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“The cloud” is one of the latest buzz words within the business community;but what, exactly, is it, and how can you leverage it for your business?
What is the Cloud?
You and your business are probably already using cloud computing in some form. For example, if you’re using Dropbox or Google Docs, then you are already using cloud-based applications. With cloud computing, you virtually “rent” both software and hardware for as long as you need it, including servers, backup and virtual storage, firewalls, load balancers, and apps like word processing, design, customer relationship systems, payroll, etc.
Cloud computing is just a new name for an old IT technology - virtualization. The technology is just more available nowadays. In the past, you had to work in the IT department to understand how virtualization works and how to use it. Now, cloud service providers are willing to handle all of the logistics - for a simple monthly fee.
Small businesses can use cloud computing for a variety of services and tasks. For example, your server will run out of space, run slow as it gets older or even crash. Servers are expensive to replace. You can use a virtual server to run processes and software for a monthly fee that is often less expensive than buying a new server. You can also use simple backup tools like Mozy or Carbonite, saving your files externally in case of power failures or lost equipment. Or outsource all of your storage to a virtual cloud storage drive that holds both data and files, ensuring that you always have access to your processes, data and files even in the case of a natural disaster, server failure, hacking, etc. Plus, since everything is cloud-based, your cloud applications will seamlessly run on cloud servers without deployment issues.
Benefits of Cloud Computing
The major reasons for the buzz around cloud computing have to do with the business benefits. Here are some reasons to consider the cloud:
Savings: With cloud computing, you’ll eliminate major capital expenditures since you won’t have to buy servers, on-site storage/backup and other infrastructure needed to run an office.
No Maintenance: When you have on-site infrastructure, you have to maintain and upgrade it, which can be extremely expensive and time-consuming. When you rent storage and servers from a provider, they’re responsible for all the maintenance/upgrades.
Control Over Software: In the past, you had to buy the whole software program and licensing even if you only needed it for a month or a project. For example, if you wanted to use Adobe Photoshop, you would have to buy the entire program or even a version of Creative Suite, which is very expensive. Nowadays, Adobe offers a cloud-based version of all its software, allowing you to “subscribe” to the program as long as you need it. Cloud computing allows you to use the software for only as long as you need it. Further with cloud applications, you just log into a website to access your apps, and you don’t have to download anything to your computer.
Access from Anywhere: Need a document when you’re on the road? No need to stress or VPN into your office desktop. Instead, just go online, access your cloud drive, and get everything that you need – no matter where you are in the world.
Scaling: Running out of space on a server or storage unit is a real concern for businesses. Cloud computing provides you with virtually unlimited server capacity and storage space. Scale up or down as needed. No need to buy that extra server just for the busy time of year.
Backup/Recovery: You’ll never lose all of your data because of a lost laptop or a server failure. Back up your data to the cloud, and you can quickly recover any missing files – without any loss of business continuity.
How to Get Started
Finding a good cloud service provider is the hardest part of getting started with the cloud. Do your homework, read reviews, and only sign up with a trusted name in the business. Also, do an inventory of your actual needs, i.e. how many software seats, estimated amount of storage, server capacity, etc. If you work with IT consultants, they can help you with this task.
Some small business trends are obvious, but less common trends are equally noteworthy
Each year, news outlets and small business blogs rush to discuss trends for the coming 12 months. The Huffington Post pointed to increased mobile use, continued paid marketing and social marketing, more e-commerce, and a surge in local searches as trends that will see businesses through 2014. Other outlets predict a surge in entrepreneurship and small business that will continue through the year.
These trends are well known and often discussed, but what about the often-overlooked small business trends? There are a few points that people might miss when it comes to small business, but these trends appear to be lasting.
Coworking spaces remain popular
Coworking was all the rage last year, but don’t expect this trend to go away. Nine out of ten coworking spaces are expected to increase their membership this year. It’s clear that there is a continued demand for the benefits that coworking provides, and the popularity of coworking is one trend that should continue throughout 2014.
Coworking has widespread positive feedback amongst freelancers, small business owners, and telecommuters, and is worth looking into.
Email still converts better than social media
Social media has been coveted as the “it” thing to catapult small businesses into the spotlight for quite some time. But is the return on investment as great as it seems?
Nope. When it comes to customer acquisition, a recent survey by McKinsey and Co. shows that email marketing is 40 times more effective than Facebook and Twitter combined.
Small business should still cultivate online relationships with their customers using social media, but the trusted email newsletter is far from dead.
The rise of Software as a Service (SaaS)
Cloud computing is an extremely popular business trend these days, but there’s another level that’s often overlooked: Software as a Service, or SaaS.
SaaS is often called “on-demand software,” and is a software delivery mechanism, where the software and data are hosted on a data center owned by the company providing the software. Salesforce, Basecamp, QuickBooks, and GoToMeeting are all examples of SaaS solutions.
SaaS is great because of it’s low cost and scalability. Now, a one-person firm can compete with larger firms, using the same software and keeping costs in check.
Online reputation management will continue to grow in importance
It’s estimated that 90% of consumers read online reviews before deciding to make a purchase, and that probably doesn’t come as a surprise. Many small businesses actively claim their accounts on review sites, but that’s not enough. Businesses must be proactive to garner the benefits of online reputation management.
Negative reviews on Yelp or Google can severely damage a business, so it’s important that companies observe and respond to negative customer feedback.
Conversely, small businesses should also pay attention to their positive reviews. Customer praise can be displayed on a company’s website and social media accounts, for example.
Trends will come and go every year. Some will be around for the long haul, and others will dwindle. Small business owners should remain aware of the common, newsworthy crazes, but shouldn’t forget to dig deeper to unveil some of the lesser-known business developments that are just as helpful.