For the first time in my 15-year professional career, I am completely untethered to a PC. I can sit down at any computer connected to the Internet (including most mobile devices) and be equally “at home” in my work environment. I assumed this condition was made more likely because I’m in the online software industry. But as I began talking with our customers, who range from small manufacturing companies to nonprofits and marketing/PR firms, it became clear that going “all in” on the cloud is a growing trend among most small businesses.
Some common themes quickly emerged which illustrated this metamorphosis. I’ll use my customers’ experiences to tell the story.
1. The Full Team Is Distributed and External
A consistent feature of small businesses is our dependence on outside specialty resources. Most small businesses are a sum of full-time internal staff combined with external part-time or contract resources. It’s how we get things done efficiently and effectively. As an example, many small businesses outsources graphics production, website development, QA, accounting, video production and some product testing to external “team members” who work an average of one to four days per month for our company.
In the pre-cloud world, coordination and collaboration were big challenges in the distributed team model. Emails with attachments coupled with phone calls typically produced a “productivity tax” that made coordination time consuming and inefficient. Online tools have made it very easy to collaborate in real time, allowing everyone to literally be “on the same page”–but only if those tools are obviously helpful and easy for participants to use. If the cloud software is hard to adopt, it doesn’t matter that it is available anywhere—people will quickly default to their old way of doing things.
Currently available online collaboration tools have found their footing and distributed teams are now successfully stitching themselves together.
2. Application Marketplaces Provide Pre-Integrated Tools
The online tools themselves are improving adoption even more by stitching themselves together. Companies are avoiding investment in expensive projects and IT resources by subscribing to pre-integrated application marketplaces. The Google Apps Marketplace is one such option.
With only five full-time employees, each year Toronto-based Timeraiser coordinates 50 corporate partners, 350 charities, 6,500 volunteers, and 250 artists at events in eight cities served by 100 vendors. Coordinating this huge network of corporate partners, artists, volunteers and philanthropists demanded a technology solution that could coordinate a broad base of constituents through projects with a lot of moving parts across any mobile device. And all of the players in the extended network had to adopt the solution, without IT’s involvement. No small task.
Google Apps and the pre-integrated applications such as Smartsheet, Box.net, Salesforce and Echosign in the Google Apps Marketplace proved to be perfect answer. The single sign-on foundation and pre-integration of these coordinated applications made the Timeraiser motto possible without IT or deployment costs: Create information once, distribute it widely and make it accessible anywhere.
Now, Timeraiser embeds Smartsheet projects, Google spreadsheets and Box documents into the Timeraiser website, their partner websites, and all marketing and coordination emails. The familiar interfaces require no extra navigation and therefore no learning curve–which helps circumvent the classic technology adoption hurdle. For example, Timeraiser uses cloud technology to manage the entire board governance program.
3. An Opportunity to Simplify and Consolidate
Every small business is looking for ways to streamline operations. The cloud enables integrated applications to mix and match features into combinations that often enable simpler solutions.
LiquidConcrete is a medium-sized, Seattle-based manufacturer of high-performance concrete coatings and flooring systems for industrial and transportation markets. Before moving to the cloud, LiquidConcrete had tried numerous CRM, ERP and manufacturing solutions with varying degrees of success. As they moved their basic systems, like email and document management, to the cloud they began to discover that it was possible to simplify many of their internal software systems.
LiquidConcrete models most of their processes into three basic tools–Google Apps, Quickbooks and Smartsheet–using Quickbooks for accounting, Google Apps for email and calendar, and Smartsheet for online project management and simple CRM.
Many small businesses start small by experimenting with broad-based cloud applications, such as Google Docs. With the expansion of cloud applications, even features like Gantt charts, typically thought of as synonomous with the desktop, are now available in a sophisticated, easy-to-use format online. Typically, over a period of time, usage of new cloud applications will continue until a tipping point occurs where everything is possible online. The improvement of online marketplaces like Google Apps, which offers pre-integrated solutions, is making it even easier for small businesses to start small and expand operations to the cloud. Pretty soon, the local PC, server or application becomes the inconvenient or undesirable approach. The good news is it’s easy to start small, risk little and still come out on the cloud.