The Future of Small Business Technology

July 25, 2007

By Ramon Ray

I’m not a huge fan of studies that predict the future, but I do respect those that try. Their job is to look at the past, analyze the present and conduct surveys to gain insight into the future. Based on all of this information, researchers try to provide a road map for what’s to come.

In this case, Intuit, working with the Institute for the Future, found that tomorrow’s successful small business owners will be far more reliant on technology than today’s entrepreneurs. They’ll be more connected in a mobile world, market to customers in ways only imagined today and blur the lines between the virtual and physical worlds. The findings are part of the “Intuit Future of Small Business Report: Technology Trends and Small Business” the second installment of the three-part “Future of Small Business” series.

What’s happening in business is what’s happening in our personal lives. My own children, from their birth, have been immersed in a culture of technology. My daughter, as a toddler, was playing with my PDA. My son’s entertainment is watching NFL video clips online, and he has his own football blog. I, on the other hand, grew up in the ’80s, when computers were still thought of as special tools that not everyone owned, and Word Perfect for DOS was the reigning champion.

This study of the future indicates that small businesses will continue to go through a similar evolution in their own use of technology. The study predicts that technology will revolutionize the nature of running a small business and identifies three emerging technology trends:

1. “On my time, on my terms”–In a connected world, small business owners will have even more flexibility in running their businesses.

2. Global, local, virtual–The evolution of the web will fuel small business formation, operations and innovation, especially as technology becomes cheaper and social networking and virtual worlds become more popular.

3. From “push” to “pull”–The small business marketing approach will shift from “push” to “pull” as consumers begin seeking out product information rather than accepting what they’re told by companies.

In addition to these emerging tech trends, Brad Smith, senior vice president and general manager of Intuit’s QuickBooks business unit, told me he sees three significant things happening in small business technology now:

1. Companies are doing more not only to make it easier for small businesses to find products, but also to find the right products.

2. Peers helping peers is on the rise. With the increase in social networking, it’s much easier for small businesses and entrepreneurs to find each other and get help. Sure, SCORE‘s thousands of counselors will always be around, but with self-help sites from Dell, Intuit, Constant Contact and other companies, not to mention LinkedIn, Plaxo, Ryze and more, it’s much easier to get help from your peers.

3. Vendors are listening more to what customers are saying. I recently had the honor of moderating a technology event with Michael Dell to launch a new line of computers for small businesses. (Click here to listen to the webcast.) Why is Dell doing this? The company is listening to its customers and knows it must evolve and grow with customers to keep them. HP and Lenovo, Dell’s arch rivals, are doing the same.

What This Means for You
Mobile technology will be increasingly important as small business owners, their employers, their partners and their customers demand anytime-anywhere communication, collaboration and access to each other.

The mantra that “the world is flat” is going to be an asset and a challenge for small businesses. In the past, going global was something that big companies primarily did. But now, thanks to technology, more and more small businesses are finding customers and competitors all over the globe. Technology is connecting New York and New Zealand, and Russia and Rwanda.

Selection of specific information by recipients is going to explode. We’ll always have direct mail and TV, for example, which blasts a message to many. But by using technologies such as RSS and podcasts, more and more small businesses and their customers will be able to specifically select what information they wish to receive. Traditional mass media will evolve to niche media.

If your small business is not using technology as a tool to grow, you’re set up for future failure. Your competitors that are preparing themselves for the future are going to take your customers and your best employees.

You might still be in business 10 years from now, but you’ll find that competitors who are able to do more with less, maximize their resources and adapt to their changing customer base are going to be the thriving small businesses of the future.

Source

Advertisements

Salesforce.com’s New Small-Business Service

July 17, 2007

By Richard Morochove

If your e-commerce site is an important source of new customer leads, a new Salesforce.com service could be just what your business needs to streamline the work of turning a new lead into a new customer.

Salesforce Group Edition is the successor to the company’s Team Edition customer relationship management service. The major enhancement in this Web-based CRM service is its tight integration with the Google AdWords pay-per-click advertising service.

Salesforce Group Edition’s integration with Google AdWords is the best I’ve seen. It makes it easy to determine which search engine advertising keywords deliver the most new customers and added revenues to your business. However, you’ll need to modify your Web site to take advantage of this feature.

Complete Google AdWords Integration

I’ve looked at AdWords before. A PPC advertising service such as AdWords can drive more visitors to your Web site. You write text ads that are displayed next to results for specific terms, or keywords, that people enter in search engines. You pay for each visitor who clicks on your ad and is then redirected to your Web site.

