Doing Real Business in the Cloud, part 4

Clouds

If you’ve followed along for the last six months, I’ve covered the basics of running one or more chunks of your business in the cloud, from sales presentations to accounting to customer relationship management. Maybe you’ve looked at a few of these services but haven’t yet made the leap to any of them. That’s fine. This month, I’m going to wrap up the series with an overview of smaller, more digestible services that might reasonably lure just about any business owner to the cloud.

These little nuggets of cloud goodness might be the best way to step gingerly into the world of things that exist beyond your hard drive. They’re simple services that are easy to set up, inexpensive or free to operate, and present relatively little risk of interrupting the way you do business. Trying them out shouldn’t cause you much consternation or pain. Just toss them if they don’t work for you.

The Google Bonanza

Google is still the king of free cloud goodness, and while their entire ecosystem of services (most of which, to be clear, use your personal information in some way to sell you advertisements) can be overwhelming – any company that has a menu bar that says “More” and then another one under that that reads “Even More” might need to cut back a little – they offer a couple of cloud nuggets that might be of good use to a business owner:

  • Calendars: Google’s shared calendar has what you’d expect in a cloud-based service – simple sharing with other users, either directly (so multiple users can edit the calendar) or indirectly (allowing users to subscribe to calendars). The former is an excellent tool for coordinating schedules, but if you can’t get everyone in your office to agree on anything, the latter is a fine tool for letting everyone else know what you’re doing. Just tell them to subscribe to your calendar – all you have to do is send them the link.

For business owners, Google’s calendar includes a sweet “embed” feature that allows you to take a calendar and put it in a website. If you do events, trade shows or anything of the sort, an embedded Google calendar is a neat shortcut to getting current information on your website. Just grab the embed code using “Embed this Calendar” (available in Calendar Settings) and drop it into a page or widget area on your website. Your embedded calendar stays up to date, all the time.

  • Drive: Google recently consolidated its office suite (word processing, presentations, spreadsheets) under the umbrella of Google Drive, which also includes Dropbox-like file storage. Drive works similarly to Dropbox on your computer; it looks like another folder or drive, and anything you put there is available in short order on the other devices you share with, like your phone or tablet.

If you’re already running Gmail or Google calendar, then Drive is a no-brainer – it’s right there in the same menu, and Google has actually set up Drive to share your overall storage allocation with Gmail. And if you’re just looking for an alternative to Dropbox, Drive is a relative bargain, as the free space is bigger and the upgrades are cheaper.

Moving Projects Online

If you do any kind of project management – most businesses have projects and processes that can benefit from formal project management – you should consider moving your project management into the cloud. Like customer relationship management, overseeing projects is something that positively screams for online sharing and collaboration. A project without good communication isn’t really a project; it’s a mess. What online collaboration tools lack in complex schedule and resource management, they make up for in simplicity and ease of communication. You’ll gleefully forget the days of Microsoft Project after you try a few of these:

  • Basecamp: Probably one of the most popular project management tools around, Basecamp strips project management down to tasks, calendars, documents and conversations. You lose the complex milestone and dependency management of dedicated tools, but now everyone can participate and see where they are. That means less “management” and more work done. Alternatives: Podio, Zoho, Asana.
  • Yammer: If you can suspend your (very reasonable) disbelief for a moment and imagine a social networking-style model that is actually useful for business, you’ve got an idea of what Yammer and similar services offer. Essentially a live feed of what your company is doing, Yammer is a powerful tool for companies with employees that wear many hats. You’re always letting your colleagues know what you’re working on, and they may offer up help or ask you questions about it. It’s a sort of always-on water cooler conversation, but while you’re working. It may be distracting for some companies, but for others (especially geographically dispersed teams) these tools can be a godsend.

