Never have there been more software choices for the small business. Considering all the information you need to manage, which ones do the best job? Should you use separate solutions for different functions, or should you buy an integrated suite that can manage many aspects of your business? It depends, say the experts we talked to about back office software on the market today for SMBs. In this guide we present what we hope is a good start for SMBs investigating the best back office software.
What is the difference between front-office and back-office software?
First, though, a bit of clarification. The definition of what constitutes back-office versus front-office software is open for debate.
"There's a lot of bleed between what used to be distinct categories, and that trend is being driven by organizations having [fewer] people doing more functions, and not wanting to purchase four apps when one or two can cover all bases," says Andrew Baker, director of service operations for SWN Communications and expert on the Focus network.
To be clear, when we say "back office" software, we're referring to the platforms and applications that don't interface with customers but help you manage core functions such as accounting, human resources, or manufacturing. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) is a term that includes many back-office functions.
"Front office" software, which we covered in July as part of our focus on the best software for SMBs, is often related to Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and is useful for managing sales, marketing, and other customer-facing data. We also include things like innovative social media tools, customer service solutions, and more as part of the "front office."
So, without further ado, we present what we hope is a good start for SMBs investigating their best back office software options.
It almost goes without saying that Intuit's QuickBooks and Sage Peachtree should be on this list. In fact, according to the Massachusetts-based research group IDC Industry Insights, more than half of all small businesses use Intuit software. While Peachtree captures a smaller share of the SMB accounting market, it offers similar features and pricing--both range from around $200 at the entry level to $3,000 for an enterprise solution. QuickBooks also has an online version from $13 to $63 a month that stores all your financial data safely on the cloud.
They're not the only players in the numbers game, however. For estimating taxes, try Outright. Mint is free and as such, very popular with businesses on a tight budget. Expensify is great at--you guessed it--expense tracking, as is Coupa.
FinancialForce is an immensely-popular SaaS tool because of its integration with Salesforce, a CRM tool we discussed in our front-office software story. It starts at $175 per user per month and like many of these apps, it's available on the iPhone and iPad.
Intacct, which also works with Salesforce, is a full-featured accounting solution good for businesses that have outgrown QuickBooks or Peachtree. It's often sold by CPAs as part of their accounting services for as little as $100 a month and also includes things like purchasing, inventory and multi-currency management--something SMBs need to think about since even the smallest firms might have agents representing them in other countries.
"Companies like Intacct and NetSuite are very big on being allied with accounting firms," says Brian Sommer, president of Illinois-based research group Vital Analysis. "The CPA only needs to log into the [cloud solution] and they can have access to all their customers' books at once. It's all secure and all the accountant needs is an internet connection and valid credentials to get into the system. It works really well."
Learn More: How to Choose Business Accounting Software
"There are literally hundreds of human resource-related products on the marketplace, many of which are available on the cloud," says Sommer. "Buying your payroll and HR software separately from [an ERP suite] is quite acceptable. When a smaller company tries to add employees in other jurisdictions, states or local municipalities, knowledge of the tax and filing requirements is actually a highly-specialized capability that big payroll service providers like Paychex or Ceridian are really well-suited to deliver."
The SMBs we talked to suggested Recruiterbox for hiring, Trinet for benefits management and payroll, Journyx for timesheet tracking, Dice for finding qualified technology employees, Net-Temps for finding temporary workers, and of course Monster and CareerBuilder for posting jobs. Jobfox, which integrates with LinkedIn and Facebook, is a career social networking site that's recently been seeing good traction. However, the best place for finding talent these days is LinkedIn Recruiter which can filter its more than 100 million users and share your job listings with the people who closely match your requirements, whether they're looking for a job or not.
Spiceworks is used by 1.5 million IT pros who like its free network management software and online community. "Despite the ads, it definitely is a fast way to bring in consolidated systems, network and event monitoring functions for a technical operations department. I use it to keep track of hardware and software inventory on servers and desktops, and to ensure uptime of servers and networking devices such as firewalls, routers and switches," says SWN Communications' Andrew Baker.
Baker says Kaseya IT Center is another IT systems management solution that is targeted to the SMB market, with prices starting under $1,000. "Not only can it provide inventory, monitoring and software deployment functionality, but it can also provide patch management and encrypted remote access as well as online backups," he says. "This is a fully-featured solution that is priced cost-effectively and will definitely grow with a business."
Baker says there are dozens of vendors that can handle email security in the cloud, such as Symantec MessageLabs and Google Postini. "For businesses that prefer to keep these functions on-premise, there are a variety of commercial appliances from vendors such as Barracuda Networks and Spam Titan," he says, adding that businesses running Microsoft Windows might also look at software from Vamsoft's ORF Enterprise Edition which is easy to set up, requires little ongoing configuration, and costs just $295 per server.
