Cloud Storage Comparison – 2014 edition

You’d think you had this all figured out – there’s your Dropbox and Google Drive and OneDrive and… wait, that’s one too many already. Recently I have noticed that my paid-for 100GB of Dropbox space is over 80% full. There’s a folder with PSD images from my photography thing, there’s backups of web sites, both live and gone, there’s documents, receipts, some e-books I am reading, a few backups of software I may or may not need. I keep getting more and more of these – mostly photography, but other stuff as well. Backups of forms from our laser hair removal business. Clients’ backups. Clients’ digital assets and raw files. Clients’ photography – both RAW and edited. It looks like I’m gonna need a way bigger boat.

Before I started looking I had my own ideas and desires. First of all – I wanted to minimize the hassle of moving, so I was really looking forward to either stay with Dropbox or at least retain it in some form. I also have a huge collection of clients’ images on Picasa (including a lot of embedded ones) and I wasn’t looking forward to moving them around in any way. Last, but not least, I really wanted to like OneDrive – primarily because Microsoft bundles online versions of Office applications with it or grants additional 20GB of space should you subscribe to Office 365. Not everything came through, but I still was in less trouble than I thought.

First of all – I was not looking at free tier offerings. Given that I need to move around almost a terabyte of data I needed something better than a couple of gigs here and there. I also looked for a storage solution that won’t limit the size of the file – at least to a reasonable level, have been around for a while, allows sharing of files and whole folders, works on mobile and PC (I cannot imagine having another Mac in my household or business any time soon, so no iAnything for me as well) and allows multiple clients to work simultaneously (so I can upload stuff from my laptop in the field and get files on my home workstation – and vice versa). This eliminated most of exotic solutions (sorry, Mega.co.nz). Unfortunately, Box.com had to go as well due to their weird file size limits. Amazon S3, RRS and Glacier didn’t make it because their usability depends solely on the quality of the client you are using (and what happens when it gets discontinued?) plus their pricing is so through the roof I wasn’t even thinking about them. Some of the services I tried and ran away for various reasons – mostly because their client software lacks sanity, usability or both. What was left is in the table below. All prices are taken from each vendor’s web site on 6/4/2014.

Click image to enlarge

In order to compare these providers I got all their plans down into a single table, then calculated the lowest price per gigabyte per year. This way the comparison would make the most sense to me: if I were to buy a single gigabyte of space for a year at a most favorable price – what would it cost me.

The first place is shared between Google Drive and Bitcasa. No one comes close to their 12 cent per gigabyte. Additional benefits for Google Drive include easy sharing of photos from Picasa or Google+, small size images (under 2048×2048) don’t take up space, tight integration with multiple OSes and mobile systems and automatic upload of images from mobile device. With Bitcasa it’s a bit more complicated – although their pricing is just as good as Google’s – their support section is nonexistent and while I see a lot of happy reports on their services I have not seen them around long enough to put my files there (we’re talking about investing a lot of time to backup large amounts of data). They are also the only two providers with officially published prices for storage over 1TB – Bitcasa offers 5GB for $49/month and Unlimited for $100/month while Google doles out 10, 20 and 30GB for $100, $200 and $300 per month respectively. The only concern for Google’s storage is their uncertainty towards Google+ and the fact that Picasa hasn’t really been updated much.

Next in line, surprisingly, is 4Sync – not another big IT name, but these guys have been around long enough and their services make sense. They allow sharing of images and files, including direct link (although only for paid users), their sync client isn’t too complicated (although not without issues) and they are pretty generous on their free tier, so you can test the hell out of them. One the con side I’ve read about some issues with reliability and that does cast a shadow on their otherwise interesting offering.

Third place is (again) shared – between Microsoft’s OneDrive and SugarSync. Pricing is so very close that I decided that both deserve this position. OneDrive works pretty much the same way as Google Drive or DropBox, can sync across computers, backup current computer configuration and pull mobile device’s photos. The only (huge) problem with OneDrive is its inability to provide direct link to images for embedding – instead you’re getting an iFrame to embed and to click on. This, of course, is unacceptable for photo sharing and publication. SugarSync appears to be in the same boat, however, their advantage is that you can sync folders anywhere on your computer – not just a designated “dropbox” folder.

