Strategize and Organize – SMBs’ Best Use of the Cloud

Why your SMB cloud strategy could benefit from an integrated approach

Via ZDNET (Heather Clancy)

For many small businesses, one of the biggest perceived advantages of migrating to cloud applications and infrastructure services is the management proposition, the idea that it will free up their staff from an unwanted IT burden.

In some ways, that’s very true, since updates happen behind the scenes and provisioning usually can be handled very easily by individuals.

But if your small company decides to embrace a whole suite of cloud services – especially if it wants to integrate them with existing applications hosted within an on-premise server — it should consider working with a managed service provider (MSP) to make the administration simpler. The benefits of doing so include being able to offer employees access from a centralized Web portal for all applications, consolidating where data is stored and secured, and ensuring that collaborative processes can bridge multiple applications.

There are literally dozens of former VARs and IT solution providers cropping up to offer this sort of functionality as a managed service. One example is TOGLcloud, a hosted offering developed by a group of MSPs that felt most of the current offerings weren’t designed with smaller businesses in mind.

I’m not going to try to name all the options here, but there are several lists published by MSPMentor that offer a good jumping off point for anyone wanting to research their options. (Warning, you’ll have to register to get to most of the content.)

One of the more established players included on MSPMentor’s North American lists that is focused specifically on helping small businesses build an integrated approach to cloud strategy is eight-year-old ComputerSupport.com, with its ITAnyWhere Cloud offering.

“Small businesses can log into one place, all their files, all their productivity tools are there. Their Salesforce.com is there, too,” said Kirill Bensonoff, founder of the company. “They no longer need to have any infrastructure other than these services.”

What makes ComputerSupport.com interesting are relationships with some pretty big–name players when it comes to hosted desktop and cloud infrastructure services: it is an Amazon Web Services Consulting Partner, specializing in the cloud service provider’s QuickStart services; a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner that can migrate small companies to a managed Office365 service; and a Citrix Silver Solution Advisor and Service Provider that offers access to the cloud through Citrix XenApp and Citrix XenMobile. It has VMware, ShoreTel and SonicWall credentials. What’s more, ComputerSupport.com is even a member of the Apple Consultants Network.

The ITAnyWhere Cloud service, currently in its third generation, runs on top of AmazonWeb Services, for scalability, compliance support, security and multiregion access. Small companies can log in through a portal, where managers can handle provisioning, or remove and add users quickly. The services are supported 24×7 by ComputerSupport.com, which also handles migration of legacy applications into the hosted environment if appropriate. It’s a fixed-fee offering, but Bensonoff declined to reveal pricing. That depends, in part, on the migration and setup required by the business.

Most of ComputerSupport.com’s customers are small businesses with 30 to 50 employees that originally had at least one server managed in-house, Bensonoff said.

Maybe all of this is more than your business can handle, but if a piecemeal cloud apps strategy is starting to create management headaches as your team grows and becomes more mobile  — and you don’t have the in-house staff to sort them out — a turnkey approach like ITAnyWhere Cloud might be worth an evaluation.

Frustrating encounter with the USPS

usps_logo

Many of you don’t know me personally. While I write about buying islands and linen pants, I’m really a numbers guy.  I tend to lead and manage by the book (and as my partners claim, I keep them and the rest of the team in line). When I encounter a lack of process and transparency, my head spins. Such is the case with a recent order from Amazon that the United States Postal Service (USPS) managed to butcher.

