common theme — they’re all driven by data. Now even the smallest companies are collecting and storing large swaths of information, which can be used to make more informed business decisions.

Moreover, your employees can access and share that information any time from anywhere, and that can and increase your efficiency.

Of course, it increases the number of risks, too.

“Small businesses are actually at greater risk than many of the large corporations, because hackers are going to go after the low-hanging fruit, the ones they don’t think are protected,” said Tyler Cohen Wood, a senior officer and cyber branch chief for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington.

Here’s what small business owners need to know about gathering, analyzing and (most importantly) protecting their company’s data:

Embracing big data

Experts say small companies have much to gain by analyzing readily available information.

Often, the most useful data for small businesses is the information concerning their customers, said Brian Sutter, director of marketing for Wasp Barcode Technologies in Plano, Tex. Software that helps companies see who is buying their products (and who they are missing) has come down in price, he said, and it often mines data from marketing or accounting software companies are already using.

Software products such as Salesforce and SugarCRM can capture and analyze large amounts of data about your customers, sales patterns and marketing campaigns, and both can sync up with popular accounting software such as Quickbooks and Xero. Other services, like Kaggle, allow you to contract data scientists from around the world to make sense of information you have collected.

“How much should you carry, when should you liquidate, when should you stock up — they are all questions small business owners are finding it easier to answer with the right data analytics,” Sutter said.

Beware of BYOD

However, the more data you collect and store electronically, the more you have to lose. Another trend, the “bring your own device” movement (commonly referred to as BYOD, in which workers can use their own gadgets to access company information), can place small businesses at an even greater risk for data loss.

“It’s a great idea, to let your employees use their own personal devices for work,” said Page Moon, chief information officer for Focus Data Solutions, an information technology and Web hosting firm in Alexandria. “But you have to understand that, depending on what kind of information your employees can access remotely, your intellectual property is walking right out the door with them every day.”

All data has value

To mitigate some of the risks, Wood says employers must closely monitor which applications they and their employees download onto devices used for both work and personal needs.

“There are so many non-secure, data-collecting apps out there, and some of them without telling you will access other parts of your phone, like your contact list,” she said, adding “For some, if that client list gets out there, that’s everything. That could sink a business.”

Think beyond mobile devices

In the rush to secure mobile devices, Moon warns that some employers are overlooking some of the potential cybersecurity land mines hidden in their offices. The one that catches many by surprise these days? Copy machines.

“Companies bring one in, use it for a couple years, and then trade it out for a new model,” Moon said. “But when they do, all the hard drives in those copier machines [leave] with information in them.”

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.
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