Do You Use a Business Dashboard?

Large corporations use business dashboards to track key indicators about the business. Business dashboards can give up-to-the-minute visibility into how the business is performing, with charts, tables and graphs.

Small businesses, however, usually cannot afford sophisticated business dashboards, except for the dashboard we have, say, in QuickBooks. There’s also the free MyBizHomepage that works together with your QuickBooks data to give you more intelligence. Those are great for what they do, which is manage key financial indicators.

But as someone who spends a lot of time online and who uses dozens of online applications (software-as-a-service, or SaaS) to manage certain functions and narrow slices of my business, I now have a growing need.

My need is to get access to lots of data and information and even charts contained in the Web applications I use.  Unfortunately, the information and charts are scattered all over the Web. It’s a nightmare just to keep track of all the different Web applications I use and the associated logins, let alone visiting the administration panels of those applications to check the data and charts in them. Some of the applications I review every few days, and some I review everyday or even several times a day.

In an article at the AppGap, I outline how I have cobbled together a rudimentary dashboard to run my business, using Netvibes. Here is an example of a page in Netvibes where I can manage intelligence culled from some of the many online applications I use (Statcounter and FeedBurner), via embedding widgets into a Netvibes page:

Netvibes business dashboard

You may also recall that recently I wrote about using Netvibes to manage social media accounts. Well, this is an extension of that same idea, but using Netvibes to also manage other business applications.

I think there’s a business opportunity for a company to come up with a simple dashboard app that serves as a gateway and access point to all these online software applications we increasingly are using — and the valuable data in them. And designed specifically for small businesses to use.

16 Comments ▼

Anita Campbell - CEO


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses, and also serves as CEO of TweakYourBiz.com.

16 Reactions

  1. Anita – I am so glad you brought this up. And here it would be difficult for me to hold myself from talking about the product that we make – inline with just the business opportunity that you talk about.

    Netvibes, Pageflakes, igoogle – all of them are extremely useful. Not only do they give you snapshots, depending upon the gadgets/flakes you can directly interact with the applications here. For example, you can read and respond to an email as opposed to just having a list of emails on a typical dashboard.

    We provide a web application for sending invoices and take online appointments. The user interface of application is designed in such a fashion that not only does it give you a complete snapshot of your business, you can also perform all the tasks and actions (like sending invoice, adding a new client, tracking time etc.) through the dashboard itself. As a matter of fact, the whole application is a desktop in itself. WE are in the process of adding a capability that will allow you to add other applications here as well, just like you do it on Netvibes. Check it out: http://www.simplifythis.com

  2. It is nightmarish isn’t it? Sanjay offered a nice solution and maybe you’ve inspired a budding entrepreneur to fill the demand . . .

  3. After your last article on Netvibes, I started using it for all of my bookmarking needs. I cannot begin to tell you how much time and effort it saves me on a daily basis. And to think I didn’t know anything like Netvibes even existed before your article. This is only one more great idea on how to use Netvibes to streamline your business. I’m wondering if anyone else has any great ideas on using Netvibes?

  4. Anita, thanks for posting this. You could not have described my situation better. I’m spending most of my “free” time searching for an SaaS application that is appropriate for my micro-biz clients. I keep trying “turnkey” apps but they fall short, either not providing I/O with QuickBooks Online Edition or being too complex for the client to handle. I’ll check out Netvibes. Thanks!

  5. I like your idea Anita. How hard would it be to establish a standardized dashboard for web businesses. I have a self-created one for internal stats and sales for my main web site. But I have several other business web sites. I also frequently check ranking on alexa.com. Monthly Adsense revenue. Monthly costs on Adwords, Yahoo, ask.com. How do my main keywords rank on google, yahoo? How many backlinks do I have on google, yahoo? Add the ability to graph this data over time and I’m sold.

  6. My company has a dashboard application that could meet the requirements you’ve listed here. We originally started it as a supply chain visibility dashboard, but we’ve added an SDK that lets you create new gauges using various scripting languages (Ruby, Groovy, JavaScript) or straight SQL. It also supports Google Gadgets out of the box. The only part we haven’t fully fleshed out is how to make it a pure SaaS application. Anything that’s already out on the net can be accessed easily enough but what about data that’s inside a firewall? It seems like for it to be generally useful, it would have to have access to internally hosted data. It may just be a matter of adding generic uploading of data, but the challenge is to keep it simple and not turn it into a custom integration effort for every customer. I’m interested in opinions.

    Brian Deterling
    http://blueskytech.com

  7. @Sanjay, thanks for pointing out the direction of your product. That sounds very promising and I look forward to learning more.

    @Danielle, glad to hear confirmation that I am not the only one with this need — I suspected others would but it’s good to hear. Just one clarification: Netvibes itself won’t let you pull in QuickBooks data. However, MyBizHomepage.com does. Netvibes just pulls in limited data from other Web applications, or it lets you log in to your other Web applications from within Netvibes. It saves time and makes it more convenient, but Netvibes is still a rudimentary solution. Better than nothing, though.

