Trends in SMB Collaboration, Communication, and Mobility: What’s Your Strategy?

Almost every employee in every company collaborates and communicates every day. In the past, most businesses relied primarily on email, phone systems and sticky notes to do this, but today’s technology provides us digital solutions that enable us to work anytime, anywhere.

Stream-based messaging and collaboration tools, cloud file sharing, conferencing, smartphones, tables and laptops can help employees and contractors collaborate to get work done more quickly and easily. Companies that use these solutions to automate and streamline collaboration can not only improve productivity, but also give employees more flexibility in terms of how, when, and where people they want to work. As baby boomers retire, these businesses will also be more in tune with and better able to attract and retain millennials as they enter their prime working years.

How are small and medium businesses (SMBs) thinking about and adapting to create a smarter, more agile workforce? At SMB Group, we recently surveyed 730 SMB decision-makers via our 2016 Small and Medium Business Communication, Collaboration & Mobility Study to find out. In our July 26 webinar, sponsored by Citrix, I’ll discuss survey findings that show that while SMBs are progressing well in some areas, there are some that they may not be paying enough attention to.

  • A majority of SMBs say they have a collaborative culture, and are getting productivity value from collaboration and communication solutions. 61% of SMBs agree/strongly agree that their company encourages and rewards collaboration; 70% agree/strongly agree that their communication and collaboration solutions help improve productivity. By incenting employees to work together, and providing them with solutions to empower them to do so more effectively, SMBs can boost productivity, job satisfaction, business outcomes and the bottom line.
  • SMBs are embracing cloud collaboration and communication solutions. A majority of SMBs already supplement staples such as email, on-premises file sharing servers and phone systems with newer, cloud-based tools for file sharing, instant messaging, and web and audio conferencing to aid collaboration. Furthermore, SMB plans to use more of these tools, and newer solutions, including video conferencing and stream-based messaging and collaboration tools, over the next 12 months. However, with so many solutions in the market, many SMBs have a hard time figuring out which ones will work best for the business. In addition, it’s easy for employees to use “unsanctioned” collaboration solutions, which can create support problems and security risks.
  • SMBs may not be making the connection between employee metrics and growth. SMBs are most likely to cite attracting new customers (51%), growing revenue (49%) and maximizing profitability (38%) as their top three business goals (Figure 1). In contrast, attracting and retaining quality employees (28%), improving productivity (19%), and creating a millennial friendly work environment (8%) are much lower down on the list. Yet empowered, productive and satisfied employees are generally a pre-requisite to creating happy customers and growing the business. SMBs can gain a competitive edge by realizing that strong employee metrics are intertwined with sustainable business growth and profitability.
  • SMBs are slow to embrace telecommuting. All SMBs surveyed have some employees that work from home on a regular basis, but telecommuting is not the norm among SMBs, with 59% indicating that 1%-10% of employees work from home regularly, and just 14% saying that more than half of their employees do so. On the bright side, 18% expect the percentage of telecommuters to rise over then next year, and 45% say that their company wants to make it easier for employees to work from home. Of course, not every job lends itself to telecommuting. But, to synch up with changing worker expectations—especially among millennials, who place a premium on flexibility—SMBs need to create a work at home strategy that aligns with both business and employee requirements.
  • More work is getting done on mobile devices, but SMBs face mobile management challenges. 67% of SMBs say that mobile solutions are changing how they communicate and collaborate. While the PC isn’t dead, people are doing more work on mobile devices, especially when it comes to collaboration and social media. For instance, for collaboration apps, 37% say that they’ve decreased their use of traditional PCs and laptops—and 6% say they no longer use PCs at all for collaboration! This swing is due in part to the convenience and portability of mobile devices over traditional desktops and even many laptops, and to increasing preferences for mobile interfaces. However, SMBs face several challenges to taking full advantage of mobile, including effectively securing and managing mobile devices and apps, especially when it comes to supporting bring your own device (BYOD) programs. Since the growing preference for mobile shows no signs of abating, SMBs must update mobile strategy, devices (including laptops), services, apps and policies to create a productive yet secure and manageable mobile work environment.

Figure 1: Top SMB Business Goals Slide1

These are just a few of the findings from the study. Please join our webinar, sponsored by Citrix, where I’ll examine these and other findings about the changing collaboration and communication landscape, and discuss the key pillars to create a strategy to improve communication, collaboration and productivity for your business.

