Cloud 101: Four things businesses need to know

In the cloud, there’s room for everybody. But many small and medium business (SMB) owners have hesitated to use the Internet-based operating system because of concerns about the cost and potential security risks.

That’s changing fast. As cloud computing matures, more flexible and cheaper options have emerged and the productivity gains have become hard to ignore.

A 2013 survey by the National Small Business Association found that 43 percent of small firms were utilizing cloud computing — a huge jump from just five percent in 2010. International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that SMB spending on cloud solutions will grow 20 percent in the next five years.

Testing the cloud

Many SMB owners first try the cloud by using popular file-sharing sites like Dropbox, productivity tools such as Google Apps and hosted email like Microsoft Office 365. That often leads them to use more cloud services to support the growth of their business and to maintain and simplify operations.

“It’s the ’blowfish effect,’” says Sara Varni, vice president of marketing for Desk.com, a cloud-based customer service provider for SMBs. “The cloud lets SMBs appear much bigger than they really are. But it also gives them the ability to make the most of existing resources and execute on sales, customer service, product management and other critical business functions like a bigger business could.”

Cloud computing also can help SMB owners focus more on what they love most about running their business, says Robin Joy, vice president, online and mobile at electronic signature software company, DocuSign. “SMB owners have their hands in everything in the business, but most would prefer to delegate tasks they don’t enjoy or simply don’t have time for. Cloud services give them that option.”

And while it’s the nature of SMB owners to convince themselves that there isn’t any problem they can’t solve, the fact is only so many skills can fit in their wheelhouse.

Reducing complexity

“Many SMB owners eventually encounter something that’s business-critical, but out of their depth, like IT management or cybersecurity,” says Paul Lipman, chief executive officer of Total Defense, a cloud security platform for the SMB market. “So, they turn to the cloud to reduce complexity and costs.”

If you’re an SMB owner ready to start using cloud apps or cloud-based services in your business, consider these four tips as you explore options:

1. Take a long-term view. You know you need cloud computing to solve certain problems for your business today, but what about the future? How will your processes change by migrating to the cloud? Also, think about how the solution can support your business as it evolves. Will you be able to scale easily, up or down, as needs change?

2. Seek solutions that are easy to deploy, manage and use. The whole point of going to the cloud is to make your business (and you) work more efficiently. Be sure to invest in a solution that takes little time to set up, is upgraded automatically, can be centrally managed, and requires little or no user training. Another consideration: Will the solution be difficult to integrate with other applications and systems you currently use?

3. Place a premium on top-notch customer service. Your business cannot afford any downtime, and that includes waiting on the line for support. You want access to quality customer care to be no more than a click or phone call away. Ideally, try to work with a vendor that offers solutions designed for SMBs, as they’re more likely to offer customized support.

4. Take advantage of free trials. Many cloud providers, especially those that market to SMBs, now offer “try before you buy” options. Look for vendors that don’t need a credit card number up front; otherwise, you might end up being billed for a service you don’t like once the free trial is over.

When evaluating cloud options, confirm that the solution will be easy to use while you’re on the go, and will work with the mobile platforms you use most.

“Having anywhere, anytime access to information is one of the most important benefits of cloud computing,” says Faraz Shafaghi, product marketing manager for cloud-based accounting solution, FreshBooks. “It helps to keep SMB owners mobilized.”

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