Electronic discovery, or eDiscovery, refers to the process of searching electronic data with the intent of using it as evidence in a civil or criminal legal case. For companies that may need to do it, Baker suggests SonaSoft, which offers a robust, hosted email archiving solution for the SMB market that makes it easy to archive your email intelligently if you are using Microsoft Exchange in house. GFI, maker of many security and management tools for the SMB market, also offers backup, archival and security of email.
"Whether they choose commercial or open source options, SMBs should evaluate the health of the community around any software application or suite, to ensure that they'll be able to get the help they need in implementing or running it," Baker says.
Inventory management is a big component of the back office. For our recommendations in that area, we suggest perusing our recent focus on inventory software in which we discussed solutions from the likes of Fishbowl, Acctivate, NumberCruncher, Aestiva and Wasp Barcode Technologies, to name a few.
Dig Deeper: Choosing the Best Inventory Tracking Software
File Backup and Sync
Arguably one of the best technology advances in the last few years is the plethora of cloud services that back up files to the cloud so precious business information is not lost forever regardless of hardware catastrophe. Apps we covered in our recent story about the best cloud storage options for small businesses include Dropbox, SugarSync, Box.net, Soonr and Carbonite. A few others appreciated by SMBs choosing back office software include CrashPlan, Backup My Info, GoToMyPC, Backblaze and MozyPro.
Project Management, Collaboration and Professional Services Automation (PSA)
The cloud has also ushered in online project management and collaboration. Long gone are the days when completing a team project meant in-person meetings and scores of status updates clogging up email inboxes. Today you can collaborate on a project with coworkers, customers, suppliers or whomever by just checking into the cloud, and nobody ever has to show up in person.
Small businesses can choose from scads of project management solutions that offer free and monthly subscription plans, including Basecamp, TeamWork Live, Worketc, Intervals, and Manymoon, just to name a few.
For companies large enough to need help with internal communications, Yammer and Chatter are free social networks for business that let employees share documents, collaborate and find others who have expertise in particular areas.
Entities that work on very complex projects might consider Genius Inside, which is a middle-office solution linking CRM with ERP and geared toward mature project management. Industries that might benefit from Genius Inside include any that are very project-centric such as engineering groups working on new product development or professional services firms focused entirely on projects. Typical cost for medium-size businesses starts at about $7,000 a year.
ConnectWise is a PSA solution designed specifically for managing the operations of IT service organizations.
Regardless of a business' size, smart companies would do well not to forget about using LinkedIn Groups or even Facebook to kick-start discussions with insightful people who can help with things like solving engineering problems or brainstorming innovation. Once a good dialogue is flowing, you can move it to a space in Google Groups or Microsoft SharePoint.
Productivity and Organization Apps
While you might not think of Word and Excel as back-office software, applications like them are not only integral to the operation of most businesses, they also can only be used internally with no customer interface.
If you're tired of shelling out big bucks for Microsoft Office we have some suggestions.
Try downloading Oracle's free OpenOffice, which offers Office-like tools that can be read and edited in Word, PowerPoint, and other common software.
If you prefer a cloud option, GoogleApps for Business will give you all the tenants of the free Google Apps, such as Gmail, Calendar, Docs and Sites, but also offers Video and Groups--all for about $5 per user per month.
For only a dollar more a month per user, Office365 offers similar features but with the familiar and comfortable Office interfaces we've all come to love, only stored on the cloud, not on your desktop.
With both free and subscription services, Zoho is an even more robust cloud software suite for SMBs that adds things like accounting, invoicing and recruiting tools.
Evernote lets you save things like notes, Web pages, business cards, photos, and screenshots, then indexes them so you can find what you saved later.
TripIt is a widely-used travel app because you can forward confirmation emails to the service, which will automatically build an itinerary for your trip that you can access online or from a mobile device. It will also notify you of flight delays and suggest other travel options.
Gail Wallace, president of Texas-based Bellwind Consultants and expert on the Focus network, likes Cogniview tools for converting PDFs into Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. "One time it converted a 300-page PDF into a perfect Excel spreadsheet in less than a minute. Their customer service is spectacular and they have both individual and enterprise-wide solutions," she says.
Wallace also suggests ZixMail for email encryption. "Having had clients in both the healthcare and financial services industries, e-mail encryption that met HIPAA and banking security standards became essential," she says, adding that it's available for a single user or an entire enterprise. "It is simple to use and the best part is that the recipient is not required to have the program to read the e-mail unlike so many other solutions."
Beyond Separate Applications: Back-Office Suites
So should you use several separate applications, or is it a better idea to buy a suite of software that can manage multiple processes within your business?
"If you are more focused on the 'S' [in SMB], then you...may be more willing to string together a bunch of different applications rather than settling on one integrated system or suite because your transaction volume will be lower and your processes less sophisticated," says Robert Israch, senior director of global demand generation for NetSuite and expert on the Focus network.
