Running Your Small Business in the Cloud

As mobility and fast Internet connections become nearly ubiquitous, the idea of a small business installing, running and updating software on its own system is largely being replaced by the ability to run those same (or better) applications online.

So-called cloud applications and services, such as web-based email and productivity suites, are delivered and accessed over the Internet. Email is probably the most common cloud application, but a wide range of services are available to meet almost any small business technology need.

According to market research provider Gartner, nearly two-thirds of small businesses use cloud applications for at least part of their software needs.

And over time, cloud computing will become harder to avoid. A number of popular desktop software programs are now available only as cloud services, with one-size-fit-all applications being customized for different company sizes and features.

For instance, accounting, bookkeeping and CRM software apps are available in versions ranging from sole proprietors to medium-sized companies. Programs designed for larger organizations will typically offer complex features that a smaller company is less likely to need or use.

Another advantage is many cloud productivity suites offer several programs that either had to be installed separately or required users to transfer data manually from program to program.

Powerful Software Online

Small business applications designed for small business users are usually at least as powerful as installed or on-premise software. Some providers have customized their cloud applications specifically for small business users by, for example, taking away complex features that may be suitable for a large enterprise, but which small business users are not likely to take advantage of.

This streamlined feature set makes programs easier to us and reduces the odds of inexpensive but complex software programs being overlooked as employees find ways to get work done.

Common small business functions that can be carried out with cloud-based tools include:

  • Finance, accounting and taxes that download information from your banks and enable collaboration with your accountant or bookkeeper
  • Ecommerce suites that automate orders, invoices and inventory
  • Customer relationship management that stores contact information for customers and prospects, while also tracking your company’s interactions with them
  • File sharing tools that enable team members to collaborate on documents while reducing your dependency on a file stored on someone’s hard drive
  • Timekeeping and payroll that records team members’ schedules and hours, and submits the appropriate information to your bookkeeper or payroll service.

Cloud Advantages

Moving applications to cloud providers offers a number of potential benefits to small businesses, starting with the ability to access applications and data where ever you have Internet access.

This can provide powerful advantages in increasing your productivity while you are on the go, such as updating your CRM records after a customer or prospect meeting, or approving invoices from outside the office. Most cloud services also have dedicated smartphone or tablet apps that allow you to remain productive while using mobile devices.

This online access can also provide advantages in adding remote workers or contractors to your staff without having to worry about additional software licenses or network permissions.

Using cloud applications can also reduce your software-related costs.

Instead of buying more software licenses than your company may need for future growth, cloud services allow you to scale the number of users up-and-down as your company’s needs vary.

Some companies may need to upgrade their ecommerce service to handle seasonal demand, for instance, and cloud providers offer you the ability to adjust your service level to accommodate this short-term surge. Because cloud services are typically sold as a monthly subscription, you can easily tweak your software purchases to reflect your needs.

Automated backup is another benefit of using cloud services. Your provider will automatically back up your data, often several times, so you don’t have to worry about a natural disaster or theft of your IT gear affecting your ability to run your business. This is an important benefit for many companies, since backing up their data is often overlooked in the day-to-day rush of running a small business.

Another cloud advantage is eliminating the need to install programs on your company servers or computers. In most cases, all you have to do is enter your user ID and password and you are ready to go. While you still have to learn how to use the software and its features, at least you do not have the hassle installing it and ensuring compatibility with your existing IT system.

Similarly, cloud software is updated automatically. Every time you log in, you are using the latest version. This helps reduce the amount of time and potential annoyance associated with updating software, as well as the risk of installing an update that does not work as well on your system as the previous version did.

Cloud Security

The idea of storing important small business data on a remote server has been, understandably, a common reason for small business owners to be hesitant about adopting cloud services. While that concern makes sense, cloud providers stress that, in most businesses, their security systems are probably more robust than those of their customers.

Because most cloud providers are larger companies than the small businesses they are serving, they can hire security pros and make the investment in security practices and technologies that are often beyond the reach of most small businesses.

Potential Drawbacks

Security aside, there are a number of other potential drawbacks to running your small business primarily in the cloud. While most of these are unlikely, it is important to understand what you are getting into as you adopt cloud applications.

For starters, because cloud applications (by their nature) require Internet access, it’s important to make sure your company’s Internet service is robust enough to handle the demand. If you have a slow connection, for instance, it can be difficult or frustrating to use cloud applications for the majority of the day.

Similarly, although they are rare, cloud providers can experience periodic outages. This does not happen often, but it can affect your company’s productivity if you can’t access services or information you’re counting on.

It’s also a good idea to research the cloud provider’s reputation for customer service before making a commitment. Check online reviews to see you what kind of service the provider is delivering, if they have experienced any outages, and, more importantly, how they respond to service issues.

Planning an Implementation

As you consider migrating your small business to the cloud, it may be helpful to remember that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Most small businesses have a blend of cloud and installed software, and it’s important to identify the software that is best suited for your needs.

To minimize the disruption to your business, it’s probably a good idea to pick one cloud service and give employees time to get accustomed to using it before adding another one. This gradual migration to the cloud help people get work done without worrying too much about the software they’re using.