Can you really run your business on a smartphone?

We face the challenge

Nokia Lumia 930

We have all seen them: people who wander around with a phone glued to their ear as if their entire world depended on it. And we have all worked with people for whom eye contact means sitting with head stooped peering at texts, emails or, occasionally, videos of real people.

This got us wondering: can normal people actually run their companies entirely from their phones? So I set out to see if it is possible.

Size matters

The first thing I had to do was pick a device. I decided that something the size of a normal smartphone (such as the iPhone 5 that I generally use) was probably too small, as typing on it is not easy.

Similarly, I didn't want to carry around a socking big tablet that would not fit in a pocket. The in-between choice was the Lumia 1320 – a newish but not bleeding-edge Windows phone with a six-inch screen.

Although mine was borrowed in true tech-writer style, it would normally set you back about £185 on Amazon.

What do I need to be able to do? As well as being a tech writer I have a day job in IT operations for a telco.

That means I need to do a pretty wide range of stuff: billing and accounts; writing loads of words for features like this one; emailing and phoning people; accessing the corporate network; using various email services; and controlling my own server estate

Pick a number

OK, this sounds a bit bonkers but don't laugh yet. Although you can talk to people on your phone, you may not necessarily want to do so directly. Life today is all about integrated communications, so instead of simply using your mobile on the 3G or GPRS network why not go for an internet-based phone number to which you can connect from any gadget?

By this I mean a phone number that is accessible to and from the public phone network (PSTN) but which you use as a phone- or computer-based application.

I went for a Skype number because I already have a Skype account, and it is very cheap – a tenner for a three-month subscription, and less if you work in one-year units.

You could choose a more generic number to which you can connect any old SIP client but the effect is the same: it is a landline number that people can call you on.

As long as your phone's Skype client is connected to the internet and is in touch with the Skype server, your calls will be delivered to the Skype client on your phone.

Of course, for the times when you are not connected you can simply set up a forward on your Skype account which will send inbound calls over the public phone network. And of course there is a voicemail option too.

The only downside is that with most SIP providers, and Skype for that matter, the range of area codes (in this case a UK STD code) tends to be limited to large cities. I didn't stand a chance of getting a Jersey number so I picked Nottingham as I was born near there.

The usability of the service depends on the quality and speed of your connection, but I found it absolutely fine on the 3G network I used. IP telephony needs only a few Kbps, so unless you have the shonkiest signal in the world you will be fine.

Oh, and of course the benefit of the Skype approach is that it is enormously popular and is both a voice and video mechanism. It can pretend to be a phone but it does loads more besides.

Dealing with documents

Documents and spreadsheets are a necessity for most of us so we need some way to create and edit them.

Given that I have a swanky Windows phone to hand, the obvious way to go is the cloud-based flavour of Microsoft Office (I am usually a OpenOffice user in the Mac world, but in a mobile Windows world the Microsoft offering entails a whole lot less mucking about).

There is one key thing about Office on handhelds: it just works. You fire it up and off you go. Obviously, you don't have a proper keyboard, but if you are one of these new age people who likes Windows 8 and touch-screen computers that will be no great problem.

One thing you will need, though, is somewhere to put your documents. And if you are really going to be running your company from a mobile device, that somewhere should be in the cloud.

Admittedly, the problem with writing documents on your phone is that typing on it is not great, even if you have gone for a medium-sized device. I have done the read through and associated tweaks to this feature on the Lumia, but I am not sure I would have liked writing all 2,000 words of it that way.

Where are the files?

If you are choosing a Windows world, the obvious place to store files is Microsoft's OneDrive (the artist formerly known as SkyDrive). Like Office, OneDrive just works.

Of course, if you want to go for Google Drive instead then that is fine – it works well on my Lumia. I know from previous experience that the Google offering can be a bit flaky: it can sometimes refuse to sync my Mac properly to the cloud unless kicked, but I have had no such problems with OneDrive.

If you already have a Microsoft ID of some sort, such as a Live login, then OneDrive is there and waiting for you. If you can live within the limits of a personal account there is no cost, but even if you go for its Business option, which gives better reporting and the potential to integrate with your own Active Directory world, it is only a couple of quid a month per user.

Monthly accounts

My billing and accounts are pretty simple to do on the phone because I mostly use spreadsheets to keep track of everything. To produce an invoice I just make a copy of my template, open the resulting file, change the date, invoice number and line item(s), and hit "Save".

The only drawback with trying to do this on the Lumia is that there doesn't seem to be a native “Save to PDF” option in the Office application (doh!) so I have to resign myself to paying Adobe for the privilege of making PDF versions of my bills.

You will want to sign up for a cloud-based finance system

If you want something more complicated than a home-grown Excel-based approach, though, consider whether you want your essential finance information to be sitting on a device that you could lose or break.

