There you are, waiting for your third coffee of the day, a million ‘to-dos’ running through your head, and suddenly you hear the calm-looking guy in front of you say, “Yeah, I run my entire business from the cloud.” Somehow, he looks more organised, more streamlined, more everything than you—but is it all a big bluff? And what is this ‘cloud’ thing, anyway? Laurel Grey of Get Digital Flow in Sydney gives us a weather forecast.
“The reality of running your business in the cloud is that, eventually, you will have to get there,” says Laurel. “The even harsher reality is that the road to effectively running your business from the cloud might not be as straightforward as many IT gurus would have you believe.”
Laurel warns that it is easy to get carried away thinking that your business is going to earn you money 24 hours a day on complete autopilot with just a few cloud-based tools. Getting to that point takes months and years of dedication and time set aside to get things in motion specifically for your type of business.
“Before you start,” she says, “it’s good to have an ideal end-goal to work towards. Setting clear milestones—or bite-size chunks—is probably even more important. Work at implementing one piece at a time so that you have flexibility to change things later.”
That is not the information many IT gurus will have you believe. There are a lot of all-in-one solutions out there that look very tempting—solutions that will take care of all the systems you use—like customer relationship management, email marketing, web content management, accounting, file storage, calendar scheduling and appointment booking. A one package does it all philosophy.
But, “with the speed that cloud offerings are changing, it can be difficult for all-in-one solutions to catch up with the technological advances of dedicated software and apps that do one thing well,” says Laurel. So what does she recommend? “Choose the ‘best of breed’ solutions that do one thing well, and that can play nicely with others.”
Moving into the cloud one step at a time
- Start by looking at your most commonly used tools, usually email, calendars, contacts and file storage. These can all be grouped into one cloud-based service. Google Apps, Apple iCloud and Microsoft365 are the main players, and Oracle have recently announced they are coming to the cloud party in force.
- Once you have the basics down (or up!), start to add other solutions based on urgency. If you are losing track of leads, add a customer relationship management (CRM) system. If you are losing track of invoices and payments, ask your accountant about cloud accounting with Xero or Sassu.
- When you are checking out the solutions, month-to-month subscriptions will enable you to switch, add or remove services and products as, and when, you need to. Avoid getting locked into long-term contracts unless you are sure you have the best solution for your needs.
- To avoid incompatibility headaches, choose software that advertises openly that it plays nicely with other software you might want to use, or use already. The companies that partner with other market players are the ones gaining most traction, market share and staying power.
- Most importantly, check that the software offers you the ability to export or migrate your data. Any worthwhile solution should give you full control and ownership of your information—and it should be easy to download or move your data somewhere new.
What about security?
OK, so we do hear the ‘but’. ‘But what about security?’ You cry. Naked celebrity photos stolen from iCloud is one thing, but sensitive business data is another!
InfoWorld, a leading technology e-magazine, says, “For all the fear of the cloud, the fact is companies are routinely hacked, and many never even know it. In reality, your on-premises systems are not more secure than the cloud… Cloud providers can have people working 24/7 to improve security. They can also invest much more money into data security than any individual company can.” And, just to press the point, in recent scandals over celebrity photos, iCloud was not even hacked—its users were. People falling for phishing emails allowed the hackers to use their credentials to get in. This reinforces the reality that usually hackers get in through people, not the software.
So Laurel’s advice to start small and go for ‘best of breed’ will also, perhaps, show you that cloud computing is mature enough to be both functional and safe. You won’t necessarily be running your entire business from apps on your smartphone, but you will be less stressed and more in control of your business than you thought possible.
what does it
mean to be
in the cloud?
‘The cloud’ is the term now used in IT for anything you access beyond the firewall of your own network—basically any software, services and data that are not locally stored are ‘in the cloud’.
The cloud is particularly revolutionising the way we use, and pay, for software and services, and how we store data. No longer do you need to buy, for example, office software installations for all your office computers. You can buy monthly access to software for each user—and increase or decrease the number of users as needed—and it sits in the cloud. Your files are stored in the cloud but are shareable from every computer in your office.
Services like accounting are increasingly moving to the cloud to not only share data, but also to enable you to do all your accounting on the move and in real time—fully synced across your computer and smartphone, and with your bank and accountant.
Your contacts and calendar—and all those mental or notepad to-do lists—can also live in the cloud, again synced across all your devices and computers.
The best part of having your business in the cloud is that if your computer dies or you lose your phone, you don’t also lose your data or software. Your workflow is uninterrupted, and you can be up and running in no time the moment you replace your computer that died or phone you lost.
In a nutshell, the cloud—something that was, until only recently, the preserve of Fortune 500 companies with deep pockets—is now an enterprise solution for the masses and a valuable asset for small and large businesses worldwide.
7 best tools
1. Google Apps
Keep your email, contacts, calendar and files synced between your devices with this hosted email solution. $50/year per account. http://google.com/work/apps/business
Integrate this lightweight CRM with Google Apps and store important emails from leads with the click of a button.
US$12/month per account. https://capsulecrm.com
Kick start your email marketing system with up to 2,000 free subscribers and begin to segment your list to send out automated reminders. From $10/month for automation features. http://mailchimp.com
4. Wufoo Forms
Sign people up for events, collect feedback or run contests with fully embeddable forms that even dump the data straight into your CRM. Free for up to three forms.
Digitise your paper documents, business cards and receipts in the cloud. Shoeboxed scans and organises your receipts, invoices and documents securely online and pulls out the important data for export into Xero or a spreadsheet. From $16.95/month for 50 items. https://www.shoeboxed.com.au
6. Quote Roller
Get instant agreement from your customers on proposals with a digital signature on your quote that dumps directly into Xero. From US$14.99/month. http://www.quoteroller.com
Put your business and your finances on the front foot with leading accounting software Xero. From $25/month.