For years, I worked at larger organizations with full-time network staff who constantly managed our systems and coordinating setting up new users and applications. This was considered just “how it was done” for several reasons: at the time there were no great options for hosted solutions, lack of reliable internet connectivity made utilizing external systems risky, decision makers considered hosting key-systems offsite a security risk, etc.
When ArchitectNow got its start 5 years ago, I set out to be as efficient as possible and didn’t want to own or manage any servers or internal systems that were critical to the business. I wanted someone else to be responsible for managing those systems, securing them, upgrading them, and making them available to me.
Today we are extremely efficient because of it. We have never owned a “server” nor have we ever hosted any key functionality inside our network. Our entire work environment is very “portable” – if our entire team needed to spend the day working from home, a Starbucks, or the local pub, we could do so without compromising our efficiency.
Every year about this time (after tax season), I sit down and perform my yearly “audit” of these various tools and am always amazed at how much value we get from a number of very reasonably priced online services. We’ve definitely evolved over the years and tried to use things that just never worked or didn’t provide the value for the cost but, after reviewing everything this year, I’ve found that we seem to have settled into a groove with some very reliable services.
So now that this year’s “audit” of our systems is over, I’d love to share a little insight as to the types of things we are talking about! For right now, I will focus on just email and phone systems. While you can find other solutions to similar problems, here is the list of what we’ve had success with so far!
Email – We utilize a hosted Microsoft Exchange service provided by SherWeb (www.sherweb.com). They have been offering this service since before Microsoft launched their own hosted Exchange with Office365 (http://products.office.com/en-us/business/office). With SherWeb each of our employees has their own email account within Exchange and enjoys all the functionality that it provides including calendars, contacts, tasks, and more. All these features are available via the web (Outlook Web Access or OWA), their phones and tablets via ActiveSync, or by desktop installation of an email client such as Microsoft Outlook. We also host a corporate instance of SharePoint 2013 through SherWeb. They have a decent online administration tool to manage users, spam filtering, distribution lists, and other Exchange type settings.
We get all of this for about $8/month per employee. In the 5 years we’ve utilized SherWeb their service has been amazingly consistent and we have very rarely had any email related issues. A good stable means of communicating with our clients is critical and, as far as email is concerned, this service has been great for us.
Phones – Although we started out as a single-person development shop, I realized early on that I didn’t want customers to rely on my personal cell phone number to contact me. Some research at the time led me to what was then an up-and-coming cloud-based communication product called RingCentral (www.ringcentral.com). We have utilized their services for 5 straight years and have found it very valuable and reliable! Each employee at ArchitectNow gets assigned a RingCentral phone number and extension within our phone system. I do actually purchase (or reuse) physical IP phones purchased through RingCentral so we do have phones on our desk. Most employees just have their direct lines or extensions forwarded to their personal cell phones, which is another nice feature of RingCentral.
RingCentral handles our voicemail, and all messages are forwarded to the employees’ email inbox as attached MP3 files. We have a fax number through RingCentral, and faxes are scanned to PDF and sent to the right employees.
As RingCentral is a virtual communication system, each of our physical desk phones just plugs directly into a physical Internet port in the wall, just like our laptops would. When we last moved to a new office, we literally picked up our furniture and our phones and moved to a new suite in a single afternoon. Some neighbors of ours asked when our phone system was being transferred, and I explained that it already was. We unplugged our phones and plugged them in in the new office and we were online. Easy as that!
As with our email system, setting up new users or removing users is simple with their online management tools.
Other Great Tools
I could continue to describe the many tools that we use daily, and future posts may cover some of these in more detail. To summarize, here are some of the other tools we utilize daily. Some we find valuable simply due to the nature of our business while others I feel would benefit businesses of any type.
- Time Entry and Invoicing: Harvest (getharvest.com)
- Accounting: QuickBooks Online (quickbooksonline.com)
- Desktop Sharing and Remote Meetings: GoToMeeting (gotomeeting.com)
- Employee Communication/Chat: Slack (slack.com)
- CRM: Insightly (insightly.com)
In future posts, we will continue the above list and focus on the tools we take advantage of specific to our software development focus. Be sure to keep visiting our blog for more insights in the industry and other great tips!