Welcome to The Small-Biz Techie, a weekly series on the hottest technology trends that keep your small business running like the pros.You know when you call a really, really big company like Verizon ( VZ) or Fireman's Fund, and they miraculously know who you are and how much you owe them? Well, get this, fellow small-business owners: soon you'll be able to do just that with your own customers. Advances in high-powered productivity and sales support software for the smaller enterprise may be the single biggest revolution in small-business technology since the desktop computer. Seemingly everybody who's anybody in software -- Microsoft ( MSFT), Apple ( AAPL), Intuit ( INTU) and several start ups -- is offering new, super-powerful, super-cheap bits of code that automate lead tracking, call logging, invoicing, collections and accounting. Mark your calendars: If by the end of 2008 you're not conducting business with said management technology, one of your direct competitors will be.
The Same, but DiscordantOn the surface, all of these tools, such as Business Contact Manager that can come as part of the
What's different is how these packages describe your business data, called "metadata," which is then related back to the functions that keep your business in business: For example, email can be linked to accounting; invoices to payroll; calendars to planning; travel requests to budgeting and on and on. Everything your small business does can be essentially connected, automated and monitored in real time. Herein lies the problem -- and the opportunity. Yes, the process of automating the relationship between, say, a phone call and an invoice is powerful stuff. In my business I compete very effectively with much larger media companies using tools like free collaborative software from Google ( GOOG), called
Google Apps , to build a Web-based spreadsheet that tracks and logs the electronics I test. It's actually more efficient than the zillion-dollar tracking software I used when I worked at the Walt Disney Company ( DIS) a decade ago. However, the way I connect my email archives to this spreadsheet is not necessarily the way productivity software producers -- like 37signals, which has a very nice Web-based business-automation tool called Basecamp , (starts free, $149 for unlimited projects and other features), or Rave , which sells by-seat icon-based sales support tools -- believes I should. So I must build my own bridge from Google Apps to Basecamp. And that either means I eat time and expense of importing the data by hand or have a custom application built, with all the attendant issues of cost and debugging.