As escapees from enterprise environments my colleagues and I are often asked whether we miss the infrastructure that we used to have. Our usual answer is that we don’t miss it one bit – we have access to better infrastructure now than we ever had before. This post looks at what we use, and why it works so well for us. I should start by identifying two distinct types of infrastructure that I’ll label ‘operational’ and ‘administrative’:
This is the infrastructure that supplies the product or service of the company. If you’re selling widgets this could be a cloud based service (like eBay), a hosted ecommerce site or a server in the coat cupboard – draw your own conclusions about reliability and maintainability of that spectrum of offerings. If you’re selling a web based service you have similar choices – build on IaaS or PaaS in the cloud, find a hosting company you can trust, or build and maintain your own thing. Again there’s a bunch of compromises on resilience, cost, agility and control to be considered there (though it’s hard to see many situations these days where the cloud approach isn’t the default path). As an advisory firm Capital SCF doesn’t really have an operational infrastructure, we’re a relationship based business, and those relationships can be supported by an administrative infrastructure…
This is the stuff that lets you communicate with your colleagues, clients and partners, run the firm, keep track of the books etc. Capital SCF has taken a pure SaaS route, so we have no ‘office’ infrastructure beyond networking gear, desk phones, a couple of printers and places to plug in laptops. An emerging benefit to SaaS solutions is ‘integration’ in the cloud – many of our SaaS applications have provided API’s and integration to each other, allowing relevant data to be passed from Accounting to CRM and back again. This virtual integration has allowed us to extract much more value from the various components, and faster.
This is probably the piece that needs to be put in place first, as a domain and the email addresses that go with them are the 21st century letterhead. One of my first actions on joining Capital SCF was to move our email and collaboration platform to Google Apps (Premier Edition) [now renamed 'Business Edition']. The migration process from our previous SaaS email platform wasn’t too hard, but I’m glad I did it when we were small. I’ve had no regrets about choosing Google (though I have many wish list items of things they could make even better).
Email is the heart of the platform, and usually the thing that people sign into first. Having 25GB of space has proven to be a near enough approximation of ‘infinite inbox’ and avoids the need for any time to be spent on inbox maintenance (a constant drag I recall from MS Exchange and 40MB quotas). Tagging and search are also much more flexible ways of finding stuff when you need it than some hierarchy of folders.
Google docs/spreadsheet/presentations works brilliantly for sharing stuff with colleagues, but often lacks some of the features/speed of MS Office (particularly for complex financial models). We also come across parties from time to time that have issues with using Google (either blocked by overprotective corporate proxies, or considered ‘unsafe’), which has inhibited uptake for external collaboration. The outcome is a compromise of old world and new – MS Office for the complex, high fidelity stuff and Google Docs for more interactive material.
For the ‘old world’ of MS Office docs there’s often a need to synchronise between machines, and keep backups. For this we use SMEstorage, a service that sits in front of a variety of cloud storage services (such as Amazon’s S3) and that offers tools for Windows, Mac and the variety of smartphones that we use.
To share documents etc. with clients (and in some cases amongst ourselves) we have been using BaseCamp, though there’s a growing sense that we’ve outgrown that tool (and some of my colleagues are presently kicking the tyres on Huddle). I’d love to find an online document management system that supports something more than hierarchical folders renamed as ‘workspaces’ (and that has great federated identity support), but I’m not holding my breath.
We aren’t huge users of IM, but Google Talk and Skype both see some use both internally and with clients.
Contact and pipeline management is the lifeblood of any sales organisation, making a good CRM platform vital. We chose Capsule as a good match for our needs (and pocket), and because we knew the team and found them responsive to our feature requests. Since joining the Google Apps marketplace Capsule has become better than ever, with single sign on and contact synchronisation taking much of the friction out of moving between CRM and email etc.
Bookkeeping is a necessary evil, and one where you want a product/service that’s functional and otherwise keeps out of the way. We get just that from Xero, another startup where we’ve got to know the team, and like their approach to the market.
Right now we use Xero for expenses, which is perhaps one of the few reasons for most of the team to ever log in. It works OK, but there could be some mileage in getting a more refined solution like WebExpenses.
I’m one of those people that doesn’t care about pay slips provided that the right amount hits my account each month, so I barely notice that we use Able Internet.
Perhaps the one decision that I regret is deciding to go for a VOIP approach when we moved office earlier in the year. There are two problems here:
- Almost every VOIP service uses SIP, which is probably one of the most fragile protocols to have survived exposure to the wild (and there isn’t really anything decent that could be considered as competition).
- To have reliable VOIP you need a reliable network, a surprisingly expensive and time consuming commodity in central London. I have formed the view that cloud computing works despite the network rather than because of it.
Seduced by the quality of broadband in my rural home I thought we’d be able to get a better (ADSL2 based) service in the City, which turned out to be completely wrong. We got old ADSL1, and found out what contention ratios really meanL A fibre connection would be a bit rich for a 10 person office and was going to take 3 months to install, so the eventual compromise was EFM – low bandwidth AND expensive – the perfect telco product. I never properly costed out what an ISDN based PABX for voice would have been, but I’m fairly sure it would have worked out better than VOIP (though we wouldn’t have the flexibility of extensions at home and on the road). Provider wise we use VoiceHost (and in some cases Ribbit too).
Using SaaS has given us flexibility and functionality that we couldn’t have dreamed of with traditional infrastructure and packaged software. Costs also seem reasonable, though that hasn’t been the primary motivation for us. It’s all about time to value, which with (almost) instant provisioning, and the right integrations, can be super fast.
 Though it seems insane that landlords can’t have arrangements with telcos that would get fibre pre-installed and fanned out locally to tenants.
 I did a SaaS demo for a client last week where I set up Google Apps, Capsule and Xero for 10 users then showed how the various packages worked together. From a completely cold start this took 50 minutes.