"Once you start approaching annual revenue of $5 million and beyond, your system requirements become more sophisticated and many businesses start outgrowing their entry-level bookkeeping systems like QuickBooks. Running a business with multiple disconnected siloed systems [that manage things like] accounting, inventory and fulfillment, CRM, and e-commerce starts becoming a drag on employee productivity and IT. At that point, more powerful Cloud suite systems like NetSuite tend to be the best fit for those high-growth or mid-sized companies, to help get better visibility across the company, automate operations and streamline processes, scale for growth more efficiently, and expand internationally."
Vital Analysis' Sommer gives similar advice. "My recommendation would be to buy as much as possible from a single vendor...and find software that works within your particular vertical industry. [For example,] if you're a discrete manufacturer, if you make car parts or metal products, Plex would be a very good fit for you and it has everything from shop floor control manufacturing, production scheduling, all the way to the accounting software," he says, adding that SaaS provider Rootstock Software is another good choice for mid-market discrete manufacturers.
Speaking of verticals, WhenToManage is for restaurants and provides POS intelligence, employee scheduling, inventory, supply chain and recipe management, as well as an enterprise feature that creates and compares reports from different stores.
BrightPearl is a good option for retailers, wholesalers and service providers.
VISCO is designed for small to mid-sized importers and distributors. With a focus on landed costs, container management, global logistics, and customs clearance, it also integrates with QuickBooks.
Food processors and other manufacturers will want to check out SYSPRO.
Meridian Systems and Skire are good for property and construction management.
AdvologixPM is a cloud-based practice management suite for law firms. It offers a very scalable and flexible platform for managing the caseload of law firms and legal departments without the significant cost structure of typical on-premise solutions.
Small, budget-minded businesses should check out OpenERP which is only $49/user/month.
Fast-growing, mid-sized businesses universally tout NetSuite, which specializes in providing a cloud-based solution that ties the back office to the front office.
Businesses with complex needs have plenty of other options, as well. Microsoft Dynamics, Exacta Accounting, Sage AccPac Accounting, SAP, Infor, and Epicor all offer software that encompass many back-office functions. While these products are typically used by medium to large companies, all of them can scale down for the smaller organization. In fact, Sommer suggests starting with one of them if you're confident your startup is going to grow rapidly.
"One of the more interesting phenomenon I've noticed is that when serial entrepreneurs launch a new startup, they skip the starter packages. They don't start with things like spreadsheets or Peachtree or Quicken. They start with one of these products [because] they know their company is going to ramp up very quickly. They want a single solution that they're going to be able to grow from zero to $150 million in a few years," Sommer says.
Business Intelligence and Analytics
According to Joshua Greenbaum, principal with Enterprise Applications Consulting in Berkeley, California, business intelligence or business analytics is another critical function often included in back office suites and also sold as a stand-alone solution.
"Business analytics or business intelligence of some kind is absolutely necessary," he says. "[They are] very broad terms that are used to cover billions of dollars worth of products that are extremely different from each other," he says. "But fundamentally, all small and medium-sized businesses need to have a way to analyze the data that is coming into their organization in order to be successful."
"These analytics become absolutely critical for small and medium-sized businesses that are [increasingly dealing] with a global economy and global customers or global supply chains," he says. "If you're a medium-sized manufacturer of circuit boards for the aerospace and defense industry you must have an advanced back office so you can be tied into the supply chains of Boeing and Airbus or Lockheed Martin, but you also need the analytics that will allow you to be a good supplier to these companies because they won't allow you to supply them unless you can reach certain service levels. And managing those service levels internally is a function of business analytics."
Greenbaum says many of the software suites mentioned in the previous section provide good BI functionality and that the largest vendors of business intelligence software are IBM's Cognos, SAP's Business Objects, and Microsoft's SQL Server-based analytics. He says Pentaho is a smaller vendor that also offers quality BI software.
"It's a big can of worms, there's just a ton of vendors in this space," he says, offering advice for companies that want to beef up their BI competency.
"A lot of small and medium-sized businesses have Microsoft Office as one of their core products and the Microsoft business analytics products are very Office-like [which make them seem] relatively familiar to companies that are Office-centric. And that's often a good place to start," he suggests.
"Some companies are very happy to stay with Excel spreadsheets to do a tremendous amount of BI because of the user acceptance. But I think the bottom line is look inside the organization first and see what platforms and products that your users are already familiar with and try very hard to get them the analytics that they need wrapped in one or more of these familiar products," he says.
SMBs Have Options Galore
Finally, as we mentioned, the software market today is brimming with excellent options for the small business, many overlapping in functionality and applicability to various industries. If you're a fan of back office software that didn't make the list, let us know in the comments and thereby share your opinion with others who might benefit from your knowledge and experience.