Tailored for a small outfit

Small and home-office businesses are ill-served by mainstream technology providers. They have specific needs that they must satisfy without the help of a corporate IT department or an outside consult­ancy. But aside from some recent products from Dell and Microsoft, their specialist requirements have been largely ignored.

I was therefore delighted to find a range of new software packages and services, some of them designed for small businesses, among the 69 start-ups showing their wares at last week’s DemoFall tech­nology conference in San Diego, California. Demo is a technology showcase held twice a year where companies each get six minutes to pitch their companies in front of venture capitalists, potential investors and reporters.

A handful caught my eye, including some scaled-down versions of the productivity tools and business applications that big companies use. Others had set out to make organising meetings, sharing data and online collaboration much easier and, in some cases, much cheaper.

Some of the most interesting finds at DemoFall are still in “beta” or test phase and not yet generally available. I was able to test some, but not all, myself.

Sending invoices, receiving payments and paying bills are issues that keep small business owners awake at night. CashView (www. cashview.com) is a low-cost electronic cash management service that claims to simplify the process. Most invoices are processed manually and CashView’s developers showed how the hosted service could cut the paperwork involved while giving managers much more control over cash flow.

BatchBlue (www.batchblue.com) claims its BatchBook online software is three products in one: a con­tact management system organised around a simple address book interface, a communications management system and a task manager. The software allows users to import existing contacts, scan business cards or enter new contacts manually to create a database. You can create e-mail lists, print address labels, log communications and build “to do” lists as well as customise the software’s features. Service plans start at $10 a month and BatchBlue offers a 30-day free trial.

Software from New Zealand-based PlanHQ (www.planhq.com) aims to help small businesses to create and track business plans and projects. Managers can use it to keep track of project team members and hold them ac­countable for reaching their targets. Similarly, MyQuire (www.myquire.com) provides a new and simple approach to project collaboration that flattens out the steep learning curve typically associated with heavy-duty project management tools.

Meanwhile, LongJump (www. longjump.com) sets out to prove that sophisticated software does not have to be hard to use. The Sunnyvale, California-based company is launching 14 hosted online business applications including functions in customer services, sales, marketing, finance and human resources. Offering a free 90-day trial of its services, it claims to help small companies securely “web-enable” their business processes so they can manage information and collaborate better with other workers on remote sites.

For regular conference call users, Vello (www.myvello.com) is a clever application with enormous potential. It avoids the need for cumbersome dial-in numbers and pin codes. Instead the call organiser selects the participants (or a selected “group”) and hits a button. Vello then calls all the participants at the same time, ensuring that meetings start on time.

Conference calls can be set up instantly or be scheduled and can include mobile numbers or web-based VoIP services. Users can also download Vello Mobile onto a mobile phone or BlackBerry. The software integrates with Microsoft Office and comes with 200 free conferencing minutes, after which, the company says, calls are “competitively priced”.

DimDim (www.dimdim.com) could be equally disruptive, particularly to services such as Cisco’s WebEx. DimDim claims to be the first free, open source web-meeting service. Unlike with most web conferencing services, there is no software to download and DimDim allows users to share desktops and presentations as well as chat, listen to and broadcast video using a webcam. The service works equally well for small or large gatherings, making it ideal for online seminars.

Yuuguu (www.yuuguu.com) provides an easy way to share your desktop screen (PC or Mac) with any other internet-connected user anywhere without any downloads. Its developers, based in Manchester in the UK, have built a service that lets users interact with colleagues, friends and contacts as though they are sitting next to them. An IM-style chat box makes it easy to share content, collaborate on projects or access a PC remotely.

My final productivity pick from DemoFall is Tubes (www.tubesnow.com), a downloadable software package named after the pneumatic tubes that once whizzed documents around department stores and offices.

Tubes lets users share any type of content including documents, photos and video with a group, simply by dragging and dropping the files. Content is hosted on the company’s servers and updat­ed automatically.

Software that takes the headache out of getting together

As Chris Shipley, DemoFall’s organiser, noted, sometimes it seems we spend half our time in meetings and the other half preparing for them.

One of my favourite start-ups at Demo, Tungle (www.tungle.com), is trying to make it easier to organise meetings between colleagues or contacts. The Montreal-based company has invented an e-mail plug-in that allows users to share calendars and set appointments easily. It works with all versions of Microsoft Outlook and Tungle promises to extend compatibility to Google Calendar, Yahoo Calendar and Lotus Notes shortly.

Operating Tungle, which uses peer-to-peer technology and comes with an instant- messaging-style interface, is easy. It loads your contacts so you can see who else is using the Tungle plug in and those who are sharing calendars with you. If you want to book a meeting with several people, you can access multiple calendars, overlay them on the same dates and then schedule a meeting when everyone is available.

If you want to set up a meeting with contacts you do not know well, you can block out possible meeting times in an online calendar, send an e-mail to the contacts and invite them to choose a convenient slot by clicking on a web link. I plan to start using Tungle as soon as possible to help organise my chaotic diary.

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