Cloud services offer companies access to many business applications and software on a pay-as-you-go basis. For small firms, the right cloud-based services can deliver increased flexibility, security and significant savings.
Gmail, for example, is the cloud-based email service by Google. “Gmail is very flexible and powerful, and more than sufficient for the vast majority of small firms,” says Robert Davies, owner of IT consultancy Kashiko. Note that you’ll need to use the version of Gmail that's built into Google Apps to get an address that uses your company’s own domain name.
In terms of word processing, Microsoft’s Office 365 gives you access to Office functionality for your documents, contacts and calendars, starting from £4 per user per month. “For most small firms, Office 365 offers everything you could want in terms of word processing,” explains Davies.
If you want to share any type of document, Microsoft offers SharePoint and Google has Google Docs. With both you can publish files online securely so that only you and colleagues with passwords can access them.
Some of the main options include Sage One, KashFlow, Free Agent, Xero, QuickBooks Online and Clear Books. They help you create invoices, keep track of income and expenditure, manage your banking and file VAT returns.
“They give you a snapshot of your profit and loss,” says Elaine Clark, managing director of Cheap Accounting. “I believe every business should know how profitable they are, if not every week, at least every month. Cloud options allow you to do that. And these services can also flag up issues — such as if a business is reaching the threshold for VAT registration.”
But how do you choose the right service for your business? “Everyone has different needs,” stresses Clark. “If you’re on the go a lot, you might want to choose one with [a phone] app so you can update your accounts from anywhere. But for most, it will come down to the look and feel. Most services offer free trials so you can try them before you sign up.”
One option for small online retailers is to sign up to a cloud-based ecommerce application to handle orders and process payments. Well-established services include SellerDeck, Tiger Commerce and ekmPowershop. Monthly prices start around £18-20.
“For ecommerce systems, the trend is towards cloud-based services,” says Nick Kington, managing director at SellerDeck. “There’s no software to install or download and no system requirements so it’s much easier and faster to get started.”
Like all cloud-based services, you can access the system from anywhere. The other advantage for small firms is the pricing model — there’s no upfront investment. You pay a monthly fee and for most there’s no commitment beyond the end of the month, adds Kington.
Cloud-based storage is a secure way to back up your files that guarantees access from anywhere.
There are many players in this market including Rackspace Hosting, Just Cloud, ZipCloud, Dropbox, Mozy, Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive. The critical factors for small firms are ease of use, price, download/upload speeds, storage space, technical support and reliability.
“The good thing about cloud-based storage services is that all the information is stored externally,” explains Davies. “In the event of fire or theft, it’s all kept for you.”
Another advantage is that everything is centralised — no more worries about finding the latest versions of files in different places. “It’s ideal for small-business owners who work from home and travel. It’s a great way to be able to bring up information in a client’s office, for example. These services offer encrypted logins so are very secure,” adds Davies.
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