I get questions from other entrepreneurs what software we are using to run our business and it has been my intention for a while to create a blog entry about this and I finally got to do it so here it is.
I founded TELLUS International six years ago after having been part of a software company exit (sales of a software business intelligence company). When founding TELLUS, I made a firm decision not to invest any money in hardware which forced me to select solutions that would run as a cloud solution (SaaS). This was a pretty bold statement back in 2005 as the cloud really became reality and part of “accepted” much later and there really wasn’t that many SaaS solutions back then.
Throughout this blog entry, you will see that solution integration plays an important role when running a business. Integration is by far the most important thing that an organization should pay attention to. You do not want your personnel having to re-enter things to many applications, the focus should be on sharing information across different applications. For us, Microsoft Office Suite with Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Project, OneNote etc. are obvious selections for the office productivity tools but all fo the data and documents have to live in the cloud.
There are some applications that are better suited to run as desktop apps with the ability to save data to the cloud and therefore I really see a hybrid model to be the case in many solution areas and I have some examples of this later in this blog entry. If we work in Microsoft Word, the document will be saved a cloud vault so nothing will be lost even if the laptop/desktop fails or hard drive goes bad. In our case, M-Files document management solution was the right choice due to many reasons that I explain later in this blog entry.
Let me start this journey by working through each operational area where software is needed. I will start by looking at company accounting as that is what is usually needed immediately after the company has been created. You could potentially keep your books using Microsoft Excel (I have seen this happening as well), but I decided to base my company on a real foundation from get-go and Excel was not the solution for TELLUS accounting and was not cloud based either.
Accounting in the cloud back in 2005
Back in 2005, the only real SaaS vendor for accounting was Intuit with QuickBooks Online and that is what we have been using from get-go. I had exposure to QuickBooks Online already before 2005 when I was running a business intelligence software company so I knew what I was getting myself into. The reasons why we went initially to QuickBooks Online from regular QuickBooks was due to the need to share financial information with the headquarters in Finland. A SaaS solution enabled any user get immediate access to the books. What a great concept and Intuit was the first one to get a SaaS solution to the marketplace.
The benefits of having accounting in the cloud are many such as:
1) I can have my CPA review on my books anytime, anywhere without me having to worry about hardware or software to be installed.
2) I can generate invoices and have people to enter their time for billing purposes just using the browser
3) With the mobility era coming even stronger, the mobile interface to QuickBooks Online are getting even better what it is today.
Communication tools with the external world
As a Microsoft partner it was very natural for us to select Microsoft-hosted Exchange environment for our email needs. We have been using Microsoft-hosted version since it came out and could not be happier. The environment supports different types of mobile devices as well and which is the reality of many organizations today. The days when everything was standardized into one specific device are gone.
Document Management Solution – Getting documents and workflow processes into control
A key part of any consultancy is to standardize how documents are managed, where they are saved and what type of workflow processes are attached to different document types. During the past six years we have tried many solutions and luckily I was able to find something that not only made sense to the users, but also supported my vision of having a cloud-based solution for our document management. The solution is M-Files with Windows Azure backend (storage) and a small plugin that enables fully integrated user experience when working with Microsoft office environment. Let me explain what I mean by fully integrated document management experience.
First of all, the end user does not have to think about document management when using M-Files. M-Files is like a drive on a laptop/desktop with the difference that the user does not have to worry about directories or file naming when saving the document to the M-Files Azure repository. The user is presented with a metadata card that includes information for that specific document type (document class) and this is much more meaningful to the user as everything then becomes searchable and structures can be changed without really having to think about directories. How many times have you wondered where you saved a document and whether the document is the last one that has been touched? According to some studies, a document exists on average 19 times in a typical corporate environment. What a horrible way to spend money and time for nothing.
In our case, we have also integrated M-Files with Dynamics CRM 2011 Online environment with full two-way synchronization. What this mean in practicality is that all customer names and contacts are automatically synchronized from Dynamics CRM 2011 Online to M-Files Windows Azure repository. The synchronization is two-way where any change in M-Files is automatically synchronized back to Dynamics CRM 2011.
The reality is that all of us use Microsoft Office as the main environment when working with documents and what M-Files brings to the table is a native plugin to each one of these apps, including Microsoft Outlook: each application has a button to save the document to the M-Files Azure Document Vault and that is very powerful. Nobody in the organization has a need to explain that he/she does not have time to save documents, because the effort is in fact less as the document metadata card is automatically driving the saving process.
We also use the workflow engine in M-Files to drive our approval processes in proposals which is important to keep the quality high on the documents that are sent to the prospects.
If you reflect on the text above about how we integrate things within our organization it is easy to say that M-Files is almost like the traffic controller sitting in the middle and documenting what we are doing. We have seen many organizations with disintegrated applications with lots of re-entry of data and that is not only useless but also frustrating to the end users.
