8 Big Productivity Tools for Small Businesses

Lately, I’ve been meeting tons of great owners of small businesses with fantastic ideas, boundless enthusiasm and passion for their work. What struck me was how poorly equipped they were, technologically speaking.

From working with computers that only booted when they felt like it, printers that had to be coaxed into cooperating and accounting still done on paper or using software they didn’t understand, they all expressed frustration (some in colourful words!) at the challenges of running their business.

It inspired me to put together a list of some of the tools that are closest to my heart to run a small business without losing your mind.

The right setup

Anyone who’s ever popped by this blog will know I’m a Mac geek, so a few of the tools are Mac-biased, but the majority will apply whatever your platform of choice.

Abstracting from the software and tools, first there’s the right desk and working setup. Get a computer that’s fast enough for you to work efficiently. No, you don’t need a 24GB RAM Mac Pro if you mostly do email, browsing and word processing, but you need a reliable machine. If you’re a laptop user, do yourself a favour and take good care of your battery so that it gives you plenty of life when you’re unplugged.

Work from home? Set yourself up with a self-respecting desk, chair and screen. Sitting on the bed or sofa is going to hurt in the long term, trust me. I won’t lecture you about posture and ergonomics but, right now, sit straight please.

Software & web apps

FreeAgent Accounting Software

I’m starting with this one as it was SUCH a revelation for me. I used to launch a virtual machine into Windows XP, use QuickBooks and want to jump off a bridge every time I had to do any accounting. It was downright painful and I had NO idea what I was doing (thankfully my accountant was ultra-helpful, patiently talking me through it).

A few freelancers suggested FreeAgent, and when I finally gave it a go, I was bowled over. Not only is it born and bred in the UK (and therefore ready to cope with the weirdnesses HMRC throws our way, even flat rate VAT!), the team is totally on the ball and provides amazing support. As it’s a web-based service, you can get your team to enter their time slips daily, your accountant can log in and you can use it anywhere.

The overview screen means you’ll know exactly where you stand in terms of incoming and outgoing money. Words can’t describe how much this has saved my sanity and put me in control of my own business.

For what it can do for you, it’s worth every penny, but they make it even better by offering an affiliate scheme. As a bonus, if you’re interested in trying out FreeAgent, use this link and we’ll both get 10% discount!

Campaign Monitor

Quite the opposite of newcomer (to me) FreeAgent, Campaign Monitor and I have been in a long-term relationship, and it’s a relationship that’s getting better with age.

Campaign Monitor is an email marketing platform which allows you to send newsletters to your ever-so-precious list of customers. Templates make your life easy from one send to the next and reports are beautiful and automatically generated (great to send to clients or bosses!).

The only problem with it is that the recent Worldview feature, which allows you to see in real-time when your emails are opened, makes me look like a complete lunatic as I say “Hi Stig! Oh hello Paul!” to my screen as I see friends opening our newsletters. This aside, Campaign Monitor is a pleasure to use and pretty affordable for small businesses.

Evernote

There’s a reason Evernote uses an elephant as its logo; it truly has the memory of an elephant.

Evernote is a web-based service that allows you to save text, pictures or files and synchronise across multiple locations. For example, I have the app on my Mac, iPhone and iPad, so I can look up information I’ve saved from anywhere. I can make a little note or take a picture when I’m on the go, knowing I’ll be able to get to it later from any device.

With the premium version ($5/m or $45/y), images are scanned for text so I use it to take pictures of business cards and then dump the originals. Later, rather than flick through a dangerously large pile of business cards, I can type the name of the person or company I’m looking for and find their details right away.

Sitting on the train, I’ll make some notes on my iPad after a client meeting, then later edit them on the desktop. I also use it for hobbies, saving all my digital sewing patterns, project ideas and pictures in Evernote for future reference.

1Password

How often can you get your password right on the first go? And how many times a week do you have to use the “forgot your password” function on a website? (If you don’t, you probably use the same password everywhere, in which case shame on you!)

1Password is another external brain (do we sense a theme here?) which allows you to save all your passwords in one place and only remember one master password. You can then hit a key combo to auto-fill your login details on a site. Folders and tags make it easy to categorise the zillions of logins clients or suppliers expect you to remember.

It’s available for Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad and Android AND you can synchronise across them all! (yay!) Plus, they’re based in Canada. (double yay!)

Skitch

Need to send a quick annotated sketch to show what you’re trying to describe? Skitch to the rescue!

Skitch is a brilliantly speedy way to share screenshots and information. Use fewer words and more arrows and pictures to tell a story. Upload your screenshots to Skitch.com or Flickr to share easily and check your history when you need to return to an old screenshot later on. Resizing is as simple as dragging the bottom right corner so anyone can do it and there’s no need for heavy software like Photoshop.

