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Small Business Spotlight: Cloud Computing with Software as a Service

That’s not how cloud computing got its name. It’s thought that the moniker grew out of graphical representations of actual clouds that were used to symbolize networks in conceptual drawings. The cloud symbolized the internet. But an anxiety-inducing ascent on an airliner is an apt metaphor. To ascend through the clouds to more stable air, you have to endure that unsettled feeling – sometimes for uncomfortable periods of time. And you’re aware that the bouncing may come around again at any time. Tough transition, satisfying outcomes Moving your business from a hard drive-centric state to one where all data and applications are stored on remote servers and accessed through a variety of desktop and mobile devices can mimic those first several minutes in the air. Getting your company there – at least now, in 2013 – takes patience, flexibility and the desire to get there, considering that we’re still in the embryonic stages, and there are myriad routes to the same destination. But the rewards are many. Increased productivity. Less downtime for IT maintenance. A more capable, informed workforce. Less restrictive personnel policies. Basically, a smarter, nimbler staff that can react faster and can stay connected to each other and to the ever-evolving state of the business – no matter where they are. An eventful evolution The World Wide Web hadn’t even been invented when Rick Wamre started his publishing venture in 1991. Wamre, a former Dallas Morning News writer and editor, along with longtime fellow Dallas residents Jeff Siegel and Tom Zielinski, were thinking that the city’s neighborhoods would welcome some, “…involved and in-depth community journalism.” So they launched theAdvocate, a monthly magazine in Lakewood/East Dallas. Lake Highlands followed; then Preston Hollow, Far North Dallas and Oak Cliff. Today, more than 220,000 Dallas residents receive a local, neighborhood-specific print magazine delivered on their doorstep each month. The Advocate, in fact, makes its content available in just about every format possible, both virtual and tactile. The 20-person company publishes email newsletters, iPhone and Android magazine apps, social media, mobile websites and magazine replica editions; a trusted friend and go-to news source in Dallas communities. The scale of today’s operation was unimaginable when Wamre started out 22 years ago. “We had a Mac with a little screen,” Wamre says. “We used to do layouts by hand, cut up pieces of paper and put them together.” Everything was manual, Wamre says. Today, nothing is. Little by little Like most companies do, The Advocate entered the cloud computing space piecemeal. Six years ago, they started transmitting pages to their printer online. About three years ago, they began keeping work documents and schedules online using venues like Google Docs (now Google Drive). Next was the transition of sales materials to the cloud. They considered using Salesforce, but at the time, it was just too big (“Now it might work,” he says). They went with a cloud-based vertical solution called Smart Publisher, from Pre1 Software. Smart Publisher integrates many elements of the publishing process, including contact relations management, order entry, production trafficking, billing and reporting. Though Smart Publisher has accounting functionality built in, they still use a desktop small business accounting program, MYOB, for tasks like check-writing and deposits. Application developers who are committed to making cloud computing work will help drive its forward momentum, especially with small businesses. Wamre considered leaving Smart Publisher because it wasn’t integrating fast enough. “We stayed with them because they continue to progress,” he says. Besides, “…moving is a big hassle if you don’t have to.” Painful progress Wamre indicates that even if you stay with the same service provider, each new version necessitates additional training and presents new kinks to be ironed out. There are bound to be missteps, Wamre says. Still, the slow, smart steps the Advocate has taken have made a sizeable difference. “It’s made things better to the extent that we can be more organized. Employees can be more on target with their work.” As its made things better, though, this mobile technology blurs the line between personal and professional life. “It’s made things more complicated because you can’t get away from anything,” Wamre says. “I can tell someone I can’t get to something, but I can. There’s no resting point anymore.” Is it safe? One of the biggest concerns about cloud computing is data security. Wamre reports that his company has had no serious meltdowns, though a server crash at the wrong time of the month has caused some scurrying. “It’s not bulletproof,” he says. The Advocate still maintains paper and electronic copies of each magazine, and there are data redundancies. It’s safe to say staff morale is better now that employees don’t have to punch a clock. They do still punch in – on their iPhones, from a child’s soccer game or a coffee shop or wherever they happen to be working at any given time. “It gives them a better quality of life,” Wamre says. Overall, thumbs up Even considering that Wamre and staff have had to scramble to solve problems, cloud computing is, “…a net positive overall,” he says. “Salespeople have been able to handle more work and make more income because they have the capability to work with more customers effectively. People work the same hours, but the technology allows them to be more productive.” Thus, the Advocate soars onward and upward. Whether the turbulence has fully cleared is hard to say. But they got on the flight, and it looks like blue skies ahead. Special thanks to Rick Wamre and the Advocate for sharing their experience.