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Summary:

The trouble with evaluating small business collaboration is that SMBs differ in their needs. The variation between small businesses and their needs are far more dramatic that those of large companies. A small business could be an individual freelancer, or a business with 50 employees.

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The SMB Group studies small businesses. It recently published a new report titled “Moving Beyond Email — The Era of SMB Online Collaboration Suites.” The report covers Google Apps for Business, HyperOffice, IBM LotusLive, Microsoft BPOS, OnePlace, Salesforce Chatter, VMware Zimbra and Zoho Business, breaking the topic down into ten different sections. But although there is a lot of depth to the report that should help businesses compare collaboration tools, it suffers from taking too narrow a focus.

The trouble with evaluating small business collaboration is that SMBs differ in their needs. The variation between small businesses and their needs are far more dramatic that those of large companies. Most big corporations are going to have similar needs: they’ll need to be able to handle a range of standard tasks, like human resources. But a small business could be an individual freelancer working out of his house, or a business with 50 employees. This variation means that choosing the right SMB collaboration tools is not straightforward.

The Tools to Consider

There seems to be an impression that the bigger and better-known tools (such as those from Google or Salesforce) should be the first a small business considers when looking for collaboration software. But when a business has specific needs, that’s not the right approach to take. Consider just about any financial professional: no matter how many people they have on the team, they will have reporting requirements that mean that applications with reporting tools built-in should be a better fit than something like Google Apps, which was built for broader business needs.

There is no set list of applications that a smaller business should consider. Rather, the first step should be to take a look at all of the features the business needs and then searching from there.

Looking for Support

One valuable consideration that the SMB Group’s report brings up is the question of service and support. For smaller organizations, the question of support is crucial: there simply may not be enough room in the budget to support any full-time IT staff, making it absolutely necessary to choose applications that include some level of support as a matter of course. Even for a business that works in technology, the time and effort spent supporting certain applications could make them prohibitively expensive to use. Choosing one, instead, that comes with support services — even if the company has to pay a higher price up-front — can be very worthwhile.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Michael Lokner

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  1. It seems amazing to me that a report apparently designed to help SMBs evaluate collaboration tools costs $6500. I say do a little of your own research, gather your needs and use the money on the new system.

    1. Yowza. I agree. I work on GigaOM Pro, the research arm of GigaOM/WebWorkerDaily, and I’m always amazed at this kind of pricing. We’re doing similar research reports on Pro, and more of them are coming out later this year — and we only charge $199 for access to all our reports for a full year. I know this sounds like a commercial, but I can’t help myself: $6,500 for a report like this aimed at SMBs seems crazy. (http://pro.gigaom.com)

  2. As a venture capitalist who shall remain nameless once told me, SMB is just too hard to work with.

    Truth is, ALL businesses want the same thing. The only difference is that small ones want to reinvent the wheel whenever necessary, which is all the time, whereas the morass of process that exists at large businesses is such that once a process is in place everybody has a stake in never changing it.

    Yeah, small biz and large biz differ. And that said . . . well, that’s it. They’re different.

    Oh: and I work with small businesses anyway, because they’re FUN!

    Jeff Yablon

  3. I believe Laurie McCabe, one of the co authors of the study, is also willing to hand out complimentary copies of the study to SMBs. You can take a look at the bottom of Laurie’s blog post about the study – http://lauriemccabe.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/are-you-ready-to-move-beyond-email/

  4. gr8 Post on Small business Collaboration tools!
    If you’re looking for a tool to manage your stuff – like Emails, IMs, Snail Mails, To-Do Lists, Calendar… from one Place, Taroby http://www.taroby.com would come in handy for you. It acts as “your Online Personal Assistant” managing your stuff, Filtering out stuff which is most important for you at the moment.

  5. I am a small business owner and your point about service and support being very important is quite true. I chose a collaboration tool called the bcn from DRE software (www.dresoftware.com). It has all the features I needed in a collaboration tool, plus a web conferencing feature that I love bc it saves me so much on travel costs. Im glad that it’s all packaged together and I didn’t have go to one company to get the collaboration piece and to another company for web conferencing. And the deal maker for me was their customer service. I get to speak to a live person who answers my questions/emails rather than pushing a bunch of buttons. And DRE actually explained how to incorporate using the bcn into my existing business processes. The bcn was easy to learn to use which was also important to me. I didn’t want to pay for an expensive tool with tons of bells and whistles that I’d rarely use. The BCN has everything I need to help me close deals faster, not a bunch of extra clutter that makes using it more difficult. After I learned how to use the bcn, I could easily teach my customers how to use it and now they love it too. DRE support also spent time with my customers answering their questions as well. Now that’s real cust service there. Don’t think I would have gotten that from an IBM. So I highly recommend the bcn from dre software, especially for other SMBs.

  6. My book, Far From the Factory: Lean for the Information Age has a ton of material on using Web 2.0 and collaboration tools to streamline white collar work processes and we note that SMB’s have a tremendous advantage over large enterprises in this regard. (And at $45 on Amazon it’s a LOT cheaper than these alternatives. Hey, my kids gotta eat too, you know. ;-)
    SMB’s are not typically saddled with the need to amortize legacy technology investments or with the bureaucracy of security-phobic IT departments that hinder every adoption. These new tools are force multipliers and factors listed above are excluding large enterprises from using them. This fuels a natural cycle of change, not unlike the Innovator’s Dilemma phenomenon, but faster. SMB’s don’t need to develop great new technologies, just quickly harness and leverage these technologies as the techno marketplace makes them available.

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