With 2019 clearly in the rearview mirror, many of us find ourselves reflecting on the previous year and taking assessment of where we can improve. Similarly, SMBs should take that same approach when it comes to looking at their business performance.

To be successful in today’s ultra-competitive economy, SMBs need to evaluate their IT spend in 2019 and how it impacted their organization, and then develop a plan for 2020. To this end, I looked at the biggest mistakes we saw SMBs making last year and used my findings to put together three key recommendations that will help them be better prepared for the future.

#1: Develop an IT Plan with Growth in Mind

We all know that famous Benjamin Franklin quote: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” So why do we continue to avoid planning, especially when it comes to your company’s IT strategy? Admittedly, looking at all the options available can feel like trying to drink from a high-powered firehose. But making a plan is worth the effort. Just break it down and take it one purchase at a time.

Most SMBs with limited budgets only purchase what they really need at the moment—whether it be a few laptops from the local computer store or a server from a reputable provider—but with no long-term strategy or plan in place. What they don’t see is that eventually it will be difficult to manage a hodgepodge of products.

How did it become unmanageable? Typically, it’s because the computers and programs are not consistent with one another, or the company doesn’t have standard security protocols installed, to name just a couple of commonplace issues. Simply put, there is no method to the madness. And, while it may work for a short period of time, at some point an IT plan and basic framework need to be put in place. Otherwise, it will continue to be a vicious cycle of incompatibilities, patch fixes, bandages and short-term solutions. Why not get it right in the first place?

When an IT plan is properly in place, you may find that you’re still purchasing the same products, hardware and services, but the difference is that every laptop is set up the same way, using the same tools, software and protocols, and every server will be purchased with an existing and future framework in mind.

The next question I typically hear is, “how do I create an IT plan or strategy?” If your internal IT team doesn’t have the bandwidth or skillset to put a plan in place, consider using a managed service provider that can guide you through the process. An MSP partner understands how to develop an IT plan that is relevant now and, more importantly, five years from now. They know how to align technology with your business goals to create value and ensure the smartest, most efficient use of your technology budget. And, you’ll find that if they want a partnership with you, they will keep your budget in mind and constantly be looking for what is in the best interest of the company’s long-term growth.

#2: Make Security a Priority and Have a Back-up Plan

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, in 2018 there were 58.9 million small- to medium-sized businesses in the United States that employ almost half (47.5 percent) of the nation’s workforce. And, they were the target of two out of three of all cybercrimes. So, it comes as no surprise that security is on the mind of every SMB owner these days. But what are SMBs doing about it?

While you can’t completely eliminate the possibility of a cyberattack or data breach, you can take action that will reduce the risk and help proactively protect you from potential harm. Obviously, the first step is to look at your IT security and make sure you have the most up-to-date solutions in place.

Just like the first recommendation, this one also includes planning. Make sure you have a back-up plan so that your organization doesn’t end up in dire straits and has to negotiate for data or access to your network. There are plenty of horror stories about small companies being wiped out because ransomware hit them, and they didn’t have any sort of backup or other recovery solution in place.

So, what is the best solution? There is no one right answer. Each business approaches security differently, but the first step remains the same: Put a strong team in place. This involves identifying exactly who within your organization will be involved with your data protection and security efforts. Keep in mind that it’s important to include team members from all areas of your organization. This will provide a better overall understanding of the needs and vulnerabilities from all perspectives. However, be certain to designate a leader and make it clear who is running the show. If you cannot afford to dedicate the needed people and resources to your security efforts, consider working on a budget that can accommodate a cybersecurity consultant or firm.

#3: Take Advantage of Affordable Cloud-based and Subscription-based Services

Last year, we saw too many SMBs being tied down by perpetual licensing agreements. In some cases, the licensing can be very expensive and can cause the organization to keep legacy versions of programs in place long after they have run their course. This can result in lackluster performance and security vulnerabilities. But most SMBs can’t just go out and purchase new software at the drop of a hat. So, what is the solution?

A trend we saw taking shape last year that we are confident will continue in 2020 is the movement to subscription-based services. Cloud solutions that at one time only made financial sense for large companies or enterprises are now affordable and very much within reach for SMBs. And, wait for it…they come with a monthly payment, rather than a year or multi-year commitment. Even better, this also provides access to newer, more robust tools than most had prior to subscribing, and updates will automatically be integrated throughout the year.

One example of a subscription service that many SMBs are adopting is Microsoft Office 365. It combines the advantages of cloud technology with the traditional foundation of on-premise software offerings, allowing Office applications to be available to numerous computers or devices with storage space on Microsoft’s OneDrive. And, no matter what device they’re running on, files can be accessed from anywhere at any time. By having every employee, in every office, use the exact same version of Office, productivity is dramatically improved as everyone now has a common feature set.

Similar subscription offerings are also available, from QuickBooks for accounting to Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics for CRM, and all are easily installed on a network. Other benefits of cloud-based subscription services include savings on infrastructure costs, maximized uptime and centralized management of applications.

With a plan in place, you’ll only be looking at the subscription-based services that your SMB really needs, rather than adding a program here or there to a solitary computer. And the best part? You will no longer be tied down by contracts for perpetual licensing.

Let’s learn from 2019 and start 2020 off with sound planning and preparation. Be proactive so that you don’t find yourself reacting to circumstance. By having a strategic plan in place, you’ll have a competitive edge and be better prepared with better tools in place for the year ahead.