Sage Summit 2013: That Was Then, This Is Now

logoI’m a bit behind in getting my wrap up and thoughts on Sage Summit–Sage’s annual event for business partners and customers–together. But better late than never! As you can see in the related links at the end of this post, I’ve attended these events for many years. During this time, Sage North America has gone through many significant changes to bring sharper focus to its mission and more value to its customers. At this year’s event, I saw promising signs that these efforts are beginning to pay off.

That Was Then

Sage North America has been on a transformational journey since 2009, when Sue Swenson took over as CEO, made some tough choices, and began setting the wheels in motion to change the company’s downward trajectory. In the four years since, the company hired another new CEO, Pascal Houillon, in 2011. Under his leadership, Sage made some controversial (at the time) moves to unify the Sage brand and product names and divest Sage of seven non-core businesses, including ACT! and SalesLogix, which had large installed bases. To help streamline the company’s focus on its core business and on improving customers’ experience with Sage, Houillon also brought some fresh talent into the executive ranks.

This Is Now

The result of all this is a more focused, purposeful Sage. Gone are the days of trying (unsuccessfully) to rationalize an unfathomable number of overlapping products. On Houillon’s watch, it is unacceptable for Sage executives to position the Sage portfolio in different ways. At Sage Summit 2013, the executive team was singing from the same hymnal regarding Sage’s core positioning and messages:

  • Continue to focus on its core businesses (accounting, payroll, payment processing, ERP, etc) for very small businesses, SMBs and the midmarketSlide1. Key to executing on this is the company’s move to centralize R&D Centers of Excellence for cloud, mobility, customer experience. In the past, each individual product brand would undertake separate development efforts for new functionality. Now, Sage R&D develops new features, extensions and add-ons once (for mobility or analytics, for instance) that individual product groups can replicate across their solutions. Sage is also in the process (though not yet there) of standardizing service and support offerings. It launched Sage City, a new centralized online community for customers, business partners and employees, last month. And, Sage will make new acquisitions when needed to supplement its core solution focus.
  • Expand its connected services strategy and offerings. Sage is building more cloud services, such as, Sage Mobile Sales, and Sage CRM, that connect to core financials and ERP solutions, as well as for partners to build and sell add-on connected services. The company’s big picture vision is to “liberate” data and services that had been locked into ERP so that customers can use them in the cloud, anywhere, anytime, and from any device. Sage is building a data cloud on Microsoft’s Azure platform with common connectors, bi-directional synch, multi-tenant storage and disaster recovery. This means that Sage connected services will work the same way regardless of the backend ERP/financials Sage customers use. This will all come together in the Sage Marketplace, slated to launch in FY14.
  • Going all-in on the subscription pricing and the cloud. Sage now offers subscription-based pricing for all of its solutions, and comps partners on a percentage of subscription sales over the life of a contract. It has also committed to developing cloud versions for its solutions, including a cloud version of Sage ERP X3, which will feature a user pure web experience when available in 2014.

Taking the Marketing Road Less Travelled

sage lisltensThe Sage commitment to putting customer experience first underpins these initiatives. Sage has several initiatives underway to up its listening game, such as the Sage Listens RV Relay, which is allowing Sage to also kick off a “Shop Local” campaign to encourage people to shop with local businesses.

In contrast to the “build it and they will come” tack that most tech companies take, Sage is taking its cue from the Proctors and Gambles of the world. It is getting customer input upfront before developing new products and functionality. Sage is hearing that customers want easy to use, flexible solutions, mobile capabilities and a low-cost of entry, and is concentrating resources on these areas. In fact, in one of the breakouts, when an analyst asked a Sage executive about social and big data plans, the exec said that customers are not calling these out as priorities. He added that while Sage isn’t ignoring these areas, it is prioritizing development and marketing based on customer input.

For instance, Sage recently launched Sage Healthcare Advisory Services , which includes a new “My Workforce Analyzer” tool to help SMBs understand plan for the Affordable Care Act. Analytics are under the covers, of course, to help SMBs develop what-if scenarios and optimize planning. But Sage isn’t calling it a big data solution.

Sage has often been knocked about for not keeping pace with the generational shift in the North American workforce. But it is now facing the facts–specifically that people born before 1968 will comprise less than 20% of the workforce by 2015. Sage is recalibrating its strategy to align more closely with different generational expectations. As Brad Smith, EVP of Customer Experience stated in his keynote, “We have to over-service the pre-PC guys but we also have to find ways to reach the ‘digital natives.’”

