Is The Small Business Web The Next Big Thing?

29 Comments

Amidst the noise being generated by those attending and reporting on the SXSW conference, I caught wind of a particularly interesting announcement made by BatchBlue and some other web service providers about a “Small Business Web” of integrated SaaS products designed for small business.

“The Small Business Web is a movement to bring together like-minded, customer-obsessed software companies to integrate our respective products and make life easier for small businesses,” Pamela O’Hara, CEO of BatchBlue, told me via email.

By using the APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, present in each other’s products, the participating companies hope to offer a very high level of integration between their services. This will allow each company to focus on its own core competency, while allowing for easier data portability and a better overall experience for the user.

We’ve already seen companies make use of APIs to allow for some level of integration: most time tracking applications allow for import from a Basecamp project, for example. This new initiative is seemingly taking this to a whole new level and is essentially looking to offer a suite of mix-and-match services that will work together to provide a higher level of interaction to offer the functionality you need.

The initial batch of participating companies include WebWorkerDaily favorites such as FreshBooks, Shoeboxed, Outright, MailChimp and, of course, BatchBlue, and there is a good level of integration between these products already in place.

My initial reaction to the announcement was a good one. As someone who promotes efficiency in business process, needing to do duplicate data entry in multiple systems has always been a sticky issue. The more that the tools I use interact to keep data in sync, the less time my team has to spend to do so manually.

A potential stalling point is the cost involved in this mix-and-match approach. At what point does it make sense to consider a more integrated solution rather than lumping individual products together? I can (and do) justify the cost of a couple of these services but when I start combining $10 here with $14 there across five or six different products it has the potential to become prohibitively expensive for a small business.

It will mean that we may need to reevaluate our providers to see if this interaction offers a benefit that would make switching services worthwhile. I’ve long been a proponent of the BatchBook CRM, but I recently moved my invoicing from FreshBooks to Cashboard. Do the advantages offered in this new mashup make it worth it to return to FreshBooks?

Of course, these are decisions that one must make in any case, and the increased integration does make the use of these unique services more appealing, but for a small team to spend upwards of $1,000 a year on SaaS products is a considerable investment. Perhaps a plan to discount the cost of services when you combine them could be implemented.

The initial group of participants announced is certainly a compelling assortment of applications and services. My hope is that the options will continue to grow and that it won’t be exclusionary. For this to be successful, we need to be able to choose between competing applications within a space.

I would also like to know more about what the criteria is for inclusion as a provider. Is there a baseline of functionality needed? Is there a formal process or a commitment of some sort? I am sure more info will be forthcoming. So while it is still early for this movement, I’m hopefully optimistic about the possibilities of the Small Business Web initiative. Offering nice benefits in efficiency and productivity to those of us who use web-based products is a good thing.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.

29 Comments

Market Dojo

Great article. We have recently started our new company offering business-to-business online auction software and we have used quite a number of web applications to support us, including ClearBooks who have posted a comment further up. We use OggChat for our Live Chat support, Mikogo for our screen-sharing, Skype for calling, Get Satisfaction for our forum, Google Docs and Google Mail and Zoho for the CRM. In total these fantastic services cost less than $50 a month to run. I can imagine that go back a decade and it would cost us a fortune to operate these services. Web apps are fantastic value.

Christophe

As a small business ourselves and SaaS supporters, we are using online applications at http://www.GetApp.com that don’t always fully integrate. Integration is often mentioned as the number one issue prior to buying a new app by businesses.
There are two kinds of integrations: 1)bottom up or one to many, where you integrate your app with a platform provider usually also publisher of a core business app such as CRM (Salesforce.com) or email (Google). 2) one to one, mainly by using an API to integrate an app with another

We encourage the SBW initiative, it is refreshing to see such an initiative from app providers themselves. We don´t see ourselves competitors at GetApp.com. We are a SaaS Apps portal which is 100% platform and provider neutral. Our main objective is to make it easy for enterprises to find useful information before buying, that includes an app store showing integration points.
There over 400 handpicked app providers registered and some of them are starting to show their app to app integrations.
If you are a SaaS app provider, please join the party, you should find a roof under our 300+ app categories.

jasonbarone

I think building an ecosystem like is going to be phenomenal. I don’t think the cost will be the number one problem because most small businesses or startups probably won’t opt to using 4, 5, 6, 7 apps at first. Some may not want to use Shoebox, may do in-house bookkeeping, may not need be doing email campaigns, etc. This type of systems gives us the ability to pick and choose what we want to use and pay for those services, as opposed to paying one large bill and not using most of the features (Salesforce.com as an example).

When I was shopping for a new solution for a client, I looked for integration. I needed a CRM, with the ability to send out email campaigns. MailChimp sounded excellent, and Batchbook worked perfectly with it. So we pulled the trigger on it.

Lyndon

Great write-up! Small business is opening up to the internet both in ecommerce and also in internet based business and amrketing. Your post is so inline with this.

