10 Essential Cloud Tools For Small Businesses
4 November 2011, Jonathan Saipe
A small business environment is challenging at the best of times. Aside from the obvious commercial challenges relating to brand development, sales and marketing, cash flow and maintaining profitability, there are a myriad of operational challenges that are too often a distraction for senior decision makers.
Treading water often seems to be the most common activity within the SME; trying to solve day to day problems rather than focusing on developing the business.
Cloud computing and SaaS
We are privileged to operate in the age of cloud computing, where computer applications are made available to us remotely as a service (typically via a web browser).
The upshot of this means that we aren’t required to download and install software “locally” at our place of work. Instead, we can leave the responsibility of buying, supporting, backing-up and upgrading hardware and software to a third party. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as software as a service or SaaS.
Software as a service enables small businesses to focus on the core challenges around growing a business rather than stumbling from one operational headache to the next. Of course, SaaS isn’t a magical solution that will solve all operational issues, but any way of offloading responsibility at minimal cost has to be advantageous.
The essential cloud tools for small businesses
I’ve put together 10 popular cloud applications used by SME’s. This list is by no means exhaustive, as there are a rapidly growing number of applications in the marketplace. Equally, they all have slightly different features that will suit organisations differently. But sit back and enjoy.
If you find group collaboration tough going, then take a look at Basecamp. It is one of a growing list of cloud based online collaboration tools that facilitates communication between team members no matter where they are based.
Features such as messaging, owner-assigned to do lists, calendaring with automatic reminders, file versioning and time sheets, contained within a user-friendly environment, make Basecamp an attractive proposition for project managers who need to regain that control.
Take a look at Basecamp »
Alternatives: Apollo, Copper Project, activeCollab, Huddle
Salesforce is a well established cloud-based CRM solution. Being a pioneer within its space, it has built a huge customer-base combined with a thriving developer community, continually building apps to integrate with Salesforce.
Salesforce comes in various flavours, but essentially it allows you to maintain clear lines of communication between your prospects or clients, thus helping acquisition and retention of customers.
If you want to align your sales teams, understand your sales funnels, broadcast email campaigns, monitor your Google AdWords campaigns, or simply collect enquiry form submissions from your website, Salesforce is the SaaS solution worth looking at.
It may not be the prettiest affair, but you can’t beat it for functionality and robustness.
Take a look at Salesforce »
Pre the days of cloud computing, I worked in a Lotus Notes environment, which, in its heyday, was phenomenally forward thinking. It contained a groupware calendar application, but it was impossible to access remotely, it was a nightmare to back up and the IT team spent many late nights trying to maintain it.
Compare that to Google Calendar, a simple effective calendaring application used by both individuals and businesses (under the Google Apps banner). Google Calendar is simple to use, it syncs with your phone and can be accessed anywhere anytime. It is also accompanied by a neat little task manager.
Personally I’m not a big fan of its new interface, but from a functional perspective it provides all the necessary organisational tools to keep your business meetings safe in one place. And most importantly, it can be accessed on the move.
Take a look at Google Calendar »
Invoicing is the life blood of a small business cash flow, yet it’s a task that often gets put on the back burner in favour of revenue generating activity. So how can invoicing be easily facilitated? Answer, Zoho Invoice.
With more than 5 million online users, Zoho is a global company that develops a myriad of SaaS apps helping with productivity and collaboration. Zoho Invoice is their online invoicing solution, allowing users to track and manage invoices online in a collaborative environment.
It makes the job of creating and sending invoices painless, and provides tools to send invoice reminders and remittance advice notes, as well as reporting on overdue invoices. The Zoho Invoice environment can be customised to your brand, allowing you to send branded invoices and custom messages.
Zoho Invoice is in a crowded space so be sure to check out the alternatives listed below as well.