Here’s my tale, with apologies in advance to hard working carriers out there, after placing an order with Amazon “delivered” by the USPS. The story starts with an online tracking effort via Amazon that shows USPS attempted to deliver the package on 11/16 and 11/17th and could not. Of course this is impossible since we have 24 hour doorman and receiving room in our apartment in downtown Chicago. Then USPS says they delivered it on the 19th but there is no sign of the package. With this information, I decide to stop by the main post office on Dearborn (downtown Chicago) on the 20th (Tuesday of Thanksgiving week) and ask to see the supervisor after the front desk clerks prove useless.  The USPS team then gives me an inside look. They send me to the loading dock in the back.  After talking to 2 or 3 mail carriers, finally I get hold of the supervisor (Mr. A) who says that he’s about to leave so come back tomorrow morning at 8AM.  I show up at the loading dock at 8AM on the 21st (day before Thanksgiving) only to find out that Mr. A did not show up for work – another carrier tells me to come back after Thanksgiving. I show up at the loading dock 8AM on the 26th (Monday after Thanksgiving) and another carrier tells me – I can’t make this up even if I wanted to — that Mr. A has retired.  By now, I’m livid based on the time wasted. I ask to see Mr. A’s replacement and a carrier sends me upstairs distribution area to see a supervisor named Mr. B. It is there that I learn that apparently I’m not supposed to upstairs under any circumstances due to Home Land Security concerns. Hence my walking through the distribution center unescorted (without a badge) ruffles some feathers. Regardless, Mr. B hears my story (he was actually trying to be helpful – even gave me his personal cell number) and tracks down a carrier named Mr. C who swears up and down that he has delivered the package to my building. Mr. B asks me to wait a week until they sort it out internally.  Well, I wait a week. And there’s still no package and my calls to USPS are not returned. By now, I am done with showing up at the dock at 8AM routine too. Enough.

I contact Amazon’s customer service this morning – an interesting process by the way because there is no 800 number given on the site, only after you plug in the order number and answer a bunch of questions, the site asks you to plug in your number and press either call me now or call me in 5 min button.  I press the “call me now” button and some lady from an Indian call center rings me exactly a second or two later.  I explain the story to her. She checks my accounts and sees that we have ordered an absolutely ton of stuff from Amazon the last 10 years (and have never had issues) and promptly offers next day delivery on replacement goods.  One call from Bangalore (Amazon): problem solved. Countless run-ins and phone calls with USPS: nothing. When interacting with USPS employees on US soil, I felt like I was talking to a wall.  Amazon on the other hand, leveraged technology and friendly, a low-cost Indian customer service center and solved the problem in 5 minutes, thus keeping me as a loyal customer at the end of the day.

Is it time to retire the USPS or can anyone fix this great institution of ours?

 

Revenge of the SMBs – How Small Businesses Can Turn the Tables on Showrooming

Summary: Brick and mortar stores were leapfrogged by Internet retailers in the dot-com era. Now it’s their turn to leapfrog their e-commerce rivals.

Eric Lai

By Eric Lai – Republished from UberMobile

 

showrooming ecommerce retail Traditional retailing, at least in the U.S., is in a funk. Of the 100 largest U.S.-based retailers according to STORES magazine, only 17 are growing in the double digits. Fast risers are either growing overseas or are in hot categories like mobile phones (Verizon Wireless and AT&T) or discount goods (Dollar General).

You could blame this on the uncertain U.S. economy. But I put equal blame on the mainstreaming of e-commerce. Everyone I know who is my age or younger buys a ton online. There are sexy category specialists – Newegg, Gilt Groupe, Groupon and Zappos – but Amazon.com gets the lion’s share of their dollars.

Fittingly, Amazon.com is the fastest riser on STORES’ list (42.5% year-on-year growth). Ranked 15th, Amazon.com already sells more than Safeway, Sears and Macy’s. It is the poster child of how to win in e-commerce: low prices, speedy shipping and personalized offers that leverage its rich data on customers. Add a fourth factor: the hot trend of consumers “showrooming” goods at a brick-and-mortar store while checking online prices via a smartphone, from whom they will presumably eventually buy.

How can retailers fight back? I don’t think it’s through expensive attempts to amp up the EQ (Entertainment Quotient) of their stores. It doesn’t fly with time-pressed moms, who control the majority of household budgets.

Nor is the solution to further streamline their supply chain in order to compete with Amazon.com and its ilk on price. Most of the retailers around today survived the initial dot-com onslaught by deploying ERP software and successfully adopting lean and Just-In-Time techniques to cut costs.