On top of the integration capabilities between M-Files and other operational applications on the metadata and metadata related records, any document that flows through any of the employees will have metadata associated to it and any document will have full support to audit trail as well as company/contact information associated to it. M-Files enable organizations also to integrate the solution into ERP/accounting database whereby M-Files really becomes the central hub for any information flow.
Sales and Marketing in the Cloud
Salesforce.com is a pioneer in SaaS-based sales force automation solutions, no question about that. Back in 2005 when I had made my decision to only use SaaS based solutions, I had to go with SalesForce initially but we agreed in the management team that once Microsoft comes with its own SaaS-based solution, we would convert to Dynamics CRM Online. We did exactly that with the Dynamics CRM Online that Microsoft introduced to the marketplace. I am glad that I did this transition. With the new Dynamics CRM 2011 Online release, the third-party market was given the opportunity to create add-on applications whereby the use of the CRM could be extended to new functional areas.
A key element in our CRM use is a Microsoft Outlook plugin from a company called Linkpoint360 that enables us to save emails either to Account/Contact or Lead contacts. What makes this different to the very effective native tracking in Dynamics CRM is the easiness to flag things to the database. It is just one click “Record to Microsoft CRM” and you will be presented with a dialog box where you can select how you want to save it and if you want to add a follow-up action on the account/contact/lead. This solution is one of those things that you can view as a “non-brainer” and I would highly recommend to test it out and you will see that the money you pay for it is worth and the return on investment from productivity perspective is just ridiculous.
Another related technology to CRM use is marketing and email automation and we made a decision to use CoreMotives Marketing Suite that has a native Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 Online solution that enables tight integration to the CRM use. What it really means is that the CRM becomes “the place” to go to for everything. When we send out emails as part of the campaign, everything will be tagged inside the CRM and the analytics will give us a 360 degree view of how the campaign has progressed, how many reads the campaign message has had and what type of actions the user has taken. Very effective and what makes it also interesting is that Coremotives uses Windows Azure as the backend for the solution which is obviously something we like ISVs to do when building solutions. That is part of TELLUS educational series when making selections of technology. This is exactly the same technology that M-Files is using as it backend cloud technology.
As our business model is to work with Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) and Systems Integrators (SIs) we depend on our marketing and sales process as we apply this to both channel building for our ISV clients, sales to end user organizations but also to market our services to prospective ISVs and SIs.
My life is about research and writing and part of this process I have had to search and pick the best tools for this work. When you think about the process that one performs in research, the internet with search engine becomes one of the most important tools. The question now becomes where you save all of those links that you might need, the regular “favorites” folder in an Internet browser just isn’t enough. I ended up by selecting Microsoft OneNote 2010 as the most important tool for me to collect data and this has become invaluable to me in everything I do. Besides Microsoft OneNote, I also use mind mapping tool from Mindjet to plan and categorize things as I explained further down in this blog entry. The main tool for any of my writing is Microsoft Word 2010 that has been the foundation for two of my latest books and the third one I am working on.
Other productivity tools
Besides the operational tools that I explained above, we use a few other very handy tools when working on projects.
One that has become a key and core software solution for me is Snagit from a company called Techsmith. Snagit enables me to grab anything from my current screen and reuse that image in my presentations or documents that I am authoring. Snagit has really become a core tool in any work that I do.
Another application is a mind mapping software MindManager from Mindjet. We have used mind mapping in all of our research projects as it gives a nice overall view on the information that you are trying to portray. This has been extremely useful in our influencer intelligence studies that we have worked on during the years.
We started by using the Windows version of Mindjet, then signed up for the SaaS-based version of Mindjet called Mindjet Catalyst but realized pretty soon that it was not able to scale to the mind maps that we were building so we discontinued the use of the SaaS solution. I believe that the horsepower that this type of application takes is not really suited for a pure web-based solution seen from a usability perspective.
The key presentation tool for our TELLUS workshops and events is Microsoft PowerPoint 2010. For the online video presentation we use Camtasia Studio Screen recording & Video Editing software from the same company Techsmith that is the creator of Snagit software. This software enables us to record PowerPoint slideshows with voice/and video capture with lots of different output options for different devices.
Scanning software for business cards
One of the key tasks that I do after a conference or having met a person is to scan the business card by using Dymo Cardscan 800c device with its embedded software. I have been using this technology for years, but unfortunately since it was acquired by Dymo, I have seen no developments for the software or integration to other solutions such as Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 Online environment. They have their own SaaS environment where you can synchronize the cards from the desktop software but that environment does not have any other integration possibilities so it remains to be seen how long I keep using this package. Once somebody invents or creates a solution that integrates well with Microsoft Dynamics CRM environment, I am ready to move over.
I will add new tools/software by updating this blog entry and in future blogs I will go in more detail to explain how each of these tools are used from a practical sense in our daily lives. I would love to hear what other tools you are using and also the use cases behind them.