It’s always been possible to track the trail of PPC ad clicks, from the initial visit to your site to the sales lead and ultimate customer sale. This information is generally collected in several places: your Google AdWords account, your Web server logs, and a CRM app.

The elegance of Salesforce Group Edition lies in the way it seamlessly integrates the data from all these sources in one place, making it easier to view and analyze the results of your PPC ads. You can readily determine which keywords bring you the biggest bang for your advertising buck. Lead source information is updated every 15 minutes, so you can track results almost as they happen.

Tracking Leads From Other Sources

Unfortunately, Salesforce Group Edition isn’t integrated as deeply with other PPC ad services, such as Yahoo Search Marketing and Microsoft adCenter.

You can use Salesforce Group Edition to track leads from these other PPC services, but the reports aren’t as complete. Furthermore, you can also use the service to track leads generated by sources other than PPC, such as telephone inquiries, e-mail, trade shows, and referrals from other Web sites.

Google AdWords Integration Requirements

To make full use of the AdWords integration, you’ll need to add a new Web-to-Lead inquiry form to your site to collect information from visitors, such as name and contact details. In addition, you’ll need to add a bit of JavaScript tracking code to each Web page on your site.

Salesforce Group Edition generates the code for both new elements, so you can copy and paste it into your Web editing application.

You must also enter your Google AdWords Customer ID and password in Salesforce Group Edition to link it to the CRM service. If you do not have an AdWords account, you can create one from within the service.

Is Salesforce Group Edition Right for You?

Salesforce.com is considered the leader in online CRM services. If you don’t require sophisticated lead tracking or Google AdWords integration, you may find a simple online CRM service such as Highrise better suited for your business needs.

Salesforce Group Edition targets small businesses, and lacks some features available in the company’s more expensive offerings for larger businesses.

Also, unlike NetSuite, which offers a complete end-to-end online business management service, Salesforce Group Edition concentrates on CRM. You must enter the amount of the sale manually, since it doesn’t automatically generate a sales invoice, for example. However, extra-cost add-on services available in Salesforce AppExchange enable integration with third-party accounting apps that do include invoicing, such as Intuit QuickBooks.

Salesforce Group Edition costs $600 per year for five users. A free 7-day trial is available, and you may be eligible for a $50 AdWords credit if you establish a new Google AdWords account (conditions apply). Normal Google AdWords advertising charges apply.

Source


Site of the Week: Topix.com

July 9, 2007

Topix is the world’s largest community-news Web site, providing localized content not easily found anywhere else on the Web. You can read, talk about, and even edit the news on Topix pages covering over 360,000 different localities and topics.

There are plenty of places to get your news online, but how many provide news specific to you and your neighborhood? NYTimes.com probably won’t tell you about the youngster from the middle school down the block who won a community achievement award. Chances are that CNN.com isn’t covering the broken traffic light that’s causing gridlock at your town’s main intersection. Topix.com puts the local news at your fingertips, giving you privileged access to read, discuss, and write about the news that matters to you the most. If you’re especially passionate about your community, you can volunteer to become a local Topix editor and help make your town’s page the best it can be.

Topix began in 2004 as a news aggregation engine but didn’t really take off until the introduction of forums where visitors could talk about the news as well. Founded by the same people who founded Open Directory, Topix adopted Open Directory’s philosophy of relinquishing site control to the users, allowing them to edit, submit, and talk about the news as they please.

The site collects news from 50,000 sources, ranging from traditional news outlets to blogs, and finds stories that specifically pertain to over 32,500 U.S. localities and some international locations. In addition to covering neighborhoods, Topix also has pages devoted to celebrities, sports teams, industries, health & drugs, publicly traded companies, and much more—in fact, there are over 360,000 topics. Becoming a member gives you a mini-profile where you can introduce yourself to the community and list your favorite Topix pages.

Topix customizes the homepage to your neighborhood by deriving your location either from your IP address or the ZIP code you typed into the search box. The resulting personalized homepage lists the most recent local news stories and discussion threads; in addition, there is a dynamically updated row of icons displaying recent Topix-member activities in the forums and news pages.

The news on your personalized page is presented in blog format, with archives you can search by month or through the calendar box on the right-hand side of the page. Once you click on a story, you’re taken to a separate page linking you to its original source. Every once in a while a link shows up dead, but usually you’re taken directly to the original source or given a link to an alternate source reporting on the same topic.

