Can you move your business to the cloud and save some rent?

As a technology consultant and small business coach, I am asked about new technology almost daily. If you want to go out and start a small business today, you can get almost all of your software for free. Any decent laptop will run the OpenOffice software, which is probably plenty for most small business owners. OpenOffice has a writing program, a spreadsheet program and the presentation program and all of this is free just for going to and downloading it.

One of the biggest challenges of any business owner or self-employed person is scheduling. Some people call me directly and others call my office which is usually a better way to make sure I show up.  Several years ago we started out using Windows-based phones from HTC and AT&T mobile.  Since we have a Microsoft Exchange Server at our Internet hosting company, the system worked reasonably well. My assistant could enter a calendar appointment, and within 15 minutes it would appear on my phone.  Anyone can go out and have this type of e-mail client for about $15 per person per month. This is significantly less expensive than buying your own exchange server and trying to maintain it.  More importantly it is way cheaper than trying to get back a client you lost because you missed their appointment.

Due to several other disappointing issues with Windows phones, we switched to Blackberry services and Blackberry cellular phones a couple of years ago.  It turned out that our exchange servers were not compatible Blackberry services, so we had to purchase that service through AT&T. Another $15 a month each.  We have since found that  Blackberry services can be somewhat difficult and unreliable.

Just as our frustration level hit a peak, one of my employees, found the Google calendar for free.  The premise is very simple, just sign up for iGoogle, and share your calendar with other people.  Since we are a very small office, we decided to give it a try. Within four days we had completely given up our Blackberry services. There is a Google sync client that needed to go on everybody’s Blackberry or iPhone. This turned out to be the big bonus, you can use either Blackberries or iPhones with the iGoogle calender.

If you use Microsoft Outlook as your primary e-mail instead of the free Google e-mail client there is a sync applet for that too.  A total of 20 minutes per person was used and we had a mail client that did everything we needed, or so we thought.  Within a day I noticed my desktop wasn’t getting its updates from my phone, and my phone wasn’t getting updates from my desktop.  The Google applet doesn’t work with 64bit Vista.  We had just upgraded half of our PC’s for the 64 bit speed.  Half of the office was working fine.

The solution appeared easy enough, let the phone sync to Google and leave the Blackberry desktop to sync with the Outlook e-mail and Calendar on computers to the phone.  The phone then syncs with the public calendars on Google.  This isn’t 100% yet either.  The flaw we have found at this point turned out to be related to the Blackberry desktop manager. The Google sync client recognizes when another sync client adds or changes your calendar. The Google thing client will then ignore those items.  It only has an effect when the appointment is entered on both Google and Outlook, then whoever the phone syncs with first becomes the master.  If the appointment changes and it isn’t made to the master, then the phone won’t get the change.  Minor but important none the less.

Overall, the Google calendar system has been a major improvement for our small business, and solved most of the problems we had with both the Microsoft exchange server and Blackberry services.  The best part is since we have less than 5 people that need to share each other calendar in a group, it is all for free. I think the limit is 50 per office.  If you don’t need calendar sharing with more than your partner, assistant and home, this is a no brain-er.

Google calendar shows how far Google has come in its ability to deliver services “in the cloud”. Once you put the privacy and security issues of someone else hosting your data aside, my biggest concern about virtual services and “cloud computing”, has been the availability of data when you’re not able to connect the cloud.

Last month we purchased a netbook (net book?) to test it, we’ll cover that whole thing later.  The netbook didn’t have an exchange e-mail client.  It only uses cloud computing.  What this means to you is simple: If you can’t connect to the internet, you can’t work or get e-mail.  There has to be a way to make skinny software versions that sync with the services that are in the “cloud” or somewhere on the internet.  What about documents?  As long as every document and say the last 30 days of email text can be quickly synced to the cloud every time you have a connection, you can keep working.  In this fashion you are taking a portable backup of the cloud everywhere you go.  I don’t want to be stuck in an airplane for 12 hours and not be able to work on something because I didn’t “check it out” or the airplane doesn’t have WiFi.  Yes, (Are you listening  Google, Apple, Microsoft and Cisco) there are places you still can’t connect.  The netbook is for big city people and semi frequent travelers in its current configuration.

In a small business where is very unlikely for more than one person to be working on a document, “cloud computing” may be a very realistic alternative to expensive servers, or rented server services.  In our office, everybody owns their document, and changes are sent as a separate document to prevent sync errors when two people have made changes to the central document.  The answer here is going to be a “change key” so that when you re-sync with the cloud, a window will show any changes posted by other people since your last sync.  If you are the owner of the doc then you can approve them.  Otherwise, each upload would have to be a version change and this could drive the document owner nuts.

There is a green benefit to the cloud as well, fewer computers, better managed means less waste.  If we all store our data in the cloud at data farms, which can run at 75% efficiency or better, instead of three different hard drives somewhere in our homes.  There is a big savings on hard drives and energy use here if we use this right, never mind the wasted downtime of upgrades and moves.

Here is another way to think about it, I started my first IT company in 1996 selling desktops, software, servers and phone systems. It is a pretty standard operation, and then had very high margins.  Today, if you start, own or work for a small business with less than 15 employees, you can buy laptops online (we use all Mac),  open the the box and download an office software package from for free.  If you need Microsoft Office, you can still use the trial version of MS office for 60 days for free.  60 days free anything these days is a nice help isn’t it?   Finally everyone in the office can sign up for  own Google Mail and Google calendar accounts on igoogle which is also free.  If someone quits, everyone just removes the person from the shared calender and that person vanishes from your part of the cloud.

Everything you need to have a virtual office, a Laptop and softphone
Your Next Office

The business instantly has a way to communicate, and view each others schedules. To make it even more difficult for small business IT consultant to make any money, a small office can get their telephone services through Skype with a phone number and voicemail for under $100 a year, and $2.95 a month unlimited long distance.  There are also “hosted VoIP” phones that you just plug in, and you have an instant extension. Instead of getting to sell workstations, software and telephone systems, all we get to do now is log in remotely and offer some basic training.

As a small business owner, this is all really cool stuff.   You can hire a dozen people to all work from home and your risk is a good laptop, Skype number or Hosted VoIP phone and maybe a headset.  No more need for a desk, office space or any of that.  Just imagine building a large Real Estate office with 56 agents, and only needing three offices, a receptionist and a couple of conference rooms.  After all why should all the agents come in?  Houses aren’t sold in offices, only the paperwork is in there.  That is why you keep the conference rooms.

By sharing the offices and conference rooms which can be booked over the Google calender, all of the agents work from home.  Happier workers and lower rent sound a lot like a better business.  I wonder if we could do this for Law Firms too?  It is a good thing your small business still needs help with your internet presence plan otherwise I wouldn’t have a job.

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