Web Services

Scaling a Business with SaaS Tools


25. May 2011


Web Services Give Small Companies a Competitive Edge

The 21st century has ushered in new paradigms and concepts for how we work and collaborate. I firmly believe that a small business with a solid stack of useful SaaS tools, and well defined processes can scale more quickly, and also run circles around an old school business. These cloud based web apps make us more efficient, and give us so much visibility into how we work. I think they are a key ingredient in scaling one’s business from a 1-person shop to a viable entity.

A Path for Implementing SaaS Tools to Run Your Business

While I went through some analysis paralysis to decide which tools to adopt, I stuck to my guns on my criteria for how I pick my web services.  For Flow Simple’s growth and research, I roughly divided my path to implementing SaaS tools into four phases.

  • Phase 1: Money Tracking
  • Phase 2:  Project Management
  • Phase 3: Efficiency/Automation Project Decisions
  • Phase 4: Integrating Money + Time + Efficiency

Tracking Money with Web Services is a Easy: Phase 1

I’ve implemented Freshbooks for our invoicing, and we’re collecting some great data on revenue. Freshbooks has some good reports on profit & loss, aging, collection, revenue patterns and fun stuff. This data can be ported to a more robust accounting/cashflow/payroll tool eventually if need be. Freshbooks API integrates with several account tools.  So far I’ve given Outright and inDinero a spin and they both suck. Perhaps they just aren’t suited for my type of business. Either way I’m not gleaning anything insightful from their data and interface.  Xero and Billflow are next. Xero seems most promising.

Expensify, our receipt and expense tracking app is heaven sent. And it just gets better with every new release. Of course it integrates seamlessly with Freshbooks. Those two tools together make it possible for me to do our quarterly estimates in a very short amount of time. And until I’ve exploded past the $1M a year mark in revenue, I don’t feel the need to outsource this task. It is simply amazing how efficient these two tools are and how powerful I feel.

Project Management Services Don’t Meet Expectations for Criteria: Phase 2

I’ve trialed 6 or 7 different project management and time tracking apps in the last 6 months. This doesn’t include the two dozen PM apps that I’m aware of and spent an hour chewing over their tour & features. None of them meet my criteria. There’s such a gaping hole here, that I’ve even considered building my own. I’ve had dreams about what this interface looks like visually. But this is too large of an undertaking and is clearly not my core business. I’ve had a lengthy discussion with the VP of Mavenlink about their service. Mavenlink seems to be headed in the right direction but doesn’t have enough functionality for me to adopt it. Autotask had the function I want, but their solution goes against my very strict philosophy on web apps, and does not have an API that would play nicely with my stack of tools. It is clearly Frankenstein software, and would make working suck.

I’m now thinking about breaking down the whole project management functionalities into even smaller components. I will need to find specialized tools that meet those super-niche areas. Those components include time tracking, project collaboration, and group task management. I’ve adopted Beebole as my time tracking web app. It’s super new, but even in its early stages it shows a lot of promise. I am worried about the lack of already coded integration pieces, and more so the scalability of this tool in being able to handle more than 10 to 30 ongoing budgets/projects at once. The UI does not lend itself to this. Next, I’ll be checking out Wunderlist and Todoist and Wedoist for my big task management dashboard. And I still use Mavenlink for project collaborations.

A Visual Dashboard of Internal Metrics Collected From Our Web Tools: Phase 3

When I can clearly and accurately translate time into cost, we should be able to see what tasks need to be done more efficiently. Ideally a lot of what I’d like to accomplish I’m hoping there are already tools/services out there that can be taken advantage of. I’m assuming by this Phase of my “Let’s Run my Business on Web Apps” I’ve already defined a data set (e.g. the cost of service translated from time), and I can extract it easily. I want to take this data and import it into a flexible database and be able to display a dashboard of stats beautifully and visually in tables, charts with a nice UI. This will help me synthesize.

