The trucking business can be a bit old school, according to Brynley Smith, whose firm, Hughes Transport, has been around for 34 years. But when Smith bought the business in 2008 and found himself spending hours on paperwork, he decided to take a new-school approach and ditch the paperwork in favour of some higher-tech solutions.
Over a period of years since, Smith has steadily migrated almost all of his business systems into the cloud, allowing him to access software, apps and other technology infrastructure services by subscription over the internet.
The first system Hughes Transport implemented was online transport management system iCOS Live, which among other functions allows Hughes Transport's customers to book and track all their freight online. It was a revelation, says Smith.
"It's turned our business around; we've gained business just by going with that one system."
In April, the MYOB Business Monitor reported 32 per cent of small and medium-sized New Zealand enterprises were using cloud products and services. Of the services businesses most regularly use, email came out tops (86 per cent), followed by online banking (82 per cent), then filesharing and Voice over Internet (equal at 25 per cent each).
Cloud-based systems have benefits in terms of flexibility, security and future proofing the business, Smith says. And being able to access your data anywhere at any time is an advantage, especially when your business is out on the road.
That 'anywhere, anytime' flexibility also appealed to Ollie Belton of Carbon Forest Services. Belton works in the field of carbon forestry, so can often be, literally, out in the woods for days at a time, but is still able to access the systems he needs to run the business via the cloud.
Christchurch-based Belton was based in the city's CBD when the February 2011 quake struck. He managed to grab his laptop when the seriously damaged building he was in was evacuated, but the experience provided a wake-up call.
"If I hadn't [grabbed my laptop] I would not have had access to my data until many months later, when we were finally allowed back in by the authorities to collect important documents. With the cloud you don't run those kinds of risks."
A benefit of moving to the cloud for Richard Conway, owner and managing director of Auckland-based company Pure SEO, has been cost savings. Rather than forking out $25,000 on physical servers, the company uses Dropbox for Business, which costs less than $2,000 a year. He says the firm has also reduced costs in accounting and bookkeeping fees by moving to cloud-based accounting system Xero.
It's not without its challenges. Small business owners talk about issues around implementation, and the benefits they've gained from bringing in expert IT help at times. Conway, for example, says his firm brought in an external consultant to help them get a new workflow management system up and running.
"However, on the whole, implementing the cloud technologies has been both cost- and time-efficient," he says. "There are set-up and training costs, but these have proved lower than the alternatives."
Brynley Smith, Hughes Transport
Brynley Smith is owner and managing director of Auckland-based Hughes Transport.
Can you tell me a bit about Hughes Transport?
We're a transport company, specialising in food freight. We cart some major brands nationally and also do some work for a major supermarket chain. The company has been going for 34 years - I purchased it in 2008 and we have nine employees.
Why as a small business have you embraced using the cloud?
The number-one reason is probably flexibility, but it also has benefits in terms of security, future proofing the business and being able to move with the times. And from a customer service point of view, you're seamless. You can be on the road and when people ask you questions, you can access stuff remotely.
In New Zealand, transport companies can be pretty old school; companies like ours have been around for 34 years, using pen and paper with everything written down - that's the way truck drivers work. But I'm not old school - I'm new school and I thought 'we've got to change this'. I would spend hours and hours doing paperwork and thought 'this is ridiculous, there have to be systems that do this'.
What are some of the technologies you're using?
The first system we picked up about three years ago was [online transport management system] iCOS Live. So I get to sell to my clients and potential clients that we have this system that is cloud based where you can book and track freight all online. We've gone the whole hog with that system, so we have sign-on-glass technology with smartphones, for example, or when a client logs in for proof of delivery it shows them on a satellite map where it was signed for and who by. It's turned our business around; we've gained business just by going with that one system.
Then I looked at what else could work with that. So we went with EROAD, which does live tracking of our Road User Charges. That system took away a whole lot of problems, like having to always ask the drivers, or potentially forgetting. It also allows us to track our spend on vehicles, for example tracking our fuel and tyres. It also integrates beautifully with iCOS to provide the GPS live tracking element in our freight system.
Next we thought 'let's go cloud based with our invoicing' so we went with Xero, which links to iCOS with the click of a button. So what used to take me half a day to invoice, I can now do within 40 minutes.
We've also now got an iPayroll system and we're talking with our IT guy about using Synology NAS and going with all our server in the cloud so we have total accessibility of anything we know from any point.
What kinds of benefits have you seen from these technologies in the business?
There are savings on printing, savings on man hours, and savings in terms of reducing stress for our drivers. It's stressful enough driving across Auckland in big trucks without adding paperwork on top of it.
It's also made things easier for our clients. Within the first week of using these systems our phones went quiet. It was a bit scary, but it was because we weren't getting phone call after phone call from people tracking stuff and they were able to do it themselves.
Given that, it could be easy to just sit there and not have any communication with your clients because they're getting that live on the web. So I go out regularly and visit clients face to face, making them feel special by dropping off doughnuts and coffee and saying 'hi'. They now feel like they're getting information instantly, but also that they're being fussed over because they're seeing us more because we're not locked in the office finding paperwork for them.
Have there been any challenges?
The drivers are the hardest bit. They just want to drive the truck, and with paperwork they do it because that's all they've ever known. So when you introduce new things like sign-on-glass and electronic things to sign into it's a bit bamboozling. Technology to them is scary and it's a change. But when you give it to them and they realise that with the push of a button they can do something that used to take ten steps on paper it's a no brainer. Now the guys wouldn't go back.
What advice would you give to other small business owners about embracing the cloud?
Be proactive, not reactive and get help. We use an IT guy based in Christchurch who sorts out a lot of our problems. I'm pretty whizzy on a laptop but with a lot of this stuff I don't understand the background programming and how it works. So I'd say don't be afraid to ask questions and don't be afraid to make changes, because if you don't you're going to be left behind very quickly.