In fact, if you use a cloud-based CRM (customer relationship management) service, you’ll find that many of them are incorporating Yammer-like features into their system so that managers and salespeople can quickly see what their colleagues are working on. Salesforce offers their Chatter service (a service very similar to Yammer) for free as part of their package. Alternatives to Yammer or Chatter: Hipchat, Podio, Campfire.

Keeping Safe

Finally, for the business owner that wants peace of mind, there are a slew of cloud services to help you keep your stuff safe. From device location to offsite backups, here are a few services worth considering to aid your restful nights:

  • Find my Phone: Apple was the first out of the gate with a popular device location service, and now it’s expanded to any device you have registered with their cloud service (iCloud). You can locate your iPhone, iPad, laptop or desktop Mac from any other device using this service. If you or one of your employees lose a phone or tablet, you can remotely lock the device, send a message to the device, or even securely erase it if it falls into the wrong hands. Smartphones and tablets are rapidly taking over the business world, but they’re also prime targets for theft. Remote location services can help cut your losses when one of your devices winds up in the wind. Alternatives: Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry all offer similar services.
  • Evernote: Most (sane) business owners agree: paper filing is a drag. While there are numerous cloud-based services out there for storing notes and miscellaneous information, Evernote is the full-featured king of the mountain when it comes to eliminating paper from your life. With its built-in optical character recognition and PDF storage, Evernote is the place you can keep all those wayward receipts, sales orders and quotes. They’re searchable and synced across all your devices. Need to pull up that expense receipt you scanned a year ago? Just search for it and it’s there. With complementary services like Shoeboxed, you can actually ship your paperwork off in the mail and have it all accessible in Evernote within a few days.
  • Cloud Backup: It’s been a year or two since I talked about online backup, and the services have only gotten better – not to mention cheaper. The cost of cloud storage is so low now that backing up your critical files offsite is a no-brainer. Every business owner knows you need to keep backups, and offsite backups are the only way to truly protect against disaster. Take your pick: Carbonite, Mozy, Crashplan – they’re all reliable, inexpensive and they get your critical data backed up offsite. Don’t wait for something bad to happen. Do it now.

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

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Doing Real Business in the Cloud

Clouds and wing viewed from an aircraft windowYou’ve undoubtedly heard tech geeks (like yours truly) wax enthusiastically about the virtues of “the cloud” or, more specifically, “cloud computing.” Part legitimate game-changer and part meaningless abstraction, the concept of doing things “in the cloud” may mean little more to you than another impressive-looking IBM commercial that interrupts the otherwise endless stream of beer ads during a football game. The internet, that thing that we variously call a distraction engine, mankind’s savior, or a series of tubes, is abstract enough to begin with. Why do we need fuzzy metaphors to render it even more nebulous?

The thing is, the concept of cloud computing does have an underlying meaning that might be useful if anyone outside the insular world of nerds and geeks actually understood it. At its most elemental level, the cloud is just a place other than your computer where computer-y things happen – processing, storing files, serving up videos. That’s nothing new; remote computing – or, taking the load off the computer you’re sitting in front of and moving it somewhere else – has been around nearly since the dawn of computing, since mainframes wouldn’t exactly fit under your desk.

Most of what we do on the internet is sent to us from elsewhere, which is sort of the point of this whole internet thing – connectedness. You don’t want 100 million YouTube videos on your hard drive (trust me on this one). So when people talk about “cloud computing,” it can be especially confusing because, really, most of what you see in your web browser or email program is living somewhere else. (True nerds will scoff at my lack of distinction between regular infrastructure and cloud infrastructure; go back to Reddit and quiet down.) So, the next time one of your customers corners you on the fairway and asks if you’re using the cloud for your business, what the heck should you say?

I’m here to help. I’m going to spend the next few posts discussing practical uses of the cloud for every single business owner. We’ll get past the most obvious manifestation of working in the cloud – document sharing (yes, it’s great) – and talk about how to use the cloud for things that really matter, like closing sales and securing your data. In fact, this month I’m going to dive straight in to the sometimes-prickly subject of presentations. That’s right – let’s talk about Powerpoints.

