Working Smarter Online

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted May 03, 2005

When William Eldridge left a management position at IBM and started his own small business two years ago, the change came as a shock. No more armies of support staff, no more legal, accounting, HR and IT experts to back him up. He was on his own. Which is why finding Smart Online, a provider of subscription online services for small businesses, was such a godsend, Eldridge says.

At the time Smart Online provided a range of services for a monthly subscription plus, in some cases, supplemental fees. It offered forms and document templates related to start-up, legal, marketing and HR issues, plus free online consulting — all for as little as $30 a month. Earlier this year, Smart Online launched the first release of OneBiz Conductor, a new suite of hosted browser-based software applications that will integrate sales, banking, accounting, human resources, collaboration and commerce functions.

Eldridge started using the original Smart Online services not long after launching GlobalLink Trade Consulting, an Arlington VA-based firm with offices in Geneva, Switzerland and Singapore. GlobalLink consults to governments, government contractors and shipping and transportation companies on how to expedite import-export and immigration, especially in developing countries. The firm grew quickly. Today it's a $3-million-a-year business with 15 to 20 employees spread around the globe.

A Fortuitous Finding
Eldridge stumbled upon Smart Online a year and a half ago when he was searching in Google for legal help to incorporate GlobalLink. Automated online incorporation in any state is one of the services Smart Online has provided from the beginning. "I live in North Carolina but my office is in Virginia, so I needed all the Virginia letters," Eldridge explains. "With Smart Online it was very easy to do, and it was certainly not much money to get incorporated — $150 versus probably $5,000 with a lawyer. So the savings were huge."

When GlobalLink began to grow and bring on consulting staff, Eldridge realized he should also have an employee manual that would outline policies and procedures on, for example, how and when he was going to pay employees, plus regulations on issues such as smoking and harassment. A human resources consultant quoted him a price of $1,500 to develop a manual.

"But Smart Online has one there already," Eldridge says. "And it's great. For the [monthly] fee I was paying, the cost [for the manual] was next to nothing — [an additional $99], I think. With just those two items, Smart Online more than paid for itself."

The monthly subscription fee Includes access to consulting help — by e-mail — from subject experts. Eldridge was skeptical, but when he ran into a quandary figuring out how to compensate his top employees, he was surprised to find he could actually get valuable HR consulting from Smart Online. The service also provides consulting in other areas including legal and marketing.

Eldridge's issue was how to incent his regional team leaders. He had some ideas of his own but wanted to make sure he wasn't missing something. "So I wrote an e-mail, not really expecting much, and got back a response in a day or so from a professor in Arizona," he recounts. "And I thought the response was great." In fact, GlobalLink ended up implementing the Smart Online consultant's suggestion: a more complex formula than Eldridge had considered that ties bonuses to team performance but also factors in overall company performance.

"So now I'm hooked on this whole deal," he says of his early experience with Smart Online.

Finding the Time
One of the things that impresses him about the company, Eldridge says, is its responsiveness to suggestions from customers and the fact that it's constantly adding new features and modules to its product suite. OneBiz Conductor came in part out of responding to such suggestions. One of the first applications, online calendaring, has been a life-saver for GlobalLink.

The firm's consultants and principals shuffle constantly between the U.S., Switzerland, South Africa, Singapore and often remote locations in between. Finding time to meet on the phone to review internal firm business or consult on client projects was a major challenge, made worse by the time differences — 12 hours between Singapore and Arlington, for example.

When all your employees are in one office, or in multiple network-linked offices, using group calendaring functions in a product such as Microsoft Outlook, part of the Office suite, makes it very simple to find common time slots for a group and book meetings. But with a highly distributed, virtual company like GlobalLink, where employees are mobile most of the time, Outlook doesn't work.

In the past, when GlobalLink partners or team members needed to meet, one person called another and asked for the next five or six time slots available in their calendar for a meeting. Then they called the next person needed in the meeting to get their available time slots, and so on. Sometimes it took repeat phone calls to find a time everybody could attend.

Now with OneBiz, GlobalLink can automatically find the first available common time slot for a specified group of individuals. As with other OneBiz modules, customer data is stored on Smart Online hosts and available from any Internet-connected computer or PDA. Users log on with ID and password and access the modules from within a browser.

GlobalLink, like many subscribers, barely scratches the surface of the services Smart Online offers. With OneBiz, it will be offering even more. Industry analyst Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., has said that, "OneBiz Conductor delivers big-business enterprise resource planning (ERP) to small-to-medium-sized businesses."

It doesn't quite do that yet, but the online calendar and contacts applications that GlobalLink is using and a dashboard — a portal home page for subscribers showing all of their Smart Online activities and data — are the first modules. Over the next six months, the company will roll out two more: online Human Resources and Accounting.

Suggestion Box
Eldridge says Smart Online deserves credit for expanding its reach beyond typical mom-and-pop small businesses, responding to his and other users' requests for tools that work for international companies like GlobalLink. And the calendaring application is a significant productivity booster for his firm, he says. Still, he'd like to see one improvement.

Specifically, he wants the company to make the calendar compatible with Microsoft Outlook so customers like him can synchronize their Smart Online calendar with Outlook or Outlook-compatible calendars on their PDAs. Eldridge, for example, uses a Blackberry from RIM, which allows him to automatically synchronize an Outlook calendar. As it is, Smart Online calendar users need to make a point of going online and manually updating their calendars.

"They don't have that yet," Eldridge says of the Outlook integration feature. "But they tell me it will be in a new release."

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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