You want SaaS? Don't bother, darling, your kind can't afford it

Perhaps if we club together, we could

Pennies in a jar. Photo via Shutterstock

Something for the Weekend, Sir? "That member is the wrong way around," confides the gym receptionist in hushed tones, nodding towards a middle-aged fellow ambling into the cardio room.

I stare after him, trying to guess how his member might be incorrectly attached. Dressed unfashionably and, I suspect, quite accidentally in a sleeveless side-boob vest, split web shorts and long cricket socks, he looks fairly unremarkable for a mid-life gym-goer.

"No, no," clarifies the receptionist, "I mean he's the wrong way around on here," indicating with wide eyes and nodding conspiratorially, like someone hellbent on claiming for a whiplash work injury, the computer screen in front of her, when a simple pointing finger would do.

I have bored you many times in this column about how I have often been mistaken for someone who knows how to fix misbehaving computers or, much, much worse, someone willing to do so. Over the years, I have gradually trained my neighbours to stop asking but I always have to start again when being introduced to new people.

Inexplicably, everyone at the gym knows me as "the computer expert" even though I took great pains when I first joined to describe myself as a "tech journalist".

It's my own stupid fault, of course: six months ago, I fixed the gym owner's dodgy Wi-Fi signal by switching his modem-router off and back on again at the wall socket. Ah, computer expertise at its IT Crowd finest, eh?

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If I'd done this at gullible boardroom level, I could have sent in an invoice for £2,000. Doing it as a favour for a micro-gym in the shopping precinct at the bottom of my street, however, simply earned me "man who fixes the internet" certification and bugger-all else. I must now re-educate every employee and member of the gym that my healing hands are not to be trifled with, otherwise I will suffer years of incessant fix-it demands from all and sundry, eventually forcing me to sell the house and move away to escape the nightmare – again.

Oh go on, let's take a look.

When the receptionist referred to the aforementioned gym member being the wrong way around, it turns out she meant that one of her colleagues had inadvertently entered his membership details incorrectly. Instead of being club member #487 paying his subscription fees automatically on the 15th of each month, the database had him down as club member #15 paying his subs on the 487th of each month.

Now, the receptionist isn't stupid and she demonstrates that changing the numbers back has no effect at all. Or it would appear to work, then when she calls up the member's record anew, the old incorrect details would be shown as before.

It seems that once entered into the bespoke gym club software, member details are recorded into the fabric of space-time itself for eternity.

You've probably guessed the fix. All but the least robust databases employ an idiot-layer to prevent accidental changing and deletion of records, so all I need to do is hunt for an "edit record" function rather than keep trying to change an entry directly in a list report. Sure enough, some 20 levels back up and hiding off-screen to the right in an irrelevant section of the program is an incomprehensibly iconed button that allows record data to be altered.

Bespoke software's car-crash approach to user friendliness never fails to amaze me. You can always tell a crap package by clicking on the Help menu – not by the poor quality of the Help itself but by the fact that clicking on the Help menu does absolutely dickety-fuck-all. As indeed does this appalling excuse for a club management program.

Back in the day when I was voluntary treasurer for a large residents' association, I kept membership records in a Filemaker database using an off-the-shelf template I downloaded off CiX. Things have moved on considerably since then for managing small club membership, or at least should have done.

Indeed, I find myself complaining out loud to the receptionist that a whole host of dedicated and very capable club management SaaS products are widely available these days. Why doesn't the boss ditch the tinpot crap he is using – purchased from who knows where and whose "About" screen proudly claims it was written in 2006 and grudgingly updated in 2010 and again in 2013 – and switch to an easy-to-use cloud-based system?

"Because I'm skint," comes the gruff response from behind the slightly ajar office door behind the receptionist. The boss has spoken.

Not so skint as to afford one of these cheapo SaaS subscriptions, surely?

Wearily, the owner of my local gym heaves his insanely muscly bulk – no seriously, he looks like an overgrown balloon dog wearing a T-shirt – over to the reception desk and explains. The crap software he is using originally cost him £400 (wow, they saw him coming) as an outright purchase and, even if it is awful, that was a lot of money and he wants to keep using it until it stops working.

But see here, I say, firing up Internet Explorer on his receptionist's Windows XP desktop PC and walking into the kitchen to brew the two of us a mug of tea until it has finished launching, there's a wonderful world of cloud-based software out there written especially for people like you who run small health clubs, yoga studios and so on. They handle online bookings! They send out renewal reminders automatically! They let you update your club website and generate email newsletters! Members can book classes using an app!

With a deep frown – his eyebrow muscles are bigger than my biceps – he moves the mouse to click on "Pricing".

I hadn't realised: these SaaS buggers are expensive. Even for a shoestring micro-club like this one, he'd be charged between £40 and £80 per month to manage his membership list and classes in the cloud. And since the bulk of his membership can be typified as those attending his popular 60+ classes – the kind more likely to be using a Nokia 6150 than a Huawei Mate 9 – he don' need no steenkin apps.

It doesn't make sense. Like most people with small businesses, I run my complete accounts and invoicing system in the cloud and it costs me barely £15 a month. The reason it's relatively cheap is because the SaaS developer is freed from the ball and chain of a single annual update schedule, huge physical distribution costs and the worrisome drop-off of the sales curve after each new release.

So what are these health club software developers up to? One such product is being marketed directly at independent yoga instructors to help with their class bookings but charges a monthly price that exceeds an entire day's wages for an average instructor.

So my cash-strapped gym boss's choice is either to stick with a creaking old desktop system that he already owns outright or switch to an overblown cloud system that could cost him more than £900 a year. Ooh, difficult decision.

Hang on, I think. All he needs is a user-friendly membership list, renewal reminders, a regular newsletter mailing and a class bookings. All of this can be done for no money at all using free cloud application components such as Gmail, Google Sheets, MailChimp, Trello, and so on. Then I could connect them on a very basic level with a bit of semi-automation using Zapier and he'd be flying.

I open my mouth to speak. Luckily, instinct takes over and I pour hot tea into my own gob before I get a chance to say anything.

I quietly walk away from the reception desk, silently breathing through my daily mantra as I leave the premises without further comment. I am not a man who fixes the internet. I am a tech journalist. I am a tech journalist. I am a tech journalist.

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Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He wishes he could click his fingers and magically update all the customer databases that address him as "Alaster Dabs" in defiance of the details he supplied upon registration. Curiously, the offenders are always insurance companies and so he wonders whether it's a way for them to wriggle out of settling any potential claim by insisting that the claimant "Alistair Dabbs" is not the person insured. FBI Update: 19.5kg (yikes).

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