Take a look at Zoho Invoice »
Alternatives: Blinksale, Freshbooks, Harvest
There’s nothing more frustrating that getting a bounced email as a result of sending a very large attachment. To the unconverted, there’s a feeling of exasperation: “how am I going to send this huge file?” Well, Dropbox is a real favourite if you often deal with large files.
Dropbox comes in various packages, but the free version allows users to store and share up to 2GB of files in an online repository. Simply upload your files, then share your Dropbox files or folders with your colleagues. Aside from resolving the email attachment issues, it also provides a basic backup solution for your most important files.
Take a look at Dropbox »
Alternatives: YouSendit, Google Docs
Many years ago, we would use tape to back up our files. Our tapes were rotated on a nightly basis until such time that they filled up or wore out and were replaced. This was time consuming, slow and unreliable. Then things changed in the 21st century. Welcome Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3).
Amazon S3 provides a simple web interface that can be used to store and retrieve any amount of data, at any time, from anywhere on the web. Your data will sit in Amazon’s huge server farm, capable of storing many terabytes of data, giving you the peace of mind that should your server malfunction, your data is safe and can be accessed anywhere.
Its solution is so well established, many SaaS businesses (such as Basecamp) use Amazon S3 to store customer data within their own solutions.
Take a look at Amazon S3 »
Alternatives: Sugarsync, Google Docs
Online accounting is becoming more and more necessary as businesses demand the flexibility found within cloud computing. Xero isn’t trying to compete with the likes of Sage, but instead focuses on providing a neat SaaS solution serving the accounting needs of business owners, bookkeepers and accountants.
Xero offers a range of features that keeps you up to speed on your financial position. Its financial reporting includes bank balances, sales and up-coming bills. It makes laborious tasks such as bank reconciliation easy by automatically importing your bank account and credit card transactions so you always have an up-to-date view of your business and financial health.
Take a look at Xero »
Alternatives: SaaSu, QuickBooks
Whilst Gmail remains a very popular email solution for individuals, it also provides a very robust and cost effective solution for small businesses.
Packaged under Google Apps, Gmail provides a solid multi-function IMAP email platform for businesses that need 99.9% up-time and reliability. In addition, business have the ability to brand the email interface their own and of course send emails under their own business domain name.
Until recently, you could have 50 user accounts for free with Google Apps, but this has now reduced to 10 accounts. However, should you decide to pay for Google Apps for Business, each user will be allocated a very handy 25 GB of storage which beats most ISPs offering IMAP-based email solutions.
Take a look at Gmail »
Alternatives: Any IMAP based email solution that allows you to use your own business domain
We all lead busy lives, and scheduling meetings that accommodate multiple diaries can be frustrating. So, if you find scheduling around people a tiresome and time consuming activity, you may want to try Doodle.
There’s nothing fancy about Doodle. It simply eliminates the pain of scheduling and saves you a lot of time and energy when you’re trying to find a convenient time to bring groups of people together. Doodle is now used for business (and personal) scheduling by more than 10 million people per month.
So whether you’re organising a meeting, or a training session at your local football club, you’ll soon find Doodle one of those cloud-based productivity tools you can’t live without.
Take a look at Doodle »
Our final essential cloud tool for small businesses, is Google Docs. A bit like Marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it. Its recent face lift has in my opinion improved things considerably. Google Docs is essentially a document collaboration tool used by both individuals or businesses; the latter often combining it with Google Calendar and Gmail under the Google Apps umbrella.
There are two key components to Google Docs: the ability to upload existing documents and collaborate with other authors or editors; and the ability to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings using its own proprietary online tools, thus removing the need to own products such as Microsoft Office. Whilst the features to create your own documents are impressive, they aren’t a patch on desktop versions of MS Office; but in many instances, the over engineered features of Office aren’t required when creating simple documents.
Aside from providing document collaboration, Google Docs doubles up as a simple backup solution, which, for small businesses, is invaluable.
Take a look at Google Docs »
Alternatives: Microsoft Office Live