To that end, Sage demoed a voice-to-text initiative in which users can use voice-activated mobile technology to interface with ERP systems on mobile devices. It’s sort of like Siri, but within the context of the business and business workflows, so it appears to do a better job of handling user queries and requests. While the voice command initiative is in its infancy, it could be a key differentiator in the future.

Finally, Sage is putting its money where its mouth is, by tying Sage metrics and compensation for all Sage execs to Sage Net Promoter scores (NPS). The company’s previously shrinking North America business has grown 4% year-over-year.

Channeling The Channel

6a00d8345177fc69e20192ac233035970dSMB Group research shows that accountants/CPAs and technology business partners represent 2 of the top 3 influencer channels for SMBs selecting financials and related business solutions, with peers in other businesses rounding out the list. Sage has a large channel in both areas–with over 25,000 accountants in North America and more than 26,000 technology reseller partners worldwide. But over the past few years, cloud competitors have been trying to poach these very valuable resources.

Accordingly, Sage has several new initiatives underway to re-focus partners back on Sage. In addition to committing to provide cloud-based offerings across the portfolio to give partners a Sage cloud offering, Sage is:

  • Partnering with the Business Learning Institute to develop a curriculum for accountants to help them provide more competitive services to their SMB clients.
  • Planning to launch a new certification program for accountants focused on startup market, with a collaborative version of Sage One, Sage’s solution for very small businesses, to make it easier for them to automate tasks and take care of clients.
  • Introducing the Sage Advisor Partner Dashboard, which uses current customer data to help Sage reseller and accountant partners more readily identify new opportunities in the installed base, and provide a more personalized, consultative sales experience.

Sage is also recruiting new partners for midmarket Sage ERP X3, and new accountant partners to help it build traction among very small businesses for the Sage One solution.

Summary and Perspective

Minus ACT! and SalesLogix customers and partners, this year’s Sage Summit was smaller than in 2012. But, the energy level was much higher. Sage executives were more confident and relaxed, and the messages they delivered were consistent and crisp. Sage demos were more engaging, and even at times, entertaining.

Key metrics, including rising NPS scores, modest growth in its North America business, and a stock price that recently reached its highest point in 13 years are also good signs for Sage. As important, conversations with customers at the event led me to conclude that “Sage Listens” has moved beyond a slogan to put the programs in place to proactively engage customers.

However, there are a few areas in which I believe Sage needs to double down:

  • Sage One marketing. Worldwide, Sage has about 10,000 customers using this very small business management solution today. But most of the millions of very small businesses have never heard of it. Sage needs to significantly enhance awareness and demand gen campaigns to become more than a blip on the radar.
  • Third-party connected services . Sage has a big installed base, which should make it an attractive partner for third-party developers–especially now that developers can write just one connector and reuse it for all of Sage’s core products. But Sage has only about 20 endorsed connected partner services today. Again, many developers don’t know about this opportunity. Sage must raise its overall visibility in the developer community and launch a targeted recruitment program to get developers to build the apps that its customers need.
  • Clarity around CRM. After divesting ACT! and SalesLogix, the company’s sole solution here is Sage CRM. But other than discussing integration and a cloud version of Sage CRM that is in the works, CRM was very low profile at the event. Given Sage’s focus on core financials/ERP it leads me to wonder how committed is Sage to Sage CRM, and if will make the investments required to provide a truly first-rate CRM solution.
  • Innovation. Sage made a good case for its direction in the cloud, mobile and integration areas. However, analysts and press did and will continue to hound it on social and big data/analytics. While Sage customers may not have put these areas at the top of their priority lists yet, it’s only a matter of time before they do. Sage needs to get out in front in these areas.

That said, it’s challenging to do everything at once. The Sage leadership team has made the decision to move forward instead of standing still. All in all, I get the impression that Sage as a company has a better sense of who it is, where it’s going and how it will serve SMBs.

