Entrepreneurial Approach to Building an Organized Cloud-Based Enterprise Systems

Posted By Brie Austin In Category: Business , Reviews

As entrepreneurs we’re constantly forced to play technology catch-up in an effort to stay connected, informed and available (to our clients). An Entrepreneurial Approach to Building an Organized Cloud-Based Enterprise System could be mind-spinning to know what we need, where to get it, and how to use it. So the first thing I’d recommend, is to cut through all the clutter and focus first on the basics and build a solid foundation…

I’m a gadget freak; I grew up as a kid waiting for the future to arrive: it had always seemed just one more year away. My first cellphone [in 1986] cost $3,000 and $1 per minute, but I could envision everyone having the “communicator” like the crew aboard the U.S.S Enterprise had.

When PDA’s were introduced I resisted the urge to buy a Palm — because I knew that a single unit with PDA, phone and music was just a year away. O.K., so it took a litttttle longer than I expected. But finally, practical, robust and useful technology is finally here, and affordable — both in mobile apps and web cloud-based services. Where to start?

Organized Cloud-Based Enterprise Systems

THE NEEDS

No matter what type of entrepreneur you are, and regardless of whether you have lots of employees, or are a one-person company who only needs to communicate with contract-agents vendors and clients, you’re going to need a suite of basic tools: (1) email, (2) video conferencing, (3) documents, (4) spreadsheets, (5) telecommunications, (6) calendars [for appointment and project workflows], (7) a website — which also mean a domain (URL), and web hosting, (9) a social media presence, and (10) accounting and billing software, to name just a few.

The more integrated your software is, the cumbersome it is to manage all your applications and tools. Last year when I set up a new company, I decided to take the time to look around and find the right bundle of tools to fulfill the needs of my business.

Price was certainly a consideration, and therefore I didn’t even look at costly offerings; I’m a grassroots bootstrap type of entrepreneur, so I needed something that was cost-effective, would help keep me organized, and that I could get up and running quickly.

After attending trade shows, talking to a lot of people, reading articles and testing things, I liked HubSpot.com, but settled into Google and a few add-on products that so far have met my needs. Perhaps they will serve yours.

BUILDING A WEB PRESENCE AND COMMUNICATION/MANAGEMENT SUITE

1) Website presence: you’ll need a URL (domain name), website, and a hosting platform. I used i2webtools.com; the rates are competitive, the service reliable and there is 24/7 customer support that was able to walk me through any questions I had.

Once you set up a free account, use the search box on the homepage to find and secure a domain name: note that there are many types of extensions to choose from; such as .com, .org, .biz, .TV, .me, .co, and .us — to name but a few (they range from $3.00 to $10 per year). Once you secure (or transfer) your domain name(s), you can then also secure and manage a hosting account within that same account (from $3.99 – $14.99 per month).

NOTE: DON’T create an email account at i2 Web Tools, as it will interfere with step 2 below, and email will be handled there.

For your website, you can your own (See “website Tonight” under the Build A Website tab) for a price of $4.99 – 12.99 per month (which includes hosting). If you prefer a custom built site ($200 – $700) using open-source software like WordPress, Joomla or Drupal, I would recommend you contact admin@i2mediainc.com — they do nice cost-effective work, and have a good business knowledge-base to figure out what you need; I’ve written for some of the sites they’ve built.

2) Email and a suite of robust integrated tools. After looking around — a lot –, I zero’d in on Google Apps for Business (free trial) for several reasons: it was only $50 per year (per user), can accommodate and organize multiple domains with one login, has tons of free integrated Google products, and a third-party marketplace loaded with other software tools that ‘plug-into’ the Google system. And, if you’re a one-man show, you can still collaborate with outside third-parties for no additional cost.

Before setting up your account, be sure to have an existing outiside email account that doesn’t use your domain name — like a @hotmail.com, @yahoo.com, @Aol.com or @otherdomain.com, for example.

Once your account is active, then you’ll want to go to the Dashboard, and click Domain Settings and make sure everything is correct. Click Appearance and you can upload your business logo that will be branded throughout your Google apps. Next set up your private domain email @yourdomian.com.

If you have more than one domain, you can add others later. My first GAfB account has one main domain and one user, with three other domains set up aliases. This means that domain1.com is my primary with one user ‘brie” The domains then use the same user “brie” for all the domains i.e.brie@domain1.com brie@domain2.com andbrie@domain3.com. Moreover, my user can have unlimited ‘nicknames’ such as billing, sales, or admin, and it is applied to all the domains, so I can run multiple company domains and multiple identities within those domains, all from one place.