Slide Into It

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with slide presentations – if you’ve ever sat through a bad one, it’s tempting to blame the format itself for the boredom, anger, slumber or outright nausea that it caused. Mostly, though, a poor presentation is the fault of the speaker or the person that created it. The format itself is a succinct, visual method for communicating ideas (or reinforcing spoken concepts) that is still in wide use for one primary reason: It works.

I’m not going to tell you how to create good presentations (although, in my experience, using on-screen explosions can work wonders), but it’s important to remember that, in one way, a presentation is like a camera – the best one is the one you have with you. If your sales presentations are stuck on a desktop computer and you’re on your laptop, or they’re stuck on laptop and you’ve only got your tablet, they’re not going to do you much good. And, if you just ate a particularly incredible pastrami sandwich and were struck with (before the heartburn) the three remaining key benefits you need to elucidate in order to close the Henderson deal this afternoon, how awesome would it be to add those directly from your smartphone or tablet that you’ve got with you? Put down the mustard and let’s talk.

The Players

Keeping your presentations in the cloud has many of the same benefits as sharing any document in the cloud – you can have other users access or edit them, you can get to them wherever you have internet access, and you’ll always have the latest version. But cloud presentation software can also eliminate the need for, well, software itself. The folks at Microsoft hate to hear this, but (in addition to other passable, open-source alternatives to Office itself), Google gives away a pretty darn good presentation creation tool as part of its own Google Docs offerings. The whole thing lives in the cloud – the application is presented in your web browser, and the document storage (you can store word processor docs and spreadsheets as well) live on something now called Google Drive, which is probably what most people think of when they hear “cloud” – a big hard drive in the sky.

With Google’s presentations, you can build, edit and present your killer, deal-closing slide deck on your computer, your tablet, or even your smartphone. Change a few lines over lunch on your tablet and those changes will be right there when you load it up on your laptop in the conference room. When inspiration hits, you’ll be able to act on it immediately. (Of course, I’m assuming you have internet access – if you don’t have internet access for all your devices, cloud computing is by definition not for you.)

Google’s suite is great, but it’s very Google-centric, and not everyone has hopped on that bandwagon (that said, if you’re on Android, it’s probably a no-brainer). But, let’s say you’re a Microsoft fan and want to stick with Redmond’s products. They’ve got a similar set of tools, including SkyDrive (for document storage) and a product called Office 365 that offers cloud-based Office apps for a monthly fee.

Macintosh, iPhone and iPad lovers have a simple, built-in way to create and share presentations with iCloud. Apple offers a basic level of iCloud storage for free, and Apple’s presentation app, Keynote, is a Powerpoint-killer in almost every way. Simple, slick and packed with features, Keynote is available as a download for every Apple device. When you save your Keynote presentations to iCloud, they’re available instantly, everywhere you have internet access, without any web browsers, software or other configuration required. For the road warrior who just doesn’t want to hassle with technology, iCloud and Keynote may be the ultimate presentation machine. Give someone a Keynote presentation on your iPad and you’ll see their eyes light up. It’s that good.

Finally, if you want a presentation tool that works with absolutely every platform and shows no preference for one over the other, it’s hard to beat DropBox. DropBox offers a basic storage plan for free, and has apps for every major platform. The power of DropBox is in its simplicity – it’s just a drive on your computer or an app on your tablet or smartphone. Save your Powerpoint or PDF to your DropBox, and you can pull it up instantly on your other devices.

Dropbox doesn’t do presentations on its own, but since it can view most documents, it works great in a pinch when you’ve got to show someone something and you don’t have the ideal device with you. You can view your Powerpoints, yes, but you can also keep product images, price lists and all sorts of other selling information on your Dropbox for easy answers to customer questions. The data will always be current, synchronized, and at your fingertips. It’s free and works with just about anything. It might become your best sales presentation partner. What are you waiting for?

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

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