Topix brings you news about your community that you would have to dig deep into your city newspaper (print or online) to find. This is especially useful for smaller towns overshadowed by neighboring big cities. You can also dig deeper into your community by searching for specific topics within the stories index for your town. If you want to branch out beyond your town’s limits, you can search different topics, different cities, or all the articles indexed on Topix in the News Wire. You can also browse through the directories via the Shortcuts link at the top of the page, the Site Map link at the bottom of the page, or visit the directory at topix.com/dir, which breaks down the topics covered on the site into categories and subcategories for quick, easy browsing

You Are the Editor

Anyone can contribute to Topix by submitting a URL, writing a story, or e-mailing stories and photos by phone to [zipcode]@topix.com. Topix’s RoboBlogger automatically seeks out relevant news and updates your town’s page as needed. Browsing through local stories is cool, but if you’ve got even a little of the journalist or blogger in you, the real fun of Topix is in being an editor and controlling your own page. To become an editor, you must first become a registered member and then click on the Become an Editor link, included on the right side of the homepage and news blog pages. From there you fill out a form telling Topix why you should be a Topix editor. If Topix decides you’ve got the right stuff, it awards you editor status, and a red drop-down menu featuring your editor tools will appear next to the shortcuts menu the next time you log on. Multiple editors can edit the page of single town or topic, and a single editor can edit many pages. But you have to apply separately for each page you want to edit.

As an editor, you get exclusive access to tools that help you add content to your page. First, you can add stories from the News Wire, which indexes all stories prefiltered by Topix. Next, you can get hot leads through the Tip Line informing you of breaking news happening in your community. Finally, if you come across news that’s worthy of comment in the Topix forums, you have the ability to promote it to a news story. As an editor, you can also survey your page, killing stories irrelevant to your town or topic and editing existing stories as you see fit. But you can’t edit or kill another editor’s stories.

There’s no time commitment required of editors; you can post as much or as little as you want, and RoboBlogger will handle the rest of the news. Topix editors also have access to the Topix Editor’s Blog, where the over 15,000 Topix editors congregate to share tips and tutorials to help each other become better editors.

Though the forums probably made Topix as popular as it is today, they’re not perfect. Specialized, moderated boards can be very powerful tools, but massive boards can also struggle with bouts of intolerant, offensive posts that are hard to limit without resorting to equally unpleasant measures of censorship. Topix says it has algorithms and human monitors in place to weed out content that violates its terms of service, but there’s still plenty of objectionable content. According to Topix, however, over a million posters have posted over 10 million comments in its forums, so it seems that most users enjoy this free-speech free-for-all.

That translates into a lot of great content. Topix has discussion boards dedicated to all its news items and topic pages. You can view the discussion thread for a particular story or view the forums for a particular town or topic. These forums let users start threads relevant to the forum’s topic and discuss it among themselves. Anyone can post on the boards, but registered members’ posts are highlighted in green with an accompanying avatar, so they stand out from the rest. Check out what topics are buzzing by clicking on the Most Popular link in the shortcuts menu. The Most Popular page lists recent news articles that are generating the most discussion in the Topix forums.

Topix provides users with content not easily found anywhere on the Web. The access to local news content and the ability to interact with the news by personalizing it to your interest, discussing it with the Topix community, or editing it yourself makes the site an invaluable news resource. But to take full advantage, you have to become a Topix editor and make sure that your community gets the spotlight it deserves.

 


Topix puts the power of the media in your hands. It provides you with quality local news content the big players don’t deliver, along with the ability to read, discuss, and edit news pages yourself.


Local news content not easily found elsewhere. Ability to become a Topix editor and manage your hometown page. Lots of usually relevant content. Lets you chat about the news with neighbors and other members of the Topix community.

Forums peppered with objectionable content.

Source


Tailored software becomes key to Saas model’s success

July 4, 2007

No licence fees to pay, no hardware to install and no maintenance burden to shoulder. It is no wonder that the concept of software-as-a-service, or Saas, is changing the way many companies purchase and deploy enterprise applications.

Take, for example, Allianz Cornhill, the insurance company. In 2006, it rolled out a CRM system to 350 underwriters and sales staff, so they could track and manage the process of converting sales leads into policies.

Rather than deploy the software in-house, however, Allianz Cornhill opted for a suite of hosted applications from Saas provider Salesforce.com.

As a result, its CRM tools and data are hosted, managed and regularly upgraded by Salesforce.com staff in the provider’s own data centre. Allianz Cornhill staff, meanwhile, access them over the internet and pay a monthly, per-user subscription fee for the privilege.

It was not hard to convince senior executives of the attractions of the Saas model in terms of cost and convenience, says Phill Harding, broker development manager at Allianz Cornhill. For a start, the roll-out of the software took six weeks, where an equivalent inhouse deployment might have taken months, he says.

“In fact, once the concept had been adequately explained and demonstrated and the solution was in place, we were asked by senior executives: ‘Why haven’t we used this approach before?’,” he says.

