Feature Story

How the Cloud Can Make Your Small Business Look Bigger

by Anne Field

"On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." It's much the same thing with cloud technology and small companies. With the cloud, no one knows you're a small business.

You know that cartoon where two pooches are at a computer and one says to the other "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog"?  Well, it's much the same thing with cloud technology and small companies. That is, with the cloud, no one knows you're a small business.

Case in point: Two years ago, the lease was about to expire on the Los Angeles offices of James Sinclair's restaurant and hotel consulting company OnSite Consulting, so he had to decide whether to renew. After studying the numbers and alternatives, Sinclair had a better idea. He realized he simply didn't have to be in one location and he didn't need to sink capital into all those servers and all that software. Instead, he and his 65 employees could work virtually, tapping into applications on a cloud hosting service to do everything from sharing documents to retrieving customer information.

Disqus: Has cloud computing helped or hindered your business?

But a funny thing happened in the process. Sinclair discovered that by using a cloud vendor he could get a higher level of functionality that made OnSite look like a much larger company. Take project management. Customers were now able to log on, see who had performed what, and get insight into due dates, outstanding tasks and a variety of other data--the kind of comprehensive, detailed, up-to-the-minute information you wouldn't expect from a small enterprise.

And it was highly affordable. In fact, all his cloud applications cost about $400 a month—"significantly" less, he says, than his less-capable in-house IT setup.

Sinclair wasn't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes, but he's not sorry that he appears to have the resources of a 500- or 5,000-employee competitor. In fact, one boutique hotel owner confided he'd chosen OnSite thanks, in part, to the company's project management system and the confidence it gave him in OnSite's capacity to outperform much bigger competitors. Sean Baird, an IT Consultant in Conshohocken, Pa., who specializes in cloud technology, puts it this way: "If customers have the ability to check on the status of a project 24/7, that's a big company kind of thing."

That said, if you want to use the cloud to look bigger, how do you go about it?

Think customer-facing. What Sinclair stumbled upon, other businesses are pursuing strategically—looking at cloud options that will give them the greatest payoff. "Evaluate the interfaces where you interact with your customer and that's where you would begin to design more professional or advanced types of communication," says Treff LaPlante, who heads WorkXpress, an IT and cloud technology consulting firm in Harrisburg, Pa. That can include anything from billing and email to project management and telephone systems.

Combine applications. Sean O'Rourke, a principal at Syzygy 3, a New York City IT consultancy, helped a pet shelter expand its customer service abilities without paying for a pricey call center. The company re-assigned 20 of its 110 employees to answer calls from their own homes from 6 p.m. to midnight, using a voice-over IP phone system. Clients would call the shelter and press the option for customer service, without having a clue they actually were reaching someone sitting in, say, his kitchen. Then, the home-based employee would log onto the website of another cloud provider to access the appropriate customer records. The cost: $5 to $10 per user per month.

Don't fake it. The point isn't to make yourself appear bigger if you can't deliver the goods. Says Sinclair: "Ultimately, customers judge us on our performance."

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