How to Use Cloud Apps to Boost Your Small Business
Entrepreneurs can tap into these nine apps anytime, anywhere, to become more productive and profitable
Gwen Moran is a small business authority and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Business Plans.
iStockphoto | Thinkstock
You’ve probably read about cloud computing and cloud-based apps, but you may not know that the cloud can be a boon to your small business. These apps can help you with everything from remembering your daily to-do list to tracking your business’s finances to hosting online meetings with staffers, customers or prospects.
Put simply, cloud computing means housing your data, apps and other business tools through a hosting-service company’s Internet connection, rather than on your hard drive or in-house server. As the Next Avenue article The Future of Data Storage Is In the Clouds noted, the cloud has two chief advantages: Your data will be safe if your computer crashes, and you can access your digital files and apps anywhere, anytime, from multiple electronic devices such as your laptop, desktop, smartphone and tablet. Cloud-based apps are usually protected by encryption and online security measures that are better than those on home computers, so you needn't worry about sensitive data getting hacked.
Entrepreneurs are continually adding cloud-based apps to run their companies more efficiently and profitably. Small businesses that already use the cloud are expected to increase the number of those apps to seven this year, on average, according to a survey by Dell Cloud Business Applications and Techaisle.
To help you sort through cloudland, I’ve listed the categories in which the apps can be most useful, and nine services you might want to get, including some that are just plain fun.
Projects and Productivity
DROPBOX lets you share your documents, photos, videos, PowerPoint presentations and other data with anyone who has the app, though two people can't work on a file at the same time. Any file you save to Dropbox will automatically sync to every other Dropbox-enabled device or computer you have. Unlike Google Docs, you can store audio and video files. Unless you’ll be working with a lot of big video or sound files, Dropbox’s Pro 50 level should be sufficient, with a roomy 50GB of space for $9.99 per month or $99 per year.
ZOHO is a powerful suite of 22 apps that helps you perform a wide range of tasks — from managing customer accounts to generating invoices to sending email to host web conferences — even if you’re not a techie. You pick and choose the apps your business needs. If you're a one-person business, Zoho is free. Otherwise, each of Zoho’s services has a free version to try out (the length of the free trial depends on the service you choose); after that, its app prices typically run from $3 to $25 per user per month.
EVERNOTE is a great alternative to posting notes all around your office and cluttering your corkboard. It lets you save, in digital files, things like snippets of information, photos of products, travel itineraries, web sites and even your handwritten notes. You just type keywords into the search bar (like "Ben’s photo" or "office supplies list") and Evernote finds what you’re looking for. Try the free basic version. As you use Evernote more, you can upgrade to its premium product (cost: $5 per month or $45 per year) with enhanced features like bigger uploads, more sophisticated collaboration tools, and note-taking history, which lets you revisit previous versions of your notes.
Time and Task Management
BASECAMP is a terrific tool for keeping yourself or a small group on track. It’s especially helpful when you want to collaborate with employees, clients and freelancers: You can use it to set, share and revise deadlines and tasks as well as to work together on documents. Basecamp’s features include a calendar, to-do lists, sharing tools and task tracking to check on the status of your projects. After a 45-day free trial, the price starts at $20 per month. (If you run your business alone, REMEMBER THE MILK is a good to-do list alternative to Basecamp, and it’s free.)
TOGGL is an easy, intuitive tool for tracking the time you, your employees or your contractors spend on projects. It’s free for 30 days and $5 per user per month after that.
QUICKBOOKS ONLINE is the cloud version of the classic Quickbooks bookkeeping software package. You can invoice, log payments, generate reports, review sales history and do everything else Quickbook lets you do. But since it’s in the cloud, you won’t have to carry around all your business’s financial records on your laptop. And it doesn't require you to keep updating Quickbooks software, since you’ll always be working in the latest version. The free trial period lasts 30 days; after that, Quickbooks charges $12.95 per month and up, depending on your needs.
XPENSER is a handy way to log business receipts, expenses and mileage. I especially like the receipts feature: Instead of stuffing paper receipts into your pockets, snap a photo with your smartphone or tablet, and Xpenser keeps images of them organized. You’ll thank me for this tip at tax-time when you’re not fishing under the front seat of the car for that dinner receipt from six months ago. Xpenser also lets you export its data easily to Quickbooks, Fresh Books and other accounting programs. After a 30-day free trial, the cost is $9 per user per month.
Sales and Marketing
SALESFORCE is one of the biggest names in cloud computing for small businesses. Think of it as a one-size-fits-most solution that helps you analyze your customers’ buying habits as well as keep track of and measure the impact of your sales and marketing efforts. An enhanced version also lets you determine the best keywords for a Google AdWords digital advertising program. You can start with a one- or two-week free trial; after that, you'll pay $2 or $15 per user per month, depending on the features you choose.
Which cloud-based applications have you found useful? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I might write a future blog post about them. Thanks!