Cloud

Going all in: How to run a company on 21 apps in the cloud

A lot of companies are debating whether — and what — to move to the cloud. The company I work for, Australia-based Proactive Accountants Network (PAN), made a pretty unusual decision to go all-in on cloud technology and made the leap in a span of 10 weeks, dramatically changing our IT infrastructure. So, for those of you still debating, here’s a look at life on the other side.

We were once dependent entirely on legacy software. We now run our business on 21 cloud applications, including Google, Salesforce.com, BetterCloud, Cloud Sherpas, Okta, Silverpop, Xero, Citrix, iHance, and Cvent. With a detailed plan and a clear conscience, we went from being a company that was challenged to support workers in multiple countries to an organization that is nimble, flexible, and capable of making incremental versus bet-the-farm bets on new technologies.

For us the decision to go all-in with cloud wasn’t a means to an end. Sure, we wanted to get away from our on-premise email and CRM systems, VPN connection, and 3G data speeds. But the real impetus was much more philosophical: Why force a square peg into a round hole? Our firm employs 40-plus consultants who are based — and spend the bulk of their time — outside our primary country of operation. Legacy software simply wasn’t built to support geographically versatile, highly mobile workforces. Fortunately for us, the cloud was.

I came to PAN with a strong cloud background, having worked extensively with applications like Salesforce.com. I knew the cloud would allow us to operate more efficiently and easily scale our business.

We knew from day one what the application environment was going to look like, but for management and performance purposes we opted for a phased rollout. Okta, Google Apps and Cvent came first. Then, 45 days later, we added Salesforce.com, and 30 days after that we deployed the other applications.

For the larger application cut-overs like Salesforce.com and Google Apps, we had dedicated launch days.  We brought in beanbags, frisbees, and digital cameras as well as a dedicated support crew consisting of our internal product team and our application partners. We went from a 100% legacy environment to the cloud in a fraction of the time it takes legacy software vendors to update a single system, an extraordinary accomplishment shared by our vendors, partners, and internal staff.

Here’s what our life is like now that we’ve made the transition:

Recruiting and retention: I recently hired an extremely sought after person to join my product team. In the interview she turns to me with a concerned look and says, “Do you use Outlook?” Naturally my response was “Gosh, no, we use Google Apps.” Suddenly she looked relieved. The new generation of workers expect “proper” business tools. If you want the best people on your team, you need to provide the best tools — or risk losing them to a competitor who is meeting the expectations of a new wave of workers.

Location, location, location: Our office in Brisbane is nearly half empty on a daily basis. Most execs would be scratching their heads wondering what on earth is going on. The answer is simple: any team member can grab their laptop, log on, and see everything as if he/she were at their desk. Why should you have to be tethered to a desk to do your job? If a worker wants to do his or her job while sitting on the beach or on a mountain overlooking a vast canopy of trees, why shouldn’t they? We can still track performance to ensure tasks are completed on-time and with quality.

Security and control: Another comment I hear often from peers is, “That sounds great, but we wouldn’t want sensitive content all over the web.” I get that, which is why we teamed up with BetterCloud.  BetterCloud provides amazing enterprise-grade security tools — all for the price of a couple of cabs around Sydney, by the way. BetterCloud’s DomainWatch tool helped us build a “digital barbed wire fence” for everything created in our Google Apps environment. No matter who’s using or sharing data, we can see it and control it. This puts our senior management team at ease. BetterCloud has anticipated what businesses require to deploy a cloud suite in a secure way.

Cost savings: When we went to deploy Google Apps, it was really just to address email and calendar. We thought we’d leave Docs on as a test strategy, just let the team play with it and find a home for it in their day-to-day lives. Three months in and we have hundreds of documents created and used on a daily basis.  While we haven’t formally documented the savings, a heck of a lot more work is getting done, and we haven’t added any new team members. On the same conversation, we also recently deployed Salesforce.com to the entire business. When we were doing our ROI analysis, the return was well over $100K per year. I can only imagine that the cost savings from implementing Google Apps is significant.

Tips and tricks: We use SherpaTools to dynamically insert marketing promotions into team members’ signatures. We use Google Hangout more and more for team-level conversations about the applications we are making — with a global product team this is a real lifesaver. We partnered with Okta to deliver a complete single sign-on experience to all of our end users. That means one password and one URL for all our applications; no need to memorize URLs, usernames, passwords, etc. for over 21 applications.

Global expansion: The Google Apps suite has positioned us for rapid expansion around the world. In the last week, a senior manager relocated from Brisbane to Darwin and another colleague moved to Auckland to head up operations in New Zealand. Each move was made seamlessly due to our cloud-based infrastructure and applications. We no longer worry about version compatibility, licenses for different software editions, deploying VPNs, ensuring sufficient bandwidth, sketchy performance, etc. That responsibility falls to our cloud partners, who have done an amazing job. The fact that our users can be on a train, plane, boat, or spaceship and still work/collaborate effectively is testament to the technical sophistication of the cloud and our cloud partners.

Better tracking of sales and marketing activities: iHance was the answer to how we could capture emails from members, prospects, suppliers, etc., automatically within Salesforce.com. In the past, our team would have to add an email to our CRM manually. If they forgot or didn’t do it, the communication never made it to our system. Now, with iHance, every email gets logged without our team having to lift a finger.

Easier events: We run a ridiculous number of events with complex pricing structures and billing needs. Cvent is truly a best-of-breed solution that has about 1,400 features. The events team internally can’t stop raving about it. About 18 months ago we had no digital system for managing events (where we had thousands of attendees) — it was all paper driven!  Then we tried to build our own application. That worked for a little while, but as the business grew and evolved it became superfluous. We came across Cvent, and to date it still has more features than we use (great for growth), and they continue to maintain a strong history of new feature releases.

Simplified, tracked digital marketing:  A major pain point for us was integration, without which we would lack a vast amount of business intelligence. So, we really pushed for tools that integrate with Salesforce.com. Silverpop provided an enterprise-grade solution for mass digital marketing, including email marketing, landing pages, dedicated whitelisted IP addresses, and more.

Accounting solution that grows with us: Xero provided a fantastic SaaS accounting platform that integrated with all of the necessary systems. Further to that, we tend to look for application partners who not only have a strong solution but are backed financially, plus also have a strong history of feature releases that make sense to the marketplace. Not every solution will be perfect from day one, but as long as they are committed to improving their solution frequently, we will consider working with that vendor. At the moment, Xero delivers new releases every six weeks!

In addition to the apps mentioned, the others in our 21-app ecosystem are: HootSuite (Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn/Youtube), Google Analytics, Pivotal Tracker, SendGrid, Teamwork Project Manager, Asana, Community (a professional collaboration environment we built for our clients), AWS Cloud, and Azure Cloud.

Scott Gassmann is an Innovation Engineer at Proactive Accountants Network, one of the fastest-growing industry associations in Australasia. He has presented at the 2010, 2011, and 2012 national Australian CloudForce Tour as well as the 2010 global computing conference for Salesforce.com.

[Top image credit: 18percentgrey/Shutterstock]

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