Related posts:

Sage Streamlining Takes a Major Turn With the Sale of ACT! and SalesLogix

Sage Turns a New Leaf: Top Takeaways from Sage Summit 2012

Sage’s Rebranding: More than a Name Change

Sage Summit 2011: Tackling the Sage NA Branding Challenge

Impressions from Sage Insights 2009

Making Small Business a Bigger Business: Intuit’s Acquisition of Demandforce

Intuit announced last week that it was acquiring Demandforce, which provides an integrated suite of Web-based social media and marketing tools for small businesses, for $423.5 million in cash. Demandforce automates many of the internet and social media marketing tasks that small businesses increasingly need to do, giving Intuit a proven front office play: Demandforce already has about 15,000 customers, books about $50 million annually in revenue, and is growing at about 80% annually.

This is Intuit’s second biggest acquisition (Digital Insight, which Intuit acquired in 2006, was the largest). What makes Demandforce so attractive to Intuit? Let’s count the ways!

1. Broaden Intuit’s Front-Office Presence

Intuit has a very strong footprint in small business “back-office” applications, such as accounting, payroll and payments solutions. As important as these solutions are to running a businesses, they do little to address small companies’ top challenges–which according to SMB Group studies, are to  attract new customers and grow revenue.

Intuit has made some acquisitions over the past few years to provide customer-facing application to small businesses. The most notable is Homestead, which helps small businesses build web sites and create an online presence.

Demandforce builds on this acquisition, and can help Intuit capitalize on the broader shift to digital marketing that’s being fueled to a large degree by the adoption of social media and mobile solutions. Now, Intuit can provide it’s five million QuickBooks desktop users, and over 400,000 QuickBooks Online customers with Demandforce, which is designed to help services-based businesses grow revenue, retain clients and strengthen their online reputation. Demandforce has already done the integration with QuickBooks and now they can mine the Intuit installed base for service businesses that would benefit most from Demandforce.

And, at roughly $300 per company per month, Demandforce figures to be one of Intuit’s most profitable offerings over time.

2. Gain Industry Solutions and Go-to-Market Expertise

Demandforce’s customers span the true small business service universe–veterinary, pet services, dental care, automotive repair, medical spas, salons, chiropractors, and fitness centers, to name a few.  (The company recently added a solution tailored for accountants–which should turn into a doubly nice move as about 250,000 accountants use QuickBooks).

Demandforce gives these small businesses affordable, easy to use tools similar to those that large enterprises use–and tailored to their industry-specific needs. It’s model is to select an industry, study it, and identify the top industry solutions in that area, such as Henry Schein for dental. Then Demandforce engineering does the integration work, and looks for partners that sell into the relevant industry. The vendor markets through industry trade shows and conventions, and closes sales through telesales and partner feet on the street.

Many vendors say they’re going to target small business vertical markets. But I’m hard-pressed to think of another vendor that has done this type of holistic, industry-by-industry block and tackling. This has paid off for Demandforce, and should reap even bigger rewards with the added muscle and money of Intuit behind it.

3. Flying Higher Into the Cloud

Intuit has been steadily progressing from being a traditional desktop company to an online cloud services provider. This is also where small businesses are moving, as shown in Figure X. The Demandforce acquisition adds to Intuit’s cloud credentials in the very hot marketing automation area.

Figure 1: Small Business Purchase and Plans for Cloud-based Solutions

4. Serving Up SoLoMo to Main Street Businesses

Three big tech trends are reshaping businesses today: social, mobile and local. Demandforce hits all three of these bases for Intuit. On the social front, It brings together many of the social media tools into a unified service, making social media more manageable for small business to manage their interactions across social networks. In terms of mobile, Demandforce makes it easy for small businesses to engage with their customers using mobile devices. So for instance, your salon can send you a text message to remind you about your next appointment, Finally, there’s the local element. With Demandforce, small businesses can invite and collect user reviews and feedback, building up their local reputation. To date, Demandforce has helped its small business customers gather about 1.5 million reviews, which can also be syndicated out to Google, Yelp and other review sites.

Adding it Up

As I discussed in an earlier post, Intuit: From Products to Services, Applications to Platform, Intuit has already made great strides in transforming from a products to a services company. Demandforce gives Intuit the fuel it needs to more fully tap into small businesses’ hunger for solutions that can help them grow their businesses–and in doing so, accelerate its own transformation.

6 Tips to Maximize Twitter Event Hashtags

Originally published in Small Business Computing, 8-29-11.

