Ask me what the cloud is you’ll hear about agility, multi-tenancy, scalability, collaboration, and even a little bit of Benioff vs. Ellison “false cloud” drama. But ask small businesses the same question and a lot of them will give you a simplified answer: The cloud is this cool thing that enables them to virtually store files that can then be accessed from any device. Super handy! This notion is the reason consumer products like Dropbox are getting so much love. 

Solving Universal Problems, Plain and Simply

Since its grand debut in 2008, Dropbox has played on the simplified idea of cloud-based file storage by offering a no-frills service. Users essentially create an account, upload a file, and suddenly they can not only access it from any device or location, but they can share it with others as well.

This approach has done the company quite well. Today, Dropbox’s user count checks in at a healthy 45 million (up from 24 million in April, 2011) and a recent injection of US$ 250 million in funding will certainly help things going forward.

While there are plenty of people out there who would chalk this success up to Dropbox’s initial target audience (consumers), the company’s VP of business development and sales, Sujay Jaswa, has a different explanation:

You can read all these articles — Dropbox is in the consumer market, other companies are in the business market. But it’s just not the case. It’s like Google search — you use Google at work, you use Google at home. You use your iPhone at work, you use it for personal calls as well. We’re lucky that we’ve created a service that happens to be one of those kinds of things. 

Dropping Into Small Businesses

I've lost count of the number of use cases I found for Dropbox in the business world, but it essentially boils down to the basics:

1. Shared Folders

Shared folders is one of the main features of Dropbox. They make it possible for multiple users to share files with each other, prompting collaboration and group document management.

“We store everything and exchange and collaborate on files just like you would in any server environment,” wrote marketing consultant John Jantsch. “The main difference, of course, is that our Dropbox server is in the cloud and we can easily access all files (even those being worked on by folks back at the ranch) when I travel or someone works from home. (If you elect to Kick Out a team member they will no longer have access to the folders and the files will be permanently deleted from their hard drives.)”

2. Public Links

Let’s say you’ve just given a presentation and you want to send a copy of the accompanying slides to your audience, but the file is too large to e-mail. With the public branded link feature you can upload files into a Public folder, and then grab a download link that can be passed to anyone. This allows users access the files without accessing the actual folder (no deleting/editing possible).

3. File Recovery

File recovery is always a delicious option. By default, Dropbox saves a history of all deleted and earlier versions of files for 30 days. And if that’s not comforting enough for you, the optional Pack-Rat add-on saves history indefinitely.

4. Dropbox = My Documents

If you’re using Windows Vista or 7 at work, you can store your My Documents folder in Dropbox, thereby syncing all your files in the cloud. Just right-click My Documents, go to the Location tab, and click the Move button to relocate the folder to your Dropbox directory. Boom! Now all of your work files are accessible from any device and automatically backed up to Dropbox.

Everyone knows that they key to widespread business adoption is solid security controls. Dropbox claims to be working on such features, and most recently proved it with the release of Dropbox for Teams. For US$ 795 per year, up to five users can enjoy 1 TB of storage, administrative controls, centralized billing and phone support in addition to the platform’s stock features.

A Hammer vs. a Swiss Army Knife

I know what a lot of you are thinking, and it’s something along the lines of me being completely wacko for talking about using a platform like Dropbox for business when there are similar solutions designed specifically for enterprise use.

I don’t disagree that other user-friendly platforms -- mainly -- offer way more features and complex security controls than Dropbox. But it’s also important to consider the state of Enterprise Collaboration as it stands today.

In a recent Forrester report (The Enterprise 2.0 User Profile: 2011), the research company found that just 22% of E2.0 software users consider social software tools to be vital to their work day. And despite the push for layers of social technology (Yammer, Cisco,, Jive) over half of today’s company’s are using just one single social tool:

Tim Young, CEO and Founder of Socialcast (recently acquired by VMware) also spoke to employees preferring a hammer over a Swiss Army knife at this year's Enterprise 2.0 conference in Santa Clara. He said that too many options give us anxiety; that if we want to feel like superheroes at work, we basically need to try and match our cranial capacity to our tools. 

The tweets that followed buttressed this idea even further: 



This isn't to say that more sophisticated file-sharing solutions like aren't carrying their own weight (the platform has 8 million enterprise users and counting), but there's a method to the madness of consumer adoption, and it may be just what we need to ease into business platforms with extra bells and whistles. The number of people bringing it into their own work place certainly makes me think so.