April Fool’s Day comes but once a year, but you might think it comes once or twice a week if you’re struggling over the promise and disappointment of SaaS apps and the cloud in general. As far back as the days of Chaucer, we’ve celebrated the day where no news topic is sacred, no personal space is private, and no victim immune to jest. In France, they call it April Fish and attempt to affix a paper fish on the back of unsuspected friends. No one likes to be the butt of the joke, but you can arm yourself and prepare. And if you’re going to participate in the “foolishness” of cloud apps, you must understand the four “knows” when jumping overboard:

  1. Know the limitations
  2. Know your need
  3. Know your threshold (for pain)
  4. Know when to walk away (or when to run)
Limitless Limits

SaaS applications are not always capable of meeting the stringent requirements of a mission-critical service. Typically sold in multi-tenant environments, SaaS applications thrive in that price point between community-supported platforms and the overly engineered platforms from larger vendors. Yet we should remember the old acronym TANSTAAFL, or “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

Inexpensive licenses or a per-user cost make SaaS and PaaS attractive to the small business. It also limits by necessity the feature-set. Few companies could stay in business by offering $5 a month access to an application on par with a professionally-produced alternative. Imagine the customer support costs alone. However, features that justify a higher cost from a bigger company may turn out to be unneeded extras in a SaaS app. If you don’t need the feature, then the cost for a SaaS app becomes a great selling point.

Need To Know

Knowing our limits reminds us to make sure we understand what we actually need. Do we need the ability to store information for analysis later or do we need advanced workflow capability with extensible scripting add-ons? Are prebuilt applications enticing when your application is custom and the data proprietary? The draw of an e-commerce market for additional functionality may not matter if you pay a developer to extend your capabilities.

Not All Pain is Gain

In giving up those extra features, are you locking yourself into a long-term roller coaster filled with exciting drops but commercially crippling turns? You think the ecommerce module is unneeded, but do you foresee a turn in your business model? How often has a fellow small business owner told you “I didn’t start out doing this?” A small business must always balance the needs of the future client with the realities of the current customer base.

Walk Away

Alas, sometimes things fall apart. Perhaps the compromise on features finally bit your business model. The hardware vendor isn’t adding additional storage at the rate you require, or worse, you can’t get them on the phone anymore. I’ve seen companies limp along without needed features or suffer with ones that don’t work as advertised, only to wash their hands of the situation in a fiery loss of business. This isn’t to say you can’t trust a SaaS provider, but the low cost of entry for cloud businesses is like the adjustable rate mortgage. It feels good going down, but might upset your stomach later.

Have an exit strategy if you need to move due to loss of functionality. Keep in mind the following things in case you have to switch to another SaaS provider:

  1. Export your data (CSV format assures compatibility)
  2. Exports workflows (if possible or print them out)
  3. Export custom data (logos or reports generated)
  4. Export custom logic and code (Java classes or other code)
Watch Your Back

SaaS applications can be the glue that strengthens a small business, provided you’re careful while you work. Just watch your back. In the meantime, I’m going to bed and I won’t get up again till April 2..

What lessons have you learned about working in the cloud successfully? What has worked (and what hasn’t worked) for your business?