Retailers thrive with in-store & online retail apps

Today we have a guest post from Philip Fierlinger – Head of Design at Xero with some video case studies of Retailers using cloud-based software to run their businesses.

While you shop this holiday, keep an eye out for an inspiring trend: a new breed of boutique and artisan retailers who are thriving by using cloud-based business software.

A key to their success is how they’re able to spontaneously get up and running with a retail operation – doing both online and offline sales – using any laptop, or even just a phone. Until now, retail systems required a big upfront investment in complicated hardware and software. Obviously that’s not an option for artisans who usually sell from pop-up stores and farmer’s markets.

We recently profiled some of these artisan retailers to see how they’ve managed to do so well. They’re really inspiring stories.

Cloud apps are a game changer in retail – not only because it’s so quick, easy and affordable to get up and running. Beyond the initial setup, these apps dramatically improve the ability for retailers to run their operation – because these apps run in the cloud they can now connect their online shop with their point-of-sale with their accounting system – so small retailers have unprecedented control of their inventory and their cash flow. It means they are immediately aware of any changes in real-time and they can respond on a dime.

We put together a page at xero.com/retail that highlights the apps mentioned in the videos:

Shopify ecommerce software
Vend point-of-sale software
Xero accounting software

It would be great to hear if you shop at any boutiques or artisans using cloud apps – please make sure to ask them what they’re using and how it’s helping their business.

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“Scenes from BarCamp New Orleans” by Joey Devilla from Shopify

The Small Business Web is all about companies working together to help their customers. I felt this post from Joey Devilla (@AccordionGuy) was a great example of small business software companies getting together to do just that. Five companies (Shopify, BatchBlue, MailChimp, Wufoo and Grasshopper) have joined together to sponsor the BarCampTour and go out to different cities and meet some really interesting entrepreneurs.

 

As I write this, BarCamp NOLA (that’s short for New Orleans, Lousiana) is well under way. We’ve just had lunch — very delicious, as one would expect from one of the best food cities in North America — and the afternoon sessions are just getting started. I’m watching Jonathan Kay from Grasshopper Group (they make Grasshopper and Chargify) talking about brand marketing and brand loyalty.

When people think of New Orleans, they think of this:

And yes, it’s a part of what makes the city, but there’s more to New Orleans than the Saints and Mardi Gras. It’s a place of industry, beautiful architecture, artisans, musicians (I’ve never seen so many people walking around with tubas!), a vibrant creative class and strong entrepreneurial spirit. 

It’s the perfect environment for an indie/startup tech scene, and a quick look around the Warehouse and Arts District confirms that. That’s why there are a number of tech gatherings in New Orleans every month: Net2NO, GNOCode, NOLA PHP and Ruby Bayou. That’s why there’s a coworking space like Launchpad. That’s why there’s a BarCamp NOLA 4.

Here are some scenes from the start of the day:

The organizers Matt Tritico and Nicky Mast told me that the New Orleans crowd is a little more laid back than most, which means that they tend to come to events a little late. This was not the case this time: a lot of people came in a good deal earlier than the posted 9:30 a.m. start time. It’s a sign of how greatly anticipated this event was.

The initial plan was to hold the opening meeting inside the Launchpad space, but even with the early crowd (and more expected to follow), the room was already getting crowded:

So the announcement was made: let’s move the opening meeting to the building’s lobby!

We carried our chairs into the T-shaped space of the lobby. Here’s the top of the T:

And here’s the up-and-down part of the T:

Once we were all gathered in the lobby, Matt and Nicky got the day started with the opening announcements.

Part of the opening announcements was something that most BarCamps don’t (or can’t) do: they have everyone there introduce themselves and say a quick blurb about what skills and talents they bring to BarCamp and why they’re there.

It took about ten or fifteen minutes for the entire process, but it did help people get a better idea of who they should probably talk to and find others with matching interests:

And once the opening meeting was done, it was time to make our way to the schedule grid.

I’d love to share other stories about what SBWeb companies are doing. If you have something you would like me to publish, email me.

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Our Pals at HP sit down with us and talk Small Businesses.

It looks like our concept of “friends with business benefits” is taking off! We recently sat down with Melissa Zieger from HP. She spoke with Pamela O’Hara and Michelle Riggen-Ransom of BatchBlue to talk about how The Small Business Web came about and where we think it’s going.

Check out “The Small Business Web: “Friends with Business Benefits” over on the HP Communities site.

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My IT has left the building.

This guest post comes to us from Derek Brown, Managing Director, Pronto Marketing. Pronto provides a complete suite of online marketing services to over 450 IT service companies on a pay-as-you go “Marketing execution as a Service” basis. Pronto Marketing is located in Bangkok, Thailand with clients around the world.

