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We supply and manage marketing collateral.

Rosslyn Subjects

Connecting SaaS systems should be easier

Like many small businesses we have limited resources.

We operate in a very competitive and fluid environment and do not have a team of coders stood-by to create, at the drop of a hat, a bespoke solution to an operational issue.

This means we have to hunt around for cost effective “off the shelf” services that allow us to do more with less.

We want to spend as little time as possible on configuring stuff.

As far as we are concerned, if a system isn’t instantly easy to use with little or no need for a manual or training course, we pass and continue the search for something that is.

Here’s what we’re working with right now;

Harvest

Our use of Harvest began when we needed a system for logging and billing time. That requirement has diminished but the interface is so good and the creation and management of Estimates and Invoices is so easy that we decided to stay on. There are a few US/UK cultural quirks but nothing major, we want headline figures free of tax for example and Statements need to be added. We get the impression that the Harvest team listen to their user-base and like their openness on the rare occasions there’s been a service issue. The Data Centre got knocked out during Hurricane Sandy but they kept everyone updated and got the system up very quickly given the extreme circumstances. We grab contacts from Highrise but really want to send information the other way.

Highrise – CRM

We like Highrise because of it’s simple interface and lack of unwanted functionality. The truth is, for us, services like Salesforce.com offer a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’. We just needed a web based log of who, what and when. Sure, sometimes we get a little frustrated with the limitations of Highrise but we’d rather be using 100% of a system than 10%. We have Highrise connected to Campaign Monitor, Google calendar et al. Highrise stores data via Amazon’s S3 service.

WordPress – CMS

The Ford of CMS. Not sure why we’d choose something other than WordPress to manage our on-line content. Does everything we need. We have the Yoast SEO plug-in running although our expectations are realistic! Naturally there’s a connection to Twitter.

Campaign Monitor

There are numerous email marketing systems available nowadays but Campaign Monitor was one of the first and we’ve grown used to it. It does every thing we need and get’s regular updates. We’ve got Highrise connected but at the most basic level.

Magento

We’ve multiple Magento stores. We’ve considered a single multi-store version but are nervous of having “all our eggs in one basket”. Magento is reliable with a large developer community, lot’s of plug-ins and regular updates, but it takes time to learn your way around the back-end and is not the easiest code structure to work with. We’ve experimented with connecting various RSS feeds in Magento with Highrise.

Google calendar

Shared calendars. Hooked up to Highrise. Sync’d with desktops, tablets and mobiles. It’s a calendar and it’s free to use!

Gmail & contacts

We used to host our own email, no point. Gmail works fine. Big infrastructure, free. We have Highrise connected to Google contacts but still tend to import vCards manually. Google sync connects the Blackberry s’.

Zapier

Then via the 37 Signals site we found Zapier. On the face it, we thought we’d stumbled across what we had long been looking for.

In simple terms, Zapier offers a simple interface for connecting popular SaaS services via their respective API ‘s.

The first thing users must do is to contain their excitement at the potential of this service. We would certainly recommend “non API developer” users create a testing environment i.e. a free, limited version of a service.

The guy’s at Zapier should be commended for what they’ve achieved so far. They’ve got the approach right, but we want more integration without losing the intuitive interface.

In addition to the above we’ve been experimenting with these;

Leftronic – very cool way to display data from various sources on one, single dashboard.

Formstack – easy to use tool for creating data capture forms. Sends data to Highrise etc.

Smartytags – QR code management.

Whilst we use the OpenOffice suite we are considering a migration to Google Docs to take advantage of integration opportunities.

Our eco system

So on the one hand we like the modular nature of our operation. If our invoicing goes down, we don’t loose our CRM, if one of our Magento sites has an issue it’s invariably not an issue with all of them. All of our work and digital assets are automatically backed up off site. In theory, we could operate from anywhere at anytime as long as there was access to the internet.

Conversely, this fragmented “cloud” based environment does have its drawbacks. We often manually check that one system is syncing with another, which kind of defeats the object. Systems do occasionally go down, and not being in charge does leave one at the mercy of a third party (which one always is anyway). Furthermore, not having one “all singing, all dancing” system (which probably doesn’t exist) certainly increases administration time and cost. It’s also true that we probably have a fair amount of duplicated data knocking about on local and remote drives.

So services like Zapier appear to be the way forward for businesses like ours. If connecting web based services together can become easier, with no need for expensive specialist coders, then our enthusiasm for SaaS products will continue unabated.

We’re just a regular small business trying to make sense of it all. Hope this post was of interest.

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