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Inexpensive Web-based file sharing and data storage options for SMBs

Web-based file sharing and data storage solutions can give startups the flexibility and reliability they need to grow. But selecting the right option can be a balancing act.

The days of the garage startup are gone. The latest economic bust has paved the way for a boom in entrepreneurship that will usher in a new era of how businesses run. Why? The technology is now available for every single member of a small startup to operate in separate locations across the country, or even across the globe. The cubicles are gone -- replaced with cell phones, home broadband access and mobile Wi-Fi.

In distributed startups, your digital documents are your lifeblood. Plus, time is money: A small business simply can't afford to re-create or hunt down documents. So one major issue we had to tackle early on was finding a free (or very inexpensive) Web-based file sharing and storage solution.

As vice president of operations for a growing online marketing firm, it is my job to make sure we are constantly keeping up with and implementing new technologies to improve business efficiency. I quickly discovered, however, that due to the nature of a startup's tight-knit staff, finding a file sharing solution users will be comfortable with is more challenging than it seems.

First, the talent that you have acquired may not understand the nuts and bolts of a particular solution -- and shouldn't have to in order to use it. Make sure that whatever you decide on is easy to use and fairly basic to understand. A Web-based file sharing system will work only if your organization is using it -- anything that disrupts workflow or requires a drastic change in how you communicate won't be as easily adopted.

However, while basic solutions promote ease of use, keep in mind that most of your employees will be used to more expensive solutions. Chances are you've brought on talented staff members who have significant work experience within established companies and are used to a certain level of technology and professionalism. As such, you will find that the final selection process is a balancing act between basic and familiar.

Our solution selection process

We began our search for the appropriate Web-based file sharing and data storage system last year. While some of the technology has changed since then, the same rules still apply for the overall vetting process. We narrowed our list down to three:

Google Docs is a free solution that allows users to access their files through a Web interface. Users need only a Google account to access, share and edit a number of common document types, with the added benefit of being able to access files anywhere, anytime. On the downside, it forces users to actually log in. While many of your end users will be familiar with using it on a personal level, from a business perspective we found that many users would have to change the way they operate day to day.

Backpack, from 37signals LLC, is a very powerful tool with a number of features. It is branded as not only a document store, but also an information sharing tool for your business. Users operate in a wiki-like interface that allows them to create and tag pages for anything and rolls files, calendars, alerts and reminders into one application. Documents and other content updates are sent and organized within this system, and a login is required for access.

A Web-based file sharing system will only work if your organization is using it -- anything that disrupts workflow or requires a drastic change in how you communicate won't be as easily adopted.

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A big issue for us with Backpack was how overwhelming the application became because it included so much. If your employees aren't ready for a paradigm shift in how they communicate with other members in your organization, Backpack isn't for you.

Dropbox, a desktop solution, was what we finally chose -- and it's worked almost flawlessly for us. Files are synced from a folder on a user's hard drive to the Dropbox server, and then immediately out to the hard drives of users with access permissions. Desktop notifications show when files are created, updated or deleted, and all files exist in a "My Dropbox" folder on your local machine.

The Web application is optional (although helpful when on the go), and there is no login required to make changes. Users work by saving, editing, moving or deleting files on their own directories. Recently, Dropbox has added features that allow you to view files from a variety of mobile devices.

One drawback with the system is that files are not locked, so edits by multiple users are handled by creating conflicting versions of files. But so far this hasn't been a major issue for my organization.

As the technology go-to person in your company, it's likely that these types of new products and ways of operating excite you. Knowing your end users and understanding their motivations are the keys to finding and adopting worthwhile solutions -- on tight budgets and time crunches -- to help your small business flourish.

Ray Bhatia is vice president of operations at Demand Local Inc., a San Francisco-based online marketing startup. Contact him at editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.


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