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07.11.2012  
 

Wineries Can Cut Costs With Free IT

Speakers at Wine Industry Tech Symposium detail free apps and software for business

 
by Paul Franson
 
 
free tech
 
Applications such as GoogleDocs allow users to open and save Microsoft Office files using a web browser.
Napa, Calif.—In today’s challenging economic environment, many wineries have to make some tough decisions about expenses. One is for information technology tools, which can significantly improve productivity but can be pricey.

One way to cut costs is to take advantage of a variety of free software to help with marketing, tracking expenses, connecting to customers and other business operations.

At the Wine Industry Technology Symposium, which continues today at the Marriott Napa Valley, James Marshall Berry of JMB Web Consulting and CPA Geni Whitehouse of Brotemarkle, Davis & Co. discussed free and low-cost technology.

They noted that some of this bargain tech comes with a price: the time necessary to learn and implement the new technologies. Some of these low-cost products do have limitations, and others are more difficult to use than their more expensive counterparts, not to mention hiring consultants or staff to use them.

But others are remarkable, at least as powerful and easy to use as more expensive products. How can the suppliers give them away? Many depend on advertising, but others start with a free product and require upgrading for additional capability.

These free and low-cost products come in two varieties: Some reside on your computer, while others operate in the ‘cloud,” or through servers accessed through the Internet. In the latter case, it doesn’t matter what device you use to display and control the service: PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android tablet or other device. You can use a browser or a dedicated application, but these apps are generally just ways to access the Internet computer that does the work.

For software that runs on your computer, you have to get a version that’s compatible with your operating system—and make sure you have the latest version. The tradeoff is that you can work even if you’re not connected to the Internet (ie: on an airplane or tech-free resort.)

A common theme with this subject is Android versus Apple iPhone/iPad. At this point, far more applications are available for the Apple products, but most of them aren’t for business. Apple products seem to operate much longer on a battery charge, too.

Since Internet browsers are already free and allow email access, the most ubiquitous applications are Microsoft Office’s Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other programs.

Two solutions allow you to bypass Office, and they can provide significant savings if you have many users. Open Office is a free suite for your computer that emulates the functions offered in Microsoft Office. It will open Office documents and save to Office files, so no one outside your office even knows you’re using a free program.Though there are some differences, Open Office, which is available for PCs, Macs and various forms of Unix, offers most of the capability most users need.

A popular alternative is Google Docs, an online equivalent of Office. It has some advantages, such as the fact that your documents are stored in a presumably safe place, and they can be accessed from any computer, tablet or smart phone using a browser. Google Drive serves the same function as popular Drop Box, an online repository and back up for files. It also allows collaboration among different users. However, you have to be connected to the Internet to access files and work with them. Whitehouse mentioned all the start-ups she encounters are using Google Docs.

Google has created a vast number of free tools. One is Google Webmaster Tools, which both consultants credit with having powerful and easy-to-use tools for monitoring company websites, avoiding viruses and malware. Google also has introduced its Google+ competitor to Facebook. While not as widely used, if you put a link to it on your website, Google ranks your website higher in searches, Berry said.

Hangouts is a Google add-on that provides video conferencing for Android phones, much like Face Time does for iPhones. Freeconference.com also provides conferencing. Likewise, Supportive is an add-on for Gmail that gives information about contacts. Berry jokingly called it a “stalking tool.”

Engage your customers
Social media have become a key part of marketing, and in addition to free tools like Facebook and Twitter, Hootsuite and Tweetdeck can augment them with additional features. “You can use Tweetdeck to find out who’s talking about you in Twitter—even if you don’t Tweet,” Berry said.

To survey customers, Survey Monkey and Doodle provide tools, though many users eventually find the need to upgrade to a paid version. Polldaddy.com, on the other hand, allows you to get 200 responses to 10 questions for free. Sogosurvey.com is another survey service, though kwiksurveys.com seems to have shut down recently after being hacked.

Whitehouse suggested those in the audience should adopt customer relationship management (CRM), which allows companies to track all transactions with customers. “This should be your No. 1 priority,” she said, admitting that the obstacle is getting salespeople to make notes. Some programs like Nutshell allow them to add voice or photos in addition to text. She mentioned a number that are relatively inexpensive: Highrise HQ is $24 per month; Nutshell costs $10 per user per month, and Batchbook is $20 per month. Zoho is free for three users.

The Evernote family of products help you remember and act upon ideas, projects and experiences across all the computers, phones and tablets you use. Flowdock lets users can share ideas, opinions, links and files. Basecamp is a product management tool.

Skype provides free audio and video calls between users, and bargain phone calls to others.

YouSendIt lets users send large files, and was once free, though the company now charges customers sending files larger than 2 megabytes. Many users simply share files using DropBox instead.

For email campaigns, Constant Contact is widely used, but Mailchimp.com lets you send up to 12,000 emails per month free if you have fewer than 2,000 subscribers. Aweber.com is another inexpensive mailing list manager for heavy users; it has more advanced features. iContact.com provides integration with social media.

For event marketing, Eventbrite is more versatile and professional than popular Evite, and it’s free for free events. The application can also help publicize events. Punchbowl, a similar service, recently bought Socializr, another invite system.

Manage expenses
Three of the products that seemed to most interest the audience were for managing expenses, everyone’s least-favorite task.

“Expensify is easy to use,” said Whitehouse. You just take a photo of your receipts and they automatically are stored and organized. It allows you to create expense reports, and employers can even reimburse you using it. It’s free for individuals. Likewise, Bizmile.com simplifies keeping track of business mileage. It even calculates distances automatically from Google maps. It costs $39 per year.

Whitehouse particularly praised Bill.com: “If you’re billing for anything, you need to use this.” She said many companies are switching to this system for billing and payment. “Just make sure it’s integrated in your accounting software.”

While web hosting isn’t usually free, it can be very inexpensive with companies like Go Daddy, which is the largest domain registrar as well as a web host. These companies offer email as well as tools to create more extensive content using Wordpress for basic pages, Joomla for more advanced sites and Drupal if you want to create  a sophisticated system. Wix.com and Weebly.com also can be used to create graphics-based websites, while WuFoo can be used to build Internet forms.
These web providers also let you to set up shopping carts, message and bulletin boards, project management, wikis, social media, advertising and other sites. All are free and open.

Most companies need graphics and photos. Gimp.org is a free graphics editor comparable to the expensive Photoshop. Pixlr.com is a web-based editor. “It does everything that Photoshop does—for free,” noted Berry.

If you need to create a logo, logotournament.com and crowdspring.com let you create a low-cost competition among designers, perhaps for $200 for the winning entry. PDF2JPG lets you convert pdf files into the jpg images required for posting to Facebook—for free.

Join.me offers screen sharing and web conferences for free.

A brief discussion of QR codes suggested that they may be short-lived, but Whitehouse recommended Google Goggles as a reader for smart phones, and qrcode.kaywa.com for generating codes. “Don’t ever pay for them” she said, adding that they should point to a landing page that can be redirected for different needs, not just link to a company’s home page.

Both consultants agree, however, that it’s best to spend money on a few types of tech. These include antivirus and malware protection. The paid products are updated almost instantly when a threat arises; the free versions are often updated only daily, and that could be too late.

Not surprisingly, Whitehouse recommends you pay for accounting services. “Do you really want the cheapest accounting software?” she noted, but added that basic Wave, Xero and Freshbooks are available.

Neither consultant said going for the cheapest consultant makes sense, either.
Contact the speakers via JMBerry.com or bdcocpa.com.

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