In the past year or so, we’ve moved most of Pronto’s IT into the cloud. Primarily, because it makes sense, and partly, because a tidal wave is coming. I want to make sure we’re riding it so we’re better prepared to help our clients as their businesses and our services evolve.

From a group called the The Small Business Web, I’ve found a number of fantastic SaaS apps; Zendesk, Formstack, TribeHR, FreshBooks, Beanstalk SVN, Tungle, Xero, the list goes on – it has become the backbone of Pronto Marketing. Here’s what I have learned from our experience and where I see this headed.

They work great, are easy to use and they play well with each other. For many, the integrations are simple; install the widget, enter the API key and it’s done. I don’t have updates, upgrades, installation and they all scale up and down with my business. I can quit and change anytime. In addition, an ecosystem of companies that provide cross-app integrations, such as www.cazoomi.com and www.snaplogic.com is starting to develop.

They are Sustainable Businesses. This isn’t fun free stuff on the Internet. These are, for the most part, paid SaaS businesses that may have a free entry point, but if you’re serious, you pay and it’s not always cheap; Zendesk runs us almost $600 a month. This is important because these companies have the potential to make money, invest, reap their investment and sustain themselves over the long term as they improve their products. They are getting “Share of Wallet” from my IT budget.

Google, and Apple…
…are part of the platform. Their users want (just look in their user forums) Google Apps integration and the SaaS vendors are delivering on this. Of course, iPhone and now iPad. Microsoft seems, at best, an afterthought. I’m not the biggest Google fan, but if I was thinking about switching from Google Apps to Microsoft in the cloud, I wouldn’t be comparing its features, but their integration with my cloud apps.

My IT has left the building. It’s not that we’ve outsourced our IT, it’s almost as if we don’t even have IT anymore. Sure we have a network and a server, but for the most part, our building could burn to the ground and the twenty of us could work from home or an internet cafe. It’s business in the browser.

What it means to you
I think of this as “ants at your picnic” because it may not come in one big wave. Little by little, SMEs are going to discover these cloud apps, the apps are going to start aggregating themselves and the your client is going to turn around one day with their business primarily in the cloud – without necessarily a cloud strategy or specific intent. It was just the path of least resistance. And along the way, their IT needs, expectations and budgets are quietly going to change.

In this process, your clients are going to get in touch with a new generation of IT services companies that focus on cloud only, doing the integrations and support. This Trineo About Us page is a good sampling of their positioning. Keboko is another good example. I’m seeing these companies more and more.

No marketing is going to fix a business model that isn’t in demand by the market place. If you’re staying focused on all the good reasons why cloud isn’t a panacea, that’s a great way to develop a blind spot.

My advice is twofold; you need to be talking to your clients about this every day. You need a conversation, not a sales pitch. And perhaps most important, you need to be moving parts of YOUR business to the cloud so you can experience this first hand and have an intelligent conversation. Precisely because you’re an expert for on-premises IT, you should start using cloud apps as part of your day to day operations. That’s what your clients are going to do, with or without you.

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Case Study: Five Ways Chartered Accountants in the Cloud

This guest post comes to us from Paul Meissner, Director, Five Ways Chartered Accountants. Five Ways Chartered Accountants are Australia’s only online accounting firm, shunning all forms of desk based software.

Cloud solutions have provided our firm with the platform to service our clients efficiently and effectively from anywhere in the world.

In bringing the firm online we searched high and low and came up with a suite of cloud products that enabled us to work completely online.

What do we use:

Xero Accounting – This gave us the platform to assist our clients, engaging and collaborating with them online. Accountants’ traditionally have used out of date client financial info. Xero gives us access to our client’s financial data in real-time which allows us to engage with our clients and give them a better service. We can also streamline the process of providing annual compliance for our clients using the terrific financial reporting in Xero. By working with our clients on the one system our firm can reduce the time we spend on compliance work by almost ½. Efficiencies like this help our bottom line a lot. Clients love using this program as well, enjoying the intuitive design and easy to use nature.

Batchbook Social CRM – Access to up to date client contact information, email history and social media of our clients is paramount. If you have a mobile workforce then you can’t let this information be spread across different computers, phones, etc. High level customer service in our industry relies on our CRM system being easy to use, scalable to our needs as we grow and based in the cloud. No more out of date information slowing down our business. Client service depends on people having access to client information to help them wherever they are. With Batchbook we really like the email tracking system. So much of our business is done on email, having this CRM means that client service continues even if some staff are away.

Box.net document management – Standard documents, letters and client documents are a drain on all accounting firms. In looking for a document solution we needed a way of collaborating with our staff and clients online. With Box.net’s user management and security, we can share different levels of access across all our staff. Client too can each get an area in which to collaborate with us.

