So you want to start a small business, perhaps a bootstrapped tech company? Good for you, I enjoy mine immensely. Let me suggest you adopt a rule that I’ve used for a long time:
If it’s available in the Cloud, use the Cloud Service. Don’t roll your own or manage your own server, even if it is a server in the Cloud.
The thing about a good Cloud Provider (or SaaS service, if you prefer), is that their service is their business. If they’re doing it right, they can afford to know a lot more about it, do the job a lot better, and deliver it a lot more cheaply than you can. Meanwhile, you have plenty of work to occupy your time. Keep your focus on doing those things that uniquely differentiate your business and delegate the rest to the Cloud whenever you can.
That’s the high-level mindset. Using this approach I have consistently taken companies that had significant IT burdens and gotten them down to where it takes a talented IT guy maybe 1/3 of their time to keep things humming along smoothly. This for sites that have millions of visitors a year–plenty for most small businesses. BTW, my instructions to the IT guy were to spend that 1/3 of time automating themselves out of a job. They’ll never get there, of course, but all progress in that direction is helpful.
Why So Much Cloud Emphasis?
Let’s drill down on why I think that’s the way for small businesses to go.
First, there’s no need to deal with hardware and so that whole time-consuming effort of ordering the servers and setting them up is eliminated. You can turn cloud-based services on or off in seconds.
Second, the cloud-based services know how to manage their services because that’s all they do. Suppose you choose to base your web presence on WordPress. You could deal with setting up the WP server on an Amazon instance and still be in the Cloud, but now you have to manage it (keep all the security updates going, run backups, optimize for speed, etc.). That takes time and expertise.
Or, you can let a service like Page.ly, ManageWP, or WordPress.com do all that heavy lifting for you. Now you don’t even have to think about it much—it just happens and they follow industry best practices it would be hard for a small business to emulate.
Third, you can scale up and scale down. Small business traffic is very bursty. One day some big site like Techcrunch writes about you and your site is melting down—nobody can access it. You needed to scale up fast! The next day you’re back to your normal small business traffic. If you had invested the time and money in big scale, it’s wasted on those days laying idle. But, if you choose the right cloud-based host they can scale up and scale down automatically for you.
BTW, this is critical for good Google results as they penalize slow sites on SEO.
Okay, How Can My Business Use the Cloud to Best Effect?
I’ll cover this one by what I see as the critical business phases:
1. Reach your audience
Job #1 has got to be creating a web presence that lets you reach your audience. You need to do this even before you have a product to sell them, because you’ll need to take advantage of the time you spend building product to optimize that audience touch point. Towards that end, you’ll want the following:
- Web Site with Blog: I highly recommend building that around WordPress using a WordPress Cloud Hosting service. It lets you leverage the huge WordPress ecosystem which means lots of off-the-shelf plugins and know how to make your web site sing with minimal effort on your part.
- Analytics and A/B Testing: Get hooked up with Google Analytics via a plugin for WordPress so you can monitor what people do on your site and use that feedback to improve your Audience attraction and engagement. A/B Testing lets you try pages side by side to see which one works best. It takes time to optimize, so don’t wait until you’re ready with product. Start day one trying things to see what works.
- Social Media: Get your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn pages going ASAP. If nothing else, you need to nail down your presence and brand in those places. Use WordPress plugins to automate the interconnection of Social Media with your web site.
- Domain: Don’t bother picking a company name until you nail your custom web domain. Read up on SEO aspects of that to make sure the domain is helping you pull traffic. Get yourself a DNS service such as DNSMadeEasy or one that Amazon provides. This will let you tie together disparate Cloud Based services under your brand and domain. The DNS decides what computers actually get the message when someone types in a URL. It’s like the central switchboard of your web presence and you’ll use it for all sorts of things. It’s also your lifeline if some emergency strikes a Cloud provider and you need to bypass them to get to an alternate of some kind.
- Email: Gear up both your firm’s employee email plus an email service you can use to email customers. Start building your mailing list day one so you have as big a list as possible available to help when you’re ready to launch. I like services like MailChimp for the mass mailings and services like Google Apps for employee email. Be sure your email service includes easy integration to your WordPress blog and start a weekly email newsletter from day 1.
