Everyone's turning to the cloud for services and apps today. The cloud is also a great place to find tools, both free and paid for, that can help you run your practice, and your life. Here are some we found that you might want to consider.
WORKING, SAVING, SHARING
One of the big pluses of the cloud is that you can get to it from anywhere you have Internet access. That makes the cloud a perfect place to store files, share files, and work on documents of all kinds collaboratively. It also allows you to do some impressive things using devices with very little storage and memory capability. If you have a laptop, you might have a half-terabyte of disk space and 4GB of RAM. With a Chromebook, tablet, or low-end Windows laptop like HP's $200 Stream 11, you'd be fortunate if you could run one application from internal storage, much less some of the sophisticated applications and tools listed here.
Office suites are an absolute essential for any accountant. If you have an iPad or Android tablet, and want a real working version of Microsoft Office, take a look at OnLive Desktop. When you sign into your account, you are presented with a Windows 7-style desktop with icons for MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Adobe Reader.
OnLive Desktop provides access to the MS Office apps and 2GB of storage for free. If you need more storage, a monthly plan with 50GB of additional storage will be available soon and will cost about $10 a month.
Or, if you just want MS Office document compatibility, but don't want to pay anything, Google Docs lets you work and store online, as well as download the apps to your portable device and work offline. Even if you do work offline, you can store your documents online, syncing them to all your devices when these devices are connected to the Internet. Google Docs has word processing, a spreadsheet, and presentation software similar to PowerPoint, and device-resident versions are available for Windows, Chromebooks, iPads, and Android devices.
It's handy to have someplace to store documents that you may want to share or make accessible from anywhere. Fortunately, if you have a Gmail or Microsoft Mail account, you are likely to have access to each vendor's cloud storage service. Google's is called Google Drive, and along with your free Gmail account, you get 15GB of online storage free, along with access to the above-mentioned Google Docs apps. If you need more room, 100GB goes for $1.99 a month, 1TB costs $9.99 a month, and you can get up to 30TB if you have a fat wallet.
Microsoft's online storage is called OneDrive, and if you have a Microsoft account or use Outlook.com for e-mail you get 15GB for free, same as with Google. You also get 1TB of free online storage if you have an Office 365 account.
If you have large files or folders that you want to provide specific access to, Dropbox is a good choice. As with other services, there are free and paid accounts. Dropbox is actually more expensive overall than the other services mentioned here. The free account only provides 2GB. If you need more space, Dropbox Pro will give you a terabyte of space for $9.99 a month. One nice thing about Dropbox is once you've uploaded files or folders, you can "invite" other users to share and download them by sending them an e-mail invite while you are signed into Dropbox. It also offers a business version with unlimited storage and additional features like file recovery, but it will set you back $15 a month for each user.
CALL ME, MAYBE?
Despite what you've heard, landlines are not dead. Granted, many people use their smartphones as a primary communication device, but in most offices, there's still a telephone residing on every desk. Many practices have moved to a digital PBX (private branch exchange) switchboard, which automates the answering function, directs a call to the proper person, and takes a message if that person does not pick up. Digital PBXs generally require a computer to act as the PBX server, which means software, set-up and ongoing maintenance. They're also often pretty expensive, especially if you are a smaller practice.
The cloud can serve you well as your phone service provider, providing an easy-to-use and affordable phone operation that can be as sophisticated as most in-house PBX systems. You already may be using a cloud-based phone system at home without realizing it. Internet providers that bundle in phone service are providing Voice-over-IP using a small adapter that ties the phones in your home through the Internet and onto the vendor's servers, which then complete the call over the existing telephone network (often called POTS, or Plain Old Telephone System).
You can get the same type of telephone service through other providers, with features that are more germane to business, rather than home, users. Two popular vendors are Ooma and Ring Central. Both of these vendors provide an interface box that connects your existing office phone system to their cloud-based server, and provide PBX-like services such as an automated switchboard, call waiting, music on hold, extension hunt, conference calling, and even automatically having a call rerouted to a cell phone if a staff member is out of the office. Ooma requires that you buy a $200 adapter, and has business phone plans that start at $19 a month. You can use regular telephone handsets with the Ooma adapter.
