SaaS: The Secret Weapon for Profits (and the Planet)

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Just What the Doctor Ordered

For fast-growing, SaaS 20 company athenahealth (the SaaS 20 is a stock index of leading, publically traded (SaaS companies), profit and planet are foremost on the agenda. With more than 17,300 medical providers live on the network, the company is working hard to make a dent in the paper mountain of bills and medical records that move through most medical practices. John Hallock, manager of public affairs and corporate communications at the company, revealed that athenahealth processed "over 23,000 pounds of paper in the month of October alone … saving the doctor’s offices a whole lot of pain." 

When a medical practice is an athenahealth client, they never receive a single fax. All paper that would go
into a medical practice is sent to athenahealth instead, which then enters it into the system where the doctor and his staff can access it.

Then, athenahealth gets to work on doing away with the paper for good, negotiating and building electronic interfaces to the payers, laboratories, and providers to avoid paper use in the future. "We work with Aetna, United Healthcare, Humana [and others] and build an interface to make that transaction paperless for the future," states Hallock. 

Given this continued effort at electronic conversion, athenahealth reached a high of 52% in its ERA rating (electronic remittance advice) at the end of 2008. ERA refers to the proportion of medical payments and transactions with payers that are entirely paperless. The digital workflow has had the added benefit of increasing the speed with which medical providers are paid, a fact for which athenahealth won awards in 2008.

"What the doctors don’t see are the 1.2 million clinical documents a year we scan." Hallock adds, "As a vendor, you have to do the scut work." This so-called scut work done on their behalf gives doctors more time to practice medicine and to see patients, which increases their satisfaction, affording athenahealth an "unbelievably high retention rate, well into the high 90 percents," according to Hallock. "Otherwise," he continues, "it’s like giving someone Google Earth then telling them to enter all the addresses themselves."

Real Virtual Success

In the ultimate green move, the shared, virtual workspace of Central Desktop has allowed some companies to do away with office space entirely. iSold It, an eBay drop-off store with 125 franchise locations across the country, recently closed its headquarters office that housed 30 employees in favor of working in a 100% virtual manner. Now, roughly 300 employees, franchisees, and partners use the system today. The company simply reserves meeting space for their face-to-face meetings, saving on day-to-day utilities and the maintenance of office space, not to mention the 2-hour daily commutes that some employees once braved in Los Angeles traffic.

Sometimes, green success turns not only by getting data into virtual form but also by optimizing how the electronic assets are used. Content management systems take aim at this problem, saving their clients disk space and time by helping them to organize and access their content. One such company is Alterian, with offices in the U.S. and the U.K., which offers online direct marketing tools and content management software.

According to Ian Truscott, VP of web content management product strategy, Alterian’s system allows a company such as AstraZeneca, which maintains about 100 different product websites, to reuse assets such as a logo and do away with confusion by maintaining what Truscott calls "a single version of truth." 

As an example of reducing environmental impact, an online lender of financing for homes and automobiles required 24 web servers to power its old solution. With Alterian’s Content Management Enterprise Edition, the company now only needs six web servers, vastly reducing the energy required to power the servers and to cool the data center.

The environmental impact of content management is that when one asset is not in use, a company will tend to store duplicates of assets in different systems, possibly to power different websites or for use by different company divisions. According to Truscott, "Most content management helps with consolidation of platforms as companies have different systems for different websites." Employing different systems uses more disk space, which requires more power and cooling. Thus, simply the consolidation of company data and assets into a single database results in a savings of computing capacity, facilities, and energy. 

The sheer quantity of electronic assets that some companies use boggles the mind and the company’s budget. For Industrial Color, dealing efficiently with multiple terabytes of data for each of its clients is business as usual. According to Aaron Holm, VP of development and integration at GLOBALedit, an Industrial Color division, the company handles 10 terabytes (TB) of glossy, high-resolution data for Victoria’s Secret. 

Customers using GLOBALedit, a system that connects professional photo production groups across their workflows, do away with the need for vast quantities of contact sheets, photo printouts, or FireWire drives used to complete a traditional ad campaign. So for clients such as NBC Universal, Gap/Old Navy, Warner Brothers, Playboy Enterprises, and Victoria’s Secret, which might do as many as 400 campaigns per year, this amounts to more than $1 million worth of contact sheet paper saved, not to mention $80,000 worth of FireWire drives—a total savings of nearly $1.5 million, which amounts to a savings of 78%. 

In addition to the environmental impact of saving all that photographic paper, GLOBALedit’s customers’ dollars are going toward an infrastructure that is shared and can be reused, unlike sheets of paper, so the green impact is amplified as several companies share the same resources to manage their media through this SaaS solution.

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The cloud seems to be manna to most analysts, investors, and vendors these days. As my colleague Alan Pelz-Sharpe writes, "It's a great term, ‘Cloud Computing,' since it conjures up visions of an invisible internet—an ether-like zone in the sky where computing power and storage is unfettered by the petty restrictions of boxes, cables, and technicians. Cloud computing sounds fluffy, it sounds cool, it sounds limitless, it sounds like the future."