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7/7/2011
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4 Ways Cloud Computing Can Boost Business

MaidPro has adopted hosted infrastructure and applications across its 120 SMB franchises to speed up training, minimize internal IT needs, enable owners to manage remotely, and to keep fuel costs in check. The firm's CEO explains why they did it and what to look for in a good vendor.

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How can a small business become a big one? For starters, keep the people you do have free to focus on growth and profitability rather than bogged down with mundane operational tasks.

That's the blueprint MaidPro, a cleaning service business, has used as it has grown from one location to 120 since 1991. It's also the driving force behind CEO and founder Mark Kushinsky's company-wide technology approach. Kushinsky wanted to bring his tech background to bear on the house cleaning service industry, but in the company's early years he found proper applications lacking. So he began developing software in-house for field service functions like scheduling, customer data, and lead management.

"While managing 20, 30, 40 clients is relatively easy, managing 200 or 300 is virtually impossible unless you have some kind of technology helping you," Kushinsky said in an interview. "Either that or you're going to be working an awful lot of hours."

In the process, Kushinsky realized he'd created a competitive advantage that would appeal to other entrepreneurs, and he started franchising. (He also spun his field service software out as a separate business.) Each of MaidPro's locations is independently owned with 30 or so employees apiece, and the corporate headquarters has a staff of 35--the company as a whole is essentially a large network of small businesses.

As MaidPro has expanded and the technology industry has evolved, the company has increasingly leveraged cloud computing. Kushinsky estimates that between 80% and 90% of his firm's infrastructure and applications are hosted off-site, including phone, email, CRM, and other functions. MaidPro doesn't have a server room.

Kushinsky credits cloud-based technology for MaidPro's ability to increase revenues during each year of the recession while its competitors lagged. (Cleaning services are a discretionary expense for most households, after all.) He points to four key areas where the business has gained as a result of moving most of its infrastructure and applications offsite.

MaidPro's process for ramping up new franchisees is one of the most critical. Something that seems as simple as setting up the business's phone system used to take days, if not longer--not to mention training on things like setting up voicemail or call routing. Now it takes about an hour with a hosted provider managed centrally at MaidPro's headquarters.

"We want to get our franchisees up as soon possible and profitable as quick as possible," Kushinsky said. "If they're spending their time or money on building up the infrastructure, it's time taken away from starting to generate revenue."

The ability for owners and staff to access key applications from anywhere on any device has also been crucial. As not all franchisors take a similar cloud-based approach, that's even become part of Kushinsky's sales pitch.

"It allows you to feel comfortable enough that you don't have to be tied to your business," Kushinsky said. "It's stressful to own a small business, and particularly stressful to leave it. Having that connection gives you a great deal of comfort."

Most recently, a mix of cloud applications have helped keep fuel costs in check. Because many of MaidPro's employees are drive between multiple customer sites, surging gas prices could hammer the company's bottom line--the average price of a gallon of regular currently hovers around $3.60. A blend of appointment scheduling, driver routing, geocoding, and other tactics has led to a company-wide 50% reduction in miles driven. All of that data is managed centrally in the cloud. (Kushinsky won't divulge many of the actual applications MaidPro uses because he considers the information a competitive advantage.)

All of this leads to a fourth key area: Cloud computing allows MaidPro to run with a lean-and-mean IT team. It's a staff of three, plus two consultants. Kushinsky is quick to note, though, that moving the lion's share of the company's tech off-site didn't cost anyone a job. Rather, he's been able to redirect that talent at efficiency and innovation, instead of maintenance and support.

"Now all their hours are spent making our business more efficient, not just keeping a product running," Kushinsky said. "It really has accelerated our ability to improve things for our franchisees, such as the reduction in miles driven."

Again, Kushinsky plays his mix of third-party providers and proprietary applications close to the vest; he doesn't want other maid service companies catching on. Google Apps and Salesforce.com are two big names in the formula. But he does have advice for fellow owners and executives on what to look for in a cloud vendor.

-- Ask vendors about their security practices, but don't let security concerns keep you stuck in the server room. "For most small businesses, the least secure option is [managing] it themselves," Kushinsky said.

-- Decide which business functions you're going to move to the cloud first; don't try to do it all at once.

-- Make usability a high priority in the selection process; employees might not embrace the tools and applications if they're too difficult.

-- Avoid providers that don't play well with others. Like other executives heavily invested in cloud applications, Kushinsky said integration is crucial to maximizing value of web-based technologies.

-- Do your homework on potential providers. "There are good providers and there are bad providers," Kushinsky said. He recommends avoiding early stage, seed-funded companies in favor of time-tested vendors, though he notes that could mean just a few years when it comes to the cloud. Likewise, Kushinsky said to check customer references thoroughly and verify service-level agreements.

-- Do a test run before you make a long-term commitment; make sure the product actually meets your business needs. "Reviewing a website or reading a PDF, sometimes things sound good but the actual implementation is more difficult," Kushinsky said.

Security concerns give many companies pause as they consider migrating portions of their IT operations to cloud-based services. But you can stay safe in the cloud, as this Tech Center report explains. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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