    – Anita

  8. This is a good idea Anita and it would make us more productive. At the moment I have set up a spreadsheet with graphs to bring all the important data together to give us a snapshot of the business. This includes keyword rankings, PPC etc. The only problem is that we still need to manually input the data.

  9. The internal start site for business and personal use, will be more and more personalized, flexible and in one place. The next thing, I think, will be a personalized public site, using these applications. My own homepage is made up with Pageflakes and I call it my bulletin board. I could change it easily during time and it will give the visitors a quick picture of what’s going in my life.

  10. I’ve been using Netvibes for a while and really get a lot out of it. But I am interested in seeing what simplifythis has to offer. Will be checking it out in the near future.

  11. Hey guys, there already are services out there. Wikipedia the term “mashups” and you’ll find some of them. Any custom draw together of multiple sites, feeds, sources is one, your own personal dashboard included. There are programming free mashup creation sites that make the process easy.

    Crystal

  12. Hi Crystal,

    You know, I tried Yahoo Pipes (which is a mashup engine, for anyone not familiar) but found that was not really what I had in mind. Mashup engines are great for pulling together multiple RSS feeds into one, or info from a few big sites like Flickr or Google Base, but I haven’t seen any that use dozens of pieces of data and graphs from the login areas of your business apps.

    Plus, apps like Pipes are not all that easy to use. I messed around for almost an entire afternoon and didn’t end up with anything I could use, whereas I spent 2 hours with Netvibes and had my entire “dashboard” put together.

    I hope that someday we will get to the point of being able to use mashup engines, as you suggest, but today I am not sure they can be used in the manner of a complete dashboard.

    Anita

  13. I found your post a Becky McCrays small biz survival site.

    The holy grail of dashboard, of course, has been that one that fully integrates with all your business areas; CRM, Sales, Financial, Operations, etc.

    However, 9 out of 10 times, that will be outside the possibilities of most small businesses. And, I don’t believe they are necessary…..

    Most business applications come with their own dashboard. My CRM/Sales system has a great dashboard that lets me keep track of that area. Ditto with my financial software. So, to get a good feel for my company I have to log into two systems…. This should be acceptable for most small or mid sized businesses.

  14. Both large and small organizations often view dashboards as what is needed to improve a business. In reality dashboard typically only address the output of a process or the “Y” in the relationship Y = F(x). Managing to the Y’s of a process can lead to firefighting and can be a significant drain on organizational resources. Long-lasting benefits to the “Y’s” of a process is made through systematic improvement to the x’s of the process; i.e., the process input and process execution.

    Dr. Lloyd S. Nelson has been quoted as saying, “If you can improve productivity, or sales, or quality, or anything else, by (e.g.,) five percent next year without a rational plan for improvement, then why were you not doing it last year?” That is, the simple setting of organizational goals using red-yellow-green or other scorecards throughout the organization – with no rational plan for improvement – can lead to much firefighting and sub-optimizations that can negatively impact other business-system parts and the enterprise as a whole. This can happen in both large and small organizations.

    What is needed is an analytical/innovation system that orchestrates work. This orchestration framework is provided in the Integrated Enterprise Excellence (IEE) governance system.

    IEE has a 9-step enterprise governance process framework for gaining long-lasting enterprise knowledge, which can lead to improvements that benefit the organization as a whole:
    • Step 1: Define vision and mission.
    • Step 2: Describe the current organizational value chain; i.e., organizational functions with their 30,000-foot-level operational and financial satellite-level metrics. Note, it is not only what you measure but how it is reported; e.g., bar charts and tables can lead to the wrong activities, including much firefighting.
    • Step 3: Analyze satellite-level and 30,000-foot-level metrics looking for improvement opportunities. Analyze the enterprise as a whole looking for constraints, improvement opportunities, and new product opportunities, which could include acquisitions or selling portions of the business.
    • Step 4: Establish SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, relevant, Time-based) goals that are consistent with the work from step 3.
    • Step 5: Create strategies from step analyses described in step three.
    • Step 6: Identify high potential areas and related 30,000-foot-level scorecard/dashboard metrics for focusing improvement efforts using goals and the value-chain process map to help guide the selection process.
    • Step 7: Select and execute projects that improve the process of doing business. This could be an iterative discovery Deming Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) process.
    • Step 8: Assess project completion impact on enterprise 30,000-foot-level metrics
    • Step 9: Maintain the gains
    • Repeat

  15. Thanks Anita, I hadn’t played with that one myself, so I appreciate the feedback. I’m hopeful that now the trend has started we’ll see some great developments in provision of engines as market forces apply pressure. Had you noticed freshmeat already has a project underway? http://freshmeat.net/projects/mashup/ I’m looking forward to playing with that and comparing it to netvibes…

    Crystal

  16. Great article! Our team uses Cyfe.com for our dashboarding needs. They’ve really taken ease of use and data source breath to the next level.

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