Startups can't ignore the importance of file management design

Great file management can be a valuable asset to an entrepreneur, while poor file management is a guaranteed perpetual nightmare.

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Whether your startup business is a solo operation or spanning multiple offices, you’re going to need to save and share data. And in order to do that effectively, you’ll need to design a good storage and management system that will enable you to save your business’s digital files in a way that’s safe, easy to access, and reliable.

New businesses have a lot on their plates, and it might be tempting to put off finding the right file solution — but building an organized and versatile file management system from the get-go is crucial. Just like with other systems like bookkeeping and accounting, a data file system that is well organized from the beginning will be an asset. But if you don’t tame the beast of unorganized data (lots of data), you’ll end up with a hodge-podge system that doesn’t work well across multiple computers, devices and servers, is overly complicated, and at best will cost your business time and at worst will lead to a catastrophic loss.

Key Goals

In order to find the right system for you and your team, take some time to outline what you’ll need most. While priorities vary from business to business, there are a few essential goals that any good file management system should meet.

The three core features of any file management system are ease of use, security and reliability. The priority of these will vary from business to business, but each of these aspects must be addressed when making a file management plan.

With ease of use, it’s important to consider who you’d like to be able to access your files and on what devices they might want to access them. Many companies benefit from sharing documents with contractors, vendors and customers, so factoring this into the design can create great value.

Also, think about all the devices on which your electronic documents can be stored and accessed: desktops, laptops, mobile devices, local servers and the cloud. You’ll likely want a solution that allows you to synchronize files among all those devices and makes remote access simple. That way you’re not tethered to one computer or even one office if you need to share, edit or move files. 

A system that is scalable but won’t become overly complicated as you grow should also be a goal. Which employees can open which files (“permissions”) also needs to be a factor; look for a system that allows you to manage access, and makes it easy to set permission levels for various types of employees to access the appropriate files. 

If your industry has specific encryption or security requirements (like healthcare, legal or banking), your file management system obviously needs to meet those requirements. Most cloud services offer some encryption, but they don’t typically block their own access to the data. This can be problematic for meeting rules like HIPAA, so be sure to take this into consideration.

Finally, losing business files because of a virus, theft, fire or some other natural disaster is the worst-case scenario. By building multiple backups, you can reduce the risk of this to a fraction of a percent. Be sure to include a backup for your backups in your design.

Tools to Get the Job Done

Not long ago, most data lived on local servers. While that’s still the case for larger, established companies, it’s no longer a good investment for startups. Local servers are not easily scalable, so as you grow and equipment becomes obsolete, servers become a liability rather than an asset. Local servers also require you to hire an IT expert for maintenance and updates, and they rarely include the features found with cloud services.

File hosting services, on the other hand, are scalable, offer remote access from multiple devices, and automatically back up and sync files. Some of the most popular include Dropbox, Box, Google Drive and OneDrive. If your entire business runs on Apple products, iCloud Drive might be an option too, but since the service isn’t available for Android, this isn’t advisable. iCloud Drive locks you out of an ecosystem that you may have a reason to want to incorporate in the future.

All of these services offer a free version, ranging from 2 GB (Dropbox) to 15 GB (Google). Paid plans start as low as $2 per month for some services — Google Drive (100 GB) and OneDrive (50 GB) — and range up for larger storage and business and enterprise plans. And all work with a variety of operating systems, including Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android. Dropbox, OneDrive and Box also support BlackBerry and Windows Phone and Dropbox also supports Linux and Kindle Phone.

All have their strengths and weaknesses. OneDrive, Microsoft’s storage solution, is built in to the Windows operating system, so it works well there but reviewers have noted that it sometimes puts files in the wrong folders.

Dropbox is very easy to set up, works well on a variety of operating systems and has well designed desktop applications. However, it was originally designed for personal use, which leads to some less than ideal tools for businesses, especially with regard to managing access. These tools are available through Dropbox for Business and improving, but they become a little harder to manage as the number of people using Dropbox increases.

Google Drive offers a lot of storage for a good price, and if you already have a Google account, you’re already in Drive. However, the system is better designed to be used with Google’s products rather than a true file sharing systems. The file syncing system requires extra steps and isn’t as reliable as competitors like Dropbox and Box.

Box is a feature-rich service designed for businesses rather than consumers — to get those features you’ll have to go beyond the free version and pay for a subscription — but all those features are best for larger groups that really need them to help manage a large number of files and folders.

Another thing to note about file hosting services is that the more files you include, the more RAM you’ll eat up on your computer. While you may only be using a fraction of the storage space you’ve paid for through the service, those files can make a dent on your hard drive’s RAM.

In addition to a file hosting service, you may also want to consider an online backup service like Carbonite or iDrive. Although file hosting services have built in backups, this is a failsafe in case something catastrophic happens.

Best Practices

Once you have the right file management provider, you’ll want to start off with a well-organized system so that as your files grow, you and your employees will be able to easily find what you’re looking for.

According to a 2008 survey by Gartner, Inc., 7.5 percent of all document get lost, and 3 percent get misfiled.

In order to avoid that fate, you’ll first want to create a folder structure that’s simple – and that someone from outside your company could easily understand — by coming up with a naming strategy that’s both simple and informative. Short names and abbreviations are fine, if the abbreviations are part of a company culture that everyone will understand. But if a name like WR.7.16 only makes sense to one person, it’s not going to do much good.

Building a good folder structure is also key. Some experts recommend starting with a generally named folder (“services”) and creating more specific sub-folders (e.g. “security,” “network monitoring”) within them. However, you don’t want to go sub-folder crazy and create folders within folders within folders.

For some industries like healthcare and financial services, there are regulations that determine how long certain data is kept. Even for unregulated businesses, it can be useful to clear out old and useless files to help systems run faster and free up space. Coming up with a retention strategy will help streamline decisions around archiving, removing, or editing certain files while they are being stored. One trick to make any system easier is to include dates (year first) at the start of all file names, so you can easily find and manage old files.

Security Considerations

Some of the same industries mentioned above also deal with extremely sensitive information. If this is the case for your startup, it may be worth investing in an encrypting tool to add an extra layer of protection against hackers. Tools like Boxcryptor, Sookasa and Cloudfogger are compatible with a variety of operating systems and file hosting services, and will encrypt your files on your computer before they’re uploaded to the cloud.

Passwords are another consideration when it comes to security. Once you’ve chosen a service to manage your data, you’ll want a strong one. Services like LastPass, Dashlane, and StickyPassword will store passwords for you so that you can use the strongest passwords — random combinations of letters, numbers, and characters — without having to remember them.

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