Cloud computing – also called software-as-a-service (SaaS) – is merely a term for services that let you run your business right from your browser.
For small business owners and startup entrepreneurs, this is a fantastic development. What started as a simple idea with a few applications (email was first) has exploded into a massive global market that offers business owners generous choices for doing just about anything online.
A few benefits of running your business from a browser include these:
Low cost: Most cloud services are affordable and pay-as-you go, so there’s little or no up-front cost. This makes it easy to get started, and keeps costs predictable.
Improved security: Your information is stored in the cloud, so even if your computer gets fried, your data should still be safe.
Flexibility: You can scale up or down as needed and always be ready for what comes next.
Easy collaboration: Employees, contractors or partners can all work on the same documents in real time. And cloud apps are accessible from anywhere you have an Internet connection, using a PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone.
Automatic updates: Software updates and upgrades are automatic. There’s nothing new to purchase or install. Cloud app vendors also handle all of the maintenance – including security patches – so you don’t have to.
Google Docs is one of the most amazing browser-based solutions available to any small business. Not only is it good, it’s free and does pretty much anything that Microsoft Office can do, except it does it in “the cloud.” You can create and share basic documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings, among other things. And you can coordinate it all via Google Drive.
It seems almost too good to be true until you’ve actually used it. There’s nothing to install; no software to purchase. You can share with anyone else, via any kind of device, and your documents are automatically backed up in the cloud. Not bad for a price of, well, nothing.
Just the Beginning
But as good as it is, Google Docs just scratches the surface. From accounting, invoicing and expense tracking, to customer support, cash management and graphic design, the cloud solutions lineup is almost endless. A few that are popular with small businesses include FreshBooks, MYOB Live, JCurve and Cashbook Online.
Customer relationship management, or CRM, is also perfect for the cloud. In this area, Salesforce (www.salesforce.com) is the leader. Cloud CRM has the potential to transform how you do business from a browser by managing accounts, tracking quotes and opportunities, and forecasting your sales.
In the marketing realm, vendors such as Marketo, HubSpot, Silverpop and Eloqua offer ways to generate, nurture and track more leads for your business. You also can find a long list of cloud-based finance applications via AppExchange.com – all of which will integrate with Salesforce.
Here are some other helpful ways to run your business from a browser:
Social Media: Cloud apps to help you get more out of social media include Sprout Social, SocialBro and HootSuite.
Customer Service: Desk.com is a simple and affordable customer help desk that caters to smaller businesses. Others such as GetSatisfaction.com or Ning.com can help you set up your own customer support community.
Collaboration: Google Docs, mentioned above, is perfect for online collaboration and sharing. Join.me is a free service that lets you share your screen with others. And Skype, of course, is a great way to connect by video.
People Management: Fast-growing small companies that are adding employees can benefit from cloud apps that help with goal setting and performance reviews. Options here include Work.com, Cornerstone on Demand, Insperity and Taleo. For a simple time-tracking system (good for consultants and contractors, for example), try Harvest (www.getharvest.com).
Content sharing and discovery: YouTube and Vimeo (for video); Flickr (photos); Slideshare (presentations) and DocStock (documents on all kinds).
Have a question about cloud computing? Connect with a SCORE mentor online or in your community today!
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