In other words, they’ve done a good job of playing defense. Now, it’s time to play a little offense – use technology to enhance customer service, boost sales and, rather than lamenting sales lost through “Showrooming,” take advantage of it.

Mobile Point of Service

On customer service, retailers are arming their floor salespeople with smartphones and tablets and apps that allow them to reprice items, check inventory for customers and speeding transactions by conducting them where-ever they are in the store.

showrooming retail ecommerce wal-martLarge retailers doing this include Lowe’s, which has given iPhones to all 42,000 employees, Sear’s, J.C. Penney, Costco, Sam’s Club, Nordstrom, Apple, Urban Outfitters and Sephora, the 1,300-store cosmetics chain.

Sephora is using the Mobile Point of Sale app for iOS developed by SAP and partner, Agilysys. Check it out at the SAP Retail Forum North America in Dallas this week.

 

 

 

Precision Retailing

Good customer service is not just providing information on demand and accelerating purchases. It’s also about anticipating consumer wants, and delivering them personalized discounts and offers not just in real-time, but at the right time.

If it sounds like I’m going to talk about marrying Big Data and mobile, you’re right. This is taking customer data from every channel, from Web to POS, and applying predictive analytics to it, so that you can augment the in-store shopping experience with mobile coupons and reminders that are relevant and not spammy.

“Instead of old-school loyalty programs with their points and reward schemes, you want to give consumers real, meaningful relevant information based on what they’re looking for,” said Colin Haig, the retail industry principal for SAP.

In other words, the exact opposite of that scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise is bombarded with ads as he runs through the shopping mall.

That puts the Precision in Precision Retailing.

Rather than describe how this would play out real life, I’ll let this video do it so much better. Click on the image below or this link. Added bonus: there’s a rom-com storyline cuter than a Katherine Heigl movie and a box full of kittens:

sap precision retailing video

SAP is showing off a Precision Retailing solution, which combines a mobile app with cloud-based analytics courtesy of SAP HANA on the back end. Retailers from L’Oreal, European grocer Groupe Casino and the Montreal Transit Agency are already using SAP Precision Retailing, said Haig.

Haig says that Precision Retailing’s ability to help shoppers build lists of recurring items (think kids’ clothes, batteries or toothpaste) and offer them discounts means that the solution today makes it perfect for grocery stores and other general stores (think Wal-Mart or Target).

But Precision Retailing can also help speciality stores, the kind that offer high-ticket items or are beset by showrooming customers. Here’s how. First, we must note that only 25% of shoppers who check competitor prices in a store actually end up buying the item online.

That means 75% of shoppers or more are potential net new customers for the store. And the amount of sales lost to showrooming can be reduced – through precision.

Imagine a consumer visiting a retailer’s Web site to check if a large-screen TV is in stock. That raises a red flag to a retailer that the consumer may be coming to a store soon to inspect that particular item. When he or she enters the store, the store’s app on the customer’s smartphone can immediately open and buzz, alerting him or her to a coupon that for that item or category of items that would match or beat competitors’ online prices.

Such tactics can win back the shoppers who came into a store fully intending to showroom, says Roland Gonzalez, senior directory for mobile industry marketing at SAP.

“Retailers have always been customer-centric. But now they are trying to be customer-intimate,” Gonzalez said.

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Amazon Web Services

Amazon Web Services logo

Amazon is a diverse company. Its financial reports do not break down its revenues into detailed categories but it’s obvious that it has a vast retailing presence in media, electronics, and general merchandise; and it sells a lot of Kindles, including Kindle Fires that arguably make Amazon one of the more successful competitors against Apple in the tablet market.

There’s another category on its quarterly reports labeled “Other” which hides Amazon Web Services, one of Amazon’s most interesting ventures.

Amazon has built a global network of servers that are highly reliable, massively redundant, and very secure. It makes them available to developers very inexpensively as a cloud computing platform. Amazon has stayed ahead of Google and Microsoft in making cloud servers and cloud storage available to all.