Efficiency is the cornerstone of all businesses and the cloud has enabled us to turbo charge our business. While these products help and improve the financial performance of the business it also saved us from the capital burden of coming up with the cash to buy computer hardware and have an office to keep it all in.

Overall the move to the cloud has made our client service more efficient, cut our overheads and made us more profitable. Not bad for a team of Accountants….

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Re-branding: The Journey to Putting the Best Foot Forward

By Krista Mnichowski Formstack, LLC.

Small and large companies often come across a point in their company’s timeline when they feel the pressure to decide to cut their losses, reel in their nets and start licking their wounds. Other companies get to that point and decide it’s time to go all in. This doesn’t mean recklessly running after every business venture and opportunity available, but it does mean taking an inventory of the company from that point in time to refurbish and refresh itself. Re-branding could very well be your company’s next logical step.

Re…Re…What?
Re-branding is a word that can scare most companies away from even taking a deeper look into the idea. Re-branding is not always a death sentence and should be looked at as a great opportunity to expand and grow as a company.

New Name in the Same Game
Formstack did just that. In March of 2009, Formstack, formerly known as Formspring, developed a social networking site allowing users to ask questions anonymously through a networking site. This new company took off faster than you can say ‘Ask Me Anything.’ Formspring was now two different products branched into two different companies under the same name. Something had to be done in order to save face for both of them. Rock, paper scissors was played and the new name of the game was called Re-branding. “Don’t re-brand unless it’s absolutely necessary,” said Chris Lucas, Marketing Director and Product Evangelist for Formstack.

A Company is as Good as it’s Logo
Not true. A company is as good as its product. If a company has a good product, that should be able to sell itself and the company. Customers will jump on board and that is where the credibility comes into play. Credibility is important for both the company and the customers. Remember, the brand is everything from a customer’s ideas of the company to the environment in the office and on the web as well as the overall voice of the company. Once a unified voice is set, it’s much easier for customers and other businesses to get a firm grasp on the company, what it does, and where it may be going in the future.

Keep your Eyes Open
The re-branding process doesn’t end when the new name, logo, and company crew neck are all complete. The most critical part of this process is to keep your eyes open and look to future opportunities.

“Understanding the critical components of your old brand allows you to release what you’re attached to and allows you to develop the new brand founded on the same principles,” said Lucas.

About Formstack
Created in 2006, Formstack is an online form builder that has become a leader in creating, managing and hosting online forms and surveys. Formstack provides businesses and organizations of all types and sizes an easy-to-use online form building tool, allowing them to capture customer/client information they need without having to spend a lot of time coding their own websites. For more information about Formstack please visit http://www.formstack.com.

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Case Study: Blue Mango Learning Systems

This Case Study comes to us from Greg DeVore, CEO Blue Mango Learning Systems. Find him on Twitter @gdevore.

My company is Blue Mango Learning Systems. We create an application called ScreenSteps Live which is part of The Small Business Web. But we aren’t only members of The Small Business Web, we are users of The Small Business Web. Using the various applications that are available through the SBWeb really helps us run our business efficiently.

Our company is small and self-funded meaning we need to get the most out of every dollar we spend. We evaluate every tool based on how much time it will save us. Tools that save us time help us focus more on our primary goals of providing fantastic products and fantastic service to our customers.

As we have grown our needs have grown as well. With SaaS based web applications we are able to plugin new functionality to our business right when we need it.

Our Setup

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We use a variety of apps. In the graphic above I have broken them down into three areas, Customer Support, Marketing and CRM. I have also added lines to show how we interconnect those products.

Customer Support
• ScreenSteps Live (our product)
• Zendesk

Marketing
• Hubspot
• MailChimp
• SurveyGizmo (we just recently started using this)

CRM
• Batchbook

We also have our own internal app that we use to tie a lot of these apps together.

Our-web-apps

We use Zendesk for all of our help ticketing. It is very easy to set up and very easy to use. Prior to using Zendesk we were using a shared Gmail account and that didn’t really go so well. Zendesk keeps us organized and helps us easily track the support conversations we have with our customers.

We use ScreenSteps Live for our product documentation and knowledge base. Our ScreenSteps Live documentation is broken down into small articles that answer very specific questions for our customers.

With the Zendesk/ScreenSteps Live widget we are able to search our ScreenSteps Live documentation right within the Zendesk interface. When we find an article that answers a customer’s question we can add a link to the answer right into the support ticket. Being able to do this righ from within Zendesk helps us respond more quickly to support requests and spend less time answering customer questions.

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Marketing

For our marketing we use Hubspot, MailChimp and have recently begun to experiment with SurveyGizmo. We make extensive use of the APIs for both Hubspot and MailChimp.

