Cashing in on Cloud Computing

Most small business owners shun fancy business technology buzz words, and the term “cloud computing” certainly qualifies. But like it or not, the idea of using cloud computing services hits a bull’s-eye for the kind of low-cost, high-efficiency and flexible computing services that small companies need.

Basically, a “cloud computing” service is one you access and use completely online. True cloud services require no software to purchase or install, although there could be some minor plug-in you’ll need to access the service. Cloud services are often priced by subscription, and sometimes for free at low-volume usage levels. You can typically sign up month-to-month, annually (cheaper) or buy a la carte.

Flexibility is a huge draw. Solo entrepreneurs or growing companies with dozens of employees might use the same service (albeit at different levels). In the cloud, the service can grow as you grow.

Cloud applications are the future, and the adoption rate among small and mid-sized businesses is soaring. A new study by MarketBridge, a tech services provider, found that 44 percent of small and medium businesses are using at least one cloud-based service, and 70 percent say they’ll do more in the cloud this year.

“Adoption of cloud-based information technology by mid-market and small companies – particularly in marketing, sales, and customer Intelligence – is happening more rapidly than many industry analysts predicted,” says Tim Furey, founder of MarketBridge. “There’s no doubt that the shift will continue over the next 2-3 years.”

Here are a few of the most popular and noteworthy cloud services for small business:

Freshbooks.com – among the first online invoicing services – has hundreds of thousands of users and an expanding lineup of web-based services. Its core service lets you send and manage invoices and collect payments online. You can brand your system and invoices with your company’s logo. Where FreshBooks stands apart from most other services is its ability to also let you track time and expenses for yourself, your staff or contractors who may be working on various projects with your team.

Google Apps: The global Internet giant has morphed into a multi-faceted tool that you can use to help launch and grow your small business in the cloud. No matter what size business you operate, Google Apps can help you stretch resources and work smarter. Google Docs, for example, enhances productivity and eliminates the need to collaborate with attachments. You can start a project with software like Microsoft Office, and use Google Docs to share files with others for collaborative editing.

Everyone accesses the same online copy of the file in Google Docs, so there are no attachment compatibility problems, inbox storage quota issues, or versions to reconcile. When the group is done editing, you can keep the file in Google Docs, or export it back to the original format.  Google also lets you offer private-labeled email and calendar tools to all of your users for free. You can design and publish your Web site, too. It’s all hosted by Google, so there’s no hardware or software to install.

DimDim: When it comes to collaborating online, services such as WebEx and GoToMeeting get all the attention. But they aren’t the only players. With DimDim, one click lets you share your computer screen, documents, websites and webcam. DimDim is super easy to use and is free for up to 10 participants with free audio conferencing as well.  And it works on Macs too. Basically, if you can browse to a web page, you can use this tool. When you host a meeting via DimDim, there’s no software to install and the people you invite to the meeting don’t have to install anything either.  And you don’t have to schedule meetings in advance.  Just IM, phone, email or Tweet a unique link to your meeting. Solutions for meetings with more than 10 participants start at $25 per month.

Other popular cloud services include SalesForce.com (customer relationship management, or CRM); Dropbox (online file sharing and storage); Vertical Response (email marketing); Bill.com (online bookkeeping and invoicing); and Quickbase (database management).

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About the Author: Daniel Kehrer, Founder and Chief Content Officer of BizBest Media, is a senior-level leader in digital media, content development and online marketing with special expertise in startups, SMB, social media and generating traffic, engagement and leads. He holds an MBA from UCLA/Anderson and is a passionate entrepreneur (started 4 businesses), syndicated columnist, blogger, thought leader and author of 7 business and financial books.

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