In this issue of the Green Geek, I’m going to start a story.  It’s the story about how our own small business made the  decision to throw out the typical small business software (namely MYOB) and go with a ‘big business’ cloud solution.  It was not an easy decision, and certainly not without risks.

TyTags is a typical small business. Over the years, the people working in the business – Mum with marketing, Dad with manufacturing and procurement, and Suzie with sales and administration, and me part time on technology – created a myriad of processes for getting work done.

Individual solutions supported specific processes within the business. Invoicing and accounting was managed by MYOB. Customer contact was recorded in Sage ACT.   Microsoft Excel spreadsheets were used for planning and financial analysis.  While it could not be said that any particular process was ‘best practice,’ the reality was that the business worked well:  work got done; customers were happy, money was made, and taxes got paid on time.

However, because all the different processes were supported by separate software packages, it was always a manual process to connect the dots. For example, when a customer placed an order, it was important to enter the information both into MYOB (the invoicing solution) as well as ACT (the customer management and marketing solution). More importantly, the lack of integration between different business functions meant that TyTags could not get a holistic view of the business performance.  Based on experience Mum and Dad knew that there were very specific, long-term buying cycles for certain types of plant growers, but had no way of verifying these buying cycles, nor could readily plan for them in advance. Also, they could not analyse the results of sales and marketing campaigns to these growers. The business was being run on gut feel. Admittedly it was gut feel based on forty years of experience, but it was still gut feel.

While painful, the lack of a holistic view of the business was not the main reason TyTags decided to move to a ‘big business cloud solution. The real issue was that TyTags was finding it increasingly difficult to obtain on-site technology support. As aged computers broke down, software had to be reinstalled. Since I travel a lot for business, there would often be a delay of days or weeks before things got fixed. In addition, over time it became necessary to upgrade individual solution solutions separately. When Sage ACT, the customer relationship management system used by TyTags, was sold to a different vendor in 2014, it became imperative to upgrade, Sage discontinues all support services.

The issue came to a head when the TyTags office was burgled, and computers were stolen. Luckily, the thieves did not take the main server or the accounting computer. Otherwise, the situation would have been far worse: the business would have lost the critical applications needed to function. Yes, TyTags encrypted and backed up is working data (as I am paranoid about data loss), but the burglary highlighted the vulnerability of running all this important information with on-premise solutions.

In short, TyTags began to realise that it could no longer effectively support a hotch-potch of poorly integrated on-premise solutions. We decided that TyTags would move as much of its business software to the cloud as possible.  Why move to the cloud?

Cloud solutions do not need to install software on your computers. Instead, the software is run on server big data centres. All you need to use a cloud solution is a web browser and an internet connection. This dramatically cuts down the need for on-site support AND gives you the ability to run the software from any location, at any time, on any device.  A side-effect of this is that all cloud solutions are multi-user and collaborative. No more having to copy and send files to an accountant, or wait for someone to finish with a file before you can work on it.  Finally, because all the data is stored in highly secure and reliable servers (and often duplicated and automatically backed up) you have far less chance of losing valuable data due to disasters.

In Australia, most small businesses run MYOB’s aging on-premise accounting solution. MYOB has introduced an online version of this financial solution called MYOB Essentials.  So it would seem logical that we would just take our existing MYOB data files and move them to the cloud-based MYOB Essentials solution.  However, after some examination, it was decided the new MYOB product did not give us much benefit compared to what we were already doing. We then examined Xero and SaaSu, two cloud-based accounting solutions that are arguably improvements over MYOB. 

However, all of these cloud-based accounting packages still left us with the problem of how to connect our customer relationship management solution (Sage ACT) to the financial records. The good new was that Sage ACT released a cloud-based version. We also looked at Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, Zeho and a few other cloud-based customer management solutions.  Unfortunately, integrating any of these solutions with MYOB, Xero or SaaS was a complicated affair: a special cloud-based connector solution, such as Zapier, would be needed. Things looked like they were getting too complicated.

In mid-2014, we became aware of JCurve, an Australian reseller of NetSuite. NetSuite is an Enterprise Resource Planning solution (ERP). It’s designed to run large corporations: from their accounts across multiple business units in multiple countries to their manufacturing processes, to sales and marketing. NetSuite is way out of the league of most small businesses. Not only does it often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, but also it performs many complex business functions that small businesses simply do not need.

Having helped several of my large enterprise clients choose to migrate their business products such as NetSuite in the past, I knew the daunting power and sophistication of such a system. Adopting and configuring a solution as powerful as NetSuite is not for the faint of heart!

However, JCurve had taken the core NetSuite solution and configured it for small business users. In short, they hid all the stuff in NetSuite that small businesses do not need.  JCurve also then set up a support environment for small businesses, with a cost structure that made sense. Not hundreds of thousands of dollars – just thousands.

