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Grasshopper is everywhere

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Worthwhile Small Business Technologies

There are things in life that just work as promised. Refrigerators. Clock radios. Flattery. Children’s Motrin. FEMA. Velcro. Blue jeans. Big Macs. Seinfeld. Jack Daniel’s.

These things make me happy. They consistently do their job. They do not inconvenience me. Except for FEMA (that’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency). I’m just kidding about that one.

As a small business owner, I’m happy to say there’s also technology that consistently works. None of it is as good as, say, a Big Mac. But there’s a bunch of stuff out there that helps me do things quicker and better. I previously weighed in on products that small businesses may find less effective than advertised (BusinessWeek.com, 1/4/08) and took a lot of heat from some very passionate readers.

Now I’d like to point out a few small business technologies (in no particular order) that I can proudly say are worthwhile, reliable, and will-drum roll, please-work.

1. Remote Desktop Technology
Morale was low that bitterly cold day in January. The troops were tired. They were no match for the enemy. Jonah, their leader, was desperate. And then, when all seemed lost, a lone soldier arrived at the front. “I come bearing a very special, top-secret weapon from HQ,” he said. “It is called Microsoft (MSFT) Windows Terminal Server and it enables computers to be operated remotely. And it will vanquish the enemy.” Though skeptical, Jonah gave the order to deploy. And suddenly-information flowed.

The men tossed aside their overpriced laptops that were unable to synchronize the data they needed. They armed themselves with cheaper, more efficient models with good Internet browsers. They fought. They surfed. They uploaded and received customer information in real time. They were productive. The enemy faltered. Jonah had won this battle. But deep down he knew that remote desktop technology was the real hero.

2. Desktop Sharing Software
In December, Lake Superior State University published its List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. Check it out for yourself. One of these words is Webinar. I couldn’t disagree more. Webinars use desktop sharing software, a perfect storm of technologies that help small business owners decimate waste. In short, the software lets a user show the information on his or her computer simultaneously with others around the world.

Back in the day, face-to-face meetings had to be held. It was like waterboarding. Now, it’s possible to meet without leaving your office. Desktop-sharing technology, authored by companies including Microsoft, Cisco (CSCO), Glance, and CrossLoop, gives back productivity to the business owner.

3. Free Conference Calling
Well, not exactly free, but pretty close. Try freeconferencecall.com. Once you sign up on this Web site (no credit card needed) you get assigned a unique conference code and a regular phone number to call. Mine starts with 712, which I’m told is in Idaho. Who cares? I pay for my call only. Everyone else calls the same number and uses the conference code I give them. They pay for their call. If their long-distance plan allows unlimited calls or cheap U.S. rates, then they’re not even affected.

But man, I was affected. In one month, my cost of conference calls disappeared. Suddenly, I’m using the service all the time. I’m conferencing with my kids. I’m conferencing with my employees. I’m now getting yelled at by my clients in stereo.

How do these guys offer something for nothing? Well, they’ve got other products to sell. More advanced services. Whatever. I’m not buying any of that stuff. I guess someone is. All I know is the reception is clear, the price is right, and this technology is saving me time.

4. Wireless Connectivity
I’m pretty sure there’s a tumor growing somewhere in my brain. And I’m expecting my grandchildren will be born with three heads. But who cares! The wireless world is here and I’m loving it! Those invisible cancerous waves floating around our atmosphere let me watch a training video while sipping a mocha at the local coffee shop. I can check e-mail and look up a customer’s order history while on the train. I’m quickly getting online at hotels, bookstores, and libraries. Embracing wireless technology enables more business to be done in more places more of the time. It’s fast and mostly reliable. And if I wasn’t blacking out so often nowadays I’d really be enjoying this technology to its fullest.

5. E-mail Marketing Services
Fred took his family on an RV trip to Niagara Falls a few years ago. He rented the RV from a place called RV Universe. The trip was a success, and the company was extremely professional. Problem is, RV Universe is probably missing out on a lot of extra business from Fred. Why? Because it never got back in contact with Fred after the trip. Not a peep! For well short of $100 per month, RV Universe could be sending out great-looking e-mails to happy customers like Fred with camping tips and special deals. Fred probably would’ve taken them up on one or two as well. These services are easy to use and work very well for the small business owner who wants to generate a continuous communication with people that can turn into potential business.

6. Contact Management Software
Ah, remember the good old days of the mid-1990s? Hillary was just the First Lady. Will Smith was just the Fresh Prince. And customer relationship management (CRM) was just contact management software. Things were so much simpler then. Apparently, Microsoft is a little misty-eyed for the old days, too. Its Office 2007 Small Business Edition includes the latest iteration of Outlook Business Contact Manager. Like the Spice Girls, contact management is making a comeback, and it’s about time. Small businesses (and many large ones) don’t need all the complexity of a CRM system. We just need a simple place to keep all of our business contacts, along with some notes, so that we can track who spoke to them last and what’s scheduled next. Good software like the Outlook Business Contact Manager ably accomplishes that goal.

7. Hosted Phone Systems
Seth runs a marketing company from the basement of his house. He has two employees, two contractors, and a dog. You’d never know that Seth’s in boxer shorts or that he sports an Ozzy tattoo. He’s got an 800 number that’s answered by a very professional-sounding attendant. His phone system is hosted. When a client calls his “office” in Boston, the call is actually going to a server in San Francisco. When a caller selects Seth’s extension, the call is either bounced to his cell phone, a phone in his basement, or right to voice mail (which, in turn is made into a .wav file and e-mailed to him for storage). How much? Twelve dollars per month per mailbox. Does it work? “Never failed yet,” he told me the other day.

Other small business owners I know report the same. The leaders in hosted (or outsourced) phone systems are VirtualPBX and GotVMail Communications.

8. Messaging Software
Solutions Management Group has offices in Philadelphia and London. How they communicate still amazes me. Why? Because my wife is from London, too. In the seven years between when we met in 1984 and married in 1991 we corresponded via telegraph and carrier pigeons. Well, pretty close. The employees at SMG look at me with pity when I tell them this story. Life for them is much easier now.

For example, if someone in Philadelphia wants to, say, recommend a good tanning salon to a visiting Londoner, they just send an instant message. And don’t leave out text messaging, either. Back in Philly, the SMG people frequently text each other rather than wasting time on the phone. Messaging software is a technology that works reliably and saves time.

9. SQL Server
Here are a few words you don’t normally see in the same sentence: Microsoft, reliable, bug-free, worth the money. But Microsoft SQL Server 2005, used as a standard for so many applications, works and works well. Hopefully you’ve thrown Microsoft Access out the door by now, along with your cassette tapes and “Reverse the Curse” T-shirt. SQL Server, and its smaller but still attractive cousin SQL Server Express (which is free) makes all those older database systems obsolete. Nowadays, an SQL back end is a key component an IT person looks for when evaluating software systems.

10. Google Applications
Tony started a biotech company this year and, wanting to keep the cost of technology down, uses Google’s (GOOG) free business word processor and spreadsheet applications. They do the job well. A client who’s in the recruitment business needed a quick way to search thousands of résumés on file. So he downloaded Google’s desktop search and solved the problem-for free. I have other clients who use Google’s calendar, e-mail, and analytics. This stuff works. And did I mention it’s free? Hang on. Maybe this Web 2.0 stuff isn’t so bad after all.

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsize businesses. Marks is the author of four best-selling small business books and writes the popular “Penny Pincher’s Almanac” syndicated column. He frequently speaks to business groups on penny-pinching topics. More penny-pinching advice from Marks can be found at www.quickerbetterwiser.com.