Cloud computing is no longer a ‘buzz’ term. Small businesses of all kinds are integrating cloud-based tools into their business operations in order to remain competitive and to keep up with the fast-changing business landscape.
Small businesses are finding that cloud-based solutions not only provide ‘more for less’ offerings, but also the flexibility of running their business the way they want to, when they want to and where they want to. It represents an opportunity for them to level the playing field with large operators.
So what are the benefits of the cloud for small businesses?
Get ahead of your competitors
Repeat after me: happy customers are key to healthy profits! The cloud has so many tools that help you to add value to customers. These include easy ways to chat, video call, share files, make bookings, deliver documents, sign contracts, invoice, collaborate, present reports, provide quotations, and even build in high levels of security to confidential information.
If this is what your competitors might be using the cloud to do, you need to make sure you don’t fall behind!
Work from anywhere, any time
By harnessing the power of the cloud, you have access to information and support anywhere, at any time.
For small businesses with offices or clients to collaborate with interstate or abroad, cloud computing is a business solution that simply can’t be overlooked. For mobile employees it allows them to promptly save new sales leads, communicate with customers, access critical data and see the business’ finances at any time to manage cashflow.
For example, one of my clients is an Australian company that is managed from the UK. Managers rely on cloud-based systems to ensure they are up-to-date with the business and on the same page as their offshore employees. They use our cloud-based accounting software so we are using the same real-time information as the client’s Australian operational team and UK head office.
Save money and access information
Who doesn’t want to save money! The cloud helps you to do just that. It gives you access to new technology without upfront capital costs. Instead of purchasing software upfront and paying for maintenance and upgrades, you only pay for what you use, and upgrades are often included.
The cloud also offers savings in other areas. For example, one of my clients owns a newly opened gym. The money saved from reduced travel time for meetings, not having to pay for office space and not needing to install accounting software, meant that they could spend more money on gym equipment.
In the event of a disaster such as a flood, earthquake or even theft, you can minimise downtime by having critical information for the business accessible from any device in any location.
Is it secure and reliable?
Of course, new technology doesn’t always mean that it is better. Small businesses should take security, reliability, scalability, availability and compatibility into account before making the decision to outsource their people or systems as part of their operations.
Here are some of the questions you should be asking when considering cloud-based tools:
- Where are the servers located and how are they physically protected? Are firewalls used? Is it designed to withstand power outages, natural disasters and tampering?
- Are they required to comply with privacy laws and a professional code of ethics on safeguarding confidential information? Do they have regular compliance audits?
- Do they use encryption technology to protect your data?
- Does the provider offer multi-factor authentication e.g. use of a smart card, USB key, PKI certificate or mobile phone in addition to a username and password?
- Are they stable enough to ensure medium-to-long term continuance of services?
- What do other people and SMEs have to say about the provider? Make sure you check online for user reviews and feedback about the service.
- Is it open and transparent with users?
- Would it provide for your demands as your business grows?
- Is it a web-based application that can be accessed 24/7 or a hosted application that requires a user tunnel like VPN?
- Can the system be integrated with other applications or service providers to minimise duplication?
Where to start?
Want to reach for the clouds, but don’t know where to start? Here are some of the cloud-based tools that I recommend and use:
- Evernote. Two words: portable organisation! Evernote is a highly useful app that allows you to organise and store information, which can be sorted into folders, tagged and attached with files. I use it for taking notes, writing lists, recording audio to transcribe, taking photos of business cards and capturing web clippings (such as airline bookings, articles of interest, bookmarking links, and saving images). All of these are easily shared and can be accessed on my desktop computer, laptop, iPad and Android phone.
- Socket and Quote Roller. These tools make it easy to provide pricing and proposals to clients over the cloud.
- Skype and Webmeeting. We use both these tools for phone and video calls with clients, staff and suppliers. For example, most of my I.T. technicians are located overseas and these tools allow us to implement projects on time and on budget, without needing to travel or pay for expensive calls.
- RightSignature. This application allows you to sign documents electronically on a laptop or mobile device. Because it creates a digital fingerprint and audit trail that is legally acceptable, it is great for confidential documents such as contracts. I use this with clients who are travelling with limited access to scanners or printers. When they are happy with a tax return they can simply sign-off on it on their iPad using RightSignature.
- Xero. My clients often tell me that this online accounting system has changed their lives! It syncs with your credit cards and bank accounts and makes your BAS reporting easy. You and your accountant can access all your accounting data online, anywhere and at any time. Apps such as Receipt Bank and Shoeboxed that scan and file receipts on a mobile device also sync with Xero, making the entire bookkeeping process so much easier. Saasu is another popular cloud-based bookkeeping tool.
- Dropbox. Dropbox is a web-based file hosting service that allows individuals to share and collaborate files from anywhere. It is also useful for storing files that you want to access from anywhere.
- Google Docs. Upload and create Microsoft Office files onto Google Docs so you can access them anywhere and collaborate with other users on the same documents. Everything is made available and updated in real time, which eliminates double handling.
- YouSendIt. YouSendIt.com also allows you to send, receive and track files up to 40 times bigger than that of an average email.
Think that is too many apps to manage and control? To give you an idea of how you can make the cloud work specifically for your business, our business offers all its services via the cloud using multiple apps and we make it simple for users by having:
- Single sign-on access to all cloud apps used by our staff and clients. It’s a launch pad for all apps so you can login to all of them at the same time.
- Enterprise-level security and access management. Translation: we have centralised control over user access on the cloud applications and can limit access on a need-to-know basis by IP address, domain or even by specific computers.
Put simply, small businesses wanting increased productivity and competitiveness will find that the cloud ticks those boxes. The cloud is here to stay and it’s up to small businesses to keep up with it, or risk falling behind.