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April 07, 2012

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

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