Google Apps: a Toolkit for Startups and Small Businesses

Written by Michael Tauscher on . Posted in Blog, Google, Productivity, Project Management, Thumbs up, Workflow

This is the first in a series of posts about Google Apps. We will be covering the most useful third party apps for operations management as well as cool ways to use Google Apps to facilitate collaboration and smooth operations flow. Stay tuned!

A recent post on Google’s Blog showed that 97% of Business Insider’s 20 Silicon Valley Startups to Watch from the last two years were running on Google Apps. As the post’s author Rich Rao notes, Silicon Valley isn’t the only place for tech startups but it does highlight the salient point: Google Apps allows you to “focus on your business, not on your IT.” Likewise Martin Melin found that after analyzing MX entries for 204 Y Combinator startups that 142 (almost 70%) are using Gmail and as he observes, “This does not consider the possibility of some startups using another MX that is forwarding into Google Apps, so the actual percentage could very well be higher than 70%.”

So why Google Apps? Beyond the fact that you can have fully integrated domain email for free up to ten people without the headache of managing your own email server and with Postini taking care of SPAM, the default features available in Google Apps have expanded since its inception. In addition to Gmail, Calendar, web based word processing, spreadsheets, and slide presentations, Google Documents now offers Drawing (a free-form image manipulation tool), Forms (a template builder for customer feedback), and sidebar comment trails in the event that want to leave a note outside of a document itself. The real value of these tools is not their functions, however, but the fact that they foster collaboration.

With your team:
Let’s say you’re working with your team on a new product or process. The ability to communicate and collaborate in real time using the Gmail chat function along with Drawing for visuals and a text document with a comment trail allows you to share ideas, visualize them, and solidify present and future goals all without time spent moving files back and forth. There is even a revision history function that will show you who has made changes, when, and allows you to restore any deleted items.

Gmail Chat

 

Google Drawing with Revision History

 

Google Document with Comments

With clients:
Similarly, if your clients are using Google Apps you can bring them in on the conversation rather than working to provide a model, getting their opinion, and going back to the drawing board. Not only will your client get the feeling of personal service, but will likely be able to provide a clear description of what they want in a shorter amount of time. Best of all, when the project is complete you can simply ‘un-share’ any documents your client may have had access to and privacy is restored.

What killed SohoOS for me

Written by Natasha Goncharova on . Posted in Admin Tools, Blog, Calendar & Scheduling, Customer Management, Document Management, Productivity, Project Management, Sales & Marketing, Thumbs down, Workflow

In a attempt to find an “all in one” solution for startups and small businesses operations management, after seeing so much praise given to SohoOS by TechCrunch, I gave it a try. Michael outlined some of the issues with the service in his post here.

These are the issues that killed the service for me:
1) It prompted me to bring all my contacts from Gmail, which I did, and then I could not find where my contacts were nor could I find how to delete them from the system!

2) There does not appear to be a way to close an account once you open one at SohoOS. On many web-based services, the option to close your account and how to is stated almost on every page or provided in the FAQ page, so that customers feel assured they can; this is not the case with SohoOS as of 1o/2011.

3)  The service states it is is free, however once you get through a hodgepodge of interfaces ‘thrown together’ to give a perception that a user can manage projects and invoicing with SohoOS  (below you can see an interface with the missing logo and less than optimal UI for adding a task), you soon come to a screen where SohoOS wants you to pay for SMS messages supposedly to communicate with your team members, and for documents from Docstock.

At the end I felt “cheated on”. My info was inside the system with no way to take it out or delete it with no trace (no way for SohoOS to use my contacts), and no value was provided within the project management and invoicing screen. After being promised something for free, I kept bumping into screens that were asking me to pay.

Adding a task to a project:

Pay for sending SMS:

SohoOS Docs — pay to use the documents from DocStoc:

 


SohoOS: “F” is for Beta

Written by Michael Tauscher on . Posted in Admin Tools, Blog, Calendar & Scheduling, Customer Management, Document Management, Productivity, Project Management, Sales & Marketing, Thumbs down, Workflow

Roi Carthy of TechCrunch posted an article recently after speaking with Eran Manor, SohoOS’s lead designer, that ended on the high note, “The thinking here is that providing [invoicing, billing features, CRM, inventory & project management] to a sufficient depth allows SohoOS to appeal to a larger userbase. With the US, UK, and the EU constituting 54% of the userbase, this is a smart move.”