Small Business Website Design

Great concept…shame they haven’t conducted more publicity for the site. Despite Googling, I hadn’t come across the site before finding this page. From a business perspective it’s right up my street so I’ll be watching the sites development with interest.

Dobes Vandermeer

The small business web is launched, it seems: http://www.thesmallbusinessweb.com/

I guess we’ll see how this works – presumably there will be more relationship among the members than it being a directory, and yet it’s supposed to be “open” in a sense. I guess anyone who integrates with someone else’s API can get in? Or do you need a lot of users first?

Rob

RajR,
Great question, and that is actually a problem we are trying to solve at http://www.lifestreambackup.com. We currently backup up flickr, photobucket, twitter, google docs, zoho, wordpress, and basecamp from a single account, for $30/year. Our current service is targeted towards lifestreamers, but we will offer a small business product soon.

John

It is definitely the next big thing. There are so many small businesses out there who have been neglected by the enterprise. The web has given them a multitude of small business tools to choose from. Our own app, Intervals has seen tremendous growth in the small business sector. And as the small business owners become more familiar with online tools, the tools themselves are going to have to evolve to meet their needs.

Pamela O'Hara

Thanks so much for the nice article, Scott. The small business web concept is still evolving, so it is great to hear ideas and concerns from you and the WWD community. As Ben explains, we see this as more of an opportunity to work with other companies that have the same customer-centric attitude and responsiveness that our customers expect from us. The API is key, because that opens up creative uses of data from one system by another. After all, it’s not our data we are working with, it’s our customer’s. We have a responsibility to make it easy (and affordable and safe) for them to get the most out of it.

RajR

Great concept however execution is the big deal here. Who will take ownership of the Online Federation”
Intuit ?? Cisco Webex?? Salesforce? EMC Mozy??

Who will provide for data backup ,sync and recovery of content as need arises for the aggregated mashup offer.

Jose Maria Gil

Very interesting stuff. I truly believe that integration is the future of all this kind of saas apps. I really want to know more. My company is building an email marketing app and I would like to know how to join this movement.

Paul Carney

One other stumbling block: if you choose and rely on one of the providers, and they end up closing shop, you are left holding the bag.

With so many moving parts involved, this is bound to happen. I am not sure that the web of services will be able to sustain a solid following when one provider can pull it all together for a business.

Seth B - Cashboard

Thanks for the mention of Cashboard in the article. Connecting to other services is vital for small business web apps, which is why we decided to partner with quality services like Basecamp from day 1.

We’ve been planning a public API for a long time, but at the moment we’re really trying to nail our core feature set before it comes out.

We will have an extensive API this year, along with many tools that will make sticking with us worthwhile.

Thanks for your patience.

– Seth / founder, designer Cashboard

Rob Bell

It’s still very early days in the SaaS world, but the way I see it is that companies will adopt those products that allow them to save money, grow revenues, increase efficiency, speed up a process or achieve other business objectives. I work with small businesses on their internet and marketing functions and we only put a web app in place if there’s a genuine business benefit from it, and it doesn’t detract from the business focus.

The great thing about SaaS is that it enables small businesses to benefit from technology that was previously out of reach due to technical and financial restraints – and they enable breakthrough business strategies in the most unexpected markets. It’s an exciting time for small business.

I would expect web apps providers forming alliances with an end-to-end solution for specified industries and markets to become the norm sooner rather than later.

At the moment, I’m enjoying seeing such creativity and function around in abundance with the myriad of apps, growing each day – it’s a fascinating time to be around the Internet right now.

Rob

Robert Dempsey

Great article Scott. As a small business owner, trying to get the full picture of what’s going on in my business can be difficult, and using a myriad of online applications that don’t fully integrate, or cannot give me the full picture, can make things more difficult. A number of months ago I decided to build an integrated suite of applications – the ADS AppSuite. We chose this route over building a dashboard on top of other services, so that we could get a consistent look and feel across all applications, provide tight integration between then, and then put a dashboard on top of that. Each of these apps can be used by itself, however the integration that we are working on, combined with Google-style single sign-on, will provide business owners a much better alternative that using many applications that all look and work differently.

In general though, I am curious to see where others take it.

Thanks again for a great article.

AndrewNim

One thing which strikes me as someone who advises smb’s. Usability and attention to simplicity is often better from smaller concentrated app providers than larger A-Z offerings. This in one of the reason I can put up with multiple entry at times. Because you are using their flag ship you get better attention to detail. You may also get better support. I really like Batchblues support.
The issues I see, are cost, as Scott said, and different interfaces. But I would say both can be mitigated with thought.

I will watch this with interest.

Ben Curren

Thanks for the writeup Scott.

I’d like to assure you and your readers that more and more providers will be joining us. One of our core values is opening up our users data so they can use it in creative and innovative ways.

We will post more details about the movement after SXSW but The Small Business Web is a manifesto rather than an old boy’s club.

Ben Curren
CTO and Co-Founder Outright.com – Simple online bookkeeping

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