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part two: all-in-one solutions

For a lot of small and medium-sized businesses, the idea of using a piece of software or tech service that does as much of the heavy lifting as possible for you is pretty appealing.

After all, someone who's running a clothing store doesn't necessarily want to spend days on end learning Javascript to update the business's website.

But with the myriad all-in-one options available today, the question is how much of a company's tech tasks should be handed over to a third party.

One of the biggest drivers of the all-in-one tech industry in recent years has been the rise of the cloud.

All websites are basically cloud services (accessible from anywhere via the Internet), but the software used to build them – indeed, the software used to do just about anything – has traditionally resided on the user's own computer.

As such, many small and medium-sized businesses tended to run on an assortment of different programs that got the job done but didn't offer much efficiency.

But with cloud-based services, a number of companies now offer entire suites of remotely hosted software.

And since all the software is designed by the same company, it's much easier to migrate data from one program to the other. In short, users don't have to waste time re-entering the same data to get different things done.

Integrated software solutions have been around for years (think Microsoft Office). Even the integration of Web-based tools into those software suites isn't new – some word-processing programs have long allowed users to output their documents in HTML format.

But those solutions have become somewhat inadequate. For one thing, many such tools were developed at a time when a Web site was a peripheral addition to a small business's core workings, something to post pictures of your products on.

But for many small businesses today, a website is the core business, a place where customers can buy the products directly.

In response, a number of companies have built all-in-one solutions that place the website builder at the centre of the software suite, integrating all kinds of more complex services, such as on-line checkouts and purchasing systems.

Indeed, there's a variety of such tools available today, each with a slightly different flavour.

"One of the biggest challenges is making people aware that there's these kind of packages out there," says Jay Moonah, vice-president of marketing for Wild Apricot, which sells an all-in-one website and membership management software for small businesses and associations.

"A lot of people still think they need to spend $10,000 or $20,000 to get a decent custom website."

Wild Apricot, which started life making custom software but began focusing exclusively on its integrated Web site product about five years ago, is among the new wave of companies offering small businesses and groups all-in-one Web solutions via the cloud.

The 30-employee firm offers a free version of its product for associations with 50 or fewer members, but the paid product comes with a subscription fee of between $25 and about $200 a month. The company currently has about 4,500 paying subscribers.

There are still plenty of hurdles keeping small businesses from adopting cloud-based all-in-one solutions, such as entrusting some of the business' core functions to a third-party, and figuring out exactly which niche developer best fits your business (Wild Apricot focuses almost exclusively on membership-based businesses and groups, from non-profits to cooking schools).

But as Mr. Moonah notes, the main selling point of such services for small business owners is often the prospect of avoiding all the complex technical work.

"Our benchmark internally is, if you can use word-processing software to write a letter … you can use our software," he says.

"That's the level of sophistication needed."

The series continues next Thursday. Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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