Let’s get one thing straight: Users, “growing at a rate of 30% month-over-month,” doesn’t say anything about retention, satisfaction, or the utility of the service. Amid the hype I became one of the more than 400,000 users that their front page boasts, only to find that what is presented as a product in Beta is little more than a, “reverse engineered…iPad app”, it is a “service” that lures you in and then doesn’t let you out.

According to Carthy’s article, SohoOS has discovered that small businesses:

• Don’t consider accounting software a substitute for an accountant

• Don’t see accounting as the heart and soul of their businesses’ management activities.

To the first point, it seems unlikely that small businesses feel duped for using both an accountant and software programs programs.  An accounting program allows for day-to-day entries to be recorded so that when the time comes for tax filing an accountant can easily collect the necessary information.

To the second, accounting certainly isn’t the heart of business management but it is a necessary part.

This, I believe, is where SohoOS has lost sight of their audience. Carthy even praises SohoOS for, “focusing on several services that are key to the daily management of a small business,” rather than “the conventional wisdom, of ‘do one thing and do it well’.”

My criticism for SohoOS then is twofold:

1.       The result of trying to take on so many traditionally divided tasks is a cluttered interface that seems lost between invoicing features and priced-t0-sell business document templates.

2.       The term ‘Beta’ has fallen victim to semantic satiation and companies like SohoOS are to blame. Beta used to mean an essentially finished product that leaves room for rapid user-oriented change, but now simply means ‘something we’ve put together and are still working on defining’.

If a company doesn’t have a clearly defined vision of itself, there is no way that a customer can see future potential. Perhaps my cynicism toward the ‘do everything well’ model will turn out to be the mark of a dying philosophy but until a service like SohoOS pushes companies that ‘do one thing and do it well’ aside, I won’t be investing.

What’s on your keychain? Integrated Google Apps That Make Life Easy

Written by Michael Tauscher on . Posted in Accounting, Admin Tools, Blog, Customer Management, Document Management, Finance, Google, Productivity, Project Management, Workflow

This is the second in series of posts about Google Apps, to learn more about Google Apps for Business see our first post

The number of apps integrated with Google Apps has exploded recently and many are available for free or for a nominal fee (especially if you’re a small business using them among your team members).  At Finance Alpha our goal has been to find the best tools for intuitive and flexible collaboration, which has meant testing tools with a wide variety of intended uses and keeping an eye out for those that operate well in tandem across all members of a team.

These are the tools we have picked so far:

  Insightly: We ran across Insightly (insight.ly) while looking for an intuitive task manager integrated with Google Apps. Google’s own Tasks function has the advantage of being a proprietary and thus extremely integrated product, however we found that there wasn’t enough room for description within the tasks themselves and that tasks could not be easily shared or delegated. In the case of an ongoing task, Insightly allows you to add progress updates, assign a number of statuses (Not Started, Waiting, In Progress, Deferred, Completed), assign tasks to other team members with email notification, and can even act as a CRM. Integration with Google means that you can save an email transaction with a click of a button from Gmail into Insightly and the person’s contact information will automatically be saved in addition to the email exchange itself. Insightly is free up to 3 users and has plans starting at $29/month for more.

MindMeister: Ever heard of or used mind mapping? MindMeister is intended to allow you visualize one aspect of your life / project and its constituent parts. As an example, the standard Personal Tasks template shows how it might be helpful to conceptualize how your Home, Work, Car, Shopping, and Other personal tasks are related. Furthermore, individual nodes and tasks can be prioritized, tagged, flagged, highlighted, and even set up for email notification. Not only is MindMeister affordable ($9.99 per month for unlimited maps and users) but can easily be used for other purposes like project management and flowcharts. It is worth mentioning that like most great services, MindMeister is immediately comprehensible: whatever you think that button does, it does. We wrote earlier that we chose MindMeister over other flow chart tools.

