Knowledge truly is power. When it comes to successfully running your small business, there is no denying that the more you know about your operations and your customers, the more effectively you can manage and grow your company.

If you’re like most small business owners, you probably have a prodigious amount of data on everything from sales, to payments and refunds, to appointments, invoice history, search marketing metrics, email response rates, inventory levels, external vendors, payroll, cash flow, and more. Unfortunately, simply having data is not the same as understanding what it can holistically tell you about your business. In fact, unless you use a program or system to analyze that data and put it in context, you are more likely to be overwhelmed into inaction than enlightened.

That’s the problem business intelligence software is designed to solve. Unless you’ve been under a rock (or so focused on your own small business that you have blocked-out everything else), you’re probably aware that we’re living in the age of “Big Data.” Large companies have invested millions in huge complex systems, and the personnel to run them, in order to glean strategic insights from the enormous amount of data they collect. These systems use giant data stores to join data points from multiple sources, and then provide tools that can be used to create dashboards containing charts and graphs that enable high-level operational overviews, as well as the ability to drill-down into the data to answer very specific questions about a business.

While these systems have their place, they are simply not in any way practical for a small business. And, until recently a small business owner was relegated to using spreadsheets and associated graphing functions to combine and visualize data, or to using the isolated and very limited dashboards and data graphing tools included with function-specific software such as Salesforce and Google Analytics.

Happily that is beginning to change. Most notably, last week Microsoft officially launched Power BI. This business intelligence application is specifically targeted to the SMB market, and designed to be easily learned and utilized by anyone, not just those big business data specialists. While the application does offer robust features, at its simplest it lets a small business owner import data from multiple sources, analyze that data, and create dashboards with graphic representations of the data.

Here’s a sample dashboard:

While there is quite a lot you can do with the application, take a tour here and view the getting started tutorials here, there are two key features that make Power BI standout: The ability to seamlessly integrate data with other web-based small business applications, and the ability to use natural language questions to dynamically create data visualizations.

  • In addition to enabling you to import stored static data from Excel or other spreadsheet programs, Power BI currently includes 18 pre-built content packs for popular web-based small business applications including Salesforce, QuickBooks online, Marketo, MailChimp, Google Analytics, Twillo, and GitHub. (Microsoft claims to be committed to rapidly adding more content packs.) With the connection tool you use your individual credentials for these applications and pull your data into Power BI. Power BI then builds an initial set of data visualizations for you based on the imported data. You can drill deeper into these charts and graphs, create new ones, or join data from multiple sources to generate more holistic views of your business. Power BI automatically updates from all of your linked data sources in order to provide a consistently current view. See a tutorial example for connecting to Salesforce here.
  • Power BI includes design tools for joining data sources and creating visualizations. But, even more useful (and quicker) is the Q & A tool. You simply type a query, such as “which region has the highest sales conversion rate,” and Power BI dynamically generates a chart or graph using your data to visually provide the answer. The tool logic relies on the data labels in your source material, so don’t expect it to be able to give you information about regional sales if you don’t have columns labeled “Sales” and “Region,” but it is a fast and easy way to query complex data sets without having to master a design tool.

However, the very best thing about Power BI is that it provides all of this functionality for free. While there is a paid $9.99/user/month version, for most small business owners the free version will do just fine. The only reason to go with the paid version is if you have too much data for the free one (over 1GB), or if you need to refresh your data more frequently than once per day. (See a free/paid comparison here.)

Power BI is available as a web-based application, as a desktop download for Windows 7 and higher designed for creating shareable reports, and as a mobile application for Windows, Android, and iOS. It is definitely worth your time to check it out and register for a free account. This third-party Power BI tutorial from business intelligist is a helpful way to get started.

If you give it a try and don’t like it, just stop using it (but remember to remove any links to other web-applications). There are other options for free business intelligence applications including the web-based Tableau Public and the Windows desktop application Qlik Sense, but both of those offerings are stripped-down versions of robust (and expensive) BI applications.

This post (which you will need to register with an email address to read) compares full versions of Tableau, Qlik Sense, and Power BI. While it is not exactly a fair comparison, as it is essentially comparing free software with software that costs thousands of dollars a year, it does highlight some of the key strengths and weaknesses of Power BI and its competitors.

Whichever solution you choose, or even if you decide to stick with that trusty Excel spreadsheet, be sure you take the time to routinely review what your business data is telling you. It is far too easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day tasks associated with running your business and to put off the equally important analysis that will enable you to successfully optimize and grow your small business.

Added Tip for PaySimple Customers: Use the export feature for Customers, Payments, and Invoices as well as Excel exports of custom and standard reports, to import PaySimple data into a business intelligence application such as Power BI.

Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I'm the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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