Recently, a client asked me for some tips about how to get the maximum mileage out of Twitter event hashtags. Creating Twitter hashtags for your business events is a great way to multiply conversations about what you’re doing, and there are also lots of ways to maximize the impact of the hashtag. I put a few before, during and after the event tips here together for her, and thought I’d share them with you.

Twitter Hashtag Tips: Before the Event

1. Start publicizing your Twitter event hashtag a week or so in advance of the event. Of course Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook groups are good ways to do this, as well as adding this information to any schedules, confirmations or even press releases you send out.  This lets people start tweeting in advance that they are going to attend the event — “@bugsbunny can’t wait to see you at #acmeroadrunner next week!” It also lets people who can’t attend know where they can get a real-time feed of what’s happening.

2. Create a list of ready-made tweets for your internal team to get the ball rolling. When you have specific announcements slated, send your internal team several ready-made tweets that are related to the announcement. Plan to do this a day or two before the event. For instance, “Acme Co.’s Roadrunner on stage with demo of the new Wylie Coyote killer app.” Ask your team to add their own comments to the tweets to personalize them and send them out in conjunction with the live announcement.

Twitter Hashtag Tips: During the Event

3. Publicize the event hashtag on signage and check-in materials at the event. Make certain you provide the event hashtag, so that people don’t need to hunt for it when they’re ready to tweet. At too many events, it’s too hard for people to find the hashtag when they need it. You want to make it easy for people to tweet about the event.

4. Monitor the Twitter hashtag, and then identify and promote the most active tweeters. At most events, there are at least a few people documenting and/or providing a running commentary on what’s going on. Promote these tweeters to others with tweets such as “Thanks @bugsbunny @elmerfudd @sylvestercat for chronicling and commentary about #acmeroadrunner!” — or something along those lines.

Twitter Hashtag Tips: After the Event

5. Create a Twitter transcript of all the tweets from the event each day and tweet out how people can access it. Twitter chats are great for real-time information and opinion sharing at events and getting the back-story.  But people can’t always participate real-time, so make it easy for them to catch up.

These transcripts are also a great resource for active press and analyst tweeters, who increasingly “take notes” in Twitter and use the tweet stream to refresh their memories to write blogs or reports later on. This article tells you how to make a Twitter chat transcript using TweetReports. There are other services out there, too; I’ve heard they all have pros and cons, so you may want to search around on Google and compare, and I’d be interested to find out what you come up with.

6. Figure out how you can analyze all the great information you’ve collected. This Social Media Today post provides information about a number of Twitter tools that can help you analyze hashtag streams. Some of the tools include MentionMap, The Archivist and Hash Tracking. A lot of these tools are free and/or available in a freemium model.

Well, for now, that’s all folks! But I’m sure that there are lots of other great tips, and I hope that you’ll send me your own to add to the list.

Dell KACE M300 Appliance Enables Small Businesses to Take a Proactive Approach to IT Asset Management

–by Sanjeev Aggarwal and Laurie McCabe

Dell KACE recently introduced a new series of System Management Appliances targeted at small businesses with 20-200 employees. The Dell KACE M300 Asset Management Appliance is designed to deliver an affordable, plug-and-play IT asset management solution that reduces the repetitive, time-consuming task of managing PC inventory and software licenses. The M300 qualifies as a robust yet easy-to-use asset management solution—saving these businesses time and money, while at the same time addressing their compliance and inventory management issues.


Dell acquired KACE, which designs and builds systems management and deployment appliances, in February 2010. KACE solutions are available both as physical appliances (delivered as a pre-packaged hardware and software appliance) and as software-only virtual appliances, which customers can buy and load onto servers they already own. Dell’s KACE appliances are designed to perform processes ranging from initial computer deployment to ongoing management and retirement.

Higher-end Dell KACE products (K1000 and K2000) have been available for some time. Since Dell acquired the company, sales have spiked considerably year-over-year. However, the existing KACE offerings are designed for companies with 100 to 10,000 employees, and cost more than most small businesses are willing to spend in this area.

With the introduction of the M300, Dell is making a play in the true small business market, targeting customers that want a simple plug-and-play appliance to meet both hardware and software asset management needs. The M300 is designed for smaller businesses that often have a part-time IT manager, typically overloaded with installing software and keeping systems and client devices up and running, and frequently unable to keep up with the detail-oriented task of tracking hardware and software assets.

