E-goals for '01

Security, e-mail and broadband connection: an entrepreneur looks ahead in the new year and plans for small biz technology goals.

This is the time when I sit down and try to set some small biz technology goals for the upcoming year. The holiday rush is behind me, so I have time to do some deep thinking. And the new year beckons, with its feeling of renewal and fresh starts.

The goals I set aren't out of touch with reality -- I've discovered that one of the keys to goal-setting and long-range planning is to make them attainable -- but they take some work. Because the Internet is so important to small business success, I'm concentrating on electronic communication objectives.

My three goals, which stretch from a change in e-mail behavior to keeping my business safer from hackers, are generic enough to apply to many, if not most, small businesses, but you may have others in mind specific to your situation. Write them down, as I have, and list them on your long-range to-do list within your calendar, organizer, or personal information manager. And try your darnedest to make them come true during 2001.

Defend yourself

My goal: I must keep my business as safe as possible from security breaches and harm from the outside during 2001.

I've taken some steps already, such as equipping all my business's computers with anti-virus software. While I've not standardized on just one virus package, I'm now leaning toward Norton AntiVirus 2001 across the board. I like the way it automatically checks for updates when I'm connected to the Net, and downloads and installs new virus definitions without bothering me.

But an anti-virus package isn't enough. With more of us sharing broadband Internet access among a bevy of computers -- I'm doing that in my office -- we need to up the ante by putting a firewall into place. In 2001, I plan to install a top-of-the-line hardware/software-based firewall, and not rely on my current simple personal firewall program These packages, often pitched to small businesses because they're inexpensive and easy to configure, leave some dangerous back doors wide open (see story), putting your computers at risk.

Here's the problem in a nutshell: firewalls typically allow trusted applications, usually common programs like Internet Explorer, full Internet access. Hackers are now disguising their attacking code by naming their files with these trusted apps' filenames, as in IEXPLORE.EXE. Once inside -- whether delivered by e-mail virus or Trojan horse (rogue code masquerading as a legitimate program) -- the attacker then has complete Net access, and is free to do all kinds of malicious things, like harvesting info from your hard drive and sending it to a hacker's server.

One of my first objectives for 2001: put Steve Gibson's suggestions into play. Gibson, software developer, writer, and founder of Gibson Research Corporation, is a prime for source of information about all kinds of security issues. His Leak Test utility that tells you whether your firewall can be breached easily by masquerading code. You should also skim several pages on Gibson's site that outline the problem and put it into perspective.

Gibson's advice: switch to a hardware/software combination of a Linksys NAT router like this four-port Cable/DSL model, and multiple copies of ZoneAlarm, the only firewall that cryptographically certifies the identity of executable files. At-home users and non-profits can download and use ZoneAlarm for free, but the $40 ZoneAlarm Pro is a better bet for businesses, since it provides tools to protect networks as well as individual PCs.

Improving security isn't my sole ambition for the year. I've also identified a flaw in my e-mail operations that cost me business in 2000. The problem? An overloaded inbox and a habit of procrastinating. I'll spell out how I want to tackle this in the next section.

Stay on top

My goal: I need to better manage my most important communication link to the outside world: e-mail.

I already filter my e-mail with an anti-spam utility (SpamKiller is my favorite), which reduces, but doesn't totally stop, the flood of junk mail -- my e-mail inbox still remains as messy as a twelve-year-old's bedroom.

To fight back, I plan to institute several changes to my approach toward e-mail.

First, I promise to browse all message headers no later than the day they arrive. As often happens to sole proprietors, time presses so hard that I sometimes either purposefully ignore or accidentally overlook some messages as I work on the project at hand. This has cost me business -- not a lot, but anything I miss is that much less on the bottom line. That has to stop, even if all I do is glance at the header, then delete the message or quickly reply that I've received it and will get back to the sender as soon as I can.

Second, I resolve to use my e-mail program's organization tools to better arrange and classify messages. My preferred client is Outlook 2000, so I pledge to apply its filter, color-coding, and categorization features to my messages. I plan to color-code messages from my most important customers, for instance, using the Tools/Organize menu command. And I'll flag the most critical messages for later follow-up (by right-clicking the message and choosing Flag for Follow Up), so that Outlook will remind me at the appointed date and time.

To help me meet this goal, I plan to read tips lists for Outlook, hunting for advice that makes using e-mail easier.

Once I do a better job of handling my mail, I want to take a longer-range view. Specifically, I want what every small business owner with an Internet connection wants: speed. Click on to read my plan.

Take the fast lane

My goal: I will continue looking for the fastest Internet connection my small business can afford.

I've suffered with dial-up, survived the move to ISDN, and earlier this year I even ventured into the world of look-Ma-no-wires broadband by installing a DirecPC satellite dish near my office. And still I'm not satisfied.

DirecPC generally makes good on its promise of 400+ Kbps during the business day, when most of this consumer service's subscribers are away from home at their jobs. (The promised throughput applies to the download stream only; I still need a dial-up connection of some sort, either analog or ISDN, for the upstream path.) During evenings, though, and on weekends, speed falls faster than eToys' stock.

Like a lot of small businesses, I'm not able to get broadband service via DSL or cable. I'm too far from the nearest telecom central office for DSL, and cable was never run out to the development where I live and work.

One alternative that looks promising is fixed wireless, which sounds like an oxymoron. Using fixed radio transmission towers -- with a theoretical range of about 35 miles -- fixed wireless providers deliver data in a line-of-sight fashion to a small external digital transceiver, and from there, to your computer or network. The downstream speed ranges from 512Kbps to 1.5Mbps;, the upstream speed is a poky 256Kbps.

Sprint's fixed wireless offering, Broadband Direct, is a good example. It's currently available in only a few metro markets: Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; ; Colorado Springs and Denver, Colo.; Houston; Salt Lake City; Detroit; ; San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, and Fresno, Calif.; Oklahoma City; and Wichita, Kan. That means I'm out of luck in Eugene, Ore...for now. If my business were in one of those locales, however, I could get service for six networked computers for a $200 equipment fee and $90 per month.

Other telecomm companies are exploring fixed wireless, too. WorldCom has only just opened its first market (Memphis, Tenn.), with plans to roll out service to 30 metro areas nationwide by the end of 2001. AT&T has also been testing fixed wireless in Fort Worth, Texas, since March.

My goals meet my business's needs; they may not meet yours. The actual plans, however, are secondary to the chore itself. Take my advice, and take the time to set some e-goals for your business.