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« March 2012 | Main | May 2012 »

Choosing Cloud Applications - The Easy Choices

The first question in choosing an application – in the cloud, on the desktop, or on server – is "will this choice affect our ability to serve customers?" If the answer is no - as it is with bookkeeping for us at NG Advantage LLC, then you want to go for a safe choice that'll get the job done and not be a distraction. If the answer is "yes", as it is with our monitoring and truck routing applications, you have a much tougher decision, which I'll blog about in some future post.

We bought QuickBooks Online as our bookkeeping application but it's not perfect. If we weren't used the desktop version of QuickBooks and if I didn't know that Intuit, the publisher of QuickBooks, is a reputable company which is likely to be around for a while, we would've done a more thorough search. But startups are all about speed; we need to spend time thinking about our customers and their needs. We could get ourselves in trouble with a really bad bookkeeping package; but we won't serve customers better or get more customers even if we have the world's best bookkeeping. As I wrote previously, we are only using cloud applications so that's all we considered for bookkeeping.

Must Haves for Customer Uncritical Cloud Apps

  1. All of the data needs to be in the cloud – all of it. If there's something local you have to back up, you're not getting data which is safe from any local disaster, the primary benefit of the cloud, or the secondary benefit of data which is accessible from anywhere.
  2. The company which maintains the data in the cloud needs to reputable and around for the long haul OR you need a very good plan B in case they go bellyup or screw up. Ideally you have both. With Intuit we get the reputable company part but not a good plan B because they don't support a simple backup away from their service which you might use to get going somewhere else. We protect the best we can by downloading transactions (without some detail) and the chart of accounts to Excel and then storing the spreadsheets with a cloud backup service.
  3. You need to understand what is backed up and when. QuickBooks uses mirrored servers (two copies of everything) and also backs up half an hour. We could stand to lose half an hour of bookkeeping; we'd just reenter.
  4. You need to be comfortable using the app. Almost everything comes with a 30 day free trial. Steel yourself to start over if you hate the app during the trial as painful as it'll be to reenter your data and learn yet one more app. Quit as early in the trial as you can so you can try a competitor; if you hate the competitor even worse, you may still be in the trial period for the first app and can go back. You learn a lot about what you need when you're actually trying to do something.
  5. You've got to be able to get support from the company by phone, email, or online chat – ideally all three. QuickBooks only has phone support which drives me crazy; I don't like talking on the phone or being on hold. Test support early in your test of the app but beware: the vendor may know you're on a trial and move you to the front of the queue.

Nice to Haves for Customer Uncritical Cloud Apps

  1. Ideally the application runs in a browser –QuickBooks does. That means you can use it from any machine which supports web browsing. However, not all browsers are the same. Some QuickBooks functions only work in Internet Explorer – that's a pain for me because I like to run Firefox. It's also means that there may be a problem accessing functionality on a Mac. If you have to download an app to your computer to access your data, then you have to be very sure that the app runs on Windows or Macs or Linus or whatever your clients are. And it means you probably can't access your data or application from a tablet like an iPad – likely to be a problem in the future.
  2. The application should support smart phone access from whatever smart phones you use. This may not seem important now; good chance it will be soon.
  3. The application should support a common data format which allows you to easily switch to other vendors of the same application. Quickbooks Online does not have this. The leading applications in each category can afford to make it hard for you to switch; the challengers often do offer an easy exit to allay your fears of trying them.
  4. A big user base is both a recommendation in itself and a source of self-support through bulletin boards. Also can be used to pressure the vendor if they do something outrageous.

Related posts

Switchboard in the Cloud

A New Business Belongs in the Cloud

Back to Business

Switchboard in the Cloud

Several decades and companies ago Solutions Inc. was on the 4th floor of Vermont National Bank building in Montpelier. We'd grown so we needed a switchboard that the receptionist (remember receptionists?) could use to route calls to support, sales, spouses who needed to pick up the kids, or whomever. The device we needed cost – I think - $6000 which was more money in 1984 than it is now. We didn't have it and the bank wouldn't lend it to us; they had a hard time evaluating our software as an asset. They weren't swayed by the argument that they could always repossess the switchboard since it was right there in their building.

No big deal. Some customer paid a big bill and we bought the thing and switched happily ever after – or at least until we grew some more and needed more lines and extensions.

Fast forward to 2012. Our new company NG Advantage LLC doesn't really have an office yet; that'll come when we have permits and a physical plant. We take calls on our cell phones as often as we do on our landline phones. We each want to have our own voice mail message; we need a dial by name directory; we need voicemail, obviously. Receptionists are a thing of the past and so is the person who reprograms the switchboard when you get a new employee. Sometimes I want my extension to ring wherever I am – like on my home phone or mobile phone; sometimes I want it to go right to voicemail – and I want an email with the content of every voicemail that I get.

So what does the switchboard cost that does all this? Don't know; don't have one. A switchboard is a kind of server and NG Advantage doesn't buy servers; we rent them in the cloud. For this application we use phone.com. This doesn't mean we did a full evaluation of all the alternatives; it means we googled; looked at a few websites; read some reviews; signed up for a free trial; and we're sold. There may be better alternatives we haven't tried; but phone.com so far does what we want.

For $14.88/month ($9.88 if paid annually) we get two incoming numbers (actually one would do). Even though we have only two numbers, we can handle an unlimited number of simultaneous calls! In the old days we would have needed to have enough physical lines from the phone company, each at about what this full service costs, for each simultaneous call we wanted to be able to handle.

We get an UNLIMITED number of virtual extensions. "What's a virtual extension?" you ask. It's something or somebody a caller might want to reach. "Sales" is a virtual extension; general voicemail is one; I'm an extension; Mary is one; so is each other real or virtual employee. We put our virtual extensions on business cards and in our email signatures and they're in the dial by name directory.

If you call NG Advantage and dial (dial?) my virtual extension, 502, the IP phone on my desk might ring; you might go right to voice mail; my cell phone or my home phone might ring. I can program this to fit where I'm working, put it on autopilot by time of day, or even make it depend on who's calling. (I could make this so complicated that I do nothing else but reprogram my virtual extension but I don't).

We can get more incoming numbers for $4.88/month if we want to have a virtual presence in more places. We get "free" IP phones to put on our desks for $4.88/month and can plug them in wherever we have IP. My phone rings whether I'm at home or plugged into an Ethernet port somewhere else. However, you can also buy and use your own IP phone by paying a one-time set-up fee of less than $10.

We get 300 minutes of free domestic outbound calling and pay $.049 for each extra minute. We don't sit around at our desks much and usually call from our cell phones so this doesn't matter much; other businesses are much more sensitive to the cost of outbound calling than we are and they can buy more bulk minutes or unlimited plans. We also get free conference calling.

Our business of trucking natural gas is capital intensive. We have to buy lots of expensive trailers and other equipment. But just BEING in business isn't nearly as capital intensive as it used to be. You don't have to go out and buy a bunch of servers (and pay people to keep them running); you don't need specialized servers like switchboards; you just rent what you need from the cloud and it grows with you.

Related posts:

A New Business Belongs in the Cloud

Back to Business

 

 

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