On our site we have various webinars, contact forms and free trials. Depending on what action a user takes on our site we may want to do one of several things including starting them in a lead nurturing campaign, reaching out to them by phone or adding them to our newsletter.

To handle all of this we have all form submissions go through our internal app. That internal app processes the submission and uses the API’s of the other web applications to perform whatever actions we have set up for that specific form.

For example, when someone registers for a webinar on our site the following will happen:

1. A new lead record will be created in Hubspot
2. They will be subscribed to a lead nurturing campaign in MailChimp
3. A contact record will be created in our CRM, Batchbook

This took a little more work to set up initially but has given us a lot of flexibility and saves us hours each week. Before we started using the application API’s we were exporting CSV files from one system and importing them into another. It was time consuming and our data was often out of date in different systems. By using the API’s everything is up to date without us having to import and export files. As an added bonus, if we want to experiment with a new web app we can just add the necessary API calls to our internal app.

Surveys

We recently started experimenting with SurveyGizmo. The integration with MailChimp made this super simple. After we created the survey in SurveyGizmo we could easily send it to a subset of our MailChimp email list using MailChimp’s predefined SurveyGizmo template.

Here’s an example of how easy it was to setup. After I created the survey in SurveyGizmo we created a new campaign in MailChimp. For the campaign I was able to select MailChimp’s pre-defined SurveyGizmo template.

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MailChimp then let me select my survey from SurveyGizmo.

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And then my email was created with a link to the survey.

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But it gets even cooler than that. MailChimp automatically sets some query parameters in the SurveyGizmo url which SurveyGizmo will record. This means I can easily see the email associated with each response.

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CRM

One of the most important tools for any business is a CRM. Without some sort of CRM it really becomes hard to keep up on all of your customers, leads and partners. A year or two ago we adopted Batchbook largely because of their very flexible API and their integrations with other services we were already using.

We use Batchbook to track all of our contacts. When a customer purchases one of our products a new record is created in Batchbook linking back to our internal application. When someone signs up for a trial on ScreenSteps Live, a new record is created in Batchbook with a link to their account on ScreenSteps Live. Batchbook has really become the hub of our customer communications.

One of our favorite things about Batchbook is the integration with Zendesk. This is a two way integration that is really useful. When viewing a contact in Batchbook we can see all of their Zendesk tickets.

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From within Zendesk we can easily look up a customer record in Batchbook.

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This two way communication between Batchbook and Zendesk means that we are able to easily track all of the conversations we have had with any given customer.

It’s all about saving time and doing more with less

Tying all of these services together really helps us save time. And time is very precious to us. We don’t have to spend time hunting around for answers to customer questions since our documentation and help ticketing system are tied together. We don’t have to spend time importing contact records into multiple systems because of the API’s of the web apps we use. And we don’t have to search all over for our customer communication history because of the simple integration between our help desk and our CRM.

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Freelancers! Your year in review.

FastCompany does some digging into the 2010 Year in Review from Elance. The review covers everything from the hottest cities for freelancers (Amarillo, TX who knew?) to the skillsets most in demand (mobile app developers).

Definitely worth a read.

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Programmable Web: “Small Business Web: Web Service APIs for the Smaller Enterprise”

Great article up today from our friends at Programmable Web about our rapidly growing directory. Go check it out:

“Things like The Small Business Web demonstrate how web-based services can be made more useful by bringing many narrowly focused ones together.”

We couldn’t agree more and look forward to expanding the Directory with new services that serve small businesses.

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Eep! MailChimp Launches $1 Million Integration Fund

Small Business Web member MailChimp has just announced a fund that will be used to help small startups integrate with the MailChimp API. The $1 million dollar fund was created to…well, Ben says it best:

“In fact, we’ve been practicing this approach for a while now without even realizing it. A small startup would approach us with some crazy powerpoint presentation or boilerplate “revenue sharing” proposal where they’d tell us about how they’re going to send us bajillions of customers in exchange for x% of the money or something. We’d say, “Um, you don’t even have any customers right now, do you?” And they’d answer, “Um, no.” Then we’d ask them if they’ve even built a product, and they’d usually answer the same way. So, partly just to avoid more paperwork and more pitches, we’d offer them a few thousand dollars to fund their integration, and tell them that if customers like it, we’d promote it more.

Just recently we figured, “Why not turn this into an official fund, and make it a process?” It sure would beat all the other cheesy, “Integrate with us, and win an iPad!” kinda promotions. Plus, it aligns perfectly with our philosophy.”

That’s a philosophy that everyone at The Small Business Web can get behind! Have an extraordinary MailChimp integration in mind? There’s a form for that.

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