The Small Business Forecast for Cloud Computing

(Originally published October 5, 2011 in Small Business Computing)

What’s changed about cloud computing since 2009, when I wrote What is Cloud Computing, and Why Should You Care? In terms of the basic definition and benefits of cloud computing, not much. But in terms of market trends and adoption, the landscape has changed considerably.

Status Quo: Cloud Computing Basics

Here’s the definition that I provided in 2009: Cloud computing is a computing model in which you access software, server, storage, development and other computing resources over the Internet, in a self-service manner, as illustrated in Figure 1.

What is cloud computing graphic display
Figure 1: An illustrated depiction of cloud computing.
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The benefits that drive cloud computing adoption remain the same as well; instead of having to buy, install, maintain and manage these resources on your own servers, you access and use them through a Web browser.

Since many small and medium businesses (SMBs) lack the time, money and/or resources required to buy, deploy and manage the increasingly complex array of applications and infrastructure they need to run their businesses, this is a huge plus.

Cloud computing lets you access these resources as a service, without having to worry about the care and feeding of them. You can expand or shrink services as your needs change, and do it all on a pay-as-you-go subscription basis instead of forking over capital to buy hardware and software.

The concerns that people raise about cloud computing haven’t changed much either. They continue to revolve around reliability, security and support questions, such as how do providers protect your data? What happens if a service goes down, and you can’t access the application or your data?

Even highly reputable cloud providers — including Amazon, Google, Intuit and Microsoft — have experienced outages. Customers still need to do their homework and get details from providers on uptime guarantees, data protection, service levels and other policies and practices.

Cloud Computing Adoption Becoming Mainstream

Cloud computing has been around since 1997– albeit under different labels. But cloud adoption was more evolutionary than revolutionary for a long time. In the early going, many of the technologies required to effectively take advantage of cloud computing — such as ubiquitous high-speed Internet access — weren’t ready.

Equally important, people tend to be creatures of habit, and they felt no need to rush away from packaged software to the cloud. Finally, many IT people were reluctant to go to the cloud for fear it might put them out of a job.

But in the last 2 or 3 years, studies from both researchers and vendors indicate that cloud computing is becoming a more mainstream choice, especially in categories such as online marketing, collaboration and contact and customer management, as shown in Figure 2.

What’s Driving the Change?

Several factors that have coalesced to create the right conditions for cloud computing’s increased popularity. To begin with, cloud computing providers have grown up. NetSuite was founded in 1998, and Salesforce.com was founded in 1999.

Small business cloud-computing adoption rates, by application category
Figure 2: Small business adoption of cloud-based software-as-a-service solutions in selected application categories. Source: SMB Group 2010 SMB Routes to Market Study.
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Meanwhile, “old guard” players including IBM, Microsoft and SAP have also created rich portfolios of cloud solutions. Cloud vendors continue to address reliability, security and performance concerns with more redundant services and controls.

Many are also providing more visibility into performance. For instance, Trust.salesforce.com is Salesforce.com’s site for real-time information on system performance and security. Zoho Service Health Status provides a similar service.

Customers have also learned that they like many things about the cloud model. They like the responsibility being on a vendor 24/7 — and that it’s easier to switch to another provider if their expectations aren’t met. They like what I call the “virtuous feedback loop,” which means that when a cloud provider fixes a problem for one customer, it gets fixed for everyone.

Meanwhile, a funny thing happened on the way to the cloud — an explosion of mobile and social technologies. In both cases, the adoption curve has been truly revolutionary.  In contrast to cloud computing, these revolutions didn’t require IT managers or business decision-makers to take off.

Individuals could drive adoption, which in turn required businesses to interact more effectively with these newly empowered customers, employees, constituents, etc. — when, where and how they wanted.

This has had a profound effect on cloud computing. Although it has been on a slower trajectory than social and mobile technologies, cloud is increasingly the critical enabler for both mobile and social solutions. It provides the:

  • Economies of scale and skill that developers need to create, reiterate and reinvent.
  • Continuous customer-feedback loop and data aggregation required to spot trends, identify opportunities and get a leg-up on the competition.
  • Real-time collaborative environment that’s necessary to accelerate new ideas, launch new solutions and solve problems.

