Thoughts on what businesses actually need from the Cloud, not what vendors wish they needed.

Chris Bliss

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Two Competing Approaches to Small Business Software

Powerful tools that were out of reach just a decade ago are now available and affordable

I speak with small business owners every day. Most of the time, we’re speaking because they have problems – workflow problems, software problems, scaling problems. Solutions aren’t obvious. If they were, we wouldn’t be in business.

Thing is, it’s not just that solutions aren’t obvious – it’s that solutions may solve the same problems (inventory, for example, or CRM), but their approach can be crazily dissimilar. That matters, because how a piece of software works can have long-lasting business implications. Here’s why.

The Gorilla Approach

Business software can be broadly lumped into 1 of 2 categories. We call the first one the “gorilla approach.”

This is “one stop shop” type software. The approach is to build a platform that does everything – one big system that facilitates as much business process as possible. Think Netsuite, Salesforce, Zoho, even Brightpearl (though increasingly less-so). These systems combine (to different degrees) everything from CRM, project management and helpdesk, to inventory, accounting, webstores and POS. They’re gorillas. They do everything.

The benefits of this approach are obvious. There’s one login. All your data is in one place, cross-referenced. There’s one system to learn, so there’s only one system to teach – it scales. Workflows coexist alongside each other, natively. Sounds idyllic, right?

Not exactly, no. The gorilla approach carries significant disadvantages. Because gorilla systems do many things, they tend not to do any one thing well. They’re generalists, not specialists. They also tend to be unusable – so many workflows demand a complex UI, which can be difficult to navigate. Vendor lock-in is another issue – good luck getting all your data out of Netsuite – and none of this comes cheap. Not exactly what a SMB owner wants to hear.

The Spiderweb Approach

Luckily, there’s an alternative – we call it the spiderweb approach (our nomenclature sucks, I know). If the gorilla approach implies building your business off one central solution, then the spiderweb approach is to build it off multiple smaller solutions that are integrated together.

Software built for the spiderweb approach is focused on: 1) one or two core functions, and 2) integration. The idea is to build tools for specific processes (ie customer service OR sales, not both) and integrate them together. A good example here is Freshbooks: they do one thing really really well (invoicing), and on last count they had native integrations with 71 other business apps. If you use Freshbooks, it probably works well with whatever else you use. Brilliant.

The spiderweb approach mitigates most of the issues raised by the gorilla approach. Because these apps focus on one or two things, they tend to do those things extremely well. They’re specialists. They tend to be very usable, even enjoyable. Lock-in is less of an issue: if you don’t like one vendor, you can leave without compromising the rest of your workflows. Pretty cool.

Unfortunately, spiderwebs aren’t all sugar and cream. Even the best integrations can result in data silos, meaning you have redundant information stored in disparate locations. Multiple systems also mean multiple processes to learn (and teach), making it difficult to scale. It’s expensive, too: integrate Shopify (for web sales) with Shopkeep (floor sales), add Xero (accounting) and Capsule (CRM), and you’re looking at >$180/mo. Sexy software doesn’t come cheap.

What’s the business owner to do?

The gorilla/spiderweb dichotomy is a bit of a conundrum. One the one hand you have bulky, complex, inefficient software: on the other hand you have redundant data and a hacked-together web. What gives?

First off, stop looking for the perfect solution. It doesn’t exist. No one likes hearing that (especially when they’ve hired you to solve all their problems…), but it’s true. We have gorilla systems and spiderweb systems because that’s the way it has to be. Anytime someone builds an all-in-one system, of course it’s going to be bulky and weird and expensive. Anytime someone connects a bunch of independently operated services, of course it’s idiosyncratic. Unless you have the money and vision to build your own perfect solution (which you don’t), the current gorilla/spiderweb system is as inevitable as it is annoying.

Secondly, choose software based on business needs. Don’t begin your software search by demo’ing everything out there. Begin it by prioritizing your business needs. Once you’ve done that, everything else falls into place, including which approach (gorilla or spiderweb) makes sense. We can help if you get lost.

Lastly, don’t get disheartened. Yes, finding new software sucks. No, it doesn’t do everything you *need* it to do. But compare it with the tools you were using yesterday and it’s quickly evident that cloud computing is a game changer. Powerful tools that were out of reach just a decade ago are now available and affordable. That’s amazing news for small business. Now get out there and use them!

VM Associates is a New York City cloud computing consulting firm. We help companies transition into newer, better, smarter software. Contact us to talk about your business, the cloud, and how we might help.

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More Stories By Chris Bliss

Chris Bliss works at VM Associates, an end-user consultancy for businesses looking to move to the cloud from pre-existing legacy systems.

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