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Netbooks: Almost a do-it-all small-business suite

NetBooks is an interesting Web-only small-business suite.

Per my previous rant on Web start-ups that lack a Big Idea, here's one I appreciate, since it's trying to solve a real problem: NetBooks. This company has built a Web-based suite of interconnected apps designed to run a small business.

It's a noble effort, because the small-business market is murder. It's not that there's a lack of customers, it's just that they are so hard to reach and so different from each other. Building a universal small-biz app is a tricky balancing act.

It looks to me like NetBooks might eventually pull it off, although I'd wait for a Version 2 before I'd recommend the service to my friends who run their own small businesses.

NetBooks: Not exciting, but useful.

In the functions and features department, NetBooks is off to a strong start. If your business fits into the NetBooks target space (product-based businesses, not consultancies), you'll find a rich collection of databases and business logic to manage customers, inventory, shipping, and bookkeeping. For my own demo, I worked a sales order through picking, shipping, and billing. The application correctly moved items from inventory, created shipping labels, an invoice, and so on.

But while CEO Ridgely Evers pitched me on NetBooks as a "complete business operating system," some core functions, such as payroll and e-mail list management, are handled through partnerships (PayCycle and Vertical Response, respectively). Integration with these critical functions seems to be lacking.

And while I'm a big proponent of Web-based applications for workgroups, in NetBooks' case the reliance on the Web doesn't do the application favors. While the architecture guarantees that everyone using it is working on the same data and can get to it from anywhere, the NetBooks UI is archaic: Screens are filled with tiny text and selection boxes, and many rely on drab and uniform tabs for additional info. Navigating from screen to screen is slow. This app needs a UI refresh.

Pretty much everything you need is on the NetBooks screens, but the UI could be more contemporary.

The big difference between NetBooks and QuickBooks Online Edition is that NetBooks is designed to serve all parts of a business, not just bookkeepers. There are lightweight CRM forms in NetBooks, for example.

The suite has only "hundreds" of customers so far, and it is evolving. Evers also told me NetBooks will soon add more features to help its users run a Web-based retail store, and that there will be a cash register (point of sale) module soon, too. However, he's not going to expand the product to serve non-product-based businesses any time soon.

The product costs $200 a month for eight users (you business' CPA, bookkeeper, and marketing professional; plus five others of your choosing). Additional users can be added for a fee. Telephone support from actual company employees is included; Evers says he doesn't appreciate the "deterrent support model" of requiring users to seek other users for support; or for obnoxious hold music that drives customers away.

NetBooks is not yet the killer Web-based office-data suite that Evers wants it to be, but it's a solid app that solves several small-business problems.

See also: NetSuite.