Recently, however, I became CEO of a publicly-traded company (under my birth name). No problem. I simply added two more domains as “sub-domains” — they are included on my main account dashboard, but each domain — and the users attached to them –, operate independently as stand-alone groups. But, as the system administrator I can still see across all the domains in one dashboard. Moreover, there is a hierarchy of permissions that I can assign for different user access — to any of the domains or groups within a domain.

As a sole entrepreneur I found the system very convenient. The core Google system, for which there is 24/7 live support, came with Gmail (branded with my domain, i.e.you@yourdomain.com), Calendar(s), Docs (tools and storage for documents, spreadsheets, drawings, and presentations), task lists, Groups, and Sites [that you can use to build intranet sites within your organization; best if you have multiple employees].

Other free Google apps that work in tandem (though some have to be installed) include Google Plus (Google’s social media network), Analytics (which anyone with a website should set up), Adsense (which anyone who blogs or has a heavily-traffic’d site should set up), Blogger, YouTube, Internet phone (connected to your contacts list, and free anywhere in the USA), Instant message (IM) via gTalk, and iGoolge (a customizable homepage to gather your news alerts, social media feeds, and other tools — like scratch pads, To Do lists, weather, time feeds, plus more).

It took me time to figure out exactly what I needed and what I didn’t, but all in all I found it pretty intuitive and easy to setup (if you need help setting up your i2webtools.com or Google Apps for business acounts, use the email form to contact bruce, who will do the setup for you for a small fee.

On the plus side the extended Google services have more readily accessible documentation than you could ever read. On the downside, though they do have forum support, they do not have live phone support beyond the core products: email, docs, calendar, contacts. .

A sole entrepreneur will find the system an easy way to have all the things in his/her business universe easily organized and manageable, and tools to easily be able to collaborate with third party clients and/or vendors. A small business, in addition to the above, will see increased productivity with real-time collaboration capabilities between their employees inside the system.

Once I had the initial system set up and activated, it took little time to configure my calendars and email and I was ready to start communicating. (NOTE: if you have previously setup a google account using your business domain, that will have to be undone before the new email will work with that domain.)

The integration of the Google+ social network within my email I found incredibly useful; you can view feeds,add people to Circles and respond to comments right from your email screen.

There are those that say Google is too powerful, that they are monopolizing the marketplace because they control Search. and collect too much information. However, there is a reason that their suite of products is in such use: they get the single access integration concept better than anyone, and deliver on it.

THIRD PARTY APPLICATIONS that INTEGRATE 
You’re going to likely need a few additional management tools to run your business. Namely sales leads, project management, task management, and accounting/billing tools.

I tried a few. Depending on whether you’re sharing your information in-house with employees or with outside third parties, there is a lot to choice from within the Google Apps Marketplace, and most integrate into the GAfB universal menu, and most have integrated databases so that information is easily populated in the various GAfB tools from the contact list you create in the GAfB database that is connected to your email.

Project Management: Of the free apps, Insightly was pretty good, though only Users in the GAfB can utilize it — no outside users, so for my purposes, because I needed to share info with third party service providers, I settled on DO and RapidTask. I tried AffinityLive ($50/ month) but found it a bit cumbersome and geared more towards in-house project management, and it didn’t fully address how I needed to interact with third parties. Mavenlink is another paid app that is potent, but again, the free version DO met my needs. (NOTE: I have recently downloaded ViewPath, but haven’t tested it yet: I’ll let you know more about it once I do).

CRM (Customer Relations Management): Depending on whether you’re a one-man show or have multiple people using the CRM, there are many to choose from. MyERP.com is potent and an all-in-one app, but has virtually no support, so you have to do a lot of reading to figure it out. Solve360, ZoHo, SmartSheets (I liked, but they didn’t yet have database integration with Google contacts), and GlassCubes were all relatively easy to setup and populate. I use my sales lead program (PipelineDeals.com) also as my CRM (see below), and therefore didn’t need an additional CRM.

Sales Lead and Customer Service: I tried three, and settled on Pipeline Deals for $15 per month, and am happy with its capabilities, ease of use and full integration with my GAfB contact list.

Accounting/Billing: I haven’t given up my QuickBooks yet, though of those in the Google Apps store, the ones that I thought looked good included Freshbooks, Xero, and Yendo.

Creating a strong communications and organizing system is key to any business so that you can focus your time of getting new clients and serving them: everything else is a burdensome necessity. And with the explosion of new and ever-changing social media tools and marketing approaches that have to be managed, an integrated system is more important than ever to entrepreneurs with little time available.

If you do decide to try any of the things listed above, please be sure to come back and let me know how they worked — or didn’t work, for you.

Published in Examiner, the NY Start Up Business Column

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About Brie Austin

Co-author of I'd Do It Again, he is a columnist/reporter for a variety of magazines in the areas of music, lifestyle, nightlife, travel and business. He also writes business documents and creates copy for websites.

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