Daryl Lucas takes a look at SohoOS, an online service for small office and home office businesses.
SohoOS is an online service for small office and home office businesses. If you're a soho, it aims to be your one-stop shop for all of the boring administrative details of running a business such as generating and managing business contacts, sales leads, estimates, invoices, and purchase orders. It's designed for both small businesses and freelancers (contractors); it doesn't assume you are incorporated.
SohoOS comes in two versions, free (what I'll call Basic) and subscription (PRO). And as your spidey sense might tell you, you get what you pay for.
Sign-up is simple. You just need an email address, and you're in. Once you sign up, you have free access to the Basic version of SohoOS.
The user interface is clean, uncluttered, fast, and void of advertisements, so you can get your bearings quickly and without too much to figure out. Its main screen, shown in Figure A, which SohoOS calls the Homepage, gives you ready access to everything, so there are no annoyingly hard-to-find features hiding anywhere.
On the left side of the Homepage, you have a view of sample content for Clients, Contacts, Leads, and Vendors, and on the right you have links to all the major functions, including Estimates, Invoices, Items (products), Purchase Orders, and Documents. In the middle is a timeline of your recent activities. It sounds cluttered, but the graphic design is light on bling while the components are visually distinct, so it looks clean and is easy to decipher.
Right across the top you'll find a navigation bar from which you can create anything you can store and manage in the program, and a My Account link from which you can edit all of your configuration settings, as shown in Figure B.
For those who like to read the manual first, there is a host of clear and concise videos that introduce all of the service's features (see Figure C). Most of the videos are less than two minutes long, and none is longer than three, so getting up to speed quickly is not a problem. There are videos that explain the Homepage, System Settings, Localizing, Business Profile, Items (your products and services catalog), Leads, Estimates, Purchase Orders, Invoices, and Documents. The only feature that has no video is Vendors.
Additional videos explain features that require a paid subscription to activate: Becoming a PRO, Premium Support, White-Labeling, Leads Widget, Freelance Market, Personalized Backup, Super-Sized Storage, Business Documents, and My Balance.
There are several ways to configure the service to suit your needs. You access the configuration modules by clicking on My Account, and Settings on the navigation bar, as shown in Figure D. From there, you can change all of the things you can change about SohoOS:
Business Profile lets you specify the basic parts of your public profile on the SohoOS site. It lets you specify a logo and some contact information. My Business Page lets you add links to your business profile. It also lets you specify a theme (colors and background images). Import My Contacts lets you bring in contact information you have stored in other email systems. They give Gmail as their example, but do not comment on others, so it's not clear how flexible this is. The Currencies section lets you specify conversion rates for any currencies with which you want to deal. It already has a list of several, but you can add others. Although exchange rates change daily, the rates you find here come from you and do not change unless you edit them. So if you do must calculate exchange rates often, you will have to be careful to keep this updated. Tax Calculations lets you specify the types of taxes you need to include in your estimates and invoices.
As I mentioned, the UI is clean; I would also call it consistent and well designed. For example, all of the modules that let you create or edit content have red action buttons above the form, so it's easy to learn what you can do in each case. If you are viewing a client and create an invoice for it, the new invoice form comes up with the client details already filled in. The same is true if you create an estimate. Forms have simple, "stacked textbox" input designs, so there's nothing complicated or confusing to figure out.
The core functions have just the basics, though, nothing terribly sophisticated. For example, the Contacts module lets you store a contact's phone number, mobile number, and fax number. That's it. You can't add additional phone numbers, additional phone number types, a Skype address, or anything else like that. The upside of the feature's simplicity comes with the downside of possibly being inadequate. Of course, if you don't use this as a primary contacts database, it may be a moot point. But it's worth knowing in case it conflicts with the way you work. The Clients module has a similar limitation. To me, the Estimates module seems like a better mix of simplicity and power. It has all the basics and is also flexible enough to handle many unique situations. For example, it lets you discount your offering price and modify the tax rates. You can have the estimate emailed directly to your client, and you can easily create a PDF copy of it. And you can generate an invoice from it as well. The Invoices module works much like the Estimates module, allowing you to discount your price, modify the taxes, email directly to the client, and generate a PDF copy. It also adds a nice touch whereby you can request payment through your PayPal account. The Documents module lets you store documents in a hierarchical folder structure. Nothing fancy, but serviceable.
