Cloud computing occurs when software applications and all information generated within them are stored entirely online on an array of interdependent servers hosted by third parties. The applications and information are accessible from any computer, cell-phone or other device with a broadband connection. Cloud computing is a fast emerging trend in software applications, including those aimed at business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) users. Mainstream application offerings are expanding rapidly.
Indeed, the technology already is establishing a presence for small contractors of all stripes. One site, www.MyOnlineToolbox.com, introduced in March 2008, is a subscription-based business management solution for small contractors involved in repair and renovation work.
Both a software application and a Website, MyOnlineToolbox.com is an online-only collaborative community. For a monthly fee ($89 and no contract required), the site provides a variety of business tools to contractors active in repair and remodel work for managing both front office and back office tasks.
According to Brian Javeline, the site's developer, the target users for the solution are small contractors not yet computer automated, with shops having up to eight employees. (Javeline estimates there are more than 2 million contractors running their businesses with pen and paper who can't afford the cost and don't have the time to learn the technology to automate daily operation.)
The service is essentially a platform that provides mobile communications capabilities, just like the phone does. Unlike conventional software programs downloaded to one computer or a network of computers, the platform is accessible from any computer. Using the service, a contractor can conduct business on the road as well as maintain connectivity or collaboration with anyone else with a broadband connection. The Website offers contractors both B2B and B2C applications. The B2B services enable contractors to manage their leads and follow up estimates and other communications in a professional and expedient manner.
From the site, subscribing contractors can create, submit, manage and track job leads and requests, estimates, work orders, schedules and invoices. The user can create an invoice from an estimate or work order or on the fly. A contractor can schedule a work order with a single click. All information will post to the schedule as soon the user selects the date and time. Use of color filters differentiates appointment types.
You can add, view and manage all job tasks, material and expenses for each estimate on one screen. It is possible to print or email any information to any project participant, including subs and suppliers, directly from the site.
In fact, all data is extremely easy to share with others. For example, for any component of a project that you want to sub out, once the subcontractor signs onto the service, you can collect all the data and press the enter key. Then, all the data will go directly into the subcontractor's database and will become part of it. This method of sharing data eliminates the need for passing along papers from office to office.
Users also can create, view and send professional-looking purchase orders to distributors.
The B2C functionalities provide an easy way to connect to homeowners and other customers, enabling sharing of estimates and scheduling with other contractors or subcontractors as well as invoicing through email or fax. The solution supports acceptance of online credit card payments so a contractor can get paid on the spot, which minimizes bookkeeping and helps keep cash flow strong.
Contact management capabilities include ability to search by customer, contact or address.
According to the developer, the solution will be embraced, in particular, by younger contractors (in the 20- to 45-year-old age range) who already have embraced the underlying technology and are familiar with Facebook, YouTube and other online communities where information is filed and widely shared.
In addition to connecting through a desktop computer in the office, contractors can access their account on the go, using any PC, laptop or tablet computer with a broadband connection.
Those who use a tablet on the go have the advantage of taking notes or adding details right on the tablet screen and sending that information directly to whoever would benefit from it.
The Website saves all the work — regardless of whether the connection is lost during travel — and is refreshed onscreen whenever the connection is reestablished (similar to how Yahoo email, for example, is not really lost if you lose the Internet connection while reading it).
Though MyOnlineToolbox does not come with a material database (you have to enter all that data yourself line by line), once the data is entered it can be used for all future estimates and jobs. (Most small contractors never need most of what is in a pre-formatted database anyway.)
Bill and Patti Feldman are freelance writers for magazines, building product manufacturers and other companies on a broad range of topics. They can be reached at [email protected].