Email for Your Small Business
Having email for your small business is nearly as important as having a website. In fact, in some ways, it may even be more important. And just like it looks really bad to your customers to have your website show up as mycompany.wordpress.com instead of www.mycompany.com, it is fairly unprofessional to have your email address as email@example.com as opposed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Most hosting solutions can provide some form of email for your domain (some of them even for free) but today I am going to recommend an even better service - Google Apps mail.
My business email has been with Google Apps Standard Edition (free, with a few very minor limitations over their Premier Edition) since day one, and this past weekend, I just moved over my personal domain’s email to it as well. I had been using Microsoft Exchange for the past several years, and while I absolutely love Exchange, for a small business (or individual, as the case may be) it doesn’t really make much sense. Here’s why:
- Exchange administration is hard. It is definitely something that can be learned, and I have learned a lot about it over these last few years, but I haven’t even scratched the surface of what it is capable of, and I doubt I ever will because it really isn’t something that interests me. I am definitely not an Exchange expert nor do I want to be. If I really wanted to take advantage of Exchange, I would need to hire an Exchange admin, which is a significant cost.
- Exchange is a resource hog. I have one server right now. It is running Exchange as well as my websites (and their back-end SQL servers). A large company is going to have separate servers for each of these functions, and probably multiple for each, but even three servers is well out of my budget right now and a single server is beyond what most small businesses will want to deal with.
- All you really need is email (and maybe a calendar). Exchange provides a lot more functionality than you really need if you are a small business.
- Exchange spam filtering isn’t great. I know that it has improved in Exchange 2007, but it still doesn’t do a very good job, and it is really hard to figure out (see my first bullet point). On my old server, I used SpamAssassin in conjunction with Exchange, and that worked pretty well, but without spending a ton of time administering that as well, it still was only adequate. The only other solution is a spam filtering piece of hardware, which is neither cheap nor trivial to set up and administer. I was relying on the client-side spam filtering of Outlook to get me through the day, which is less than ideal. Google Apps mail has amazing spam filtering. When I didn’t have Outlook running (using just my webmail or phone), I would easily get 80-100 spam messages in my inbox each day. In a week since switching, I haven’t gotten any with Google Apps.
Another reason that I moved to Google Apps is that the iPhone only allows a single Exchange email account, and my wife needs to use that for her work email. Switching over to Google Apps means that she can take better advantage of her iPhone, which makes her much happier with it. Doesn’t really have much to do with running a small business, but keeping my wife happy definitely makes running my small business easier.
The biggest advantage of Exchange is the superior integration with the absolute best email client out there – Microsoft Outlook. I have tried all of the alternatives, and I always end up back at Outlook because nothing can even compare. In fact, that’s why I went with Exchange to begin with. However, other email services can be set up in Outlook to varying degrees of success, and Google Apps mail is one of the systems that works pretty well. The only flaw with it is that the Delete key doesn’t actually delete the email, so you need to instead move your items to the Google mail “Trash” folder to delete them.
Exchange web access is also the most amazing webmail client out there, as long as you are using Internet Explorer. But Google Apps mail uses the same interface as Gmail, which is still a pretty amazing webmail client.
Setting Up Google Apps Mail
If you do not currently have email for your own domain, you need to get it set up. Google Apps makes the process incredibly simple. Once you sign up at http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/group/index.html, they have a tutorial to guide you through the entire process. However, there are a few things that you should have ready before you get started, to make the process move as smoothly as possible:
- Your own domain name. I use GoDaddy for my domain registrations because they are cheap and very reliable for that service.
- A hosting company for your website. GoDaddy also has website hosting, but I cannot comment on their quality because I host my own sites. I do use No-Ip.com for my dynamic DNS setup.
- Subdomain that you want your webmail to be accessible at. For example, you may want to use mail.mycompany.com or webmail.mycompany.com. This gets set up as a CNAME record to redirect you to the Google Apps mail once it is set up.
- Access to the administrative section of your website host and your domain registration company. You will need to be able to update settings in one or both of these to get your mail set up correctly. For me, I needed to enter both the MX records (which tells the domain what server to direct any emails to) and the CNAME record for my webmail location on No-Ip’s site. Google Apps provides step-by-step instructions for a large selection of prominent hosts as well as generic instructions if your hosting company is not listed explicitly.
If you have all of this information available and ready to go, setting up your email with Google Apps is pretty simple, and their instructions are very easy to follow, so I am not going to go over it step-by-step here. If you have any problems doing this, I can answer any questions left in the comments below.
Moving to Google Apps for Email
If you already have email set up for your domain with another solution, you need to take a few more steps to move things over. First, you are going to want to have your emails backed up in a location where you can get them and move them to Google (or at least access them later on). The easiest way is to have all emails downloaded into your desktop mail client and stored locally. With Outlook (and Outlook Express/Windows Mail), the way to do this is with personal folders (.pst files).
You are going to need to take inventory of all email addresses currently set up on your domain. You will need this because you will have to manually create new accounts in Google Apps. You want to make sure that you create all of these accounts before you switch anything over on your hosting company’s site, so no emails are lost in transition. In my case, there was almost no delay from when I switched over to when my emails were being received, but depending on your host, there could be some delay, so doing things in the right order is vital to make sure that you don’t lose something important.
Once you have switched over your email to use Google, you can then use the Google Email Uploader to move all of your old email to your new Google Apps account. This needs to be done for each individual email address you have for your company, so it can be a little time-consuming. The application is also fairly slow running, so you may just need to let it run on your computer for a few hours and come back to it.
Google Apps Provides More Than Email
Google Apps is not just an email service. The Standard Edition also provides contact management, calendars (both individual and shared), a document repository (using Google Docs) and the ability to create and host your site on Google’s servers. If you don’t already have a website set up (and you should), this last item can provide a great solution to that problem, as long as you are just looking for an informational site that allows you to easily update your content.
As a small business owner, you don’t need the power of something like Exchange, and you definitely do not need the hassle of administering an email system (Exchange or anything else out there). This is where Google Apps comes in. It is really easy to set up and requires almost no effort afterwards to maintain. Even if you don’t want to use Google Apps for your email, as a small business owner, the most important thing to remember is that you really need email and it really needs to be an email at your own domain, not a free domain like aol.com or gmail.com.