It should go without saying that an online service needs to be secure, meaning that as long as you keep your credentials secure, you have nothing to worry about. With SohoOS, everything runs under SSL. That's good enough for me.
Basic versus PRO
SohoOS Basic gets the job done. If you are a soho and need to generate and manage business contacts, sales leads, estimates, invoices, and purchase orders, Basic can do it. And it will do it without much hassle-the sort of thing that soho's have no time for.
However, as useful as SohoOS Basic is, it has significant limitations, limitations you should consider before backing up the moving van. Here are the ones that stand out to me:
Documents: Basic lets you store documents in a hierarchical folder structure, but it gives you only 20 MB of storage, a paltry amount by any standard. In fact, it's so little that it's almost useless. To be clear, getting access to even 20MB lets you discover whether it's useful to you. But it's my guess that for any business that's going to use this service, 20MB will simply not be enough. If you stick with Basic, you'll have to use a proxy for it, such as DropBox or SkyDrive.
Or you can upgrade to SohoOS PRO, which will give you 2GB. This is still less than I'd like, but it's much better than 20MB, and probably more than enough for most soho's.
White-Labeling: In the Basic version, every document you create (estimate, invoice, purchase order, and email) is stamped with the SohoOS logo. That may be a showstopper for you; it would be for me. PRO removes it. Leads: Your SohoOS Leads form exists only on your SohoOS business page-a place almost none of your potential clients are likely to go (unless they visit the Freelance Market, as noted below). To add it to your blog or public web site, you must upgrade to PRO, which lets you create a Leads Widget that you can embed wherever you have authoring rights. If you seriously plan to use SohoOS to generate sales leads, you're going to want PRO's Lead Widget. Freelance Market: The Freelance Market is an online exchange where businesses and suppliers can find each other. Posing jobs is cheap ($5/month) and easy. If you're looking for a freelancer, you can post job there, and if you're a freelancer, you can bid on posted jobs. The Basic version keeps you locked out of this market. Backup: In all versions of SohoOS, all of your data resides in the cloud, but the Basic version provides no way for you to back it up. If you stick with Basic, you just have to hope that nothing ever goes wrong. If you upgrade to PRO, you can get CSVs of your data emailed to you once a week. But SohoOS is careful not to call this disaster recovery; it's really insurance against that rare event when someone accidentally deletes a contact.
For me, both of those scenarios are troubling. In my experience, "you just have to hope that nothing ever goes wrong" is a disaster guarantee, with only the timing to be determined, so I would never trust my business essentials to the Basic form of bungee jumping. But even in PRO, I would worry about recovery; that is, if something goes haywire with the service and I actually do need to recover my data from disaster, how does that work? Is it even possible? It seems clear that it would be impossible to recover it from the CSVs. To be fair, some backup is always better than none, especially if the alternative is to rely on a homegrown scheme, so even this safety net may be adequate for you.
Business Documents: The PRO version lets you access a library of over 1,000 standard business documents and templates. The example they give in their video is that of a business plan. I have no idea whether all those documents are worth the trouble, but in any case, you won't know if you use the Basic version, because you can't use them. I've had access to such templates before and found their value to be low; they're usually just too general to be useful. But I really don't know if that's true of what SohoOS PRO has to offer.
In the spirit of capitalism, the limitations of SohoOS Basic are designed to make you covet the PRO version, which you can pay $9.95/month for. They currently also offer discount rates if you pay annually. Whether that amount looks big or small to you depends on you and the size of your business, your margins, and the sophistication of the systems you already have in place. But to me it looks like a good deal.
The bottom line
If you have a small office or home office, or if you are a freelancer, you should take a look at SohoOS. The Basic version can help ease the burden of getting business and getting paid. The service offers a well-rounded set of features in a clean and easy-to-understand model for very little pain. And if you like what you find and can justify another $120/year, PRO can help you extend your reach even future. Other than the lack of disaster recovery, I don't see a lot of downsides.