Of course you don’t: you will want to sign up for a cloud-based finance system. In the interests of trying it myself I had a look around and decided that I like Zoho.

As well as being a cloud-based accounting service, it also has a mobile app that lets you do all the key stuff without having to muck about in a browser. I used it in a previous life for expense tracking and it was pretty good for small companies.

As a general guideline for cloud apps, if you are looking to do everything on your phone, head toward the ones with downloadable phone apps because the usability factor will be far higher than with a browser-only interface.

Easy email

I am sure everyone reading this has their email delivered to their phone already. It is just such a no-brainer, and it took me less than five minutes to get my Hotmail, corporate and private email all configured on the Lumia email client.

In fact it took longer for the client to sync with my mailboxes than it did to go through the initial config steps.

The only thing I would say if you are running your company from your phone is disable that annoying message that says “Sent from my iPhone” or whatever at the bottom of every message. It makes it seem like you are using some temporary, inferior option and I think looks a bit rubbish.

The corporate network

If you have systems in your office that you need to access you will need some kind of remote connectivity. In my day job they have made it really easy for me because remote access is via a Citrix connection into what is basically a terminal server connection.

Citrix is a nice option because the client application, Citrix Receiver, is available for pretty much every platform. I already use it on my PC, Mac and iPad, so getting up and running on the Nokia phone was simply a case of downloading it and firing it up.

The main difficulty with corporate system access is that you are using a gadget without a keyboard and mouse, so initially there is a bit of a learning cliff to scramble up. It is really not all that bad once you get used to it, though.

Cloud cover

If you are going to be computing on the move, there is every chance that some or all of your corporate servers are in the cloud instead of sitting in a dusty cupboard in your office with nobody to swap the backup tapes each night. The ability to manage your cloud service is essential, therefore.

Happily, cloud services are designed to be managed from the web. I have Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services accounts, and of the two, it certainly feels like Microsoft has put more effort into making its management portal mobile-friendly.

Everything scales nicely on the screen with the Microsoft offering, whereas with the Amazon one things fall off the edge. In Amazon's defence, it has produced a mobile console app, but only for iOS and Android, not Windows Phone (at least not yet).

Of the big names in cloud computing, incidentally, Rackspace does have an app for mobile Windows users.

So, then: can I run my company from my phone?

The head of IT at the telco I work for has been known to refer to me as “a cynical old Hector”. And he is not wrong. When the guys at the Reg asked me whether you could run a company from a phone, my instinct was: “Hmmm, probably, but it will be a right pain.”

But you know what? It turned out not to be as difficult as I imagined. In fact with a bit of thought it can be more convenient than the traditional approaches. So here are the essentials.

Top tips

Get the right phone: Don't think you can do it on something the size of an iPhone 5. You will hate every moment of peering into that little screen. I have loved the six-inch Lumia I have been using, which is about the smallest size I would be happy with.

I would find my iPad Mini too big, but probably only just. It really depends on the size of your pocket (not in a financial sense) and of course how big a phone you can live with before feeling stupid holding it to your ear.

Cloud it: Choose cloud storage and ensure that you pick your office application suite and your cloud storage service as a matched pair.

I can't really see why you would go for Microsoft applications and then try to use Google Drive for storage, for instance. Make sure that your choice fits with your phone platform.

Use services with phone app add-ons: The business services you use will be primarily cloud-based, so look for those with ancillary applications that run natively on your phone.

Don't use your phone as a phone: Instead use a service that integrates IP telephony (SIP or proprietary protocols such as Skype's) and make your phone presence mobile. And remember that video calling is a fantastic tool to have in your armoury.

Be flexible: It is a fact of life that a mobile business won't quite fit the way you worked before. For example, if you are in the habit of working through the month and then bashing through all your invoicing in a day, you may find it quite tedious to rattle off fifty invoices on a small screen.

Do your invoices three or four at a time as you do the work (which is how I do it anyway – I believe in giving clients the opportunity to pay me as soon as possible) and it won't be a problem.

Spot the advantages: Why do people save their invoicing to the end of the month? Answer: generally because it is a tedious task.

Yet with a mobile invoicing package it is dead easy to run up a quick invoice. The nature of mobile operation is in fact completely removing the reason for you to put off your invoicing until later.

Accept that it might not be a perfect fit: Nobody's company technology is perfect, and similarly there are things about running everything on a phone that are not quite as you would like.

As I said earlier, I wouldn't have wanted to type 2,000 words on the Lumia. If this could be a problem for you there is nothing stopping you from choosing a platform that includes a portable Bluetooth keyboard, for instance.

And when it comes to the fact that the platform you have selected is not what you are used to… well, the same can be said for every platform you have ever used, but you have not had too much trouble adjusting, have you?

So, can you run your company from your phone? Damn right, you can. ®




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