Runner-up to first three places is DropBox. Their $1 per gigabyte is one of the highest prices on the market. Embedding is possible, although requires some poking around links and features and, therefore, totally unacceptable if you want to publish a post with multiple images or if you want to build a gallery (and Dropbox’s own gallery view is extremely poorly designed which makes it practically useless). The sad part is that Dropbox has become a really robust and powerful solution, so it’s sad to see it losing the game due to price alone. Given that they are the least generous on their free tier offering I can see them losing out fast to many other providers.

The conclusion is rather simple, as far as my personal use is concern. In my case instead of 100GB for $100 that I am paying Dropbox I will be able to get a terabyte of storage for $120 from Google. My DropBox account expires some time in November so I expect to fully migrate all assets into Google Drive by then. It’s rather convenient that I won’t have to move 200+ albums of images to another provider, but everything else (all 80-something gigabytes) will have to be moved. I would still take advantage of OneDrive by migrating my documents there to be able to edit them using Online Word, but it’s a tiny chunk of a pie anyway.

Supplies And Cost Optimization

Since we have picked up a subject of money in the previous post, I thought I’d pick up where I left off. Obviously, having enough supplies is important – while you can get away without a thing or two, in general supplies are what makes your business running. It’s the grease for the wheels. As with all logistical issues too many can be just as bad as too few.

At the beginning of operations we have agreed not to spend much time on supply hunting, preferring the convenience of fast delivery to price. With that in mind we signed up for Amazon Prime and that solved our problem of ordering when we “almost ran out” of something. Most of supply items are eligible for Prime and, therefore, delivered for free through two-day shipping. They would be overpriced items, at least at the beginning, but we have decided that given small space we were allowed to operate in and inability to stock up (and take advantage of wholesale price) might as well be offset by prompt delivery time. This was especially true during certain promotions, when we started running out of things differently than before.

Once the business had a full schedule and had run through the motions a few times, the time has come to the point where we could optimize the costs. Knowing what we needed and how often allowed us to order certain things in advance forgoing Prime shipping, but winning on the cost of the items. Additionally, certain items were being replaced with their less expensive equivalents: do you really need one of the most expensive paper towel s to wipe equipment clean after disinfection or can you do away with cheaper brand? Having certain predictability allowed us to forgo Amazon completely and order from other merchants, who don’t quite adhere to such strict shipping policies.

Yet another thing on our savings list was to verify if we, indeed, needed to use certain things at all. For example, we always offered single use razors for patients who forgot to shave the treatment area prior to their appointment. It sounded like a pretty neat idea at the beginning, taking care of your clients and all. What we’ve discovered was that it significantly increased the length of individual appointment (what could have taken 10 minutes dragged for full half hour), is totally unpredictable (we only learned of the situation at the moment a client walked in) and person who decided to shave on the spot still felt very uncomfortable. This led to major schedule shifts, people waiting excessive amounts of time or even leaving without receiving a treatment. From almost any point of view this benefit was creating more trouble than it was worth. We decided to ditch razors altogether. We changed the language on any promotional items requiring the shave and stating that person who didn’t shave will not receive the treatment and lose their appointment or session (in case of a voucher from a deal site). While it may sound a bit tough on customers we actually received a positive feedback on this move as schedule became just a little more predictable. And we dropped purchasing one item off our supply list.

The always fluid nature of offers on the market creates a never ending quest to seek the most efficient way to supply your own business. This takes time and goes along with “deal hunting” (that I was frowning upon in two previous articles). The upside is that you are getting merchandise, not services, and therefore can always objectively assess whether you are getting a good deal or not.

Truth About Deal Sites. Part 2 – While You’re At It

Dealing with clients who are coming from coupon sites is a whole different can of worms compared to regular clients (and a form of entertainment – if you are into that sort of thing). The mentality of a person, buying under-priced deals and expecting same or better level of everything: service, attention and respect is beyond me. If you are buying something tangible (say – a tablet or another gadget) with 80% discount, you can realize that you are buying a four-year old model that someone overstocked on awhile ago. You get what you pay for. When it comes to services this understanding goes away. People expect getting $600 worth of service for $99. Let me break a hard truth to you – if a company is providing a six-hundred-dollar service exactly the same way for a hundred dollars they are either selling an overpriced service or they are losing money.

Let’s look at it from money perspective.

Most of laser hair removal treatments come in packages of six. Let’s say you purchase six sessions on a small area for $99 on a deal site (the most common purchase so far). Looks reasonable, right? Only $16.50 per session – close to lunch money, if you’re in Manhattan. With coupon sites splitting the check around 50/50 (they get half and merchant is getting half – or close to that), the business only sees half of the money you paid. Which means they are making $8.25 per treatment.

