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Why you need to switch your business to the cloud

It's a question I'm asked often, so I thought it may be helpful to provide some of my thoughts on the subject.  

If this is a question you've been pondering for your business, I hope this post helps you by providing some structure around the question, and explaining how I walk a business owner through determining if switching to the cloud makes sense to pursue or not.

When I first wrote this post, I got to the end having documented my entire process for working with a business owner through the process of evaluating and designing a switch to a new system, like moving from their own servers to the cloud.  Then I realized that I skipped the most basic questions people want to know.  So first, the basics:

  • Yes, you can move to the cloud and get rid of your servers.
  • In this day and age no one should own an Exchange server of their own.  It's a waste of money, time and it's slowing you down.
  • Most people don't need Exchange, they just believe they do. They think using Outlook is a reason to keep it.  It's not.
  • Any law firm or business/administrative operation can go to a cloud-based file and document storage and management system. And if it's done correctly, it will be more secure than what's in your office to begin with.
  • Only a few businesses should keep a local file server around, and in a few specific situations.  Designers and architects with complex and referenced file systems are two examples.  This may and probably will change in the future, too.
  • You'll save a ton of money and get back a ton of time if you switch to the cloud the right way.  

There's a right way, and a wrong way, which is why I've written the rest of this post.  Read on if interested!

First, clarify purpose: Why switch?

When I first meet a business owner (usually on a Skype video call, sometimes face-to-face in person) I always start with the purpose.  Their purpose. Why are you interested in switching to the cloud? It almost always boils down to two things:

  1. Saving time by not having to hassle with technology yourself
  2. Saving money by getting rid of stuff and reducing complexity

In my experience, every single business owner out there is already thinking about 1 & 2.  One of the most common statements I hear from savvy business owners is: "I'm wondering if there's a better way of doing things."

Next, imagine expected results: The Future Picture.

Once I'm clear on why the business owner is thinking about switching to the cloud, the next step is to define a Future Picture.  I've personally watched dozens of techs skip right to products (e.g. Office 365) and features (e.g. remote access, sync, etc.). This is absolutely not the time to get into products. Resist the urge to talk tech.  It's not time, and frankly, it's dangerous at this stage.

Ask yourself the question: If you switch to the cloud, if everything goes perfectly, what looks different to you when we're done? (remember, completely ignore all product and company names)

Can you imagine your employees and you getting more done each day with less hassles? Are you able to respond to your clients better?  Faster? Can you find the information you need in less time?

Do you sleep better at night knowing that you don't have the old server in the office to a) break b) fail c) be stolen or d) get hit with ransomware, shutting down your business at any moment?

Will you see your tech/consultant 50%... maybe even 90% less? Or will you have an employee currently spending time on tech get to put 100% of their time back on the job you hired them to do?

The reason you don't start naming vendors or products at this point, even if you love one in particular or think you're already sold on one, is because every tech company out there wants to sell you on their solution. Mac, PCs, smartphones and the cloud are all marketed the same way as laundry detergent and razors. And unfortunately the marketing work because we're used to buying products to fix problems. Have a stain? Buy this detergent. Need a close shave? Buy this razor. The ads focus on how fast, smooth, powerful, etc. their product is. We remember the promises and we buy it. If we like it, great.  If we don't, we buy a different product next time, until we find the one we stick it.

This works great for most things, but not tech. Every tech system, even if you're a one-person business, is an ecosystem of various parts: A computer, the operating system on the computer, applications that do things, settings and configurations that the apps need to run, fonts, network settings, browser settings, security settings, printers and other devices, email, calendar, contacts, the habits and training of the user of the computer, and more. The problem is, switching, adding or removing one piece of the system is a lot like taking medicine prescribed by a doctor: there are a lot of possible side effects from drug interactions.

Just stay focused on what you want to accomplish, without worrying about the how.  How will you measure the results when everything is said and done?  Will you get 20 hours back per week? Will your employees produce 20% more and your technology cost you the same or less per month?

Next, do an 80/20 assessment.

If you work backwards from your customer cutting you and your business a check, you'll immediately identify what products and services they are buying (or you want them to buy), and more important, you can identify what you and your employees actually do to get them to buy, and then to deliver.  In the preceding step, you starting with what you want as final results: More time, more money, happier customers, happier employees.  Now look backwards through your operations to find where things need to happen faster or more effectively.

I did this recently for a law firm of 8 people, including 5 attorneys.  The managing partner had decided to buy a new accounting system that had a lot of features that their old accounting system didn't have. The partner wanted to find out if the system was going to solve the firm's problems, so I was hired to evaluate the technology in the operations.

In my meeting with the attorneys I learned that they had daily trouble finding files for clients calling in. Email always had problems and search was next to impossible. And everyone had different workarounds for the same problems. They each told me how many times per day they experienced the issues, walked me through how they overcome the issues, and told me how many minutes it takes each time.  Did they ever mention accounting once?  It never came up.

I reported back to management: Fix the problems upstream of accounting.  The 5 attorneys can together produce $1,000,000 more per year, with no additional resources or overtime, if the problems with email and search are made to go away.  That's $1M to the bottom line that adds to your profitability.  The owner wanted to invest tens of thousands of dollars into a system that would have a 5% impact on his business, while he was missing a 20% opportunity right in front of him.

Next, project plan it. Here's where we get technical.

Fixing the email problems for the attorneys wasn't as easy as running an update or buying an application.  There were three different ways to do it, and each way would require 4-5 other major changes to make sure the entire system continued to work after the email problem was fixed.  Remember: Drug interactions.  The technical detail needs to be vetted and every possible problem, preventive step or remedy worked out proactively. The project planning stage is usually dismissed as not valuable because techs usually only place value on activities like fixing, installing, transferring and upgrading. And that's how whack-a-mole gets started. 

The best part of planning in my opinion is that opportunities to improve can actually compound. It's like writing a good paper: Once you have the complete first draft out there, you re-read it. And you notice a ton of opportunities to improve.  For me, usually I review and rework until about the 15th or 16th revision.  Sometimes even 2-3 dozen revisions later I have a plan that is ready to review with the owner.

Finally, it's time to review the plan and budget with the owner.

The plan usually presents like this:

  1. What does the current "big picture" look like?  What's working? What's not?
  2. What does the target state "big picture" look like? What works better? How will we measure it? In hours, dollars, reputation, risk?
  3. What is the strategy recommended: How will we do it?  Why is this way better than the other 5-6 or more way of doing the same thing?
  4. What products and service are required, in what order and what do they cost?  Every single line item, down to the last cable, should have a purpose and expected result identified.

When the plan is designed in line with a business owner's priorities their own business objectives, everything presented will make sense.  The key work to accomplish in this step is communication. Every business owner needs to truly understand for themselves at some level why the plan makes sense, otherwise they can't approve it.  It's my job to help them understand my thinking and alignment to their thinking.  Then they can own the plan because it becomes theirs, not mine.  My last job is usually to carry it out and deliver on the promise.

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