Take Your Excel Spreadsheet to the Next Level - TheStreet

Take Your Excel Spreadsheet to the Next Level

Smartsheet offers small businesses a way to communicate and collaborate through an online spreadsheet.
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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Listen up Salesforce.com, Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Report and Google (GOOG) - Get Report junkies. There's a new way to manage group projects: Smartsheet.

Imagine if the Excel or Google Apps spreadsheets you use could not only be shared with millions of users, but updated easily and automatically. Imagine they could host online chats and circulate e-mails.

An eight-person firm in Bellevue, Wash., is trying to make this spreadsheet fantasy real through their product, Smartsheet. If my tests are any indication, Smartsheet is on to something.

"We call it a spreadsheet-based interface on top of a work management tool," says Smartsheet co-founder Eric Browne. While his operation is tiny by Web standards, with less than 100,000 users and far less paying customers, its product is worth trying.

What you get

: Smartsheet is a powerful collaboration tool that just happens to be a spreadsheet.

Smartsheet, which launched in 2005, is based on a simple premise: Standard spreadsheets are not only a good way for teams to work together, they're the

best

way. Smartsheet makes testing this argument super easy. You just download the software from its Web site, and allow it to integrate with your Google Apps account or upload your Outlook data. In four minutes, you're presented with a Web-based spreadsheet that can be modified to handle most business tasks.

Smartsheet comes with options such as file add-ons, chat rooms and calendaring tools that users can customize. And because it's Web-based, Smartsheet data can be synced across documents, e-mail, calendars and other virtual office tools.

For sure, Smartsheet takes time to get the hang of, which we'll discuss next, and only time will tell how well it works. But at first blush, Smartsheet is, well, smart.

What you don't get

: Smartsheet isn't fully finished and it doesn't work well with Microsoft tools.

Smartsheet is clever. But it takes major Web savvy and business process knowledge to make it work. In terms of gadget jujitsu, it requires brown-belt skills. And even though it's one of the easiest online collaboration tools, it's not simple to use. Learning how to sync your e-mail will take real tinkering. Understanding and managing access and data dissemination will take trial and error.

Don't, for example, load your test Smartsheet with sensitive information until you get the hang of who can see what. And though this is not Smartsheet's fault -- the company hopes Microsoft will address this issue in its coming Office 2010 release -- there's basically no support for working with Microsoft products. Outlook data has to be imported and exported by hand, which probably is a dealbreaker for most companies.

Bottom line

: Smartsheet is a step forward in collaboration for small businesses. It offers a new way to get teams to work together. If your company has struggled with collaboration tools in the past -- and whose hasn't -- Smartsheet is worth a test drive.

Just keep in mind, as smart as Smartsheet is, it's a work in progress.

-- Reported by Jonathan Blum in New York

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.