For entrepreneurs, the future is in the cloud. It offers infrastructure they can't afford on their own, and it can be equal to enterprise-class services at small business prices. In a recent global Microsoft survey, (http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/presskits/telecom/docs/SMBCloud.pdf) half of small and medium businesses estimated their usage of it will double within five years.
Why? Because small businesses don't have the entrenched infrastructure that burdens larger organizations, nor do they have the entrenched mindset that everything needs to be on-site, says Dell cloud evangelist Michael Elliott.
Of course, concerns remain over privacy and security, and over the robustness (or lack thereof) attached to consumer-grade services. Cloud providers have responded with affordable business-class apps, with free trials available. Here's a look at a few:
Freshbooks: Toronto-based FreshBooks (www.freshbooks.com) offers invoicing, expense tracking, time tracking and accounting reporting such as profit and loss statements and taxes. It accepts payments through a dozen gateways, from credit cards to PayPal. Add-ons from partners ramp up its functionality and include hooks into Salesforce.com and other customer relationship management (CRM) platforms, customer support, expense apps, export to accounting packages such as Sage Peachtree, and more. Free 30-day trial of both the desktop and mobile apps are available, as well as paid accounts ranging from $19.95 to $39.95 a month. A single user managing up to three accounts is always free.
Salesforce.com: One of the granddaddies of cloud services, Salesforce.com (www.salesforce.com) offers basic contact management, task and event tracking, e-mail integration through Outlook or Gmail, Google Apps, mobile access, a content library and customizable reports for $5 per user per month for up to five users, all the way up to a $250 a month per user for the unlimited CRM package.
Desk.com: Small operations often track customer support, both internal and external, on a spreadsheet if at all – a messy and not terribly reliable way to go about it. Cloud apps come to the rescue here, too. Desk.com is a "lite" socially oriented service desk for small business. For $59 per user per month it offers an agent console, multi-channel case management, Facebook and Twitter integration, live chat, self-service portal, a knowledge base and mobile application, among other features. A free 30-day trial is available.
Jitbit: Another small business-focused, cloud-based service desk, Jitbit (www.jitbit.com) costs $29 a month for the basic plan, which handles unlimited users and agents and 500 MB of storage. It provides trouble ticketing, a knowledge base, asset management and reporting. Up the ante to $48.85 a month for more storage and an SSL connection. The company also offers bundles including their help desk plus hosted CRM. A free two-month free trial is available.
Tier1CRM: The financial services industry is served by Tier1CRM (www.tier1crm.com). Built on the Salesforce.com platform, its products are individually priced and are available on the Salesforce.com AppExchange (www.appexchange.com).
Yammer: Small business communications and collaboration often happen over consumer forums, with the risk that the wrong people may see the correspondence. Yammer (www.yammer.com) is a free business-grade equivalent that allows functionality while protecting the business. Acquired by Microsoft earlier this year, it offers corporate social networking and collaboration via the Web, smartphone, desktop or SharePoint (paid version only), and can be embedded in company-developed apps. A Yammer site is restricted to a company's employees. It can be customized and branded, and it offers all of the security and reporting functions one could expect from an in-house system, without needing the resources. It has a basic free version, plus two paid levels with additional features for $5 and $15 per user per month, respectively.
Chatter: From the folks at Salesforce.com, Chatter (www.chatter.com) is also free to everyone in a company and provides a collaboration platform with both public and private messaging among employees. Like Yammer, it is restricted to a company's employees, defined as anyone whose e-mail address is in the same domain. It is also integrated with many Salesforce.com products.
Office 365: Finally, you can find general productivity suites online as well. Microsoft offers its Office products in the cloud as Office 365 (http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/office365/compare-plans.aspx), for $6 per user per month and up. The basic plan, for companies of up to 50 users, gives you cloud-based e-mail, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, shared calendars, anti-malware protection and more. The $8-per-user-per-month plan, which lacks the 50-user cap, adds Active Directory synchronization, a SharePoint intranet, IT-level phone support and additional security options. The top-level plan, at $20 per user per month, provides everything in the lower levels plus a subscription to the desktop version of Office Professional Plus for up to five devices per user, e-mail archiving and unlimited mail storage and hosted voice mail. Free trials are available for the top and bottom levels.