EB guest columnist Sarah Jackson explains why cloud computing could offer opportunities for franchisors
I know they say you should never point out gaps in your own knowledge unless you have to, but I feel I should start by saying that I’m not, and probably never will be, anything close to a computer expert. I know enough to successfully fulfil the IT requirements of my franchise business, but if you were hoping to discuss automatic deprovisioning and application programming interfaces, I’m afraid it’s all Greek to me.
What I do know though is how to run a business and how to find the right IT support to achieve the things I want to achieve. For me, IT isn’t so much about gigabytes and binary code, it’s about what computers can do to make the lives of my franchisees easier and how it can help me run my business more efficiently. I think, from that standpoint, I’m probably not dissimilar to an awful lot of business owners.
When you talk about ‘cloud computing’ you often see people’s eyes glaze over, but putting all our databases, invoicing and expenditure forms in the cloud has been so beneficial to our franchise – and would, I believe, apply to many other franchises – that it’s a shame potential users are being put off by the tech-speak. According to a survey of 1,300 UK SMEs, 74% of them don’t use cloud computing, and 43% of those didn’t even know what the term meant.
So, let me put it another way and use some other terms to explain what cloud computing actually means to the Extra Help franchise:
When I set up Extra Help I knew that supporting our franchisees was the bedrock of the business because as a franchisee myself in the past I have felt unsupported and adrift, so I am determined to let our franchisees know that support and guidance is always on hand; when the franchisees are happy and supported, you create a business that works smoothly as a whole. With that in mind, cloud computing offered us an opportunity to provide the level of support that we wanted to.
The databases for all clients, job bookings, staff information, invoicing and expenditure are all stored in the cloud, meaning that if franchisees are going through a difficult time and if they feel they need our support, head office can take over the running of their business and offer that support until they are back on their feet – something I would have found invaluable a few years ago when my son was ill and I was trying to run a business, and something that’s really only possible with cloud computing.
Research has found that security problems worry 9% of SME owners when thinking about cloud computing, but it’s a misconception that it’s less secure. With a laptop or desktop computer, all it takes is the hard drive to be lost, stolen or damaged and a wealth of valuable information goes with it. Cloud computing offers data back-up, secure log-in and the servers are stored and managed by companies that are experts in this area – their reputations hang on how secure their ‘clouds’ are so they’re naturally going to be far more secure than flimsy software on a personal computer.
In addition, a managed cloud service means we can add or take away account access remotely so when a franchisee joins or leaves the company, access can be easily set up or revoked, giving us much greater security.
Support also extends to letting franchisees make the move from full-time employment to running their own business at a pace that suits them. The way the business is structured means that franchisees can run their business without leaving full employment until their client base has built up sufficiently to be their main source of income.
As part of the Extra Help package, franchisees are given a computer, the software they need and training in how to use the database. Cloud computing lets us run a virtual office so franchisees don’t need to be geographically tied to an office and can arrange for as much or as little support from head office as they want.
Our database was created specifically for us by a company called Sandpiper Ltd (sandpiperuk.co.uk). Commissioning our own bespoke database gave us the freedom to specify exactly which elements we wanted and tailor it perfectly to our business rather than trying to squeeze ourselves into an off-the-shelf software package.
We thrive on feedback from franchisees so when we receive requests for adaptations to the database – for example, franchisees requested easy access to an expenditure form in the database to help them keep an eye on their profit line – we’re able to update and evolve our software. Thereby we can help franchisees run their business the way they want to, resulting in an improved bottom line for everybody.
Cloud computing might not be right for every business, but I do believe that every business should at least look at the possibilities it offers without being daunted by the terms and technology. For any company, especially a franchise, where employees are geographically spread out and working remotely, cloud computing can offer the opportunity to run your business more efficiently and with user-friendly software.
The cloud isn’t scary or intimidating; it could even be a better way of working. Just don’t try to engage me in conversation about mash-ups and middleware – I’d rather stick to what I’m good at.