When JCurve first launched this repacked version of NetSuite, I contacted the company’s sales team with a tricky technical inquiry (around integration) to test the quality of their pre-sales support. I often use this approach when ascertain the ability of a vendor to support its products. If a vendor lacks the wither all to move from sales to technical support quickly, then there is a fair bet that they will prove difficult to deal with when you have real problems after the sale.

In truth, I was not overly impressed by JCurve’s service at the time. They did not demonstrate a smooth transition between my pre-sales call and follow-up technical support.

Four months later with I saw a change. JCurve followed up on my initial enquiry and offered a free trial. The salesperson began to send me appropriate technical information in a very efficient and professional manner. JCurve had gotten past its launch pains. Most impressive of all was the fact that JCurve was clearly using its product to deliver a remarkable customer experience.

By this time, we were approaching our deadline upgrading on-premise customer management software. TyTags decided that it would seriously consider JCurve’s NetSuite solution. I can’t understate the importance of ensuring everyone is involved in the selection process for new business solutions. Not only is their input value for the  decision, but you need to be sure they are comfortable with the move.  Therefore, I arranged for JCurve to give a presentation of NetSuite to all of the staff.

Prior to the presentation, JCurve sent as a form to fill out that detailed critical information about our company: what we did, how we did it, and the parts of the business where we want to get improvements. While JCurve did not understand our business fully, during the presentation it did demonstrate that it had listen to us and had configured their software in such a way to show how it would be of use to us. This gave us huge confidence in JCurve’s ability to support us should we go with their product.  

In fact, the presentation went so well that as soon as it had finished my father turned to me and said how much will the solution cost. I told the total cost would be about $2500 to $3000 a year. His response blew me away: “I’d pay that just to get our data secured if we have another bloody robbery.” For him it was all about business continuity and protecting our customers’ data.

My mother’s response was quite different. She was extremely excited about the ability to have real time financial performance indicators for the business on a dashboard. She was also extremely excited about the ability to fully automate invoicing and e-commerce.

Finally Suzie, the office manager, was very bullish about the ability of the system to track stock and use analytics to predict manufacturing demands.

Three very different people with very different roles in the business all saw value by obtaining a solution that combined accounting, production and stock control, e-commerce and customer relationship management. 

The key lesson I took from this was that the business value of JCurve was greater than the sum of its parts. One product would cover accounting (previously in MYOB), customer management (previously in the aging Sage ACT solution), financial modelling and analysis (manually performed in Excel), marketing (a manual process) and online services (previously built in run with DotNetNuke). And by putting everything together, TyTags would be able to gain more information, more quickly and actually eliminate cumbersome manual tasks.

So the decision was made to invest in JCurve. However, given that this decision affected every part of the TyTags business, we had some serious planning to do:

On the technical side of things:
How would we migrate 40 years worth of customer history into the new solution?
How to get all out financial data into the solution?
How to be sure that the customer data and financial data lined up correctly?
Was our broadband network reliable enough? If the network went down, could we continue to work?
What computers would we continue to use? 
How could we use mobile devices?
Did we have sufficient support form JCurve to learn how to administer NetSuite ourselves, or would we need extra support from their team (and how much would that extra support cost!)
What functions of NetSuite should we hide or turn off, so they don’t get in the way of how we work?

On the business side of things:
How would we manage the transition from tried and trusted in-house solutions to the new and less-known Netsuite?  Would we try to get all information into NetSuite and switch over in one go, or gradually ‘grow into’ Netsuite in stages?
How would our work change? Which existing business processes would need to change – or even be eliminated – when we moved to NetSuite?
How would being able to access all our company functions and data change where and when did work? How could this change sales activities, such as trade days and nursery visits?
How would we train everyone on the new software? Who would do the training and when?
What new things could we accomplish with the software? For example, NetSuite includes a powerful online shopping service. Could we make use of that?
What tasks that TyTags currently performs that could not be done NetSuite, and how would we work around any limitations.

In the end, we decided that an incremental move to NetSuite would be the safest: slow and steady.  TyTags would move one business function at a time over to NetSuite package, migrating the data and getting the processes perfected, training people in that function, before moving on to the next.  In the next Green Geek column, I’ll outline how we planned this incremental migration, and describe some of the hurdles and tough learning we found along the way.  

Until then, I recommend that you take at look at all the software solutions that are currently run in-house and consider if an integrated cloud-based solution would be beneficial. Don’t leap to conclusions – as you’ll discover in our next column, moving to an Enterprise-grade solution like NetSuite (and there are others) is a big investment in terms of time, money and training. It’s not for the faint of heart!  But for many small businesses in our industry, the rewards may be worth effort.