Handy technology tips for helping your business grow

It's a good time for small businesses to experiment with tech tools that may have previously been out of their price range or expertise level, thanks to something called "the cloud."

A small business doesn't necessarily have expertise in technology, and a lot of time can be wasted figuring out what hardware, software and services are the right fit. Others just avoid new technology altogether, potentially leaving them at a competitive disadvantage.

Fortunately, it's a good time for small businesses to experiment with tech tools that may have previously been out of their price range or expertise level, thanks to something called "the cloud."

While there are varying definitions of cloud computing, it's basically about taking applications that were previously on your desktop computer and accessing them remotely through shared computing resources "in the cloud."

This is just a fancy way of saying that the software — everything from simple word processors to complex customer-relationship-management systems — is hosted on servers on the internet, and often accessed through a common web browser. (The name stems from diagrams of networks, which often represent the internet as a cloud.)

For a small business that doesn't have a lot of money to spend on new technology, or people to manage it, the evolving state of cloud computing offers new ways of using technology. Businesses can get easy, affordable access to a range of tools, from office suites to online meeting services to accounting programs.

"Small businesses need to be thinking about more than just tangible technologies that they buy," said Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst. "They need to be thinking about services that remove the need to buy those physical technologies in the first place."

Small businesses shouldn't be scared off by the term "cloud," he added, because in many respects cloud-based computing reflects services they've been using all along. "If you have a Hotmail or Gmail account, you've been using cloud for years."

'Simplifies your life'

Increasingly, software that companies used to buy at a retail store or from an IT reseller is now available as a subscribe-to service online.

"This simplifies your IT life, so you can get on with the business of running your business and not get sucked into the technology on which you run your business," Levy said.

And it offers the ability to procure services without any preconceived notion of time or volume commitments. For a small business, that's ideal, said Yvon Audette, technology lead with KPMG Canada. That's also what separates it from traditional outsourcing or application service provider relationships.

Cloud services are typically pay-as-you-go, without having to commit to long-term contracts that may not suit the business six or 12 months down the road.

"[Technology] becomes more of an operating expense they can choose to scale up or down, depending on their business volume," Audette said.

The cloud can help smaller businesses play at a more sophisticated level with technology — from operations to customer relations to sales and marketing, said Paul Edwards, a technology analyst with IDC Canada. "But I'm not saying cloud computing is the great panacea; it isn't."

It doesn't always make sense for every application, nor is it always the cheapest option. And because data "in the cloud" may be stored in another province or country, Canadian companies could face regulatory compliance or privacy hurdles.

But there are ways around that, said Audette, such as tools called proxy engines that will keep data on Canadian soil.

Do your homework

What this means is small businesses have to do their homework before throwing their business applications in the cloud. Some businesses, for example, will find it makes sense to buy traditional licences for an office suite, so employees can access word processing, spreadsheets and applications on their desktop.

For others, a cloud option — such as Google Docs, Microsoft Web Apps or Zoho Docs — would work just as well. The basic versions of most cloud-based office suites are free (with pay-as-you-go options for advanced features) and are accessible through a browser. If employees want the comfort of software installed on their computer, they could download (an open source offering) as a standard default, combined with a cloud offering.

"Cloud gives you the ability to try things without having [to commit]," said Audette.

A few employees could try out Google Docs and Office Web Apps, for example, and then make an informed choice about what works best for their needs. "You can be creative in how you go through an evaluation process," he said.

There's also a vast array of business tools available in the cloud, such as (a customer relationship management application that manages customer contacts and leads) and FreshBooks (an accounting application that provides invoicing and time tracking for small businesses).

Storing documents in the cloud means employees can access them anywhere they have an internet connection — and they don't have to worry about backing them up. Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) and Microsoft's Live Mesh both offer online storage, but there are plenty of niche players in this space that open the door to online collaboration.

"Wikimedia allows you to share any kind of document, and we use it to create schedules and meeting minutes and knowledge bases," said Jason Ernst, a consultant with Ernst Consulting. "And you can privatize them."

Worry-free storage

Other tools, such as and Dropbox, allow you to store documents online, and other people can download them if you give them a link — serving as a hub for a virtual office.

"It's more of a process than anything else," said Levy. "You don't have to worry about storage or backup or disaster recovery because it all exists in the cloud."

Online meeting services are another form of cloud-based services, such as WebEx or GoToMeeting, which include voice, video and online whiteboarding capabilities. Skype is one of the more popular chat services, but others are tailored for business meetings, such as Tinychat (a free service that provides web-based video chat for several business partners) and Dimdim (free for up to 10 people in a meeting).

For small businesses with distributed groups of stakeholders, these tools are a low-cost option for bringing people together without having to travel, said Levy, and they also allow them to engage with existing or potential customers.

"Your potential market grows, because you're no longer limited by geographic proximity, as long as you can use these tools to connect with prospects," he said.