Eric Segal, Principal
The Data Collaborative, Inc.

I work with many organizations – from Fortune 100 Companies to local non-profits – all moving their data to the cloud. I frequently use the metaphor that we are building a House of Data, and I often notice that for all kinds of organizations, their House of Data is missing a room. PaaS providers, like QuickBase and Zoho can help you build that room.

Your House of Data starts with some modular rooms (modular because everyone gets more or less the same package). Your email program (like Gmail or Outlook) is one room, your CRM program (like Salesforce, Sugar, or, for non-profits, Raisers Edge) is another room, and your accounting software is like the kitchen (and many is the worried executive who spends way too much time staring into the refrigerator).

Of course there’s lots of other types of software too. Project Management, HR, Content Management, ERP and much, much more. But the three categories above are in every place of work, and they form a foundation that other software builds on top of.

But there’s one very important room missing from this House of Data. Call it the garage, the yard, the studio – it’s where you do the work that is unique to you. My company, Data Collaborative, provides data consulting to hundreds of companies every year, and every one of them has some unique elements that don’t fit very well into any software category.

Maybe you upgrade cash registers for Burger King, and you have to keep track of thousands of installations and hundreds of sub-contractors around the world. Maybe you’re a non-profit that matches kids in need with mentors, and you have to keep track of schedules, mentor relationships and problems that need to be addressed. Or maybe you install advertising banners on Little League fields, and you need to track thousands of ads on hundreds of fences, including info on who paid extra for center field, and which ads get taken down after the 4th of July.

To get back to the house, programs like Gmail and QuickBooks Online work well because everyone uses them more or less the same way. This is called “Software as a Service” or SaaS. You buy a few modular rooms, slap them together, and your house is off to a good start.

But if you need a garage with a lift, a studio with 12 foot ceilings, or a greenhouse where you can grow orchids, those rooms are not coming from a service where one size fits all. Now you need a toolset to build your own room (or database).

Twenty years ago people used MS Access for situations like this, but that product was left out to dry by Microsoft back when today’s tech execs were teenagers sending text messages with the number pad on their cell phones.

Today, the answer is “PaaS”. No, it’s not those kits that kids use to color Easter Eggs. It’s “Platform as a Service”, and there are not nearly as many options in this area, because the challenge is tough: how to create a toolset that you, the typical non-technical person, can use to track of the stuff you need to keep track of – however it is structured.

How can you tell if you need such a toolset? Try answering these questions:

  • Does your company, non-profit or work group have a spreadsheet that basically runs the organization? It’s complicated, with multiple tabs, and formulas that no one understands because they were written by that intern a couple summers ago.
  • Are there multiple copies of this spreadsheet, emailed around from one person to another, so you are never sure which one is the single authoritative source?
  • Are there some important questions about your organization that you just can’t answer because the spreadsheet is not set up right? I’ve worked with large, important companies that struggled to figure out basic questions like:
    • Should we hire more people?
    • Are we making money?
    • And even: What real estate do we own? (I swear I am not making that up)

Using a spreadsheet to run your whole organization is really a crime because a spreadsheet just can’t answer the questions you need to answer. It’s like trying to prepare your holiday dinner in a toaster oven – the tool is just not up to the task.

Still, I get why people do this because it’s hard to find a good alternative. You need a tool that does a lot of what a spreadsheet does, but more.

Like a spreadsheet, you need multiple tables (like multiple tabs), formulas, and formatting options (like bold and highlighting).

But you also need things that a spreadsheet can’t do. You need:

  • Web access, so remote staff can access the data.
  • Relationships between Tables, so if you have a list of Customers in one table and a list of Orders in another, you can keep track of which Customer made which Orders
  • Permissions based on role, so your customers can see what they need to see, but can’t spy on you (or each other).
  • Data entry forms, because not everyone can enter data correctly on a spreadsheet.

And you need a way to bake in some kind of business logic. Business Logic means setting an order to be billable once it is shipped. It means saying that every time a mentor moves away, making sure that the kid they were working with gets a call to set up a new mentoring relationship. It means something different in each organization, but it is always important.

There are, of course, tools that can do these things. There are thousands of consultants who will build a system for you using a SQL database and a web programming language. But that’s a five-digit expense (at least) and a few months wait (if you’re lucky). How do you solve the problem if you don’t have that kind of time or money?

This is where PaaS comes in.

Force.com, the platform that Salesforce.com is built on, is powerful and flexible. You can create your own data structure, and link with other platforms. But it is not easy to use. It has its own programming language that "gives fits” to even experienced programmers. The companies I know of that are most happy with Force are either tiny ones, that use a standard Salesforce implementation with no changes, or very large ones with their own programming staff. In between, users tend to try and try to get Force working, or give up and go back to spreadsheets.

Zoho is at the other extreme. Very friendly and very easy to use, Zoho gets you up and running very quickly. But Zoho’s sweet spot is the small workgroup. If you need to set up permissioning schemes where some people see more data than others, Zoho will struggle.

QuickBase occupies a very nice place in the middle. Extremely easy to use, it’s also up to the challenge of a modern distributed data system.  Permissions are easy to set up, you can create any data schema you want, and their “Form Rule” concept allows even totally non-technical users to introduce business logic into their database.

For whatever reason, there are a lot of organizations out there that are struggling with their “empty room” problem. To some extent, this represents a challenge for PaaS providers. Salesforce, QuickBase and Zoho need to make their tools even easier to use and even more powerful than they are already.

But many businesses have not put their data into a cloud database because they just don’t know there are database tools that they really could use themselves. Intuit’s Allison Mnookin has been talking up the concept of the “Citizen Developer” but not everyone has heard. Time to listen harder, because the rewards of having comprehensive data in the cloud, structured just how your organization runs, are great and many.