Many small business IT managers are still trying to manage assets and software licenses manually with spreadsheets. While manual tools provide a point in time snapshot of a network, the information rapidly becomes obsolete as computers are added or additional software is installed on existing systems. IT managers either end up spending too much time trying to keep this up-to-date, or end up with outdated asset inventories. Offloading the labor-intensive minutia involved in this job can free them up to focus on more important things.

Although there are some free and small business oriented solutions available, Dell’s strong market footprint and direct relationships with existing small business customers provide it with a significant go-to-market advantage, and the opportunity to educate small businesses about the benefits of investing in IT asset management (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Benefits of IT Asset Management

In line with small business requirements to keep it simple, the M300 features easy set up. The IT manager plugs the M300 into the network, and the device automatically scans and discovers all the attached devices, obtaining information like system names, IP addresses, vendor, models numbers, memory and disk space, etc. In addition to the hardware configuration, the M300 keeps track of all the software licenses, on what systems the software is installed, versions of the software and level of patch updates, etc.

The M300 continuously tracks computers and software, and can report accurate information in real-time and for compliance purposes at a specific point-in-time. The appliance’s web-based intuitive user interface shows real-time information on all of the monitored parameters. It can match the installed software with the number of software licenses purchased and authorized users. It provides online or sends out reports and/or alerts on any monitored parameters. For example, an alert will be issued if an unapproved application is downloaded and installed on a monitored PC or whenever a new PC is connected to the network.

Priced at $2,498, the M300 includes a one year warranty and supports a maximum of 200 nodes. Assuming the useful life of the M300 to be 3 years, we estimate the cost to monitor each node (desktops and servers) on the network at approximately $0.49 per month per node in a company with 200 nodes. Figure 2 shows the estimated cost per node in companies of various sizes (according to the number of nodes deployed). Given the cost of a employing an IT admin to manage systems full-time (approximately $75,000 per year), the M300 will pay for itself in about one month. In addition, the M300 can relieve the pressure and any additional costs related to non-compliance in terms of number of software licenses, etc.

Figure 2: Tracking Cost Per Node, Per Month with the M300
Source: SMB Group

The M300 is compact–measuring just 1.52 x 5.79 x 5.79 inches, connects to the network via a single gigabit Ethernet port, and is currently available in the U.S. only, both direct from Dell and via Dell partners.  KACE has added about 100 new certified partners since Dell acquired it and currently has 143 channel partners in North America.  KACE is aggressively recruiting new partners to help it expand its footprint and reach Dell’s large customer base in the small business segment.

Dell’s future plans for KACE small business solutions include additional appliances that can be stacked on top of the M300 and will address time consuming IT management functions like OS installs, remote management, mobile devices, service desk, etc. As the systems management needs of these small businesses expand, Dell intends to help them manage this growth without the need to rip and replace their current solutions and investments.

Quick Take

Cost-efficiency, productivity benefits, ease of installation and peace of mind benefits—aided by Dell’s strong clout in the market—should enable the company to make significant inroads with KACE in the lower end of the SMB space. And, the company’s plans to incrementally build on the current M300 offerings with additional appliances for other repetitive tasks make sense.  However, Dell can significantly strengthen its story–and sales–by:

  • Offering small businesses options to add at least some new functionality via M300 software upgrades. Although the small business KACE appliances have a small form factor, some companies will balk at buying additional boxes (not to mention that Dell wants to move away from its “box-provider” image!)
  • Incorporating capabilities to manage non Windows-based systems, clients and networked storage devices.
  • Enabling remote management features to allow channel partners to offer incremental value-added IT infrastructure management services. This would not only have appeal for customers, who like to have a one-stop shop, but for partners, that can build higher margin services on top of the M300.

Looking at the larger picture, the KACE M300 provides further evidence of Dell’s deepening commitment to small businesses. The company continues to invest in and build innovative yet practical solutions that address real small business pain points without breaking the bank. Small businesses increasingly rely on technology to run their businesses, and Dell’s focus on supplying them with easy-to-use solutions such as the KACE M300 to help manage this technology is on the mark.

What is Mobile Commerce, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published September 13, 2010 in Small Business Computing)

What is Mobile Commerce?

Mobile commerce (also known as mobile ecommerce, m-commerce and other variations) consists of two primary components. The first is the ability to use a wireless phone or other mobile device to conduct financial transactions and exchange payments over the Internet. The second is the ability to deliver information that can facilitate a transaction — from making it easy for your business to be “found” via a mobile Web browser to creating mobile marketing campaigns such as text promotions and loyalty programs.

