When you are an entrepreneur, you have big ideas. You want to streamline your business and drive sales through the roof. But to get there, your ideas need business applications, and business apps have always been expensive and complex to install, configure and manage, especially when you are starting out with limited cash resources to get your business off the ground.
However, cloud-based business applications have the potential to redefine the way companies use their IT systems and grow their business. While previously mired in a world of technical complexity and surrounded by expensive IT staff and computer equipment, modern entrepreneurs can now deploy cloud-based business applications in a matter of minutes and at a much lower cost — freeing them and their resources to focus on what they are good at: growing and developing their business idea.
Behind each business app is a world of complexity. Traditionally, these applications required a data center with office space, power, air conditioning, bandwidth, networks, servers, storage and a complicated application stack, as well as a team of experts to install, configure and run them. This is even without considering development, staging, production and failover environments.
In many scenarios, when there was a problem you called technical support and hopefully they would fix it, but this usually ended with time wasted and a very frustrated user. Even new software updates had the potential to bring the whole system down.
This was just for one business application. When you multiply these headaches across a dozen or so applications, it’s easy to see why the biggest companies with the best IT departments aren’t getting the service they need to develop their business ideas.
As an entrepreneur, growing your business is very important and to help do this efficiently, you might like to install the latest customer relations management (CRM) system or get your sales team to track their leads and opportunities in a sales management system, so you can better manage your sales cycle. However, if you have no one on staff with the expertise to install these systems, or the servers and database system required to run them, in this world of complexity, your small business doesn’t stand a chance.
Cloud computing can provide a better and more efficient way to run your business. Instead of running business applications yourself, you can run them from a shared data center in the cloud. These data centers contain all the servers and IT expertise needed to manage business apps and keep them updated with the latest versions. Just like a utility, you plug in the app and use it instantly.
A simple comparison can be made with Gmail. Gmail users do not need to install servers and storage, don’t worry about upgrades and maintenance cycles, or need a technical team to keep it running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The data center run by Google provides all this hardware, software and technical expertise instead. All you do is log on, customize it and start using it.
Cloud computing is also changing the way we think about software, not just for consumer or smaller applications, but also for large-scale business applications. This is referred to as enterprise cloud computing, which involves running large enterprise scaled applications in data centers and accessing them through the cloud.
Businesses are running all kinds of apps in the cloud these days — accounting, human resources, CRM, email, banking — including their own custom-built apps. Why? Because you can be up and running within a few days, something that was unheard of using traditional business software. Cloud apps are also more scalable, more secure and more reliable than the vast majority of traditional business applications.
However, one of the biggest paradigm shifts that cloud computing has brought to the industry is the way in which we pay for these business apps. By utilizing the cloud, the cost of buying servers and software is eliminated. Instead, costs migrate from being a capital expenditure to an operational cost. This cost is then rolled up into a predictable monthly subscription, so you only pay for what you use.
This new model has given small companies, lean start-ups and entrepreneurs a fighting chance on the global business playing field, often enabling them to access the best business apps at a fraction of the cost of traditional enterprise applications.
The reason cloud-based business apps are more scalable and secure is that they are based on a multi-tenant architecture. Multi-tenancy refers to a principle in software architecture where a single instance of a business app runs on a server, serving multiple client organizations (tenants). This is the opposite of a multi-instance architecture, where multiple copies of the business app are running, each instance serving a client organization.
With a multi-tenant app, there isn’t a single copy of the application for each user. It’s one app that everyone shares, and it’s flexible enough to be customized for everyone’s individual business needs.
In simple terms, it’s like a giant office building where everyone shares the infrastructure and services such as security, lifts and reception, yet each business can customize its own office space. Business apps are designed to be elastic and can scale to supporting tens of thousands of users or scale down to only a few.
With a multi-tenant architecture as the backbone of cloud-based business apps, upgrades, security and performance enhancements can be automatically added at the data center and the users get the benefits immediately. For the entrepreneur, it means always running the latest version of the software with the latest feature set without worrying about complex upgrades or data management issues.
