Cloud computing stock photo by Shutterstock
You may have noticed something in the past several years — a certain word overtaking the business blog-o-sphere. It’s called The Cloud, and it’s popular for a reason. Cloud computing is one of the easiest and most powerful ways any small business can cut costs and save on infrastructure.
Before we go into the deeper whys and hows of this, it’s important to have a clear understanding of just what the cloud is. For starters, we recommend taking a peruse through this excellent cloud computing guide, which provides a clear and simple visual explanation. At its most basic level, you can think of the cloud as a massive network of pooled servers. When you use the cloud, you’ll be storing your data on these servers rather than on a proprietary server, an external hard drive, or your own laptop, and you’ll access your data via the Internet. This makes for a much more seamless, mobile and collaborative way of working. And because you can download much of what you’ve stored on the cloud, you’ll still be able to work in the old way when you want to as well.
Let’s take a look at a few ways the cloud can apply directly to the small business setting.
Sales and Marketing
Chances are, you’ve got a way of tracking customer response to sales and marketing efforts. You also probably have a way of determining just where potential customers are in the sales funnel, and what your salespeople are doing to push them along. But it’s rare to find a CRM that combines all of these efforts into one, easily accessible, low-maintenance place. Not so with Salesforce, which tracks and analyzes customer behavior, providing insights that power more relevant marketing efforts and, with paid versions, even will determine the best Google keyword strategies for you. All of this happens in a centralized area that enables customer service representatives to operate on multiple channels, marketers to tap into social conversation, and much more. This is a great example of the kind of software that used to be cost-prohibitive to small businesses but that’s now well within reach thanks to the pooling of infrastructure resources.
Time, Task, and Project Management
Many of today’s small businesses rely on remote workers or contractors to get things done. This has many benefits, but it can also lead to difficulty keeping track of just who is doing what. Cloud-based project management apps like Basecamp are a great way to address this problem, enabling users to create project boards with tasks, assign roles to collaborators, establish due dates with reminders, and keep track of just who is doing what. Remember the Milk is a simpler but free task management list that can be quite effective as well, as can a simple shared Google Doc (discussed below) with a bulleted list.
Time is also important to track when using freelancers, though it can be difficult to get accurate measurements. The cloud-based app, Toggl, is a great replacement for timesheets, allowing employees to measure activities down to the second, and easily assign them to a project. This information is then sent to invoicing software, which should ensure quicker and more accurate billing.
Backup, Storage and Collaboration
One of the biggest benefits of cloud computing is that it centralizes data from across an organization. With more and more workers operating remotely and on a diversity of smart phones, laptops and tablets, that’s a good thing. One of the best options out there is the Google suite of products, hosted on Google Drive. The suite has file types that closely mirror Microsoft Office, with the key difference that these files will be stored on the cloud. This allows for instant saving, anytime access, and easy collaboration, as multiple users can edit and comment on files at once, eliminating the need to compile feedback into any single document. Should they feel the need, users could even co-edit while on a Skype call, pointing to problem areas in real time.
Google Drive also works great as a backup solution, as does Dropbox. Both of these apps install a folder onto your hard drive, and instantly sync changes to files you have stored there so you’ll never have to think about it. This is a much more convenient and effective solution than backing up to an external hard drive, as they are often lost, damaged, stolen, or simply forgotten. Paid services like Mozy and Carbonite won’t sync instantly, but they will backup at regularly scheduled intervals, so from a user experience perspective, they’re just as easy to use.
Except for accountants and bookkeepers (and maybe not even them), no one enjoys taking on top of administrative financial tasks. Too often, that means these essential tasks are procrastinated, making for a big hassle when it’s finally time to get around to them. Cloud-based finance apps like Xero reduce this pain with instant accessibility to an unlimited amount of a small business’ users. This makes it easy for, say, a technician to enter mileage for a job right after it’s completed, or a salesperson to enter an expense while on the road. Overall, a cloud-based finance app will reduce data entry bottlenecking…and excuses for not getting things entered.
For small businesses, the cloud is an effective way not only to lower costs but also to scale in the future, as you need only buy service and space appropriate for your business in its current state. That’s not even considering the increased revenue you may gain by being more efficient and productive. So stop fearing the cloud, and start signing up for services.