Using the Cloud to Track Migrant Workers and Pregnant Goats

Photographer: Phil Fisk/Getty Images

A goat farm in Arcata, Calif. (not shown) uses Smartsheet for tasks ranging from financials to tracking goat breeding. Close

A goat farm in Arcata, Calif. (not shown) uses Smartsheet for tasks ranging from... Read More

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Photographer: Phil Fisk/Getty Images

A goat farm in Arcata, Calif. (not shown) uses Smartsheet for tasks ranging from financials to tracking goat breeding.

Employers of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. can have a tough time following the rules. They need to track each employee's immigration forms, workers' compensation, labor disputes, health-care options and more. The complex system is partly why many choose to look the other way when workers apply without legal documentation.

Veg Packer, a Mexico- and California-based farm owner employing more than 1,000 workers, used basic Excel spreadsheets to log the information for years. Managers would grumble about receiving e-mails with out-of-date files and missing attachments.

In 2011, Veg Packer switched to Smartsheet, a cloud-based service that looks like Excel but can do things the Microsoft program can't. Yes, productivity software can be boring, but Smartsheet's project-management tools make it easy to assign tasks, attach relevant documents and set timed reminders. Every change is synced instantly with the version on the server. Now, Veg Packer administrators get an alert when a worker's papers need to be renewed and the lengthy documentation required can be attached directly to the spreadsheet.

"Excel was great for its time, but its time has come and gone," says Steve Scaroni, the founder of Veg Packer, which grows, harvests, trucks or refrigerates the lettuce found in about one in four salads consumed in the U.S.

Microsoft Office, once a staple for any business small or large, hadn't kept up with the ways many companies share information today. Employees expect to be able to quickly access their files on each of their devices without worrying about where the latest version is. Recently, Microsoft and Google have stepped up their efforts to develop and promote cloud software, and upstarts in Web synchronization, such as Dropbox and Box, are doing similar outreach to businesses.

Today, Smartsheet announced a $35 million funding round led by Sutter Hill Ventures in Palo Alto, California. Smartsheet CEO Mark Mader declined to disclose the software maker's valuation, except to say it's more than $100 million and less than $1 billion.

Founded in 2006, Bellevue, Washington-based Smartsheet has carved out a niche. It has about 42,000 paying customers, and was used to manage logistics for the Super Bowl and Final Four. Companies outside the tech industry like Veg Packer that are more likely to be comfortable using traditional spreadsheets — or worse, clipboards — are giving the software a try. That's because it's tuned to work the way many businesses actually use Excel.

Co-founder Brent Frei says even though customers at his previous company Onyx Software owned specialized project management programs, they did much of those tasks in regular old spreadsheets instead. But they ran into issues when they couldn't attach files to the spreadsheets or work simultaneously on the same file. Frei aimed to keep the familiarity of a spreadsheet, add missing features and leave out the ones most users don't need. According to Smartsheet, 60 percent of all spreadsheet users don't touch the complex financial formulas and data analysis functions.

For now, Smartsheet seems to be coexisting with Microsoft and Google. The latter actually uses Smartsheet internally, one of a small number of cloud programs from other vendors that Google authorizes for internal use, says Mader. Google and Microsoft declined to comment.

But as any fan of the movie "Office Space" knows, data entry isn't a particularly exciting field. For better or worse, it's where information workers tend to spend a sizable chunk of their days. Microsoft Office, the largest by far, has at least a billion users.

"The market hasn't traditional been very sexy," says Mader. "But I consider a billion users really sexy."

One of those sexy users is Cypress Grove Chevre, which makes goat cheese in Arcata, California. In addition to tracking financial information, the company uses Smartsheet to log food-safety data and goat fertility.

A Gantt chart keeps tabs on how many goats are enceinte, how long gestation takes and the time between pregnancies, says Ian Ray, the company's network administrator. That helps Cypress Grove identify which animals it should devote to breeding and how often they should get it on. The herd currently numbers about 500, and the company wants to get to 1,200 in four to five years.

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