RingCentral, with prices that start at $25 a month, offers similar features, but is a completely VoIP system, requiring specialized phones that plug into your office Ethernet network. These phones, called SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) phones, are available from numerous vendors and not outrageously priced.
KEEP IN TOUCH
Chances are, your current e-mail system provides e-mail broadcasts, letting you send out the same e-mail or newsletter to hundreds, if not thousands, of people and businesses in your contact list. But e-mail marketing wasn't really what the developers had in mind when they first came up with e-mail, so you may not be communicating efficiently or effectively with your contacts. Today, e-mail is used as one component of a more sophisticated customer relationship management application, and sophisticated versions of both are available in the cloud.
For e-mail broadcasting that offers features way beyond Outlook or Gmail, consider cloud services like MailChimp and Constant Contact. The free version of MailChimp lets you send up to 12,000 e-mails to up to 2,000 clients. Constant Contact pricing starts at $15 a month.
And for more comprehensive CRM needs, many accounting vendors also offer cloud-based or hosted versions of their CRM applications. Other vendors, such as Zoho, which has pricing starting at $12 a month, can provide online CRM tools.
It's probably not fair, but people do tend to judge you on looks. They also tend to judge the product that you hand or e-mail them by appearance as well. What looked "professional" in the past just looks boring today. Pie charts and bar graphs just don't cut it anymore.
Fortunately, there are plenty of great cloud apps to really add pop to your documents and Web site. For the cover of your report or presentation, give Wordle a try. This utility generates "word clouds" from text that you provide. You've seen these; they consist of a group of relevant words in different colors, fonts, sizes and orientation. The end result is striking. Wordle is free.
Other tools for creating infographics, rather than just run-of-the-mill charts, include Venngage. Easel.ly and Infogr.am are some other cloud utilities to look at.
Infographics are one way to make data more understandable, and are a subset of data visualization tools. Some other tools you may find useful in your practice include RAW, Google Charts, and, for creating collaborative and interactive online timelines, Dipity, which is available in free and $4.95-a-month versions.
Zoho, mentioned above for its online CRM, also provides some additional online tools. These include Zoho Project, Zoho Creator and Zoho Reporter. The product names are pretty explanatory. Zoho Project is an easy-to-use project management system, and is helpful for keeping a tight rein on complex engagements, or those which run over an extended length of time. With Projects you can track milestones, produce Gantt charts, track timesheets, and easily collaborate with other staff on the engagement. Project is free for a single project and includes 10MB of storage, which really isn't much for a really complex engagement like an audit. But the $20- and $40-a-month versions of Project can likely meet your practice's entire project planning needs.
And for an easy-to-use database management system, look at Zoho Creator and Zoho Reporter. Creator lets you create database entry and editing forms using drag-and-drop commands, while Reporter allows you to easily retrieve that data in customized reports.
Finally, if you travel extensively, Tripit should be in your toolbox. It's available in a free version and an annual subscription Pro version, and keeps track of your airline and hotel bookings, reminding you of the details before and during the trip. Tripit even e-mails you if the gate changes or with other flight details such as a canceled, delayed or rescheduled flight.
All of the cloud-based tools mentioned assume that you have an Internet connection. In many cases, if you are using a laptop equipped only with Wi-Fi, that may not be the case depending upon your Internet service provider's coverage. To be on the safe side, consider adding a mobile Wi-Fi Hotspot to your travel kit. These connect to service providers via 3G or 4G broadband and serve as a hotspot for your laptop's Wi-Fi, allowing you Internet access in places where you might have had to pay a hefty fee for it before.
And depending on the phone and service plan, you may be able to use your smartphone as a hotspot, letting you connect a laptop or tablet to the Internet using your smartphone's data service. Check online, or browse the offerings in the "Settings" menu on your phone or broadband-equipped tablet.
Ooma Office System
TripIt, TripIt Pro
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