For SMB, Automated Time Tracking Creates Big Wins - InformationWeek

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8/24/2011
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For SMB, Automated Time Tracking Creates Big Wins

How a small, virtual architecture firm specializing in green technology projects wins large federal contracts by automating its time and expense tracking.

They say time is money, but it just sounds like a tired cliche. One small business is proving it true.

Architect for Life, a small firm specializing in green technology projects, found itself facing an operational challenge familiar to many service businesses: Clients pay for its billable hours and expenses, yet it spent way too much time just tracking its time. Tracking employee hours and expenses--and then turning that information into a billable invoice--was a painstaking patchwork of documents, spreadsheets, and--gasp--actual pens and paper. The problem was compounded by the firm's virtual nature: It has 12 people spread across five states, and it adds temporary staff on a project basis.

So the company moved everything online, automating its time and expense tracking with Replicon's cloud-based software. Architect for Life president Lolalisa King said in an interview that the productivity gains have been enormous--more on that below--but the real return on investment came with an actual dollar sign. Since automating time and expense management, Architect for Life has begun going up against larger companies for federal contracts--and winning.

"There is no way we could compete with multi-million dollar companies without this Web-based system," King said. A key reason: The heavy-duty regulatory demands attached to government money. Architect for Life recently won a $2.8 million Department of Energy grant to oversee eight different green projects.

"Whenever we're working on federal [projects], you can guarantee the auditors are going to come in and look at how you're invoicing and what you're invoicing," King said. "When we get audited by a federal agency like the Department of Energy or Department of Transportation, we can pull those records in no time and show them how we accomplished what we did, say, three years ago."

Prior to automation, King said her firm simply wasn't equipped for that kind of compliance. Particularly given the virtual makeup of Architect for Life's small team, storing everything centrally at a data center—albeit someone else's--has been a boon. King said it also suits the firm's green.

"Nobody has to have a desktop anymore," King said. "As long as they can get Internet access, they can log in to all of their drawings, proposals, accounting information--whatever they need to work and do what they have to do."

While the bottom-line boost is exhibit A in proving ROI, King said productivity gains--no small matter with just a dozen people on the regular payroll--have been significant. Generating a client invoice used to take anywhere between eight and 16 hours, according to King. Today, it takes 15 to 20 minutes.

King calls her company's technology portfolio "kind of boring," but she's a converted proponent of the cloud: "It's the way to go." Pay-for-what-you-use models are a good fit the firm's flex staffing needs.

"Talk about low overhead," King said. "It makes us very competitive."

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