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A ragpicker carries a sack on his head in the northeastern Indian city of Siliguri July 3, 2007.

For a small business, the uses of the web can seem well-defined after a while: It's a place for advertising, for networking and brand-building, for seeking customers and making sales.

But the relentless rise of cloud-based services - or call them what you will: software-as-a-service, or hosted solutions - is making it affordable to use the web for purposes you might not have considered.

One of the selling points of cloud services is that they take the hassle out of software. There's no purchasing, no installation, and no upgrading - it's all looked after online. Since maintenance is part of the deal, online services usually charge a monthly fee instead of the one-off cost of regular software. One benefit to this model is that you can try most services for free before deciding whether to open your wallet.

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Even if you haven't adopted these kinds of software tools in the first place, the relative painlessness makes it worthwhile to ask whether the web can help your business in ways you might not have considered:

Customer relationship management

CRM has long been an acronym that big businesses have tangled with more than small ones. CRM is a software field dedicated to keeping track of prospects and customers, and all the details that go with them: Their sales histories, their personal preferences, their requests and requirements - anything you might want to remember about them. All of these can be logged and pulled up at a moments notice, so a conversation with them can be seamlessly picked up the next time they call.

If sales are hopping and staff are harried, this can be as useful for a small firm as it is for an international conglomerate. Now, big players in the CRM field are specifically targeting small business with web-based, easy-to-install packages. SalesForce, the 600-pound gorilla of CRM, offers small-business packages from $2 (U.S.) a user, per month. At its most basic level, SalesForce will track customers, store contacts, and issue reminders, while more expensive editions integrate sales tools such as web analytics for your site.

For software more specifically designed for small business, Capsule CRM is simple, cleanly designed and offers free and professional editions for $12 a user per month.

Project management

Project management is code for a handful of related applications, integrated together: A calendar for managing who's supposed to be doing what and when, file-sharing and collaborative writing for staying on the same page, and messaging features to bring a team together. A staple of corporate IT, it represents a more integrated approach to running a project that's spread between multiple offices and collaborators than the usual sea of e-mails and calendar invites.

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But with affordable options on the market, project management can make sense for small business too, especially for projects where multiple small or home-based businesses are collaborating on a project. A hosted, web-based solution makes all the more sense in a situation where different firms are likely to be using different computer platforms.

Consider Basecamp, which might be the most prominent project-management tool. Plans range from $49 to $149 a month, and the tool integrates e-mail, file-storage, wiki-style co-writing spaces, and (no-app-required) mobile service. It's hardly the only option, though: Competitors such as GoPlan and Zoho Projects offer similar features at slightly lower prices.

The billing

Many small businesses are more comfortable keeping their finances local. But when the time comes to re-evaluate your accounting software, cast an eye toward the web-based packages that are making steady inroads in the market. Unnerving as it might be to entrust your financials to a third party, it has security upsides: You're protected from hard-drive failures, and backups are guaranteed. Cloud-based financials can be accessed from anywhere, and the are mobile-friendly to boot.

Take a look at Toronto-based FreshBooks, the well-respected firm with a streamlined package geared toward professionals for whom invoicing is the bulk of their accounting work. (It also provides expense-tracking, tax-management and bookkeeping options.) Unlimited-usage plans start at $29.99 a month.

Or, for full-bore accounting, check out Xero, which offers a double-entry general ledger, manual journals, management reporting, and audit reports - features fit to please a money-management professional. (Xero seamlessly integrates with FreshBooks and CapsuleCRM, among others.) Pricing for unlimited-invoicing packages starts at $29 a month.

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This concludes a four-part series. Other stories can continue to be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website every Monday and Thursday.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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