Expensify: Expensify is already a brilliant tool for expense tracking that includes the ability to import credit card and bank records, create expense reports, upload receipts, and even integrate with Quickbooks. The service as a Google App (free for 2 users, $5 per user after that) seems little more than a convenient link from your Google account but nonetheless it saves you the extra login and makes Expensify more accessible if you want to use it from a mobile device.

GetHarvest: Harvest is powerful because it does one thing extremely well: time tracking. For employees Harvest presents a minimal, intuitive interface to quickly categorize and track time. On the accounting side, Harvest makes invoicing and report generation both instant and elegantly presented. A full business account (including unlimited users) is going to cost you $90 a month but if you’ve got a large team working on a variety of tasks, it simply can’t get any simpler.

Shoeboxed: Not unlike Expensify, the Google Apps extension of Shoeboxed is little more than the ability to log in from your Google account however this shouldn’t discount what a valuable tool it can be for your team. Shoeboxed allows you to send physical receipts, upload photos of receipts, and basically transmit any other record of a transaction to them for processing. In return you’ll have access to a clean record of your transactions perfect for substantiation in the case of an audit. Also, if you don’t import transactions from your bank into Quickbooks (or any other accounting software), Shoeboxed can help you there too. They offer prepaid envelopes in addition to receiving standard mail with just a little extra effort (you have to provide your email address on the outside and inside of the envelope). They’ll even dispose of your receipts safely or send them back to you if you’d rather hold on to the physical copies. The $300 annual price tag might seem high at first (includes 150 docs/month and 500 uploads) but the peace of mind it brings means never having to worry about providing a record of your transactions. Besides, who wants to sort receipts when you can mail them off in a crumpled ball?

Check out our example workflow of this process in flowchart form here

What third party apps integrated with Google Apps do you find most useful in your work flow? Let us know in the comments!

Thinking Outside the Box.net

Written by Michael Tauscher on . Posted in Blog, Google, Productivity, Project Management, Workflow

If nothing else the development team at Box.net is ambitious. Imagine taking the best parts of Google Docs, Adobe Reader, Dropbox, and your calendar and trying to merge them into a navigable, convenient interface. It’s a wonder the Swiss Army didn’t have a role in the project. Much like Google Docs, Box allows you to import, export, share, tag, and add tasks to documents among a number of other functions. Non-Google Docs files (Microsoft Office, text files) can be uploaded and then viewed in high resolution for better printing (à la Adobe Reader) which may be a response to the formatting issues that sometimes occur when copy pasting a Microsoft Office document into Google Docs.

Despite the appeal of Box’s all-in-one capability, however, the $15 per user per month cost (the highest among cloud content management / online storage services) seems a little pricey considering that you can achieve nearly the same functionality with other free or less expensive services. Online documents at Google Docs combined with file sharing at Dropbox can all be managed nearly as easily and for free for up to 10 people and $2GB per person.

Another important functionality missing from Box.net is real time collaboration — editors of the same document can not edit and comment on-the-go, and you can’t see the changes made in the document by peer editors — a function that works beautifully in Google Docs. Perhaps Box.net does have a place among large companies where a single interface is preferable to a number of smaller tools but for the small business Box seems overpriced and underpowered.

Enable Your Team with the Right Tools

Written by Natasha Goncharova on . Posted in Admin Tools, Blog, Productivity, Project Management, Workflow

As a business owner you have a lot of things to juggle (new features, customer concerns, finances) and may not have the time to keenly monitor the latest tools as they become available. Useful apps aimed at easing operational pains for startups and small businesses are proliferating. SMBs and startups now have access to the same tools that years ago only large enterprise could afford.

The axiom is simple: Consider yourself to be a coach, not a player in the field. Enable your team with the right tools, ease their frustrations by streamlining their processeses, and let them do the work. If your team member has asked for or begun using a tool and find it helpful, consider adopting it on a larger scale. This can also make your team happier by acknowledging their opinions and empowering them with the right tools (hardware and software).

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