20 outstanding cloud services for growing businesses

What’s the first question a small business asks a cloud computing expert? “How to begin,” says Andrew Mellish of Advanced 365, a specialist consultancy and cloud software provider.

In other words, it’s not a question of what you can outsource, but what you can’t. It’s possible to run a business without much infrastructure at all — managed service providers such as Rackspace and Peer1 ‘host’ the company data and look after security from virtual servers.

So how much you hand off to ‘virtual’ experts is up to you. Because of industry competition, it’s usual for cloud services to offer a free initial trial, and many constantly introduce new features to boost customer loyalty.

So where should you start? Here are eight outsourcing options that could save you cash and maybe even improve your customer service along the way:

Sourcing temp talent

Design site 99 Designs is a ‘web design marketplace’ that crowdsources any kind of design brief, turning it into a contest where you outline a bid and select the best from a range of submissions. Project-specific temp work is a huge area of growth for cloud suppliers – so-called professional marketplaces such as CloudNine recruitment, Elance and Guru, which claims to represent over 220 professional specialties. A membership-based service, it also has forums and advice online for quality control, IP questions, dispute resolutions etc. Elance’s StartUp Cloud site is a little advisory portal on finding the best people online.

Office admin

Consolidating several cloud services under one brand, UK-based Brightpearl offers a single system for putting your business information – accounting, invoices, product stock & purchasing, services, contacts website – online and it claims many users can manage the whole business with its £20 a month package. Likewise, Microsoft Office 365 draws together Microsoft’s familiar Office software (email, documents, spreadsheets) with sharing technology and document storage and access.

Storing and sharing

Storage sites automatically sync files and allow teams around the world to share documents and pictures and work together on improving them. Most offer the first 2GB free – favourites among entrepreneurs are Dropbox, which you download onto your desktop but also backs up in the cloud, Mozy and Ubuntu One, which will sync your mobile phone contacts, too. Zoho’s a favourite for productivity – the Zoho Wiki encourages collaboration and encourages remote teams to work together. And Vimeo offers free storage for video, as well as a streaming service and a community that will rate your offerings.

Minding the money

Owner managers will often have to outsource accounting anyway, so this is a service most small companies take to with ease. It’s also quite competitive, so cloud accountancy packages offer pretty smart features — Xero’s dashboard shows recent sales, bills outstanding etc is just one example and freeagentcentral has forged a partnership with mobile receipt recorder Plendi. Being able to collaborate online results in better customer service, according to a client who uses Twinfield.

Market testing

Software companies are using the crowd to market test products via uTest, whose global community of testers put News International’s iPad application through its paces.

Media buying

Dapper claims its mission is to ‘fix’ display advertising by using the semantic web to create more smartly targeted ad campaigns. It offers a four-part service, from media buying to importing your product details to ‘dynamic ad creation’ to performance analysis.

Customer services

It’s perhaps telling that self-described customer service fanatics Rackspace use helpdesk site Zendesk to help move customer queries along. Customers create a ticket to progress issues/complaints; they can see status of their ‘tickets’ and Zendesk feeds status reports to users to demonstrate how they are doing on performance.

Doing without HR

Using social media sites is an option for recruiting, but UK entrepreneur Lucian Tarnowski’s BraveNewTalent has created a specific platform that has moved the whole recruitment process online.

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Matthew Stibbe is writer-in-chief at Articulate Marketing. He is also an avid blogger, closet geek and HP fanatic.