You won’t recognize most of the services offered through AWS but you’ll get an idea of the scope of the operation by looking at Wikipedia’s list of AWS products.

Amazon Web Services - Wikipedia list of AWS products

One of those products, Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3), has gotten much of the attention so far. Basically developers can write a program that stores files in the cloud and use Amazon S3 as the storage space with confidence that the storage will be safe and cheap.

When you use Dropbox, your files are stored on Amazon S3 servers. Amazon S3 is used to store data for Tumblr and Posterous. Backup programs are being built to store backups in Amazon S3. It’s far cheaper and more effective for a growing company to use S3 to hold your files instead of building its own global server network.

Another AWS service, Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) provides something that network administrators are still getting their heads around. Basically it allows anyone from an individual to a Fortune 500 company to spin up a virtual server and operate it for a limited time for a specific project, or operate it continuously to run line-of-business programs. Either way, it costs almost nothing.

Last month Amazon made the experience even more friendly with the introduction of theAWS Marketplace, where a variety of business applications can be discovered and deployed with a minimum of expense and difficulty. From GigaOM:

“Nearly every company needs to run document management systems, CRMs, wikis, bug trackers, project management tools and other web-based software. Server applications tend to be tricky to setup and require a non-trivial amount of sys-admin knowledge to run and maintain. The AWS Marketplace encapsulates all that complexity and allows end users to discover, purchase and deploy complete server applications with one click. . . . This significantly lowers the barrier of adoption of cloud computing at the departmental level, making it easier for business units to bypass traditional IT. Why wait weeks to have a server delivered and setup when you can get pretty much the same result by whipping out your credit card and paying $50 a month for a small instance running the app you need now?”

AWS continues to be aimed primarily at enterprise IT departments, IT pros and developers. As an end user or businessperson you’re not going to go lightly over to the AWS Marketplace and spin up a project management system or SQL database. It’s a big and complex platform.

For IT departments, IT pros and developers, though, it changes everything to have so many hard things done automatically, preconfigured, cheap. As more people become familiar with the Amazon tools, it will likely grow exponentially. Microsoft, Google, Rackspace, and others are competing with Amazon to build out their own global networks and offer the same kind of services but Amazon is a rather large step ahead. Amazon may win the loyalty of application vendors, who do not always have the resources to develop for many different platforms; and Amazon may deliver the most customers if its marketplace begins to be widely used by businesses.

Descriptive Camera - Amazon Mechanical Turk

One recent report highlighted the unbelievable variety of things that creative people can do with the AWS platform. One of the AWS services is named “Amazon Mechanical Turk.” Programmers can send requests through Mechanical Turk to human beings who receive a small payment for completing a task that a computer cannot do. There are people around the world who have signed up to get micropayments for quick decisions – choosing the best photograph of a storefront, writing a product description, or identifying a performer on a music CD.

Last month the “Descriptive Camera” turned up on the gadget sites, a project done for an NYU class that demonstrates some of the awesome power that can be unleashed cheaply.

The Descriptive Camera takes a picture and uploads it to Mechanical Turk.

Three minutes later, a little printer spits out a slip of paper with a prose description of what was in the picture.

Sample photo and description:

Descriptive Camera - Amazon Mechanical Turk

That’s an awesome display of technology and outsourcing. Think it’s pointless? Look forward a few years and imagine that your camera automatically gets that kind of metadata and stores it in each image, where your camera already records shutter speed and date and time. You’d have a whole new way to search through your photos, wouldn’t you?

Watch for references to AWS. You’re likely to see it mentioned more and more frequently in the next few years.

Guest Contributor, Bruce Berls. Originally posted at Bruceb.com

Strategy Revolution – Guest Contributor, Robert Cannon

revolution management

Forbes has published a review of Roger Martin’s “Fixing the Game” . I have since read the book itself and consider this a seminal work in the area of leadership and management strategy. It harkens back to the theories of Peter Drucker and Michael Porter, whose focus was on the purpose of a firm or company. That is, the main purpose is to create and service a customer.

