Hello Google Apps, hello real collaboration

This is the latest post in an ongoing series about Small Business and resources for entrepreneurs. Previous posts have covered how Google AdWords and Google Places can help business owners use technology to drive success. -Ed.

I’ve talked to a lot of small businesses that don’t have the budget or the resources to invest in and maintain technology. That’s why I love telling them about Google Apps — a suite of web-based office tools — and how it can help move their businesses forward.

I always find that it’s easier for small businesses to understand the benefits of Google Apps when one of our customers tells the story for us. So I’ve asked Stephen Culp, Founder and Chairman of Chattanooga, TN-based Smart Furniture and CEO of Delegator, to share his experiences with Google Apps, and how he took a company that started out in a Stanford professor’s garage and made it a success. (Sound familiar?) We’ll continue the conversation with Stephen and other Google Apps customers at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce America’s Small Business Summit next week in Washington, D.C.
As the founder of three companies, an attorney, Naval Reserve Officer and former Peace Corps volunteer, I’m a believer in an entrepreneurial approach to virtually everything. Smart Furniture, for example, started back in 1998 in a Stanford professor’s garage, with a new business model called “Design on Demand®” that allows furniture and interiors for homes and offices to be customized for you, and more importantly, by you, all on the web.

Smart Furniture began as a small and growing company with phenomenal people, but limited budget (and time) for technology, especially the wrong kind. We tried for years to scale efficiently without pouring money into the “standard” infrastructure to run our business. We considered the idea of Microsoft® Exchange, and while the idea was great, in practice it got a lot more complicated — and expensive.

Then, in 2008, we discovered Google Apps. We liked the general virtues of SaaS applications that were inherent in Google Apps, and the fact that the applications improved over time without any effort from our team. Plus, the collaborative benefits were game-changing. Google Apps took that idea of efficient, company-wide collaboration and — unlike the alternatives — made it real.

In other words, for us, Google Apps does just what technology should. It frees up resources to focus on our actual business. It offers tools we didn’t have — or hadn’t integrated — before, including third-party apps from the Google Apps Marketplace. It replaces unnecessary layers of tech silliness with a simple, intuitive, integrated platform that actually serves us — our team and our goals.

Google Calendar alone increases our efficiency exponentially. Everyone can look at the same calendars, create new ones for events, projects or work groups, and share them, without having to master a byzantine instruction manual. Then there are the collaboration benefits. Before Google Apps, we’d constantly lose information as people changed roles or moved on to new projects. With Google Sites, we’ve eliminated the need for shared servers and their little air-conditioned server rooms, and replaced our entire intranet with one comfortably situated in the cloud. We use Google Sites to store company files and team members’ bios, and support our project groups. Meanwhile, Google Docs allows everyone to contribute to projects and idea creation — a key part of our company culture. We create documents to solicit feedback, track ideas, keep common agendas, take notes, prepare for meetings, manage inventory and even organize our company’s softball league. It’s part of almost everything we do.

Yes, our IT guys freaked out at first. Some thought that eliminating the maintenance of our previous system, a.k.a. Frankenstein, would make them no longer necessary. What they didn’t realize was how much better their jobs would get. Now they have the time to work on interesting projects — building, creating and innovating, rather than constantly rebuilding, patching and defragmenting. Our team is amazing, and we’re glad to have them back out of that air-conditioned server room.

At Smart Furniture, Google Apps helps build and support our culture, an important part of the secret sauce that has helped us succeed. Our culture keeps all of us working together, enjoying our days, not peering out the window wondering when we can clock out. As any company grows, it’s hard to maintain the sense of close collaboration that a small business has. Google Apps keeps us chatting (we all use chat in Gmail), collaborating, learning and growing together, as if we were still in the one-room office where we began — which was, incidentally, about the same size as the server room we were planning to build for Exchange.

In our experience, as a small business, the wrong technology can distract your team and drain resources, while the right technology can seamlessly support your goals. Both Smart Furniture and Delegator are on pace for greater than 100 percent growth in 2010. Customer satisfaction rates are at record levels, and we love where we work. For us, Google Apps is the right technology.

Stephen in the flagship Smart Furniture Studio