Mail for Small Businesses

R2D2 Mailbox
photo by JoshBerglund19, used by permission under Creative Commons

This one comes up occasionally from business owners:

What should I use for email for my small business?

The answer to this depends on the size of your business, and what you need your email to do. Let’s start with a couple of questions:

  • Do you have more than ten employees?
  • Do you need to be able to share calendars and contacts?

If you answered “no” to both of these, then you will probably be able to use a free solution.  Google Apps, for example, is free for small businesses that don’t need the ability to sync information between employees—in fact, it allows shared calendars and contacts provided that you are willing to use the web application and don’t need something like Outlook.

If you have more than ten employees, but you don’t need to share calendars and contacts, then you’ll want to find an IMAP solution from someone.  IMAP is one of the two major standard email protocols, the other being POP.  The reason that IMAP is better than POP is that the former keeps all of your mail stored on your server in addition to your local computer, while the latter deletes mail from the server once you download it. Additionally, IMAP syncs all of your information about read emails and sent items—even if you configure a POP account not to delete messages, none of that extra data is sent.  This means that with POP, you risk losing important information—up to and including all of your email—if your local hard drive dies, or if someone steals your laptop.  With IMAP, all you need to do is to plug your account info into a new device, and all of your email is automatically downloaded, just the way it was when you left it.

IMAP solutions are usually available for around $2/month.  One well-known provider is Rackspace, but you should check with your web hosting service or ISP if you have them to see if they offer any deals.

If you do need to share calendars and contacts, then we have to ask another question:

  • Do you have more than thirty employees?

If you’ve under thirty people who need individual email accounts, then you should look into a hosted Exchange or Exchange-like solution.  Or, if you have more employees, but you are an educational or not-for-profit institution, you should definitely go with one of these, because it will be free to you.  For-profit enterprises can expect to spend around $5/month for these accounts.

Exchange is Microsoft’s email server, and while my friends in the open source community may disagree, along with Microsoft’s Outlook client, Exchange Server is the most feature-rich and easy-to-manage email environment.  Other providers, like Google Apps for Business or for Education, have developed Exchange-like solutions that mimic its functions, and in some cases introduce new functionality.  Compare and contrast Google’s offering with Microsoft’s own Office 365.  If you’d like premium setup and support, App River provides an excellent service.

If you do have more than thirty employees, you may find it more cost-effective to run your own email server, for which I would generally recommend implementing an Exchange Server or Windows Small Business Server (which includes Exchange).  You will want to partner with a local technology consulting firm, if not hire your own IT professional to do the implementation.  You will spend more money up front, but you should save money in the long-term.  However, keep in mind that the break-even point keeps getting higher and higher in terms of the number of mailboxes, and that there are dozens of even large, institutional clients who find hosting their mail more convenient and ultimately cheaper.  You’ll want to do a cost-benefit analysis before making any decisions if you’re in this range.