Browsing For Business – How to Run a Business With Web-Based Software

I stayed plenty busy on Saturday, December 19, 2009. Not only was I shuttling my five-year-old around town to his Christmas pageant rehearsal and his birthday party, I also wrote several blog posts and articles (including this one), reviewed my current bank account information, entered receipts into my checkbook register and my budget software, updated my business plan, created a survey form, and responded to about 10 e-mails. I never opened a single application besides my Firefox browser. I accessed all of my software through the Internet. My first all-day experience with web-based computing, also called “cloud” computing was a great success!

Web-based computing simply means that instead of using software programs downloaded to your hard drive, you open your software applications through the Internet. You open your web browser, access the software’s location on the Internet, open the program, and start using your program. Like many computer users over the last 25 years, Microsoft defined my software user experience. If I needed to update a spreadsheet, I opened Microsoft Excel. I created my word processing documents in Word, and I would open Outlook to check my e-mail or calendar. I only used the Internet to look at news sites, shop online, or check my social profiles at LinkedIn or Facebook. Over the last several months, I have completely shifted my focus to use Microsoft products as little as I possibly can. I should have seen this advancement coming. We have watched much of our commerce move inside a web browser. Whether we have purchased books from Amazon.com or downloaded software directly from a website, we entrust an increasing amount of our commerce to web-based activity. Using web-based software for all computing is a very logical next step.

I am by no means anti-Microsoft. For many high-powered spreadsheet activities like I use at work, nothing works better than an Excel spreadsheet. I also need to use Excel in many cases, because Excel’s add-on programs allow greater data analysis and productivity. However, many people are not like me and do not work with 30 megabyte spreadsheets every day. Many people need little more than the basic features of the traditional Microsoft Office package. For these purposes, web-based software like Google Docs is more than enough to fulfill users’ needs.

Major software companies are quickly catching on. Google’s web-based application program is arguably the most popular web-based software, but other companies like Adobe (check out Adobe Buzzword) offer competing products. Even Microsoft is creating a web-based version of its Office software, which is a clear admission that computing is more about the Internet and less about shipping software CDs. Other companies, such as 37 Signals, offer a number of software solutions to handle a wide range of business problems.

In the last two months, I have learned that you can do the following business activities using web-based software.

  • Maintain your accounting books
  • Prepare business plan information
  • Share documents in a common team location
  • Prepare presentation graphics
  • Maintain your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software
  • Pay your bills by scanning invoices

Here are five reasons why web-based software is quickly becoming a key part of business computing.

  • Mobile computing – When we look back at this period, Apple will be best known for creating a truly mobile computing environment. While BlackBerries were important as communication tools, the iPhone made a leap of several levels to a true handheld computer. Since smartphones have limited memory, any usable software needs to be based on a web-based platform.
  • Increased collaboration – the rise of the free agent workforce, the never-ending expansion of global commerce, and increasing numbers of virtual teams are creating demand for easier collaboration. In the past, we would have to e-mail documents or upload documents to the Internet using complicated procedures. We would never know if the version we were editing was the “live” or the “official” copy. Web-based software allows people around the world to access the same document at the same time. Editing and collaboration is becoming much simpler and more productive for a connected workforce.
  • Data security – Your first response may be, “How can using a web-based program be safer than accessing my hard drive?” What would happen if a technology company like Intuit (QuickBooks’ parent) or 37 Signals lost a significant customer data? The answer is the equivalent of Enron. These companies would collapse because the market would lose trust in their ability to secure confidential data. These companies maintain security levels far above what we can maintain on our home computers or small business networks.
  • Mac vs. PC switching – Darren Root, executive editor of the CPA Technology Advisor magazine, wrote a September 2009 blog post about how he lives a “double life” using Macs at home and PCs in his office. If your only need a web browser to access your programs, then the physical computer may not be as important in the future. You may not need an expensive computer if you only need to access a browser. The sudden popularity of netbook computers is somewhat related to the increased popularity of web-based software. If you can access your business software through the web, then a $300 netbook could support your business as well as a laptop that is two or three times as expensive.
  • Less need for IT support – Instead of hiring a full-time IT support staff for your unique hardware and software needs, you can rely on the software providers to monitor upgrades, solicit user feedback, and handle any software issues. Your reduced need for support personnel gives you more resources to improve your business.

So what software did I use on December 19? I used a variety of software that substitutes for much of the software we have downloaded to our computers for many years.

  • Gmail – E-mail, calendar, task, and contacts (free), which replaced Microsoft Outlook.
  • Google Apps – Anything MS Office can do (also called Google Docs, free).
  • PlanHQ – Business planning software. The version I use costs $9/month, but larger business will spend closer to $30/month. Palo Alto Software, the maker of Business Plan Pro, told me last week that they are planning web-based introductions of their very popular Business Plan Pro software. I use Business Plan Pro for my clients’ formal business plans, but I maintain my own business plan on PlanHQ.
  • Highrise – 37 Signals product for customer relationship management (about $30/month). o QuickBooks Online – Online version of the accounting software leader ($9.95/month).
  • Dave Ramsey’s My Total Money Makeover personal finance site – For about $6/month, my wife and I use Dave Ramsey’s on-line personal budgeting software instead of a program like Quicken or an Excel spreadsheet.

I pay approximately $25 per month for my firm’s information technology costs. Not only can I save the cost of a full-time IT support person, but I also access my work from my laptop, netbook, smartphone, or a computer halfway around the world and have the exact same data and format in front of me. I am convinced that we will only see increased activity in this type of technology to reduce costs and increase flexibility. As demands for employee flexibility and employer mobility become more prevalent, operating our businesses inside of a browser will become more natural and more necessary.

Flexibility and value are key success factors in today’s business environment By utilizing web-based software to run your business, you are able to run your business from any location and on any computer. Instead of working in the technology maze of traditional business, you will have more time and resources to work on your business and achieve your goals.