Friday, 30 September 2011

Small Business Story on Cloud Transformation

My journey in the Cloud is complete. As of last weekend, I have transitioned all my business applications into the Cloud. In the process, I have moved from a PC world into an Apple Mac world. It is a journey from which I see no way back and I like it just that way.

So, first up, can a small business transform their entire business into the Cloud? In my case, the answer is yes. I am a small business whose world is effectively consulting with other companies. I have to be a part of those companies and so I need to have the tools and services which comply. I need to able to bill and collect cash effectively while being able to track expenditure. CRM is vital to me to manage and leverage my network. I need to promote myself, my knowledge and my services while I need to be able to accurately record and track the things I do with clients. 

I have found applications to do all of this in the Cloud.

Can a small business survive using only Cloud applications? Everyone I meet always says that the Cloud is not an all or nothing play. You have to keep some applications on a real computer, don't you? I mean, you need a USB port or to print or scan. How do you do all that in the Cloud?

The reality is much richer than people think. I now use a Macbook Pro laptop, an iPad2 and an iPhone, so I am Apple's dream. I have an Epson BX305FW all in one WiFi printer/scanner/copier. These are my hardware pieces.


Office Productivity
My work horse office productivity is Microsoft Office 365 with Office for Mac 2011 client. I was already in the Cloud since 2006 via hosted Exchange but I moved to 365 when I needed to upgrade. The cost is around £189 per annum. 

MS Office 365 is perhaps the most disappointing and annoying Cloud application.

Why? Because it is half and half and it misses the point in so many ways. You see it is still a resident PC or Mac application doing the real work - the only thing is you get a hosted Exchange again and the addition of two elements, both of which are relatively useless - SharePoint and Lync. The latter assumes you have loads of people in your company to collaborate with yet LiveMeeting is much simpler and easier to use.The fact is - it's the same thing.

SharePoint is the white elephant it has always been. Meant as a file repository it is really for complicated checking in and out of documents on projects. Fine if you are a large organisation, hopeless if you are a small business. Try simply sending a copy of a file by email as an attachment from SharePoint - a common thing if you want to leave clients information. You can't. Try sharing the file - the fun begins.

Forget it - don't go there. Use Dropbox. It's simpler, effective, available on all devices in the Cloud and it works far more flexibly. And you get 2Gb of online storage for nothing. I use it with clients all the time even though we have SharePoint servers coming out of our ears between us. This was just another product Microsoft could not sell to small businesses so they resorted to what all poor salespeople do - bundle it and 'give it away'. But for a company making the kinds of profits they do - you get nothing for free.

MS Office 365 keeps you in the Microsoft world. That's about as much good as can be said for it. Office for Mac is at least innovative, sassy and clever but it actually is not that compliant with PC Office. So if you are in the Apple world, Google is a very serious contender.

Dropbox I have mentioned - I did upgrade to 50Gb or similar for $99 a year and now I have all my working files in the Cloud so if I update any from any device, I have the most current in a single location. Backed up permanently. And I can share individual directories or files with anybody without compromising the version. And you can attach any to any email. No brainer for small businesses. works too much like SharePoint for my liking and you are limited by the numbers of files you can upload, download - whatever. Don't go there.

Evernote - my shining star. If you have ever used Microsoft OneNote you will have shared my experience of thinking 'Great' - dump a load of stuff into and never use it again. Evernote is the essential workbook to use to run projects and keep a real track of meetings, actions and be a repository for research and other things. It synchronises across all platforms immediately and can be shared by email, social media or as a blog page easily. There are a few bugs in it when working with email directories but by and large, I use it all the time and it's brilliant on the iPad. At £27 per year for the premium version it's ace. if not, it's free. In fact, I'm using it now.

There is only one animal worth considering - At £110 per annum for Group Edition, it integrates with Outlook on the PC and it has Apps on iPad and iPhone. It's simply superb and kills most other CRM packages.

Printing & Tools
Epson iPrint for iPad is the cat's whiskers. The little App allows the iPad to control your printer/scanner. Scans can be directly loaded into the Dropbox. It's free.

If you use mind mapping, think Mindnodes or iThoughts.

Enter my new hero and the last application to go Cloud. is a must for any small business at anything from £12 to £24 per month it is great software and everything is backed off to the Cloud. The move from Sage could not have been easier and it has actually made accounting fun. Did I say that? Shoot me.

Social Media
I use LinkedIn for business networking for the wider things. To be honest, it has lost its shine for me since the 'Answer Squatters' arrived and took over things while the recruiters bombard the searches. I still get good information from there and so it's more a repository for me if I need to find out about somebody. is great for small business networking where you need a 'support team' of like businesses and people willing to share ideas. It has a great blogging facility and it has a real family feel to things rather than the faceless stuff at LinkedIn and Facebook (which serves little use for me other than frivolous family and friends stuff).

Twitter is useful for promoting yourself as long as you use original thought and treat it with respect. It's public and don't forget it. Also, volume is no substitute for value while using it too much as with any social media can be seen as time wasting and questions what you do.

Other social media like Empire Avenue is fine if you want a bit of fun but is actually dangerous if you work for people. It serves little purpose beyond providing some feedback as to how active you are on the web - Klout and PeerIndex do much the same.

Wordpress and Blogger are the obvious but little Apps on the iPad allows you to knock up content on the fly and feed these blogs. I use BlogPress on the iPad2 and it's really good allowing you to feed multiple blogs from one console.

Naturally you have the capabilities of your machines but for me leisure is filled by iTunes and Kindle - available on Mac, iPad and iPhone.

Can you thrive as a small business in the Cloud? 

I think so. I have dramatically brought down costs of base applications - saving over £1,200 per annum on accounting alone, MS Office 365 presents no savings at all over a 3 year period and I really wonder where MS are going here, Evernote is great for £27 per annum, Dropbox is $99 per annum for a ton of disk space, Salesforce is the best CRM for £110 per annum.

I don't have to buy or manage any server, adding users on the MS 365 Exchange is easy, data is always backed up and available anywhere, everything can be accessed by any device (check out Xero's iPad and iPhone Apps - brilliant and free) and I can do internet banking from my iPhone and iPad2 as well in handy Apps.

Along with the communications hero, Skype, that allows me an inbound London number for business and routes it to me via the Cloud anywhere, I look like a big company when I am small.

My website is the last thing that needs overhauling as this maybe the only area where MS SharePoint can help. Dare I ask anyone as I have no clue where to start as everything is just so complicated an clunky with Microsoft - you need a reseller partner for all that and that costs, sadly. I use Core GB and they are great guys.

The Cloud has cut my costs, management time, accounting effort, and my applications down - I am more effective, mobile, flexible with everything safely backed up always. 

I am thriving, for sure. One thing - I chose MS Office 365 because I feared having any minor incompatibility with those I work for and network with. The alternative is Google Apps at $50 per user per year. We can debate whether Google has resellers or real salespeople but when it comes to Google Apps they are now a serious contender for small businesses, and they are the Cloud collaborator of choice to most Cloud applications.

Microsoft dismiss Google as an advertising company and mere noise. MS have a nasty habit of blaming poor products on daft users - the true sign of talentless salespeople, you might say, but believe me the insults wear in the end. In a year's time I will take a serious look at Google in terms of where it's at in capability, compatibility and cost.

You see, that's the best thing about the Cloud. You are not beholden to anyone. Your contracts are monthly or annual - you are the master of your destiny and choice is your friend. You have the ability to adapt and change all the time.

Welcome to the new world. It's putting the fun back into working.

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