Setting up a business
on a budget
So now that we understand cloud computing, the big question is if you can run your business on it. The answer is that the amount spent on setting up and running a business is relative to the type of business and product you are offering. However, you should be able to do a lot on the cloud, including set up your business for €2,000 or less (Figure 1), depending on what kind of business you run. Here are the specific types of applications you may need:
Accounting: Accounting can cause panic attacks for young entrepreneurs. However, cloud-based accounting apps are highly customizable and freely available for every size of business. FreeAgent or SortMyBooks are two useful business applications.
Online store: Open a new channel to market your products by building an online store. Shopify is perhaps the best known eCommerce platform that enables businesses to build online stores in a matter of minutes. Even Angry Birds uses it. But businesses with a broader set of business to business requirements, like our company, use cleverbridge for establishing an online marketplace. It has never been so easy to set up your online store with these types of cloud-based business apps.
Online merchant accounts: If you have an online store, you’ll need an online merchant account. The market leader is PayPal and it makes processing payments from your clients quick and easy.
Business email: Email is the lifeline for any business — it’s how you generate leads, prospects and clients. For many, Microsoft Exchange has been the de facto standard. However, Google’s Gmail is a high-performance cloud app that is completely customizable for a small business and is provided free of charge. An email service provider such as MailChimp is also excellent for creating stylish email communications that can be integrated with social media and CRM software. A basic version is available for free, but the monthly subscription costs are reasonable and provide good value for money.
Company backups: If you have valuable files you can’t replace, the only real way to protect them is to back them up on a regular basis. In theory, this sounds easy, but it is one of the most basic and overlooked activities of small businesses. Carbonite is a cloud- based backup service that makes this task automatic and secure.
Company blog: Today’s progressive companies are embracing new engagement models for interacting and building relationships with potential clients. A company blog is the perfect way to do this. By providing interesting content you will promote your brand positively to readers who want to read your content. We use WordPress for blogging services, but Joomla! and Google’s Blogger also have some good features, and depending on your business needs, you can choose either free or paid versions. It costs less than €20 per year for a basic blog with a customized domain through WordPress.
CRM: Sales management is a key productivity and management tool for rapidly growing companies. Salesforce.com is the leading business app for managing client relationships and sales pipelines. However, OnePage CRM and Zoho CRM are cheaper alternatives. Both are based in the cloud and provide a rich set of features for managing your sales process.
File sharing: One of the biggest selling points for cloud business applications is the ability for multiple people to access and share files. Cloud apps such as Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft’s OneDrive or Apple iCloud make sharing files, reports and data with your clients or employees simple and easy. These apps can also double as a backup system for storing company files.
Marcom and business materials: Every business needs marketing materials such as business cards, brochures, logos and flyers. There are a number of free online applications available to design your marcom content. Adobe now offers its products within its online creative cloud for a monthly subscription service. Additionally, Tweak, Zazzle and VistaPrint offer excellent self-service marcom development products.
Productivity applications: Every business needs a word processor as well as spreadsheet and presentation applications — these are all available on the cloud and are completely free. For instance, Google Docs has word processing, spreadsheets and presentations combined into a single business app. And because all of your files are stored in the cloud, you can access your information anywhere in the world, even on holidays using a simple web browser. For businesses that prefer to use Microsoft products, Microsoft’s 365 provides its office suite for a minimal monthly subscription.
Social media: A presence on relevant social media is extremely important and managing multiple social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ can be time-consuming and challenging for a small business. It can also be complex since all these social media platforms have different interfaces and methods of sharing and disseminating information. Hootsuite is a simple yet powerful way to manage all these channels in one single interface. It also provides a data analytics capability to track the effectiveness of your social media strategy.
Cloud computing enables the best business apps to be delivered on-demand and in much the same way utilities deliver gas and electricity. This makes them cheap and easy to deploy in any organization regardless of size or budget.
For language service providers, the cloud holds endless possibilities; customized machine translation can be integrated into existing localization workflows; geographically dispersed sales teams can now coordinate, track and manage their sales efforts; and professional outbound email and marketing campaigns can now be orchestrated and managed by organizations of any size.
Finally, cloud-based business apps don’t eat up valuable resources. You don’t need any special hardware or software, and you don’t have to have expensive IT staff to manage your business apps, so CFOs will love it. But the shift to the on-demand model of cloud computing isn’t just about cost savings. Far more importantly, it’s about giving you the agility needed to act quickly on new opportunities without IT being on the critical path.