It’s a good time to run a small business: the choices in terms of collaborative software are immense, with costs often just a fraction of enterprise grade offerings. A slew of new startups have sprung up over the last half decade to provide cheaper collaboration tools in the cloud for the lower end of the market that is often ignored by enterprise software manufacturers (who tend to focus on large and mid cap businesses). The result is better, faster, and cheaper collaboration that’s accessible from anywhere with just an Internet connection.
Document Collaboration, Sharing and Editing
First, of course, the 7000-pound gorilla. Google was among the earliest upstarts in the collaborative office tools space with its Google Docs offering. Slow and unsteady at first, it has now blossomed into a feature-rich suite of Excel-like spreadsheet, word processing, presentation and drawing applications.
The recent addition of online storage (with up to 5 GB of free space) in the form of Google Drive has made it an even more attractive proposition. If you haven’t looked at Google Docs lately, you’ll find significant improvements compared with even a few months ago.
Zoho‘s suite of collaborative applications is extremely extensive, covering almost all facets of collaboration. Zoho ‘Chat’ facilitates real-time group discussions across employees, while its ‘Docs’ application allows for easy document collaboration, sharing and management (imported from MS Office, or created natively through the Zoho suite of office apps). The Zoho suite of online spreadsheets, word processing, notepad and presentation tools is fairly strong, allowing simultaneous access, sharing and editing of documents in the cloud across an entire distributed organization.
Zoho’s offerings aren’t limited to document sharing and collaboration though, and it boasts of a full line-up of business and productivity applications, from a simple calendar app to a fullfledged CRM system and site-builder. The prices for each application vary, ranging from free to several dollars per user, per month. Altogether, Zoho offers 29 applications spread across three categories (collaboration, business, and productivity apps) — a one-stop shop for everything a small business might need.
Microsoft Office 365 is the third option in this category — an online port of MS Office. Considering the eroding traditional (offline) user base for MS Office, Microsoft has devoted considerable time and development dollars to perfecting Office 365.
The end result is a powerful suite of collaborative tools — calendar, email, spreadsheets, word processing, presentations, and OneNote — that mimic the desktop versions of these applications. While Microsoft offers a free trial, to take full advantage of all the features you will have to upgrade to one of the several paid plans — ranging from $4 per user, per month for email, to $20 per user, per month for enterprise-grade customers.
File Sharing, Collaboration and Synchronization
DropBox has emerged as the file sharing and synchronization platform of choice, offering 2 GB of storage for free per user, and up to 50 GB for just $9.99/month. Referring friends can earn you up to 16GB of free space.
Box.com is the other major player in this field, offering DropBox-like convenience and usability at $9.99 for 25 GB of storage space, and $15/user/month for up to 500 users and 1000 GB of disk space for business customers.
Project/Task Management and Collaboration
37Signals was an early trailblazer in the collaborative software space and still remains the platform of choice for entrepreneurs, startups and small business owners. It offers a host of productivity and collaboration applications, including the popular Basecamp for managing products, Highrise to manage contacts, and Campfire for real-time discussions and collaboration. Pricing varies from product to product. Highrise, the CRM tool, for instance, starts at $24 per month.
Asana is a new entrant in the task management and collaboration space and offers an easyto- use productivity tool designed specifically for small businesses. Asana allows teams ranging from two to thousands of people to stay in touch, sync files and collaborate over shared tasks. It is free to use for up to 30 members, with prices starting from $100/month for 30 members or more.
The online collaboration space is crowded, with competitors offering products that often integrate productivity, sharing and synchronization. In fact, the boundaries between collaboration and communication, sharing and synchronization, are becoming more and more blurred as all business moves towards the cloud. Small business owners are, indeed, spoiled for choice.
What are your favorite cloud collaboration tools?