The review points out a fundamental weakness in our current financial incentive world. For public companies it’s all about managing earnings and expectations. For private companies, it’s an overemphasis on the shareholder. The best public companies have avoided the managed earnings trap, but they are few. I think mostly of Apple, who’s leadership (not just the departed) focuses fiercely on the customer, and not simply on what the customer thinks they need (no market research here), but rather on what they really want (but just don’t know it yet). Translating this to the private market, the focus of the firm needs to be on serving the customer in the best way possible, and only then will profits follow. The more recent focus on maximizing shareholder value (a term called the “dumbest in the world” by no less a titan than Jack Welch) should not be the driving force. Incentives are OK, but they must be tied to customer-related goals as well as profitability.

I would recommend the book on its own merits, but remember as the leader of a small company you must try to keep the focus on your customer and you will succeed. Just bring in a good financial mind to incentivize the workforce and count the beans.

Robert Cannon is a principal at Cannonomics Inc.

Let’s Get Phygital!!! Phygital…

As a 2 year old outsourcing startup that services SMB back office operations for the likes of established firms and new economy businesses, PARR is often faced with difficult decisions about how to find and use facilities to better serve clients.  For all of the firm’s collective experience in complex transactions and professional service delivery, finding the right facility and long-term office arrangements has proven to be one of the company’s hardest challenges.

Given the emergence of the digital economy, real estate choices have grown for all firms.  But the volume of options can predictably lead to some paralysis.  Throughout the search for the ideal facility, Parr faced the constant dilemma of finding the right balance of a functional and attractive physical space with the needs of a flexible, modern and scalable technological infrastructure.

Maybe the whole episode would have been easier if the company learned early on that there was a name for this trend – “Phygital”.   Where have we heard that word before?

One Chicago firm describes the development as applied to commercial real estate:

The “phygital” trend – the blending of physical and digital commerce – continues to redefine the commercial real estate industry. Retailers such as Home Depot and Paypal, Foursquare and Walgreens, and Amazon are exploring ways to bridge the phygital divide. Tools and apps like QR codes and Belly bring the mobile world into the physical consumer experience. The use of social media among landlords is increasing, while traditional office spaces redefine their use as incubators for the next generation of internet giants.

We’ve known about the ongoing convergence (or collision, if you will) of the bricks and mortar world with the digital world for some time, but it was never so clear that the phygital trend has application to the process of site selection that small- and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) struggle with today.

Site selection is a well-established field (actually it’s a conglomeration of many disciplines) that engages some real-estate professionals full-time, and is important enough globally to draw the devoted attention of multinational firms that track the industry on a much larger international scale.  Real estate expertise is so valuable that you can find experts to guide your company’s site selection process within a 5 block radius or a 5 continent radius.  Don’t expect a glossy insert or double-sided brochure to convey the importance of these issues.  This stuff is the subject of white papers, full-blown analytics platforms, and dedicated site selection specialists, all of which cater to both supplier and buyer segments.  Global consulting giant KPMG has a whole vertical devoted to this area with its own brand identity under the Competitive Alternatives moniker.

In some ways the intertwined macro/micro views are like the yin and yang of the commercial real estate market – each exists in its own space, but is integrally bound with the forces of the other.  Despite having a principal with significant experience as a development specialist, Parr experienced first-hand the difficulty of applying that specialized academic and professional knowledge to its own operations, particularly in a quickly evolving local urban realty market like Chicago.

As they do for many SMB firms, the significant capital costs and onerous restrictions of long-term commitments common to commercial leases have proven to be a barrier to setting up shop in a permanent home for Parr.  Some professionals remind us that office costs are probably the second largest expense for most companies behind personnel and labor expenses, and other forms of human capital.  No wonder that it’s tough to pull the trigger on such a significant capital investment when firms are trying their best to remain capital lean. 

Can companies ever commit to a home when they covet their mobility?  This fear of commitment sounds a lot like a bachelor’s restlessness to maintain freedom at all costs.  I guess corporations really are people too, right?

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