The ‘cloud’ and its rainbows

by BN26 Dec 2011

My clients often ask me which web services I use and why. At first, I advocated the ‘Cloud’ as a way of saving money and avoiding cruel and unnatural suffering at the hands of in-house IT. But after a while, I realised that the most disruptive impact created by the Cloud was not the death of traditional software, but rather a potential transformation in the way we work, collaborate and engage with clients. Here is my list of the top nine Cloud services that have both changed the way I work, and more importantly, the way I think about it.

1) Google Apps – never delete anything

A few years ago I made the decision to move my entire email inbox, document storage and calendar scheduling activities to the Cloud. Once I started using Google Enterprise Apps – I realised the absolute futility of deleting as a behaviour. A clean inbox is not a sign of personal efficiency, but wasted effort and poor filters. Storage is Google’s problem. Once I stopped worrying about keeping my inbox to a reasonable size, I started devoting energy to the more useful task of tagging conversations, setting up email filters, and using search tools to mine my own correspondence for commercial opportunities.

2) WordPress – Plug-in, not lock in

I was a big fan of Typepad for years, but eventually I ceded to the inevitable. The power of WordPress is its universe of third party plug-ins – modular pieces of code that extend the functionality and aesthetics of your blog to that of a professional publishing platform. And for non-technical users like myself, that was a Godsend. Suddenly I could experiment with new features and design templates without spending money on development. Hiring someone to build you a website is a form of lock-in. You may have a wonderful platform for a few months, but you will lack the ability understand the mechanics and make changes.

3) Mailchimp – Don’t wait, automate

Mailchimp provides incredible tracking tools, the ability to correlate social media information with your database, and advanced subscriber segmentation. But none of these features sold me on Mailchimp’s email distribution platform. My primary motivation was simple – laziness. When I write a blog post, Mailchimp’s RSS to Email service identifies the new content, formats it into a nice template and sends it out automatically. As any writer will tell you – one less barrier to getting things done, is one more step to getting things out.

4) Hubspot – Nurture your flock

In an age of decentralised discovery, the best marketing strategy is to create relevant content that allows your customers to find you when they are looking for insights and information. Hubspot was not a cheap decision, but it has been worth it. I host my corporate website on Hubspot, and it handles all of my primary interactions with visitors, subscribers and potential clients. Through embedded cookies, I get a sense of both what content my audience responds to as well as real time feedback into the social platforms that generate the highest conversion rates. Hubspot is like a sdigital marketing agency in a box.

5) Shoeboxed – Scan and discard

Ironically for someone who published a book in physical form, I really hate paper. Receipts, business cards, letters, contracts – dead trees take up space, require organisation and inevitably in my case, get lost. Shoeboxed was a revelation. Using their mobile app I simply take pictures of my receipts and business cards. They process and verify them, and upload the results to the Web. I regularly sync the records with my CRM tools and eliminate the time consuming exercise of scanning business cards and correcting errors myself. Bliss.

6) Highrise – Always be closing

It always annoys me that just like Wall Street and bankers, too many real estate agents still don’t realise that Glengarry Glen Ross is a dark satire not a sales motivation movie. But you can’t argue with its most famous tagline – always be closing! For years, I flirted with the idea of – I liked its philosophy but hated its complexity and clunky interface. Highrise, created by 37 Signals, is a great alternative. Simple, efficient, and focused on tracking the people and conversations necessary to close deals. It doesn’t do everything, but what it does, it does well. It integrates with a variety of other Cloud-based programs.

7) Freshbooks – Show me the money

Freshbooks is a very simple Web-based invoicing program – but don’t be deceived. Its simplicity belies the fact that asking for and collecting money represents 99% of what it takes to be successful in business. Firstly, once you set up client profiles and billing templates, sending out an invoice is an activity that should take not more than 15 seconds. Secondly, clients will stop pretending not to have seen your invoice once you explain to them that Freshbooks informs you the minute they open it on their computer. And finally, when it is easy to see at a glance your received payments, uncollected invoices, and clients who pay late – it completely changes your perspective on how you should run your business.

8) Evernote – Pay attention to everything

Evernote is an application that I use all the time but paradoxically, am still not entirely sure what it is for. Using my iPhone, I take pictures of newspaper articles, book spines, ticket stubs, retail displays – anything that catches my eye. I tag these with the topics I speak about, and every now and then dip into the Cloud based storage archive looking for something interesting to spice up a presentation, an article or a client meeting. For now Evernote is my ultimate visual diary – but I have a feeling it could also be a lot more in years to come.

9) Geckoboard – If you don’t watch a kettle, it will never boil

To paraphrase Lord Kelvin, what gets measured, gets done. My new favourite Cloud service and the final one on this list – links all the other platforms together. I have Geckoboard running on a separate screen in my office – it gives me a live dashboard of all the key operations of my business. I can see at a glance my monthly revenue from Freshbooks, my web traffic and visitor activity from Google Analytics, a feed of the deals I have waiting to close from Highrise, the performance of my last email newsletter from Mailchimp, my current total Facebook and Twitter followers and a host of other essential metrics. Real delight awaits when you can watch the magical cogs of your business spinning in real time.