Why Should You Care?

Just as the Internet and ecommerce revolutionized the way we promote, market, shop for and buy goods and services, wireless devices and mobile commerce are poised to create another revolution in the world of commerce.

As the use of Internet-enabled wireless devices skyrockets, people want to use these devices to do more things. App stores and hundreds of thousands of applications have sprung up to accommodate demand for applications, games and other services. But just as we saw in the early days of ecommerce, privacy, security, usability and interoperability issues have slowed the pace of mobile commerce adoption in the early going — among both sellers and buyers.

However, with the Internet in our pocket or purse, it’s only a matter of time before mobile commerce really takes off. Mobile devices go where we go, and track where we are. The technology makes it easy to find a nearby pizza place and order a pizza, order theater tickets from your car, or check out price comparisons and reviews from a store.

Mobile applications and devices are getting more personal too: based on past history, they can anticipate our needs and promote goods and services to fulfill them. Still not convinced? Think about this: Amazon recently announced that “in the last twelve 12 months, customers around the world have ordered more than $1 billion of products from Amazon using a mobile device.”

Big retailers and companies are investing to make mobile commerce easier, more convenient and more secure. As they do, consumers will become more comfortable with making purchases over their BlackBerrys, iPhones, Androids, iPads and mobile devices we have yet to imagine.

If you sell your vegetables at farmer markets, or your home-made jewelry at craft fairs, or if you deliver pizzas to apartments or dorm rooms, its easy to see how being able to take credit card transactions on your mobile device could help you boost sales and repeat business. You don’t need to limit your sales to people who can pay by cash or check.

Customers that don’t have a checkbook can still buy from you, and they’re not limited by the amount of cash in their pockets. Furthermore, you can easily capture their contact information and follow up with other promotions. Meanwhile, if you run a hair salon, you could use mobile marketing to let customers know when you have openings or send them appointment reminders.

What to Consider

We are still early on in the mobile commerce era. But, as large retailers embrace mobile commerce, small retailers will need to gear up to provide convenient and secure mobile payment and commerce options. Now is a great time to develop a mobile commerce strategy to help differentiate your business. Some key areas to consider include

1. Do you need a mobile Web site? While it may be tempting to try to optimize your existing website for mobile devices, this often results in a clunky and hard-to-navigate site on a small screen. Consider building a separate, streamlined site geared to mobile users. Register it as a mobile site with search engines so it shows up in mobile searches, and provide a link to your mobile site from your main website. Check out services such as Mobify, which helps create mobile-friendly websites.

2. How can you best promote your business to mobile users? You can, for instance, send text messages to customers about specials and discounts. Or a group of retailers on Main Street could team up to offer joint loyalty programs — buy something at one store, get 20  percent off at the next — to help compete more effectively with one-stop big box stores.  SMS text messaging services such as Fanminder, Ez Texting and Ruxter, which helps businesses create a mobile website, and share messages with customers and members.

3. Don’t be a pest. You want to use mobile commerce for good, not evil, so make sure that customers can decide and opt-in if they want to get your promotions via their cell phones–or not.

4. Set up your business for mobile commerce payments. More vendors are starting to offer mobile commerce solutions geared to small and medium business requirements and budgets. These solutions let you take payments on your mobile device, and also send an email or text invoice to the customer. Wireless carriers, credit card companies and software companies are all introducing mobile commerce solutions; start by assessing solutions from vendors you already use and trust.

5. Think about integration. Integrating mobile commerce transactions with your accounting and contact management solutions can help save time and increase efficiency. Good news–If you are one of the millions of small businesses using Intuit or Sage accounting solutions — Intuit GoPayments and Sage Exchange provide integration with their respective accounting and financial solutions.

6. Be sure that it’s secure. Fraudulent activities can be an issue with mobile commerce, and compliance requirements and fines for fraudulent activities — never mind the damage to business credibility — are serious. Businesses considering mobile commerce need to verify that the mobile commerce payments vendor is PA-DSS compliant, which means that its solution has met global security standards created by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council to prevent payment applications from storing prohibited secure data, such as magnetic stripe, PIN or CVV2 numbers.

