Organization is a huge part of competing well in the game of business but often times small business owners don’t have the foggiest idea of how to approach organizing their information. If a boxed solution such as Quickbooks will work for you great, if you need a bit more flexibility there may be a better solution. In my opinion the best database software for small business is Microsoft’s Access. In terms of availability, usability, and flexibility MS Access can be everything you need at a reasonable price.
The purpose of a database is to store and retrieve information. That may not sound like much of a task but the complexity and volume of information you will need to call upon grows exponentially. Customer information, order information, or product/service information may all need to be recorded and called upon in a moment’s notice. Without a properly designed database it simply is not possible.
Word to Excel to Access
Many business owners find themselves sorting through growing spreadsheets or complex word documents when they really should be in a database environment. The Microsoft product suit is so common place that its tools are generally the first ones used when starting up a small business. Each product has its place and can be powerful but only when used within the scope they were designed to accommodate. I mention this because it is really easy to exploit Excel or Word to the point that one really should use a database. If you can think of a spreadsheet like table a database is simply a collection of interrelated tables. That is not truly what a database is but it will provide you with a way to think of them.
As I mentioned the majority of small businesses use the Microsoft office suit so joining the band wagon may not be that bad of an idea. Access can easily import and export to Excel which may make data acquisition a bit easier for some of you. I have one instance in which a customer provides me with a spreadsheet of all the parts they want and I simply run the list against my database to provide the quote. In the last year alone this one application has saved me at least 40 hours of work.
Ease of Use
Access itself is actually not a formal database program. It actually emulates a database environment within a single file. This has its pros and cons but the biggest pro is its ease of use. Microsoft recognized early on that exploiting a database and making it easy to use are two separate problems. Their solution, a database like environment the acts as a database but provides the user with the tools that will allow them to do what they want. The built in functions and wizards walk a user through the building process of a query without having the user develop code. The down side to this is that the system is not as robust as say a full out SQL environment but unless your organization is huge that shouldn’t matter.
One of the greatest uses of Access is using it to account for your product or service in the way you use your product or service. By this I mean you can tailor solutions specifically to your needs. As a small business you fundamentally are required to have a unique approach to providing your product or service and boxed programs often don’t have the flexibility to create the solutions you need. If they do they generally require expensive add-ons. It is really easy to run a cost sheet for example that accounts for all of your variables and provides an exact estimate that you can provide your customer. This can play a large part into your competitive advantage.
Access Can Support Multimillion Dollar Organizations
While not advisable Access can be used to carry companies that have sales in the 10s of millions of dollars. I know this because I have seen it, more than once. Businesses can start small, build a custom solution in access, and simply scales it as the organization grows. There is a cap to the size and complexity that an Access database should reach but if properly approached Access can be exploited to support rather large businesses. Access is also extremely limited when it comes to multiple user environments.
Segway into SQL
Access does what it does by leaning on SQL logic. SQL is the structured query language platform that operates as an enterprise level standard for databases. Behind each query in Access it is possible to open the hood and see the SQL statements that cause the functionality. This means the option to step up to a full SQL system always exists. Access can be used to bend and flex with your organization in the early days without incurring huge development costs and when the organization finds its rut the step to SQL can be made.
Availability, Usability, Cost
All in all Access is a great solution for small businesses because it offers the usability to the non tech guru at a cost well within reason. Additionally you may already be sitting on a seat of Access if you purchased the MS Office Pro suit. Access has its short comings but for the small business owner it offers a great place to start without requiring much more knowledge than what is needed to run MS Word or Excel.