Finally, the curve to take advantage of new technologies and new ways of using technology is getting steeper. Most individual companies can’t tap into these opportunities on their own, however. They need IT solutions that will empower the business without draining it — and they are more likely to get this with cloud computing than with traditional on-premises software.

The net-net is that we’ve reached a tipping point. Increasingly, small businesses that want to use technology to move their businesses ahead will need to move to the cloud — or risk falling behind the competition.


Zoho Books: Big Plans for Small Business Accounting

I was just briefed yesterday by Raju Vegesna on the launch of Zoho Books, Zoho’s new on demand accounting solution for small businesses. With Zoho Books, Zoho fills in a critical application that has been missing in its portfolio of more than 25 cloud-based applications for small businesses.

The first version of Zoho Books will be a standalone accounting solution, but later this year, Zoho will add tight integration with some of it’s other apps, such as Zoho CRM and Zoho Support (see my recent post). According to Raju, Zoho wanted to get the accounting functionality right before focusing on integration and other extras. Some of the key takeaways from my briefing include:

  • Zoho has covered most of the accounting basics. The solution features a dashboard, with tabs from which you can create and send invoices, see profit/loss statements, look at income and expenses, etc. Once you create an invoice, you can email it to customers, and set up a link so customers can make direct payments to you online via PayPal, Google checkout, and Authorize.net. You can set up automatic notifications, reminders and thank-you emails as well, and create recurring invoices. Snail mail is also an option.
  • Zoho Books will help users to manage bank accounts, and view bank and credit card statements. Right now, users need to enter third-party financial information manually via a .csv file, but later this year, Zoho plans to add direct connections to banks to automate the import process.
  • Zoho has also taken steps to reduce the fees that Zoho Books customers pay for PayPal transactions by teaming up with PayPal on the Business Payments on the PayPal X platform. This cuts PayPal transaction fees for Zoho Books users to a flat $0.50 per payment—instead of the standard 2% to 3% of each transaction. Since 70% to 80% of Zoho customers use PayPal as their primary payment method, this is a pretty big selling point for the solution.
  • Zoho Books was designed with non-accountants in mind. The interface uses terms such as “money in” and “money out” instead of accounting jargon. But small businesses that use an accountant to manage their financials can set their accountant up as a Zoho Books user. Accountants can also use the solution to manage multiple small business clients simultaneously, as separate organizations.
  • Zoho is addressing multi-currency needs. At launch, Zoho Books enables users to define multiple currency types. Initially, the user will need to supply the exchange rate manually, but later this year, Zoho intends to automate this through an integration with XE.com currency exchange.
  • The look and feel are very customizable. Users can configure logos, signatures, tax settings, email settings, etc. from the settings module.
  • Integration is basic today, but Zoho has big plans. As I noted, today, you can import data into Zoho Books from spreadsheets, Zoho CRM, Zoho mail, etc. You can also view every module of Zoho Books in Zoho Sheets as a spreadsheet, or export it to Excel. Zoho also has a data migration tool to migrate Intuit QuickBooks data to Zoho Books. Looking ahead, Zoho plans to tightly integrate Zoho Books and Zoho CRM to create a seamless order-to-cash workflow. Zoho also plans to integrate Zoho mail with Zoho Books.
  • Pricing starts at $24/month for 2 users, and $5 per user for additional users. If you sign up for an annual subscription (instead of paying monthly) you get two months free. The solution is launching with a 30-day free trial.

With Zoho Books, Zoho is taking aim at Intuit QuickBooks in the U.S., and similar entry-level accounting solutions in other countries. In its first iteration, Zoho Books maps to QuickBooks Online Essentials, but down the line, as Zoho adds more functionality, it could add a higher-end solution more comparable to QuickBooks Online Plus.

Interestingly, Zoho recently announced Zoho CRM integration with QuickBooks, and according to Raju, Zoho will continue to support this even as it introduces its QuickBooks rival. But coopetition is nothing new for Zoho. And, you don’t need to look any further than its relationship with Google to see that this is an area in which it excels. Although Google and Zoho have several competing applications, Zoho apps are a top seller on Google Apps Marketplace and integrate with Google Apps. Zoho Books, of course, will be in the Google Apps Marketplace from day one.