Remember, it took some time for businesses to develop ecommerce sites and for customers to feel comfortable using their credit cards on the Web. Today, mobile commerce is in its infancy, but given the explosion of Internet-enabled mobile devices coupled with consumers’ desire for speed and convenience, mobile commerce is destined to be the next big game-changer.

What is an Online Collaboration Suite, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published on June 30, 2010 in Small Business Computing)

What is an Online Collaboration Suite?

An online collaboration suite provides businesses with an integrated set of tools that span a range of collaboration needs. While not every collaboration suite includes the same capabilities, they often feature tools such as business email, instant messaging, contact management, calendars, file sharing, document management, project management, portals, workspaces, web conferencing, and social media tools such as forums, and wikis.

Online collaboration suites are delivered as web-based, Internet delivered services, so you don’t need to buy, install or configure any hardware or software, or hire IT staff or consultants to get up and running. Users simply login via a Web browser to buy and use the service, which are typically sold through a monthly or annual per user subscription pricing model, with certain amount of email storage included as part of the standard subscription price. As with many online services, most online collaboration suite vendors offer free trials so you can try before you buy.

Why Should You Care?

Collaboration is probably the only activity that everyone in every company engages in everyday. Whether you’re the CEO or a new hire, an accountant or a construction worker, you need to share and manage information, ideas, resources and connections to get your job done. Effective collaboration tools help you to share knowledge, streamline processes, and keep everyone in the organization “on the same page”.

Until recently, most small businesses could get along just fine with a few tools, such as email, calendars, document sharing and the good old telephone. But in the last few years, the growth of digital information has been exponential. Newer collaboration tools, including portals, Web conferencing, instant messaging, social networks, wikis, bookmarks and tagging have become more prevalent as people seek out better ways to organize, share and access this information avalanche.  At the same time, the kinds of devices we use to collaborate–from desktops to notebooks to smart phones to iPads–has exploded.

New and better ways to collaborate can help make your business more efficient and productive. But, it can be very difficult to piece together different tools and services into an integrated whole. Online collaboration suites integrate many pieces of the collaboration puzzle into a unified solution that makes it easier to find, share, manage and use information, and to locate and connect with the people you need when you need them.

What to Consider

Is your business is suffering from collaboration chaos? Common warning signs include:

  • Too much telephone tag–wasted time on missed phone calls, searching for missing phone numbers and locating people with the know-how you need.
  • Bottlenecks in finding information or resources needed to get a job done.
  • Email overload and version control issues–such as trying to figure out which document is the most recent one.
  • Mistakes made because people are using incorrect or outdated information.
  • An overload of customer service calls.
  • Inability to easily track, monitor and engage in social media conversations relevant to your business.
  • It takes too long to make decisions because people can’t access and/or agree on what the “right” information is.

While many vendors offer online collaboration suites to help pull together people, tools, services and content to help bring order to the digital chaos, the devil is in the details. The SMB Group is currently conducting research and interviews to provide an in-depth comparison of eight vendors’ online collaboration suites (including Google Apps for Business, HyperOffice, IBM LotusLive Engage, Microsoft Business and Office Productivity Suite (BPOS), OnePlace,, VMWare Zimbra and Zoho Business). Each vendor has bundled a different a different mix of capabilities into its suite.

For instance, several vendors include email, project management and/or web conferencing as part of the suite, but others don’t. Some focus heavily on social capabilities, while others have just started to add this type of functionality. Standard storage for email ranges from 5GB to 25GB, and each vendor offers different standard service and support capabilities and service level agreements. Some focus exclusively on the small and medium business (SMBs), while others target large enterprises as well as SMBs. Some offer freemium models, others don’t. Of course, pricing varies, as does the minimum contract length–from one month to one year. Some vendors offer pieces of their suite, such as instant messaging or Web conferencing, ala carte, and let you add new solutions as you need them in an integrated fashion. Some vendors sell direct, some through channel partners, and some do both.  And each offering has its own look and feel.

While each of these solutions has its pros and cons, some will be a better fit for your business than others, so it’s critical to take a step back and consider your business needs, priorities and goals before you start evaluating specific solutions. Your assessment doesn’t need to be complicated–it can be as simple as thinking about what’s working well for you now, and identifying collaboration roadblocks and gaps that hamper productivity and business results. Then look for an online collaboration suite that can help you to address these immediate needs quickly and easily, but also give you the option to use more of the suite’s functionality as your needs require and time permits.