Running a complex, fast-growing company is often compared to piloting an aircraft. And why not? Entrepreneurs, like pilots, sit at the controls of powerful machines whose performance is affected by innumerable outside factors. What's more, in both cases, soaring is a thrill--and a miscalculation can lead to disaster.
In some respects, the pilots have it easier. Thanks to an aircraft's instrument panel, aviators always know their precise speed, the amount of fuel they have on hand, weather conditions--real-time information that allows them to recalibrate their coordinates and navigate safely to their destination. Business owners, on the other hand, have a harder time fine-tuning on the fly. After all, few entrepreneurs have the benefit of a high-tech instrument panel.
Until now. The small-business "dashboard" has arrived. Several new software products come loaded with technology that lets managers determine at a glance exactly where their business is headed at any given moment. Want to know precisely how much cash you have on hand? How many products are on back-order? How shipping costs affected your bottom line over the past 12 hours? Just check your computer-screen dashboard. There, displayed in easy-to-view charts, graphs, and tables, are the key factors driving your business. If you need more data, just click on a button and drill down until you find the level of detail you require.
Such systems coordinate, organize, and then display the myriad streams of data that managers monitor in order to make decisions. The instant new information is entered, the appropriate dashboard readings are updated companywide. If a clerk in accounts receivable enters an invoice, for example, the balance is reflected immediately in the cash-flow "gauges" of the CFO and CEO.
This up-to-the-minute information, presented in such a user-friendly format, can be a very powerful tool. Consider Jereme Pitts, vice president of sales and marketing at Accordent Technologies Inc., which makes corporate presentation software and is based in Hermosa Beach, Calif. For years, Pitts's 11-person sales force was required to submit daily sales reports, but harried sales reps often let a full week pass before filing. Not only did that complicate and cause delays in the invoicing process, it sometimes led Accordent sales reps and resellers of the technology to target the same accounts, confusing customers and sales staff alike.
John Garrett checks his dashboard hourly. "It's a great way to keep in touch with the pulse of the company," he says.
Then, last fall, Accordent installed new dashboard software by NetSuite Inc., based in San Mateo, Calif. Now, in an instant, Pitts can see a ranking of Accordent's sales reps, what they have sold, how many sales leads they have on the line, and how close they are to hitting their monthly quota. Such real-time views have changed the way Pitts manages. "When we sit down to a sales meeting, it's a different conversation," says Pitts. Because the freshest sales statistics are readily available, the company's sales reps are more accountable--and much more likely to compete with one another. "Heads come hung low when they haven't met their quotas," Pitts says. Accordent's 2003 sales are expected to nudge the $3 million mark, up from just $950,000 last year. While Pitts says the jump cannot be attributed solely to NetSuite, the new technology has been key to the improvement.
NetSuite--founded four and a half years ago and bankrolled by Oracle Corp. CEO Lawrence Ellison--is not the only company steering small businesses toward dashboards. Best Software Inc. offers a dashboard product of its own, Peachtree
Today, as part of its popular Peachtree accounting software package. Salesforce.com offers dashboards targeted at sales and marketing executives, but does not offer the comprehensive financial snapshot that is provided by NetSuite and Peachtree.
John Garrett, co-president of Triad Distributing-Northwest Inc., a Nampa, Idaho, building-supplies wholesaler, checks his PC dashboard hourly. On display are snapshots of Triad's general ledger, accounts receivable, accounts payable, cash-on-hand, and inventory levels. "When I see the numbers dropping off or increasing, I open a dialogue with our people," Garrett says. "One day, I logged on and noticed a $9,000 quote for a new customer. It allowed me to give some kudos to the salesperson and also learn about the customer. It's a great way to keep in touch with the pulse of the company." Garrett also uses his dashboard to identify and purge slow-moving products that aren't meeting the company's profit target. "I can look at a 1% change in margin and know that it could be $17,000 toward the bottom line at the end of the year," says Garrett.
The technology also allows companies to offer customized dashboard views to employees. An executive dashboard, for example, enables a CEO to see bank balances, a ranking of the top 10 sales reps, the top five customers, accounts receivable, and accounts payable. A shipping dashboard, by contrast, might simply display orders waiting to be processed and inventory levels.
Still, it's not yet paradise by the dashboard light for everyone. If you want to view data from a specialized application--such as software geared to your own industry--you may be out of luck, unless you shell out a small fortune for custom integration. Also, some of the functions offered in these off-the-shelf programs may not quite fit your business. Both Best Software and NetSuite offer free trial versions (available at Peachtree.com and NetSuite.com). And neither requires a substantial investment. Peachtree Premium Accounting 2004 costs $500 for one user or $1,000 for up to five concurrent users. NetSuite 9.0--which is hosted and maintained by NetSuite servers--costs $4,800 for an annual license for two users; each additional user is another $75 per month.
If none of these models catches your eye, more are on the way. Peachtree is launching new versions customized for small manufacturers and distributors this month. NetSuite's new version has features to enhance the software's appeal to businesses with larger inventories and Web-based catalogs. The more specialized dashboards should make it even easier for your business to soar safely. "It gives you that quick overview of your business," says Triad's Garrett. "So, on the fly, you can see where your business is going."