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PCWorld recently issued a story, by James A. Martin, on cloud computing and what small businesses should keep in mind when they think about this path. We provided a little insight for that article. Since we gathered our thoughts on the subject, I thought I’d offer Brand Thunder’s own thoughts and experience in this space and hope that it provides value to other small businesses.

We were asked what recommendations/tips/strategies would we give other small businesses considering a move to cloud-based services (and away from PC-centric software)? What would we do differently, what not to worry about, common mistakes and so on?

Here is our bullet-point list of ideas and considerations, followed by a more detailed explanation:

Advice and Lessons Learned About Cloud Computing:

  • Get process down first then find the right tool, instead of finding a tool and putting process around it. Once we adopted certain tools we later learned of limits and had to change our existing process to match the tool.
  • Planning up front can reduce changes to your system and potentially give you a tool that remains effective over a longer period of time and avoid early migrations.
  • Expect to outgrow an application, so make sure you know you can extract and migrate your data to a new service! We are experiencing some pain as we move from 37Signals to Salesforce.
  • It’s a great way to defer and spread out costs as you’re buying access to the service and not software packages for each employee.
  • It helps remove geographic limits to your business and offer greater benefits from a personnel standpoint as well as a business development one.
  • Open source should be in the consideration set. Popular open source tools have a lot of applications and plug-ins already developed allowing you to easily modify capabilities to your own business needs. Plus, you are not limited to the number of licenses, so you can give all employees access to the system without incurring additional cost.
    1. – It allows for your own custom development to develop tools unique to your business.
      – With other services, we’d be forced to change internal processes to fit the tool or, if feasible, pay for new development with the service provider.
      – Open source may require having someone on staff capable of set up and administration of the service.
  • Get thoroughly trained in the applications early. We missed out on many features of these products by just diving in and trying to learn as we go.
  • Consider where that data resides and how secure it is.
  • Look for programs that support small businesses, like Microsoft BizSpark, where you can get complete software packages and systems at no cost.
  • Products like Skype are great for a dispersed team but call-quality limits conversations to one person speaking at a time. Spontaneity can be lost.
    1. – We try to maintain the energetic and creative environment by supplementing regular Skype calls with face-to-face meetings for the entire team a few times a year.

    Details About Our Experience:

    As a small business, we’ve tried to aggressively manage costs while still using tools that allow our team to operate effectively.

    The majority of our migrations from PC-centric software to the cloud have been driven by growth. As a startup with a handful of people, PC-based solutions made the most sense. It was economical to start with local tools such as Daylite (for Customer Relation Management – CRM) and Excel for project management and software bug-tracking.

    As we continued to grow, and given our distributed workforce (from Mexico to West Virginia), we realized we were hitting the limits of what the local-based software application could do and sending files via email made working from the most current document version difficult to manage. We also were not buying software packages for each new employee and dependent on them using the software they owned. Each person had their own preferences ranging from Microsoft Office, Open Office to Google Apps. There were collisions with compatibility across file types.

    It became more efficient and still economical to migrate to cloud-based services where we could pay a small monthly fee but gain functionality for the entire team. We migrated to 37Signals products, Highrise (CRM) and Basecamp (project management, bug tracking), for their inexpensive cloud-solution for small businesses. We then moved to Google Apps for email, calendar and office applications. This was the natural progression for us as we grew in staff and grew in customers. We all have access to single files with real-time collaboration, tracked changes, comments, edits and more. It’s alleviated a lot of confusion and emails.

    As we outgrew Basecamp, based on functionality desired and the cost associated with license for a growing team, we migrated our entire project management and bug tracking to the open-source Redmine. Even now, we continue to upgrade the products we use and are currently migrating to a more robust CRM system (Salesforce).

    We also use Internet services to run the business including Skype for all team meetings. It allows easy and open communication across team members despite being geographically dispersed.

    Adobe Acrobat Connect is used for product demos during sales presentations. It gives us a virtual presence during the sales call, that we can manage like a normal sales presentation but we don’t incur the travel expense. The result has been sales success with major brands both domestically and internationally.

    This has been our path. What’s yours and what would you recommend?

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