- SEO: Learn to master your own SEO activities. It affects every aspect of your web presence. You have two audiences—people and the machines that are performing search at places like Google or Bing. You can’t afford to fail either audience. There are a variety of Cloud Services that can help you with this such
- Surveys: You need all the feedback you can get to guide your efforts to reach your audience. I like SurveyMonkey and Qualaroo. Survey Monkey does complex surveys. Qualaroo does neat little spur of the moment unobtrusive surveys. Both are extremely useful. I use Survey Monkey for targeted surveys that go out via email and blog posts. You get a survey when your free trial ends. I use them to research market topics. They’re great for creating interesting content–people love to read survey results. Qualaroo is on key web pages asking:
“Would you recommend this product?” on the download page
“What articles should we be writing?” on the blog
“What can we do to make this product more likely something you could buy and use?” on the pricing page and elsewhere.
- Customer Service: Customer Service isn’t just about fixing product problems. It’s about giving your audience a way to reach you and a way to reach each other to engage. As such, it’s worth setting these systems up from Day 1. For my businesses, I want a Customer Service solution that offers a pretty big menu:
Trouble Ticketing. This is the classic Customer Service app but it’s the one you’ll use the least often if you’re doing it right. Consider Trouble Tickets to be a failure. A failure to prevent the problem before it started. A failure in documentation or user interface/experience. A failure to communicate. The customer’s point of last resort. You have to have Trouble Ticketing, but you want to do everything in your power to make sure Customers never have to use it.
Idea Storming: I love giving customers every possible way to provide feedback. Ideation is the ability to put an idea on an idea board and vote on it. Give customers a fixed scarce number of votes and then pay attention. Whatever rises to the top on the voting is something you need to deal with.
Forums: Own your own forums even though there are lots of forums out there. Make them private and require some form of sign up. This is your exclusive User Club. Be very responsive on the forums. Go there first and Trouble Tickets second. If you help someone with a problem on the forums, others can see the answer and potentially be helped in the future. If you help someone by closing a Trouble Ticket, you only helped them and the effort is not leveraged.
Knowledge Base: You want a KB integrated with the rest of the Customer Service experience so that as someone enters a Trouble Ticket, they are directed to KB articles that can potentially help.
I use a service called User Voice to do all those things except the forums. I use a free BBS service for that.
2. Build your product
If you’ve got a software company, or perhaps an e-commerce company, you’ve got to build some software. There are helpful Cloud services here too:
- Source Control: You need source control day one. Being without it is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. I like Github but there are lots of others.
- Bug Tracking: For bug tracking and the like, Atlassian and others have this base covered. Don’t confuse it with Customer Service software, which I will cover under E-Commerce.
- Online information resources: There are so many here I can’t begin to count, but we live in an age where there are literally thousands of developers helping each other online in all kinds of ways. StackExchange can answer almost any technical question you might have. Online forums are there too for more specific areas.
- Consulting: Need quick design work but don’t have a designer on staff yet? Need a specialized piece of code written that’s just part of your solution but nobody knows how? Need a little extra testing help or maybe some tech writing? There are tons of services like Elance that can get you some high quality temporary help.
For this stage, you have a vibrant audience, big and growing email list, and your product has had a successful free Beta test. Time to start charging. Here are some things you may need to take the order, process payments, and handle the accounting:
- Shopping Cart: If you chose WordPress, there are tons of plugins to help. But, they’re not the only game in town either.
- Payment Processing: Who will process credit cards for you? Lots of possibilities ranging from Paypal to Stripe. Be sure your processor covers International sales and any special needs you may have, like recurring payments for subscription services.
- Accounting: A lot of these services can connect to QuickBooks to make your bookkeeping easier. Scope that out in advance.
How Do I Choose the Right Service?
With so many different kinds of Cloud Service, it is hard to be specific. So, I’ll talk about the generic:
- Look for an online and vocal fan club for the service. It doesn’t take long with Google to see which services are loved and which ones are marginal.
- Look for companies similar to yours that use the service proving someone else has tried it and succeeded. Try to contact those companies and see what they think of the service. I’m not talking competitors—they won’t help. But there are always similar kinds of companies that don’t compete at all.
- Make sure you have a roadmap for what you need your services to be able to do for at least the next 2 years. Get your developers and others to review the proposed service against the roadmap and make sure you won’t have to switch down the road. It’s a good exercise to have that Roadmap available anyway—it’s just a wish list of everything you want to do for Marketing, E-Commerce, and Product over the next 2 years.
- Get your developers to look carefully at the published API’s for the services. Even if you won’t be using any API’s early, someday you might. The quality of the API’s is an indication of how well architected the service is too.
You can build a pretty amazing online Customer Experience if you make full use of available Cloud Services as described. If you have build all of it, set up the servers, do the backups, install all the updates, and so on, you’ll be wasting a lot of your time that could be spent doing other things.