Jennifer deJong

Getting ready to address a roomful of real estate agents, Alex Charfen was in a bind. His laptop wouldn't start, and the PowerPoint slides he had prepared for the presentation were locked inside. "I was standing in front of 75 people who had paid $500 apiece to be there," said the principal of the Distressed Property Institute. "What was I going to do -- call tech support to come in and fix my computer?"

That wasn't an option. The six-employee startup, which trains real estate agents to help financially troubled homeowners fend off foreclosure, doesn't have a dedicated computer specialist on staff. And in any case, figuring out why the computer failed would take more time than Charfen had. Thinking on his feet, he borrowed a laptop from one of the attendees. Five minutes later he was back in business, teaching real estate agents how to get lenders behind bad mortgages to settle for "short sales," where proceeds from a property sale don't cover the balance of the loan.

Charfen's PowerPoint presentation was stored on the Web in a document management site called Xythos on Demand. "All I had to do was sign in and get it," he said. He is, of course, pleased that Xythos helped him avert a crisis, but that wasn't what he had in mind when he opened his account a couple of years ago. "I was tired of e-mailing business documents back and forth to co-workers," he said. "We had a hundred different versions of files on e-mail. Some were Mac; some were PC." It was time-consuming to comb through messages, folders, and attachments to find what he was looking for. And that wasn't the only drawback of using e-mail to manage documents. The approach simply doesn't work for very large files, said Charfen, noting that some DPI presentations run 200 MB -- too big to attach to an e-mail message. Now, for $40 to $60 a month, DPI keeps its key business documents on Xythos on Demand. "We have advertising PDFs, flyers for the different courses, live files we are editing, and all of our PowerPoint presentations," said Charfen.

Xythos on Demand and its competitors operate at the small- and midsize-business level of the market, said Forrester Research analyst Craig Le Clair. "They are about managing business content -- primarily, the output of Microsoft [Office] applications." Such offerings are very different from traditional document management or content management systems aimed at large enterprises executing complex business processes, such as handling documents associated with insurance claims, added IDC analyst Melissa Webster. Services like Xythos on Demand meet a more basic need for storing and sharing documents through a Web interface, she said. "You want to get [business documents] off the file server, off e-mail." Web-based document management avoids the problem of, "It's on the file server, someplace. I can't remember which drive or what I named the file," she said.

Xythos on Demand lets customers store any file type, including video clips. Pricing is based on how much storage capacity the customer requires and the number of users on the account, said Jim Till, Xythos chief marketing officer. Xythos also backs up customer files and stores them off-site. That aspect of the online offering is critical for DPI, Charfen said. "We know where our documents are. We know they are backed up. We know they are secure."

Xythos also makes it easy for customers to search for files within their accounts, manage file versions, and define which employees can see which files. To enable customers to share documents with colleagues outside their account, Xythos uses what it calls "tickets," which rely on SSL encryption technologies to transfer data securely, Till said.

Business Benefits
For DPI, Xythos isn't just a convenience. It's actually central to how the company does business. In fact, DPI, launched in January 2008, has never operated without it. (Charfen first opened his Xythos account while running his previous real estate company.) Xythos on Demand serves DPI in four key ways:

Acts as a central repository for a virtual operation. Like many small startups, DPI has no official headquarters. Employees work out their homes in Florida, Texas, and Washington state, and Charfen expects to soon add staff in California. DPI needed a central place to store key information assets without having to rely on e-mail, and Xythos serves that role, he said.

Keeps DPI on message. The central repository ensures that all DPI sales and marketing documents, such as proposals and flyers used to advertise courses, share the same consistent messaging, regardless of which employee sends them to which prospects and customers. Without that central source, employees tend to add their own touches to marketing documents, said Charfen. And over time, consistent messaging is lost.

Eliminates the cost of software licenses and servers. DPI didn't consider hosting its own document management system in-house. "It didn't make sense," Charfen said. Those systems are typically more expensive and sophisticated than DPI needed.

"Xythos costs us $400 to $600 a year. I can't maintain a server with backup and redundancy at that price," he said. Opting for online document management also eliminated the labor-intensive tasks around managing computers, freeing Charfen from having to wear his IT hat. "As principal of a small company, I am also the IT guy."

Presents a professional image. DPI supplies a number of different documents to the real estate agents who attend its courses. Many, such as manuals and the forms that banks require distressed homeowners to file, are handed out at the events themselves. But electronic distribution, via Xythos tickets, is a key channel for follow-up after the course. "Sometimes we send a couple of new forms or a list of best practices for dealing with a particular mortgage company," said Charfen. Xythos allows DPI to do that while also maintaining a professional image. Free online file-sharing sites offer a similar service, but the links they forward to file recipients are typically accompanied by advertising, he said. "We don't like that image that presents. It doesn't look professional."

Xythos on Demand has paid off for DPI in a big way. Without access to Charfen's presentation on the Web, DPI might have lost tens of thousands of dollars, refunding the course fee to a roomful of disappointed real estate agents. And then there's the damage to DPI's reputation. Even if Xythos hadn't helped Charfen out a bad situation, the monthly Xythos expenditure would have paid for itself. "We are a small business, and everything we do is cost-driven," he said. "DPI looks for payback around every expenditure, and it was there."

Jennifer deJong is a business technology writer in Waltham, Mass.