When I can visually see potential costs savings, I will also know exactly what I’m willing to invest into programming a tool to automate tasks, spend time to come up with better processes, or consider other solutions. To enable me to make the right decision here, I imagine there’s a point when I reach X number of clients where it should trigger an engineering project. Questions like this: When do go from manual labor to software automation? should be easily answerable given my new dashboard of internal stats at this phase. I think it is similar to this pattern of “Is it better to buy or rent?”

I think I’ve found some tools that could work to build this dashboard. Or I feel like they’re somewhat getting at it. From my limited knowledge, it’s like I can see the potential, but I just don’t know how to go about using them. Check out:

  1. http://metricly.com/
  2. http://mixpanel.com/platform/
  3. http://www.geckoboard.com/ And look, it pulls from Mixpanel.
  4. http://www.mynextcustomer.com/
  5. http://excellentanalytics.com/

Now, you might be thinking, why would I want to shell out around $500 to $2K per month to use their services when we can build and own our own? Put simply, I don’t want to build a software company, I want to take advantage of the cloud and web apps to build my own local internet marketing company. I want to stay focused on providing the best internet marketing services, and build what we need on top of what already exists. And more importantly if we pick the right tools/services/companies, it’s their mission to evolve, update, upgrade, and generally do a kick ass job and fill that need. I firmly believe that building this in-house won’t be as sustainable as a company whose sole focus is building the best time tracking app, the best dashboard or etc. Our value is in the service & delivery of internet marketing for local business owners. Period.

Scaling Past Your Bottle Necks with the Cloud: Phase 4

Achieving all of the above will then allow for scaling our business more quickly. I don’t know what my bottle necks will be at this stage if the above 3 Phases have been implemented and have had time to mature in the company. I want to be able to push the growth speed factor. I want to be able to say yes, I can handle 50 new clients right now, TODAY without hesitation.

I have a feeling that this is possible and it can be done. I can’t find any books on scaling service businesses. I can’t find resources where companies talk about the scaling issue and how they solved it. But like I said in my intro, the right combination of good process and good web tools is part of the answer!


Recipe for Internet Marketing


11. November 2010


Today I made a declaration.

I want to be known for my internet marketing expertise. By more than just my small circle. And one way to make this happen is to start blogging and interacting within my community of marketing peers with more conscious effort. I don’t know how long this will take. Perhaps it will be years, until I am known, and this is tangible. I’ve been doing Internet marketing for years. I’ve spent countless hours evaluating web apps. I have been an advocate for the value and abundance of opportunities on the Internet, and when you talk to me in person, my passion is palpable. I have a lot of knowledge I’d like to share.

I’m sharing my internet marketing tactics.

There’s no secret with any of these internet marketing strategies or techniques. They are just recipes. If you followed the recipe yourself, you could get the job done. You could have the recipe for the world’s best chocolate chip cookies, but it doesn’t mean you’ll actually make the best cookies. It’s like when Alton Brown, a chef shares his recipes and gets on TV and shows you how he makes it. Does he worry about someone else copying him? No. Because he knows that the recipe isn’t enough. Or how about if I were to give you the exact same set of knives that Alton Brown uses to cook up some of those recipes? Does that make you cook like him? No. The same is true for Internet marketing. I love the research, discovery, and the challenge of this crazy growth we’re seeing in all things internet marketing. And both the recipes and tools change often.

It’s okay if what I say doesn’t work forever.

These internet marketing ideas may be considered crude (one day). Search evolves relentlessly, so it’s quite possible (and likely) that the posts on this blog will become outdated. Frankly, this has made me uncomfortable sharing. I’ve been afraid to share what I learn when I know it isn’t definitive. Absolute. Complete. I go into paralysis analysis all the time. The web is still young, and in some sense, immature. So I’m okay if someone 10 years from now is amused at some of the stuff we do today. And at the same time I’m confident that my underlying marketing philosophy is evergreen.

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