Entertaining toddler princesses is a walk in the park for Sharon Chase. Accounting for the money she earns from it is a hairier proposition.
Chase found it frustrating to juggle the multiple bank and PayPal accounts used to pay vendors -- not to mention the other software she used to stay on top of Princess Sharon Events, her birthday entertainment service company in Cohasset, Mass.
"Everybody said QuickBooks is so simple, and I'd get lost," she says. "I get intimidated. And I started trying to make a spreadsheet, and I'd sweat and throw it away."
Then Chase stumbled onto Outright.com, unwittingly joining waves of other small-business owners who have turned to "cloud computing." That's the tech industry's way of referring to applications online that allow users to input, edit and manipulate data stored on servers located elsewhere, often hosted by the application developers.
Outright.com, Chase says, is less intimidating and simplifies the accounting by allowing her to juggle multiple accounts, generate reports on spending patterns and itemize even obscure expense categories, such as her PayPal fees and the iTunes songs she buys for party entertainment. "It's a kindergarten-in-the-rug kind of experience," she says.
Drawn by the promise of simplicity and low cost, entrepreneurs are tapping into the cloud to conduct business in ways that make pen, paper and desktop software obsolete.
Cloud computing started mostly as backup storage. But because software resides in the cloud and not on an isolated computer at a desk, developers can integrate multiple applications in one, simultaneously sync data across numerous devices and update information real-time for mobile device users.
Cheap and easy cloud-based applications can be used for a range of tasks, from bookkeeping to conference calls to managing complex projects with far-flung colleagues.
A survey of information technology professionals by Spiceworks this year found that 62% are using some type of cloud application, up from 48% at the beginning of the year and 28% a year ago. "If you're starting a business, the world is your oyster and you can do things in super-cool ways with the cloud," says Jay Hallberg, co-founder of Spiceworks, a social network for IT professionals.
Cloud options also free entrepreneurs from having to staff a large IT department, by passing the maintenance burden to application developers. "Sometimes we release multiple (versions of our application) a day," says Mike McDerment, CEO of FreshBooks, an online accounting application for small-business owners.
Keeping things simple
Traditional desktop software often tried to be all things to all users, pleasing few. But many cloud-computing developers, in marketing their products, tap the anxiety of small-business owners by selling simplicity and focusing on underserved niche areas.
John Bracken founded Speek.com, a Washington, D.C.-area start-up that enables cloud-based teleconference calls, to ease the cumbersome task of rounding up attendees and dialing on speakerphones. An average call takes five minutes to coordinate, he says. "No one knows who's coming. You beep and you say 'who's that?'" he says. With Speek.com, users tap on a personal, dedicated Speek.com link that works as a call invitation. And Speek's hub in the cloud links attendees to the call. About 90% of usage is small business, Bracken says.
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