Others are wondering the same thing, and demand for Saas applications is soaring. Recent estimates from analysts at IT market research company Gartner, for example, suggest worldwide sales growth of 21 per cent this year, to $5.1bn. By 2011, they say, Saas will account for one-quarter of business software sold globally.

“Ease of use, rapid deployment, limited up-front investment in capital and staffing, plus a reduction in software management responsibility all make Saas a desirable alternative to many on-premises solutions, and will continue to act as drivers of growth,” says Sharon Mertz, a research director at Gartner.

Some potential users, however, still have reservations about Saas. If information is power, and data among the most valuable of corporate assets, they ask, then why would we put them in another company’s hands?

How can we customise software that is hosted remotely by a third party to fit our company’s unique business processes? And how can we possibly integrate Saas applications with the core in-house systems that remain vital to our business?

These are all areas that leading Saas providers, such as Salesforce.com and NetSuite, are working hard to address.

In terms of reliability and availability, for example, NetSuite offers a money-back guarantee of 99.5 per cent uptime. “Most companies would really struggle to achieve that kind of uptime inhouse and yet we offer it consistently to our customers,” says Zach Nelson, chief executive of NetSuite.

And, following well-publicised outages in early 2006, Salesforce.com has upgraded its architecture and can now promise uptime of 99.999 per cent, according to Lindsey Armstrong, the company’s European president. In addition, it has committed itself to full disclosure of performance metrics via a website that was launched in response to those outages, trust.salesforce.com.

Other obstacles to Saas are “more perceived than real”, says Robert Bois, an analyst with market research company AMR Research. “Integration and customisation are still common concerns that our clients raise with us, but in fact, the larger Saas suppliers are pretty good at solving those problems and the technology of the multi-tenant architecture that underpins Saas solutions has matured sufficiently that they’re no longer a big issue,” he says.

At one time, a “one-size-fits-all” Saas approach was the norm, and “plain vanilla” functionality (where the same product is deployed by all customers) was viewed as the necessary trade-off for relatively low cost of entry.

But recent technological advances have changed all that. “Not only can you customise pretty much anything you need to in NetSuite, but those customisations carry over every time the application is upgraded – and we upgraded NetSuite 400 times last year,” says Mr Nelson.

“You certainly don’t get that when you customise on-premise software and then need to upgrade it,” he adds.

“We do a huge amount of customisation,” confirms Andy French, head of information systems at NetSuite customer Opal Telecom, a division of Carphone Warehouse. “These tweaks and changes range from making certain data fields mandatory to installing Java scripts that drive system logic and user behaviour,” he says.

In fact, the only limitation facing Carphone Warehouse, which has more than 3,000 users of Netsuite company-wide, is the number of skilled IT people available to do that configuration, he says.

Integration between Saas tools and inhouse applications is also more commonplace these days. Most Saas companies publish application programming interfaces (APIs) based on web services standards, which allow disparate systems to exchange data whether they are based inside the firewall or on a third party’s premises.

According to Ms Armstrong, more than half of all API calls to Saleforce.com applications come from non-Salesforce.com systems.

Analysts at Gartner, meanwhile, predict that by 2010, three-quarters of large enterprise Saas deployments will have “at least five integration or interoperable points to on-premise applications”.

But with increased scope for customisation and integration of Saas products comes greater demand for outside help – a point not lost on a number of leading systems integrators, including Accenture and Deloitte, who have already set up dedicated practices in this area. Mr Bois of AMR Research says other IT services firms are “eager to tap this market, but less willing to go on record with details of their Saas strategy. They’re taking more of a ‘wait and see’ approach.”

One company that is certainly not holding back is Saaspoint, a specialist Salesforce.com implementation and consulting partner led by John Appleby, who previously worked for Salesforce.com and was that company’s first EMEA employee. “Demand for help with Salesforce.com implementations far outstrips supply and, as long as Salesforce.com continues to grow so quickly, we don’t see that demand drying up,” he says.

For Saaspoint, buoyant demand currently translates to year-on-year quarterly sales growth of between 250 per cent and 300 per cent, fuelled by projects at leading names such as P&O Ferries and pharmaceutical company Quintiles.

This flurry of progress suggests a rosy future for Saas, not to mention the consultancy ecosystem that is fast springing up around it, says Mr Bois of AMR Research. “Already, there are few areas of the enterprise applications industry untouched by Saas,” he says.

And as software companies associated with more traditional models of software delivery, such as SAP, Oracle and Microsoft, catch up, he says, the case for Saas deployment can only get stronger.

By Jessica Twentyman

Link