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April 16, 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.

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