While many on demand accounting start-ups have set their sights on the QuickBooks market over the past few years, they haven’t really made much headway. Zoho, however, is a different animal and should give Intuit a bit more pause for concern. Not only does Zoho already have millions of free and paid users around the globe for it 25 solutions, Zoho is just one part of Zoho Corporation, which provides enterprise level business, network, and IT infrastructure management applications, and software maintenance and support services to some of the largest companies in the world. This not only gives Zoho a lot of expertise to draw on to add new functionality, but the financial staying power to be a serious contender.

Zoho Support: Big Business Customer Service for Small Business Budgets

Zoho, one of the pioneers in cloud computing solutions for small and medium businesses (SMBs), has added a new customer support management application to its line up of 20-plus cloud-based collaboration, communication, business and office productivity solutions.

Zoho Support helps streamline the process to create, capture, process and manage support tickets. Zoho has combined its own experience with an internally developed support system with that of its sister division, ManageEngine (also part of Zoho Corporation) to build Support. ManageEngine has been providing commercial help desk and support solutions for the past four years to a stellar list of large enterprise customers–giving Zoho a lot of stress-tested experience to draw on.

Zoho Support lets you create support requests in four ways:

  • By manually enter information while on the phone
  • Via emails that come to you
  • From a website from that you create
  • From self-service capabilities which you can embed on your web site, which enable both you and your customers to monitor and track the request in the same real-time view.

Other modules in Support include a knowledge base, dashboard and reporting, and integrated chat.  Zoho will add capability to initiate and track support requests via chat in the near future.  Support also has a contracts module so that you can set service level agreements (SLA) for different support plans, specifying things like response times, hours available, etc. It also features a workflow module to create rules to automate escalation, resolution and other processes, and is integrated with Zoho CRM so that sales and support teams can easily share customer information.

Like other Zoho offerings, Support is offered in a freemium model (pricing here). The free version gives companies the ability to  create up to 25 support requests a day, but limits the methods by which you can initiate a support request, and lacks more advanced functionality such contracts and workflow. Support Professional, priced at $12 per agent per month, includes all of the functionality except contract management, and the Enterprise Version offers everything for 24 per agent per month.

Notably, Zoho will also introduce an alternative pricing structure for Support which should be very attractive to many small businesses. As I discussed in my post, Prescription for Subscription Fatigue? Time for New SaaS Pricing Models, the cloud/SaaS per user, per month pricing model has hardly changed in the past 10 years! Although the model been a huge leap forward from packaged software in so many ways, vendors have not taken the next big leap to more innovative pricing models.

While per user per month pricing for an individual solution may seem quite reasonable, subscription fees can quickly get out of control for many small businesses as they start adding more services. This is because most people wear many hats in a small business. In fact, the same person may be selling at 10:00, taking a support call at 1:00 and checking inventory at 5:00.

Zoho Support’s alternative pricing, which should be available within a month or so, is based on requests, but doesn’t limit the number of users. So for instance, if you buy the middle level, Express 100 for $49 per month, you can create up to 100 requests per day, and have an unlimited number of agents handling those requests.

I expect that many small businesses will welcome this more creative and flexible approach–and hope that it will motivate other cloud vendors to create their own pricing innovations.

Flying Through the Cloud: Dreamforce Takeaways at 50,000 Feet

A couple of weeks ago, I attended Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce event–along with about 19,000 other people. Having had a chance to digest the proceedings (as well as Thanksgiving dinner), here’s my commentary on what stood out as the top takeaways from the conference in terms of where Salesforce is headed and what it means for the software industry and market.