An average laser technician is making in the vicinity of 10 – 15 dollars per hour. Some places pay a percentage off of each treatment on top of that. Some let the technician keep all their tips (instead of, say, sharing all tips across all technicians who worked that day) and allow them to sell and make a percentage off the sold treatment. But for the sake of simplicity let’s settle on $15 per hour as a close approximation to hourly rate and percentages. Surely, a small area doesn’t take an hour to do, but even the busiest places can hardly squeeze a small area into less than 10 minutes – with client getting in, prepping or applying gel, treating, signing consent form, removing gel, etc, etc. Facial treatments are even longer, because you have to be more careful with the treatment itself. So we can expect an average technician to perform about five small area treatments per hour if she worked like a factory worker at a conveyor belt. Let’s not discuss the fact that you don’t want to be treated like a piece of machinery, but rather like a human being. So an hour of one technician’s work can generate close to $40 of revenue. Out of which $15 dollars is her salary alone. Which leaves business with $25 per hour to cover the rest. There are lost appointments (when customer cancels or reschedules at the last minute and there’s no one else to put in his/her appointment slot), laser machines payments (a single good laser machine can cost up to $200,000 plus its own maintenance and insurance plans), supplies, utilities, rent, business insurance, maintenance, salary of the receptionist (if there is one) to consider as well. If you add all costs together, a business can consider itself lucky if they break even on a coupon sale. It gets worse if a deal site starts competing with another deal site and tries to bring your coupon price from $99 to $79 (for the lazy – a business is then makes $6.58 – just over a price of cup of coffee at Starbucks). It gets worse on larger areas, that’s why most of businesses stopped selling large areas on coupon sites. In other words – it’s next to impossible to make money on coupons, your best bet is not to loose money on it and hope to convert.

Given that, business owners are doing two things. First and foremost – they are trying to upsell coupon customers – obviously. A converted customer is the only way to make money on a coupon sale. Recently we noticed some coupon customers complaining on Yelp that businesses are trying to sell them other packages. How dare they! The fact that Yelp decides to publish these reviews also tells you about the overall quality of their review system. But that’s whole another story.

Second thing any reasonable business owner would do is to try and minimize his costs on coupon customers – especially those who don’t convert. Given that each customer gets six treatments, a business has about four to five chances to sell to one particular customer (it’s almost impossible to sell on first visit or two, so I am discounting for that). Some customers complain that their treatment at our place took longer than at other places. That’s because at their previous place they weren’t converting and that business owner decided not to waste technician’s time on these clients. They still got their treatment, but without the regular zeal and a lot faster – as their own words confirm.

Speaking of mentality of coupon buyers even coupon agents themselves note that customer loyalty on coupon sites doesn’t exist. The whole coupon industry have groomed a special kind of customers who shop based on price alone. In my many negotiations with deal sites one of the reasons cited to me was literally “if we make our coupon one dollar more than competition – no one will buy, they will go with the lowest price”. It’s not necessarily the absolute truth, as we found out in our running, but it is the general case.

Another edge of this, apparently, multiple-edged knife, is the next level of deal-searcher. They like a place, but really don’t want to spend money. They load up on coupons purchased through multiple credit cards so that coupon site cannot track and enforce their “one voucher per customer” rule and show up at the door with stack of vouchers (the most we have seen so far was six vouchers for one client – all purchased through multiple accounts with slightly different name) and demand the service because they “have a voucher you must honor”. If for some reason a business owner isn’t around to intervene – they have a chance to succeed in getting their treatment, because a technician or receptionist don’t have any say in these matters. The proper course of action, of course, is to call the coupon site’s customer service and let them deal with a cheater. From my experience most of deal sites do their best to protect merchants in such cases, but it requires some effort.

To add injury to insult – the coupon clientele is the most vocal when it comes to complaints. If you cannot accommodate their appointment this week they will call the voucher company and tell them they can’t get in touch for weeks (this is mostly entertaining when they have purchased their voucher a day ago) with you or you’re booked for three months or some such nonsense. Surprisingly, people who are purchasing direct (even if with a discount) are usually very respectful and a lot easier to work with. Guess they understand the concept “you get what you paid for” much better.

Running your own small business is a challenge.