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Five essential cloud-based tools for start-ups

Monday, 3 October 2011 | By Oliver Milman

A couple of years ago, business owners didn’t think about the cloud unless they were flying through one on the way to a major client meeting.


How times have changed. Not only is cloud, or web-based, technology providing start-ups with great entrepreneurial opportunities - from Saasu in accountancy to Dropbox in file sharing – it is also changing the way businesses operate.


According to figures released by Ovum last week, the cloud computing market will generate revenues of $12 billion in Asia-Pacific by 2016.


This growth, according to Ovum, will be driven by a soaring interest among small businesses for cloud-based applications.


“There are still a few mis-conceptions about the cloud – that it’s too difficult, too techie and that it’s not for non-web businesses,” says digital marketing strategist Adam Franklin.


“But I think attitudes are changing. People are perfectly happy to do their banking online, so once the penny drops that the cloud is much the same, as well as being so cost-effective, it will really take off. It’s a no-brainer.”


Franklin favours the 37 Signals suite, which includes the Base Camp project management system and contacts accumulator High Rise.


Ask another tech industry player and you’ll get another pet favourite – Mick Liubinskas, co-founder of Pollenizer, says that you can’t look beyond DropBox or One Password.


“It all depends on who your advisors are really, what your accountant or tech guy is telling you,” he says. “But in many ways the cloud is more secure than hard drives, which can crash.”


“With the cloud, multiple people can log onto the same file at the same time. It’s so much faster and efficient. You pay a couple of hundred bucks and you have peace of mind.”


“My computer crashed recently and all I needed was One Password, which backed up all my bookmarks, and 15 minutes later I was up and running again with no material difference.”


Online entrepreneur Fred Schebesta says that not working in the cloud turns business founders into “mini IT managers.”


“We’ve got people working for us in the Philippines and Mexico and it’s so easy to do when you’re in the cloud,” he says.


“In terms of what you’re saving a year, it will be around $3,000 on software, a further $5,000 on hardware, $5,000 on the redundancy savings and then another $4,000 on the tech guys that you would otherwise have to use.”


So, working in the cloud can save cash-strapped start-ups money, aid collaboration and significantly boost productivity.


But, with so many different cloud computing products out there, what are the essentials that can make an actual impact for your business?


Paul Wallbank, business writer, broadcaster and author of eBusiness, Seven Steps to Online Success, has boiled things down to offer his top five cloud computing tools that you should consider.

1. Google Apps


The free version of Google Apps allows 10 users to work together on the same documents and spread sheets.


This on its own is a compelling reason for cost aware start-ups to use the service.


While Google Apps’ features are somewhat light compared to competing office suites like Microsoft Office or Apple’s iWork, it’s more than adequate for the basic office tasks.


Google Apps’ real time collaborative functions – which allow different staff members to work on a file at the same time – make it a winner for cost conscious teams.


2. Cloud accounting


Watching the pennies is key to any new business’ survival so having a simple accounting program where it’s painless to enter expenses and track spending is essential.


Accounting software is one area where cloud based services come into their own and there are a range of online services that meet the needs of most businesses.


Two of the better ones for Australian businesses are Xero and Saasu. Like most cloud services, the accounting platforms offer a free trial to let you see if their software is for you.


3. File sharing


Sharing files across teams and with contractors, clients and service providers used to be a pain involving sending around disks or struggling with email and file servers.


Services like Dropbox and Box.net allow you to upload files and give selected users access to folders, saving problems with version control and arguments on who has the latest copy of a file.


Most of the file sharing services are free until you reach a data limit where a payment kicks in, so again they’re ideal for the cash strapped start-up.


4. Keeping in touch


Once you have customers, you want to keep them and a regular email newsletter is an easy way to let your clients you’re still around and what’s happening.


Mailchimp is one of the easiest to use newsletter programs with tracking tools that tell you who is opening your emails and what they are clicking on.


An added benefit of Mailchimp is their service complies with the requirements of the Spam Act, ensuring that you won’t inadvertently fall foul of the law while irritating potential customers.


Like the file sharing programs, Mailchimp is free for mailing lists of up to 2,000 or 10,000 messages sent a month so it’s good value for businesses wanting to stretch their capital further.


5. Analytics


The internet is today’s business shopfront and we need to know who is visiting our website and what they are doing when they get there. Google’s free analytics program is just the tool for doing that.


While free, Google Analytics is full of features which give business owners a comprehensive picture of online visitors’ behaviour. For any start-up, this service is essential addition to their website.


Most of these tools are a great addition to any established businesses, but for start-ups the opportunity to use big business tools without spending a fortune makes it hard not to use cloud computing services.