  • Super-charged energy levels. Ever the master of marketing, Marc Benioff did not disappoint. As he continues to thrust Salesforce beyond its CRM roots into ever-widening orbits, Benioff’s passion and enthusiasm remain high—and contagious, as evidenced by  the strong turnout, constant tweeting and feedback I heard in many 1-1 partner and customer conversations. (Not to mention that people were lined up to have their pictures taken with Salesforce mascots Saasy and Chatty…scary!). More to the point, the energy level at Dreamforce was off the charts in comparison to most recent industry events. While it’s easy to be cynical about people drinking the Kool-Aid, it seems the substance is there to sustain Salesforce’s energy. Competitors will need to dig deep to inspire the same intensity of purpose as Benioff breaks new ground in quest to develop Salesforce.com’s next billion dollar market.
  • May the Force be with you. Force.com, Salesforce.com’s cloud computing platform-as-a-service (PaaS), is fueling a lot of this energy. Force.com enables people to build multi-tenant software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications that are hosted on Salesforce.com’s servers. A long line of customers and partners testified to the power of the Force–which is basically that it gives them a fast, easy, low risk way to build applications.  According to Salesforce, 200,000 people are now developing on the platform, and 100,000 custom applications have already been built for it. More important, Force.com is racking up wins across many segments, including small end-user customers, such as Ball In Air, to larger corporate customers, such as Kelly Services. On the commercial development side, Salesforce has reeled in an impressive roster of partners large and small, young and established. Here’s a sampler: Xactly launched a new sales performance solution for small and medium businesses (SMBs); FinancialForce, which Salesforce invested in with Coda to to deliver business critical financials solutions on the platform; BMC is partnering with Salesforce to bring Service Desk Express to the Force.com platform in 2010; and CA and Salesforce are teaming up to deliver agile development management via the Force.com platform.  As Force.com development momentum accelerates, it leaves less time and money for companies to invest with  traditional platform powerhouses such as Microsoft and IBM.
  • Unveiling Chatter. The biggest news was about Chatter, Salesforce’s strategy to aggregate social media streams into a single place. According to Salesforce, Chatter will both a collaboration application and a platform for building social cloud-computing apps, and will be available sometime in 2010. To me  “chatter” is one of those words that can get very annoying when overused—and Benioff must have used the word “Chatter” about 80 gazillion times in the keynote alone, leading me to imagine that he will have the Rolling Stones rewrite Shattered to Chattered as a marketing gimmick. But with adoption of social media skyrocketing, Salesforce is likely envisioning Chatter as a good bet for it’s next billion in revenues. After all, collaboration is the one thing every employee does, every day, regardless of role. Naturally, Salesforce has set its sights on the collaboration gorillas,  IBM Lotus and Microsoft SharePoint. Of course, this is unchartered territory for Salesforce, which hasn’t really ventured here before, and it will have to navigate a lot of new turf in areas such as corporate governanc, which bigger rivals have had years of experience with. At the same time, Salesforce will also need to deal with newer, more nimble Davids–such as CloudProfile, which lets small businesses manage both outgoing and incoming social media in one place.
  • No longer David, not yet Goliath. Salesforce has clearly left the David stage of development, but is not yet a Goliath. At the analyst luncheon, a very astute analyst (apologies that I did not get his name) asked Benioff how Salesforce will position itself and operate now that it’s a billion dollar company, with a very large appetite for a bigger chunk of the software pie. Benioff assured us that Salesforce still wants to do good in the world and put customers first, etc. (I’m paraphrasing of course). However, a new crop of Davids, such as Zoho, are nipping at Salesforce’s heels, with effective guerilla marketing, strong viral adoption and no/low cost offerings. As a tweener, Salesforce must navigate and position amidst the competition from both above and below. Just as important, it will need to rethink its “co-opetition” agenda. For instance, Benioff repeatedly cast IBM Lotus as old-school collaboration, apparently unaware (or unwilling to acknowledge) that Lotus has reinvented itself for the world of Web 2.0 and social media with offerings such as Connections, LotusLive, Sametime, Quickr—just to name a few. In fact, the vision for Chatter looks a lot like Lotus Connections.

Apart from feeling a bit too chattered, my overall take is that Salesforce will continue to rearrange the competitive landscape as it moves into new areas. While it’s not always the first to innovate, Salesforce is among the best when it comes to helping customers “get it” in terms of  using new technologies and tools to solve business problems. Competitors who underestimate its ability to reframe the market—whether the market is development platforms, collaboration or character mascots—risk ending up on the short end of the stick.

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