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« February 2012 | Main | April 2012 »

A New Business Belongs in the Cloud

Way back in 1997, when I decided to start a new business, I went out and bought QuickBooks for bookkeeping and a server to run it on. How very twentieth century. Servers are the bane of new companies. They crash; they don't get backed up when they should; and – perhaps most important – they are only in one place at one time.

My new company, NG Advantage LLC, is not located in just one place even as a startup. Cofounders and I are working out of our homes. A number of us need access to the bookkeeping; sometimes we're not home but still want to access the bookkeeping. It would be very inconvenient to have it located in only one place on only one computer. It belongs in the cloud where all of us who need to can access it from wherever we are. I bought (actually am renting) QuickBooks Online. We don't have a server.

In fact we are not planning to buy ANY servers in the immediate future. What applies to bookkeeping applies to most of the other things we do. We're going to stay in the cloud for everything we plan to do right now including – especially including – critical applications depended on for customer service. And I'll write about what we do and our experience with the cloud applications we try in case our experience is helpful to others starting businesses and so that we can learn from your comments on what we're doing.

What if your cloud service provider is down? That's the first question people ask when they consider cloud computing for various applications. If you choose good vendors it won't happen often – but it will happen. Even Amazon has outages. But here's where you have to be very honest with yourself. What is more likely to be down: the triply-redundant, mirrored, multisource-powered, distributed server complex of a cloud provider or the server under your desk? Who's more likely to forget backup?

I know from the online user group that Quickbooks Online has had outages; I know I'll be furious when they happen. But I also know it won't be me trying to fix them. We won't keep all of our applications in one cloud. Hopefully we'll find something else to do when Quicken is down – even though any outage is bound to be at the worst possible time.

If your own operation is burned down or flooded (we Vermonters remember Irene), is your data better off with you or offsite somewhere? If you have to keep serving your customers and your site is down, wouldn't you like to be able to do that wherever you can get Internet access? Do you want to be out looking for new servers and trying to restore old backups, or do you want to be dealing with whatever problems your customers have? Our customer service application will be as reliable as it must be because it won't be in any one place and no single catastrophe will be able to destroy it.

Related posts:

Back to Business

Irene Lesson #3: Critical Data Belongs in the Cloud, Not Under It

Amazon S3 – Very Cheap Storage in the Sky

Back to Business

Retirement's over; I've been working on a new business. That's why I haven't been blogging for a while; startups are all-consuming.

NG Advantage LLC delivers natural gas "beyond the pipeline." Starting in early 2013 we'll truck compressed natural gas (CNG) from a compressor site we plan to build in Milton, Vermont to commercial users within a two and a half hour driving radius (see service area in VT, NH, and NY below). Large users of fuel will save 30 to 40% or more of what they're paying now for oil and propane while reducing CO2 emissions by 26% and practically eliminating sulfur and nitrous oxide from their stacks. Businesses which are not on pipelines need these savings to compete with those who are served by pipeline gas. Energy intensive businesses also need protection against the global uncertainty in oil prices.

So, if the savings are so great and it's good for the environment as well, why don't businesses like NG Advantage already exist?

Good question and there's a good answer. Until 2008 the prices of natural gas and oil products moved pretty much in lock step. If one or the other got a little out of line, there were enough users that were dual fuel – primarily power plants – to switch and bring prices back to parity on a per BTU basis. But new technology has come into the gas fields: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (unfortunately called fracking). America's recoverable reserves are an order of magnitude larger than they were originally thought to be. Production is increasing rapidly.

This is disruptive innovation in the same sense that the Internet was: it changes all the rules in the energy business. It no longer makes economic sense to build a new nuclear or coal plant in the US; electric rates are remaining stable or going down because the marginal cost of electricity depends on natural gas prices. Energy-intensive businesses are being built in the US again. And it now makes economic sense to truck natural gas to major consumers who can't get it from a pipe.

The US benefits especially from natural gas because it is NOT easy to transport – it must be either liquefied or compressed and must be carried in special vehicles (although it is safer to transport than oil or propane because it is lighter than air). It was only practical to use natural gas directly from a pipeline; it is now practical to truck it short distances as well. But the market for natural gas –unlike oil - is more local than global because pipelines don't go under oceans. Europe is stretching for new supplies and increasingly dependent on Russia for natural gas. North America has an abundant supply – President Obama says 100 years' worth; so natural gas prices are much lower here than in Europe or Asia. Our reindustrialization benefits from this energy price disparity. So does our effort to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Fifteen years ago I founded ITXC, which became a big company and went public, because it was clear that the invention of the Internet would take most of the cost out of telephone calls and the big telephone companies – including AT&T where I then worked - were in no hurry to crater their revenues for the benefit of their customers. There was an opportunity for new companies looking for new customers and willing to offer radically lower prices to succeed. This is another such opportunity since existing oil companies won't be in a hurry to turn natural into a competitor beyond the pipeline. We won't be the only ones to take advantage of the opportunity, but it's important to be first or among the first

Unfortunately current trucking technology doesn't support the economics of serving residences or businesses which use less than 150,000 gallons of oil or propane annually or 100,000 gallons in a six month period. We may be able to move downscale some; others will need pipelines before they can take advantage of natural gas.

Vermont Gas Systems is planning an expansion southward of their line in northwestern Vermont; that's a good thing for those residences and businesses along the path of the expansion. Since it'll be several years before the expansion is built, NG Advantage will serve major businesses along the route until the pipeline gets to them. And we'll serve businesses in Vermont and parts of New York and New Hampshire which have no immediate prospect of pipeline connections. I'd be surprised, though, if we don't end up developing markets which will then be served by pipelines faster than they would have been otherwise. That's fine with us, a measure of success; we just move our trucks out further to new areas.

We're starting to hire so we are creating jobs. But many more jobs will be created and retained because energy-intensive businesses in rural areas, where many costs are low but the price of energy is high, will be able to compete in an irreversibly globalized economy. In Vermont both food processors and manufacturers fit that definition.

Anyway, it's good to be back in the private sector. I'll blog when I can, not just about natural gas but also about how starting a business now is the same and how it is different than it was 15 years ago – not to mention lessons learned.

Related posts (while I was talking myself into doing this):

Natural Gas Disrupts the Energy Industry

The Pickens Plan Bill: The Wrong Way to Get the Right Result

Ending Tax Giveaways Isn't Raising Taxes

Good and Bad News about the Safety of Natural Gas Fracking

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