Blog: July 2013

Doing Real Business in the Cloud, part 4


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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