Last week, I took two separate briefings from two technology vendors, Sage North America and Zoho, that are sharply focused on the small-business audience.
My original intention was to write up two separate stories but halfway through the second interview, I realized there was a common thread to the latest releases from these companies: the desire to create a single applications platform from which small businesses can interact with most of the core back-office tasks associated with running their operations.
Exhibit A is the update released this morning by Zoho, which brings business intelligence features to the Zoho CRM application. The move integrates Zoho CRM -- the company's most popular application with roughly 25,000 customers -- with Zoho Reports, said Raju Vegesna, Zoho evangelist.
Although Zoho CRM already had a reporting engine, the integration includes more than 70 prebuilt reports and dashboards that should make it easier for small-business owners to visual information. The reports works with the leads, accounts, potentials, contacts and users modules within Zoho CRM.
Interlinking between applications is increasingly importan for Zoho, Vegesna said. While many Zoho customers start with just one application, they usually add additional ones after a period of six months. Right now, the average Zoho customer uses at least two or three applications, a number that has been climbing over time, Vegesna said.
It is Zoho's intention to keep growing that average apps per small business number, he said.
That strategy echoes the motivation between the mid-May launch of Sage One, an all-in-one software as a service (SaaS) application from Sage North America that is focused on entrepreneurs and start-ups in the United States.
Here's the launch statement:
"Sage One was founded on the belief that small businesses need to organize, track and manage their core areas in one place as quickly as possible. They also need a collaboration-friendly environment where clients, contractros, employees and vendors can all work together toward a common goal."
Among the functions that Sage One was designed to handle are project and task tracking, cash management, invoicing, full team collaboration and time tracking.
Mike Savory, senior product manager for Sage One, said the release is targeted at super small businesses and entrepreneurs looking for one source for all the applications to run their business. "Business owners use an average of three apps to run their business," he said. "But the large majority aren't integrated in any particular way. It is difficult for them to put their hands on the priorities they have for their teams."
Sage One helps automate some of those tasks, so that small-business owners can be more proactive, he said.
To promote the launch, Sage North America is running a 30-day free trial of the service. After that, Sage One runs $29 per month for two administrators and unlimited team members (along with 5 gigabytes of storage). Additional administrators can be added for $10 per month per user (although for the first three months of Sage One's launch, it will cost $1 per month for each extra administrator).
Even though Sage is coming at this from a different direction than Zoho -- starting with accounting and invoicing rather than CRM -- you can see where both companies are pushing in the future. Both of them are predicating future development on the idea that small businesses want to keep things simple and that they don't want to have to interact with lots of different SaaS applications in lots of different places.
Sage actually has done some research to figure out some of the most common tasks for small-business owners. The data, which covered the opinions of 250 businesses with 0 to 9 employees and with both a retail and service bent, showed that the following activities keep owners from completing billable work:
- Social media (34 percent)
- Marketing and finding new clients (65 percent)
- Managing employees and contractors (37 percent)
- Invoicing, bookkeeping and records management (51 percent)
Sage reports that 35 percent of the surveyed small businesses said they would like to "use one application that performs many different functions." Another 23 percent said they simply wanted their applications to work better.
Speaking of which, the Sage survey showed that many of the respondents are still using paper processes to handle calendars, to-do lists, project management, task assignment and time tracking. So, apparently, there is a lot of upside potential when it comes to automating some of these routine operations tasks.
The question is whether small-business owners really want to make this transformation -- which could dramatically improve productivity and the time that it takes for small-business owners to manage certain operational tasks.
And whether they want a single platform or just a better solution for integrating best-of-breed applications for all these different functions?