Small Businesses Find Silver Lining in Cloud Computing

By Jennifer Schiff | Posted May 04, 2009

Free (or inexpensive) Web-based office suites from Google, OpenOffice and Zoho are giving Microsoft Office a run for its licensing dollars and small business customers. Should you consider making the switch? Three small business owners discuss the pros and cons of cloud computing.

MessagingLab Down on Word, Up with Docs

MessagingLab founder Karl Schmieder had been a Microsoft Word user “for as long as the program has been around.” But in 2006, five years after founding MessagingLab, he started playing around with Google Docs “for writing, drafting budgets and doing rough presentations,” he said. And soon thereafter, he switched over completely.

The reason MessagingLab left Microsoft Word for Google Docs? The small business, which provides marketing communications and branding help to healthcare companies, has a mix of Windows and Apples machines, as well as workers in different locations, and wanted to simplify how it shares documents, while reducing its dependence on particular computers.

“Even though Apple and Microsoft have for years claimed that there aren’t any [cross-platform] issues, we still occasionally lost formatting, which can be frustrating both to us and to clients,” explained Schmieder. But because Google Docs is platform agnostic, that no longer was a problem.

And there were other advantages, too, such as ease of use.

“One of the things about using a program like GoogleDocs for writing is it shows you how bloated Word has become,” said Schmieder. “I remember when Word was actually a pretty good program, and you could customize it according to your own tastes. But that hasn't been the case for five or six years.”

Indeed, when Schmieder recently used the latest version of Word, he recalled thinking, “All of this just to write a document? More than half the features are useless.”

However, he does admit to missing some of the customization that Microsoft Office allowed, and said the keyboard commands in Google Docs “aren’t totally there yet.” Ditto the ability to easily create professional-looking presentations (which is why MessagingLab still uses Apple Keynote for presentations).

Still, for the cost savings, ease of use and robustness, Schmieder said Google Docs is tough to beat.

MightyBrand Finds Google Apps Mighty Fine

Like Schmieder, MightyBrand co-founder Ryan Waggoner was also a longtime Microsoft Office user. But when he and his partners started MightyBrand with employees working in different locations, Waggoner decided they should review all their options. This included open source computing and Web-based office tools, particularly Google Apps and Zoho

“Ultimately, we went with Google Apps for the ease of getting setup, the overall simplicity and the fact that most of the people we work with already had a Google User ID. That helped reduce friction, as they didn’t have to sign up for yet another service,” explained Waggoner. “Plus, we’re long-time Gmail users, and we’ve had a great experience there, so we felt very confident that Google Apps could meet our needs as we grew.”For the founders, switching to Google Apps wasn’t a big deal. However, Waggoner noted that some advisors and contractors they worked with had a bit of trouble adjusting. 

“They’d been e-mailing Word docs back and forth for years, so this was quite a switch. And we often see that they’ve downloaded a document from Google Apps, edited it in Word, and then re-uploaded it, which messes up the formatting a bit. But these are relatively minor issues,” he said. “And we’ve worked through most of them.” In addition to ease-of-use and the collaboration benefits, Waggoner also liked that with Google Apps, MightyBand can scale instantly as more people join the team without spending hundreds or thousands of dollars.

What he doesn’t like is the reduced control you have with cloud computing. “If your e-mail provider or ISP goes down, you don’t have access [to your data],” said Waggoner. “However, Google is probably best-in-class for reliability at this point, so we feel good about it.”

Similarly, when asked if he had any security concerns about proprietary material being stored offsite, Waggoner said, “There’s a slight security concern, but the reality for us is that Google likely has better security than what 99.9 percent of small companies can muster, so we decided the risk was worth it for us.”

The only other slight knock Waggoner has against Google Apps is that, “occasionally you want a feature from Office that Google Apps doesn’t have,” he said.

As for advice to other small business owners frustrated or fed up with MS Office, Waggoner had this to say: “If you’re going to switch to something like Google Docs or Zoho, be patient. There’s definitely a learning curve. It also may not be the best solution for perfectionists, as there are still little issues and bugs to be worked out. So make sure you have buy-in from everyone on your team.”

Qiigo Saves Thousands in Licensing Fees and Support

Rick Batchelor, another longtime Microsoft Officer user and the founder and CEO of Qiigo, an SEO firm in Atlanta, knew it was time to ditch MS Office shortly after he hired a new employee and realized he didn’t want to spend several hundred dollars for another single license of Microsoft Office.

After looking at different Web-based office tools, Batchelor settled on the Premier Edition of Google Apps ($50), as well as OpenOffice (the latter mainly for more complex spreadsheets). He and his employees experienced some initial trepidation. “It does take some getting used to,” he said, though new employees pick it up pretty quickly. But once they started, he hasn’t looked back.

“They pretty much did everything we needed and more,” he said. Google Apps provides “all the same functions that we normally use MS Office for. And an added benefit is the Web-based collaboration with Google Docs.”

And while Batchelor, like Schmieder and Waggoner, admitted that Google Apps wasn’t perfect (though neither is Microsoft Office), he said the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages. Indeed, when asked if he was happy he made the switch to Google Apps, Batchelor said “Heck, yeah!” and reeled off a list of advantages, including:

  • Few support headaches, which means less cost and more productivity
  • No more paying for each license of MS Office
  • Easy sharing of documents with customers and remote employees
  • Much easier to find stuff
  • Works with any mobile device
  • Google Docs has a full offline version that syncs so you can work offline
  • Better e-mail management and storage (2 GB in Outlook versus 25 GB with Gmail)

Moreover, since switching to Google Apps, Batchelor estimated Qiigo has saved more than $1,000 per year per employee. "If you calculate one hour per month of support cost and one hour per month of lost productivity, it easily pays for itself," he said. "Plus, you never have to hear ‘I lost that e-mail when my Outlook crashed,’ ever again.”

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff writes about IT and small business issues and runs a blog for and about small businesses

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