By Michael Griffin
Michael Griffin is an avid user and creator of cloud-based applications as well as a firm believer in the benefits of a virtual business. As the president and CEO of ClientLook (www.clientlook.com) he is involved in the development of leading Internet CRM, project management and social networking systems. Michael can be reached at (949) 436-6676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are not running your business “in the cloud,” chances are you are spending more time and money on technology and hardware than you should be. These days there are simple, cost-effective cloud-based alternatives for most of the tools you use routinely—everything from your phone system to CRM—and they work well. That makes it very feasible to run a “virtual” business; and it is easier than you might think. So get going with reduced costs and improved efficiency by embracing the cloud.
What is “The Cloud”?
“The cloud” is simply a metaphor for the Internet. The cloud refers to the collection of computing, storage and networking resources available online and on-demand, via a computer or mobile device. In the cloud there are many reliable business tools and services that can play vital roles in your business. It is estimated that 69% of the business world is using some form of cloud computing today.
The Gathering Cloud
Not long ago, using Internet-based software was a real compromise. While it sounded like a great idea, in practice the software was often slow and did not feature the familiar desktop experience most of us knew and loved. So instead of doing business with Web-based tools, business owners invested heavily in servers, hard drives and personal computers, and paid for in-house or outsourced IT staff to maintain it all.
Now this reliance on internal hardware infrastructure has become outdated, and the Internet is the place to be. A 2010 Gartner study estimates that the market for cloud computing services will grow from about $46 billion in 2008 to more than $150 billion in 2013. Cloud applications can be easier to implement, offer greater reliability, and come with almost none of the inefficiencies that are part of the desktop software and hardware world. In fact, more than half the people who use cloud-based applications are believed to have made the choice based on ease of use and convenience. Cloud computing just makes sense.
Your Business Should Come to You
I believe that business systems should come to you, not the other way around. High-tech virtual business professionals can be productive anywhere; they are not anchored to a specific desk or location. They work equally effectively on the road, from home, or at the office. In fact, offices are becoming less necessary, as is the need for huge hardware infrastructure investments. Inexpensive pay-as-you-go online systems are leveling the playing field and allowing everyone to use the same technology that major players use.
Moving your business to the cloud comes with a learning curve, but there are many reasons to study up. The shift from desktop software to online tools is happening because the new business model offers many benefits. For example, since we no longer need to own computer hardware for many of the services we use, we have less need for expertise in hardware infrastructure, so we can save money on equipment and IT services and put it towards operational expenses. And we can expect productivity to increase as we allow employees to connect and work from anywhere.
There is real value in freeing ourselves from our old desktop software and hardware ways. And while you may not be able to take the plunge all at once, you can get started by using a few simple strategies.
Five Strategies for Getting Started
My advice is that you begin by reviewing all your software and hardware systems to see if there are cloudbased alternatives. The options offered here are by no means exhaustive; with a little digging, you can find the best choices for you.
1: Simplify Your Phone System
There are very capable online services that offer highly professional systems for connecting employees anywhere, while eliminating telephone PBX hardware. These services typically charge a monthly fee that starts at $9.95 and goes up, depending on things like the number of extensions you need, the amount of incoming calls you expect, and other features. Check out Grasshopper (www.grasshopper.com), RingCentral (www.ringcentral.com), and VirtualPBX (www.virtualpbx.com).
#2: Reduce Travel and Expand Reach
The Internet is a great medium for interactive online presentations through Web conferencing systems. You can reduce travel costs and increase productivity. Some services include multi-point video conferencing, while others can be scaled to accommodate up to 1,000 attendees! Before you book that next business trip, try out one of the available Web conferencing options. All of them offer a free trial, and you will even find some that are free of monthly charges. Others start at around $49 per month. Look for discounts for an annual commitment. Examples are GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com), WebEx (www.webex.com), and Mikogo (www.mikogo.com).
#3: No More Faxing
Despite the migration of most businesses to a more paperless work flow, there are some people who still need to fax documents. No problem. You can send and receive faxes in the cloud without the need for a fax machine or a dedicated fax line. The services below provide you with a personal fax number in an area code of your choice, or even a toll-free number. Your number accepts incoming faxes and delivers them to you via e-mail in PDF format. You can even send documents to a fax machine to accommodate those people who have not quite caught up with your level of technical expertise. You can start for as little as $10 per month. Take a look at eFax (www.efax.com), MyFax (www.myfax.com), and RingCentral (www.ringcentral.com).
#4: Outsource Your E-mail
If you are maintaining a Microsoft Exchange server or using any other kind of e-mail system that requires local hardware, you could be in store for some real savings. There are terrific hosted solutions that allow you to completely outsource your e-mail while still maintaining your company’s domain. The transition will be seamless to your employees, and your e-mail recipients will not know the difference. You can enjoy world-class virus protection, consistent uptime, and much more for a cost starting at around $50 per year. Check out Yahoo Small Business (http://smallbusiness.yahoo.com), Businessemail.net (www.businessemail.net), and Google Apps (www.google.com/apps).
#5: Do Business Anywhere
Imagine having contact information, e-mails, meeting notes and documents available online, and being able to find and update your information instantly. That is what you get these days with a Web-based customer relationship manager (CRM). They are fast, scalable and allow your employees to work anywhere. There is a wide range of features and capabilities available, so spend some time analyzing your needs so you choose the right one. Look for a CRM solution that integrates with your mobile devices, offers social networking, or even lets you collaborate on projects with clients. These start around $30 per month, depending on the features you need. Consider the following leading applications: Salesforce.com (www.salesforce.com), Highrise (www.highrisehq.com), and ClientLook (www.clientlook.com/clientlook-crm.html).
Putting It All Together
There are some simple things to keep in mind as you explore the world of cloud-based business services.
Following these suggestions can help ensure that your transition is successful:
-Do not overbuy. It is easy to do when services come cheap. Enjoy the savings.
-Use a mobile device that allows you to connect with your cloud-based apps. Do not expect everything, but look for
the basics for times when the Internet is not available.
-Choose tools that integrate with each other; it makes life so much easier.
-Minimize major hardware investments. Put that money into Internet software licensing, or maybe into
purchasing an iPad. Have some fun going virtual!
-Challenge yourself to implement as many of these suggestions as possible over the next 60 days. The sooner you
start, the sooner you will save.