Orientation guide for founders: planning the IT infrastructure correctly

When founding a start-up, future managing directors usually primarily deal with the business concept and financing. However, it is just as important to develop a good IT foundation for the new company as early as possible. Success also depends to a large extent on this. Fortunately, there are a few guiding questions that all companies can use as a guide.

When starting a business, young entrepreneurs ask themselves many questions:

  • What should my new company be called anyway?
  • Which legal form should I choose?
  • Is the business plan professional enough?
  • Is the business model already ready for the market?
  • Have I taken all the precautions for solid basic financing?
  • Are there government subsidies?
  • What about future employees, customers and business partners?
  • In which premises do we settle?

The fact that some of these questions are closely linked to the start-up’s IT system is often overlooked. This can be dangerous, because effectively planned IT is fundamental to the success of the company. Regardless of the industry in which a company is founded, it is usually sufficient to clarify a few central points, which are always expedient.

If it only becomes clear during everyday work that too much or too little has been invested in the IT infrastructure of the new company, this causes unnecessary unrest for everyone involved. In this respect, before you start, you should first think carefully about which elements are actually needed and in what strength for the respective company requirements. In any case, a successful IT basis always includes the following aspects:

  • the fastest possible internet connection with broadband and WLAN
  • functional hardware in the PC area
  • software solutions suitable for the company
  • internal and possibly also external servers for data storage
  • a telephone system for offices and possibly also mobile use

Entrepreneurs have to ask themselves to what extent they have the necessary IT expertise themselves or whether they should hire external service providers to set up and manage the elements. In addition, IT security has to be considered, as well as the necessary space to accommodate bulky hardware.

In any case, manufacturing companies cannot avoid planning the linking of the IT required for the office with that of production plants and logistical facilities. Last but not least, of course, all of this must fit into the start-up’s financial plan, although government funding options may also help (tip: funding check).

Surprising flexibility in hardware

Anyone who thinks that hardware costs can hardly be saved because it is needed as a basis without restrictions is mistaken. Three ways to reduce spending on modern hardware – at least in the office area – are often ignored. Depending on the situation, these also bring advantages in terms of liquidity:

  1. For example, it is often sufficient, especially for young small businesses, instead of installing new PCs and servers used material – which also supports a sustainable approach (external link). Because if this part of the IT needs to be renewed after a few years, this can usually be done more easily with increased financial strength on a manageable scale. On the other hand, for larger companies that have to equip more workstations, it is usually more financially expensive to renew all workstations directly after just a few years.
  2. But even “the big ones” have a saving trick on their side at the beginning: Hardware outsourcing. High one-off expenses for the acquisition costs as well as considerable ongoing operating costs can be averted in this way. Instead, the company pays a monthly, needs-based fee to an IT service provider, who makes its hardware and the associated regular maintenance available in return. This can be claimed for partial areas or the complete hardware. However, a new company also makes itself dependent on the respective service provider.
  3. Aside from this complete package of outsourcing, there is also a third option for companies of almost all sizes, parts of the to lease hardware. Through special leasing contracts, it can be agreed with the provider to regularly replace the hardware and, if necessary, to carry out maintenance on the devices independently and therefore more cheaply.

When it comes to software, there are essentially two sides of the same coin: the application programs on the one hand and the storage of data on the other. With the programs, young entrepreneurs should think about whether there are flexible forms of work in their future company.

If you want to work not only in the office, but also a lot on the road or in the home office, you need collaboration platforms for employees to exchange information with each other as well as communication programs, for example for video conferences. Messenger, mail hosting applications or organizational tools for topic planning or appointment management should not be missing either. Depending on the company, there are also tools for customer communication or programs for goods and production management.

The more software a company needs, the more urgent the question of how the data volumes generated by it should be handled. If it is only about classic office software in small companies, the data can of course simply be stored on local servers that are directly connected to the PC workstations.

However, the data that larger companies generate with every additional software solution, for example with SAP applications or CRM systems, will inevitably have to be outsourced at some point. On site, there is usually no space for the corresponding server sizes. In this respect, future managing directors should consider in advance whether their new company wants to use hosting providers or cloud services.

Hosting service providers rent out their hardware servers and thus offer a high level of data security. Clouds, on the other hand, are less secure because they can be hacked more easily and their providers often have insight into the company’s data. In return, they offer almost unlimited storage space.

Cloud services such as Dropbox, Office365 or Slack stand for a complete data hosting service, which should be interesting for smaller start-ups because it requires less personal effort. Cloud platforms such as AWS or Azure, on the other hand, allow companies to organize their data flow themselves. On the other hand, an adaptable open source model is recommended for entire ERP programs that may occupy several servers.

The software is free, but support has to be paid for. If a company decides to use its own servers in the process of “making it self-employed”, it can use configuration management programs (external link) when setting up additional storage locations in the future. Software such as Ansible, Puppet or Chef bring the servers and network devices together and install updates automatically.

Whatever software and data storage a company ultimately uses – security is always the be-all and end-all. Loss of important programs and data or a hacker attack can cause serious financial losses, especially for young companies, which can cause difficulties for the company and quickly lead to its premature closure be able. A loss of customer confidence cannot be ruled out either. In this respect, it is essential to take the necessary security measures directly when setting up the IT systems.

All services and data should generally remain available everywhere at all times, which makes backups and redundancies mandatory. Backups enable a service to be restored quickly after a failure, while redundant systems continue to ensure the availability of a service even in the event of a partial IT failure. Whether a company sets up these backups itself or commissions external service providers to do so depends on its own know-how and the scope of the software.

The following applies to all purely internally managed systems and data:

  • Make sure you have up-to-date antivirus programs.
  • Secure passwords using appropriate management tools.
  • Secure Internet of Things devices.
  • keep the IT structure closed, i.e. do not use external USB sticks or free WLAN, for example.
  • It also helps to encrypt particularly sensitive data and at least to organize this as smartly as possible internally.

For example, information from accounting can be effectively processed using your own hardware using artificial intelligence (external link). In addition, the development and training of individual application systems can also be managed carefree in live mode with real data. For all external services such as outsourced servers or cloud systems, companies should check with the relevant providers in terms of security before signing a contract. With cloud hosters, for example, attention should be paid to companies that are based in Germany or at least in the EU and thus offer more data protection than global providers.

In addition to start-up grants, start-up loans and the like, special start-up help with IT can also be used when starting a new business. In the summer of 2020, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy launched the “Digitization Now” program not only for them, but also for small and medium-sized companies that have been in existence for some time.

In order to be able to survive the digital change, companies with up to 499 employees may apply to the Ministry for funding for the acquisition of new technologies and the corresponding training of employees.

In addition, the possibility of writing off technical means for young companies at the tax office should not be neglected. For example, the expenses for software, hardware or websites can be claimed according to the official depreciation tables of the Federal Ministry of Finance (external link). This is based on the progressive wear and tear of assets after acquisition, which enables tax relief with regard to the profit and loss account (P&L) in certain periods (tip: find a suitable tax advisor).