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Review: Capsule, CRM for Small Business The pros and cons of an online tool that focuses on managing the sales pipeline.

By Jonathan Blum

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Screenshot of Capsule

The economic downturn has prompted many business owners to look for more efficient ways to stay connected to customers.

While most customer-relationship management (CRM) software can be too complex and costly for small businesses, a relatively new entrant on the market has the potential to be a Swiss Army knife for small groups. Capsule, a multitasking online tool, keeps the focus squarely where it should be: on sales.

Capsule offers a user-friendly, relatively affordable ($12 a month per user) combination of task-management systems, sales-pipeline technology and calendar tools.

Its maker is a British software company called Zestia Ltd., which has its sights on small businesses. Zestia's founders believe that most online productivity tools don't serve the little guys. Spreadsheets are often a struggle to keep even a basic running history of client interactions. Some CRM tools offer little flexibility. Highrise from 37signals LLC, for example, although relatively simple to deploy and learn, can require some technological finesse when extracting data for other programs. Meantime, big-time organization tools like Inc. can be far too complex and learning the program's intricacies can take considerable time.

Zestia is a three-year-old company consisting of just three coders in Wilmslow, just south of Manchester, U.K. Considering the agony most small businesses go through to get organized, the idea of a tool for small businesses made by a small business is intriguing. Here's a look at the good, the bad, and the bottom line.

The Good

1. It's easy to get started.
Set-up and start-up are a relative breeze. Capsule has an uncluttered, open layout. Logos and graphics are on the upper-left of the screen, and tabs run across the top. The main dashboard showcases tabs such as tasks, updates and active business projects or deals. Capsule also integrates well with other small-business systems, such as Google Inc.'s Google Apps, Microsoft Inc.'s Excel, Rocket Science Group LLC's MailChimp and Xero Ltd.'s accounting software.

2. It's simple yet powerful.
The program packs a lot of small-business information into a small space. The tabs across the top of the dashboard make ready sense: People and organizations (contacts), sales pipeline, calendar, tasks and cases (things that need to be managed internally). There is space for about a dozen task-specific tabs. And though Capsule, like all Web-based office tools, takes time and effort to deploy, you can quickly begin basic business functions.

3. It keeps the focus on selling.
Capsule forces its users to think about problems they need to solve to make sales. For example, qualifying leads and looking for a return on investment are intrinsic to each deal. What's more, sales targets and estimates on sales opportunities are presented in powerful graphics. Expect the tool to foster some healthy internal debate when determining the parameters for qualifying leads, measuring sales opportunities and organizing the process for landing new business.

The Bad

1. Customization can be challenging.
If you plan to use Capsule's advanced features to customize the system for your business, be prepared to first engage in a serious "group think." Capsule may ease the burden of thinking as a team about how to get things done once your workflow steps are in place, but agreeing on the best approach isn't any easier. For example, even simple decisions like how to name projects may take a surprising amount of effort. That said, this stumbling block is common to most web-based collaboration tools that can be customized.

2. The learning curve for advanced functions can be steep.
As easy as Capsule is to deploy initially, small groups will face some challenges managing more complex tasks. Capsule's lexicon will take some getting used to. Plan for training time to master all its intricacies. For example, the concept of the "Pipeline by Tags," that is, sales opportunities that are organized by short definitions attached to clients and tasks, will take some to get right. And there are some rough edges in the service. For example, email integration can be particularly clumsy.

3. Backups are a must.
Capsule users will want to back up all data on a PC that they directly control. While Zestia says Capsule has thousands of users and the company pledges to support customers in the event the firm ever closes, it is a small business outside the U.S. Some business owners may feel more comfortable trusting their information to a larger company. That said, Capsule does have relatively easy procedures for exporting company information.

The Bottom Line

For a company just starting with online collaboration, or looking for an easy upgrade, Capsule could be at the top of a list to consider. It offers the sales-oriented focus that small teams need. But if you're already running another software management system, is it worth switching to Capsule? That's a tough call. As promising as Capsule is for small groups, it still requires a big effort to manage properly.

This capsule is worth trying, but it still might hurt to swallow.

Jonathan Blum is a freelance writer and the principal of Blumsday LLC, a Web-based content company specializing in technology news.

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