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Using the Cloud to Manage Your Small Business

Using the Cloud to Manage Your Small Business
Should you use the "cloud" to help you manage your small business? Chances are, you already do. The "cloud" is simply a way to describe hosted applications accessed through the Internet, so if you create social media campaigns on Twitter or Facebook or use a web-based email provider (such as Gmail or Yahoo) instead of an installed mail server like Microsoft Exchange, you're already using the cloud.

With cloud computing, there are no servers to maintain and no expensive software to install; instead, all you and your employees need is an Internet connection and an Internet-capable device, such as a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. While there's nothing new about hosted applications (the first web-based email service made its debut in 1995), the concept of running an entire company entirely "on the cloud" has recently become a reality for businesses of every size, thanks to ever-increasing data transfer rates and the sheer range of hosted applications available.

As a small business owner, you're probably accustomed to playing the role of CEO, salesperson, and everything in between. But if IT guy or gal is one title you'd be happy to relinquish, here are five ways you can use the cloud to make your business more efficient.
5. Access data from anywhere.
Whether you work from home, on the road, or in an office or storefront, the cloud allows you and your employees to access essential data whenever you need to, from wherever you are. Pull up a sales presentation on your iPad, review employee schedules and payroll numbers on your laptop, or securely check balances and categorize purchases on your business credit cards with a mobile app such as Jot from Chase.
4. Keep your team (and your projects) on track.
Even if your business is still a team of one, a good project management system can help you stay on top of all the projects you have going at any given time. From simple online to-do lists and scratchpads to sophisticated applications that offer the same features as costly project management software, you'll find low-cost -- and even free -- cloud apps that allow you to track time, assign tasks, and send email reminders and alerts. Many offer built-in collaboration tools and project bulletin boards that make it easy for teams of two or more to share ideas, attach files, and see who's working on what.
3. Keep in touch with your customers
Hosted customer relationship management (CRM) applications were among the first hosted services to be embraced by enterprise corporations. Today there are many CRM providers that offer affordable platforms geared specifically toward business owners. These applications allow you to track marketing messages, sales leads, customer interactions, and, in some cases, even inventory, much more efficiently than the old methods of combing through your Sent email folder or sharing a spreadsheet on the office network and hoping everyone remembers to use (and save) the most recent copy.
If you use social media to communicate with your customers but can't always find the time to post updates throughout the day, there are many online tools which will allow you to create tweets or status updates and schedule them to be published at a later date or time.
2. Back it all up
One of the greatest things about using the cloud for your business is that data protection comes with the territory. A reputable provider will house your information on not just one but multiple secure servers, ready to be accessed whenever and wherever you need it, even if a power outage, flood, or other disaster strikes your physical location.
For content that you create in the real world but want to share and protect online, file sharing services offer inexpensive storage for files of every type, whether created locally or through a hosted application, and sites such as YouTube and Flickr can serve as online repositories for your video and image files.
Do be aware that some free cloud services, particularly those that let you convert files from one format to another or create and edit PDF documents online, will only store your documents for a short time. You can usually download the files to save them elsewhere or upgrade to a paid service to save your files indefinitely, so be sure to read the fine print, understand the terms, and act accordingly.
1. Get more for less
We've all experienced the frustration that comes with installing an expensive software package only to watch helplessly as it runs at the speed of molasses on an outdated system or is quickly rendered obsolete by version 2.0. With the cloud, outdated, underperforming software can be a thing of the past. Cloud application providers are constantly working to improve their offerings and one-up their competitors, so new features are added as they become available – no more waiting for the next release.
Many cloud providers serve enterprise companies as well as small businesses, so they're tied into "uptime" commitments and service level agreements that ensure their applications will be available and efficient close to 100 percent of the time. And if you find that a certain application just isn't meeting your needs, both the costs and the risks associated with switching to a new provider are typically much lower than they would be for an installed application.

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