This one is for Mac users only. 🙂

TextExpander

You might have noticed that I’m all about effortless efficiency. What can I say? The more efficient you can be, the sooner you can pour yourself a G&T! (hey, that rhymed…)

TextExpander allows you to save bits of text you use frequently and paste them by typing a few characters. For example, I can give the same links or replies in an email, in a tweet then in a forum without having to re-write it from scratch or find the link in my browser history every time.

As an aside, yes, my own app Alfred also offers Snippets as a way to save frequently used bits of text and I do use both, but TextExpander is a single-purpose app, while Alfred does a multitude of rather awesome things.

Alfred

What? You didn’t seriously think I’d talk about useful tools without including the one we’ve lovingly crafted over the past 18 months? 🙂

In its simplest form, Alfred is a productivity app for Mac that helps you launch apps, websites, do calculations, check your spelling and more without having to ever take your fingers off the keyboard. Start paying attention to how many times you need to use the mouse to get to apps and files, and you’ll quickly see that it isn’t so efficient. Click here, scroll down, oh where’s that app… With Alfred, pop up your window with a hotkey and type the name of the app you want. Tadah, launched!

With the Powerpack, which is the paid add-on we launched nearly a year ago, you can control your iTunes collection, set up global shortcuts to launch apps and scripts with a hotkey, use clipboard history and much, much more. In fact, Andrew is working on the next release, which will include extensions; these will be so flexible, I can’t wait to see what users will create to fit their own workflow.

The free version is available either from our website or the Mac App Store, and the Powerpack from our website. Soon, however, you’ll be able to upgrade to the Powerpack in the Mac App Store too if you become an OS X 10.7 (Lion) user.

Dropbox

Another useful tool for those who juggle multiple computers or devices is Dropbox. Using a background app, Dropbox synchronises the folders you choose so that they’re available from any device or from their website when you’re in a pinch and need to access files from elsewhere. Many Mac apps use Dropbox as the vehicle to synchronise settings across multiple computers and setup is usually completely effortless!

A word of advice, however, is to only share non-critical and non-confidential files on services like Dropbox. A few days ago, a bug in Dropbox allowed access to any account using any password for a window of a few hours. Scary thought, but then these are services to help make you more efficient, not a secret lock and key vault, so don’t store your deepest secrets there.

In summary…

Small business folks work SO hard to succeed that any tools or tips that can make us more efficient can make the difference between slaving until 10pm and being able to shut the door at a reasonable time and enjoy an evening in the garden.

Summer holidays are coming and it’s often a time where business is slower for some industries. Why not take advantage of that time to improve processes and make yourself more comfortable in your work environment?

If you’ve got more tips to share, please do leave a comment as I’d love to expand this list over time!

Immortalising the Alfred logo in Minecraft

In recent months, we’ve printed the Alfred logo on stickers, handy little keyboard brushes and we’ve made our own bowler hats to wear at SXSW Interactive in March.

Yet, I think this trumps them all; Alfred user and good friend Zettt created a giant bowler hat in Minecraft and shows it off on video. Even as a Glitch early adopter, I don’t quite “get” Minecraft but the walkthrough is hilarious nonetheless.

I have to admit, I never imagined I’d see our Alfred logo immortalised this way 🙂

For Zettt’s whole post, check out his Mac OS X Tumblr.

How to Market Your Own Application: An Alfred App Case Study

Those who have followed the Alfred development in the past year will know that we’ve discovered a lot through building our own community around it (possibly the most awesome community out there!)

Last month, I gave a talk at Cambridge Geek Nights, sharing some tips, tricks and discoveries we’ve made while developing and marketing Alfred. Did you know that posting a sneak peek screenshots could get you hundreds of excited tweets? Have you considered collaborating with other app developers on co-promotion?

We’ve since had the opportunity to work with other startups on getting visibility and marketing their product. Think we can help you? Drop me a line and tell us about your app!

Making the Most of User Feedback

Yay monster cupcakes!

This is the third and final part in a mini series of posts on using a community forum to exchange ideas with your users.

Part I: Why and when should I start my own community forum?
Part II: Setting up your forum: Top tips for using Get Satisfaction
Part III: Making the most of user feedback

In the first part, we looked at the right time and right way to get started with a community forum. As we picked Get Satisfaction as our platform of choice, I then outlined a few top tips for it. Today, we’re looking at what happens once you’ve successfully created a place for conversation and the users begin to trickle in.

If you thought that once the community existed, you could kick back and relax, think again! Now comes the best part: Finally interacting with your users. You’ll meet the most wonderful people, as well as the occasional user who seems to relish being your daily pain in the backside.

So how can you deal with vast amounts of feedback, good and bad, yet retain your sanity?

Continue reading

Setting Up Your Forum: Top Tips for Using Get Satisfaction

Tasty chocolate cupcake

Recently, I started a short series of blog post on using a community forum to exchange with your users. In this second part, we’ll look at why we chose a particular platform and how we’ve used it since launch.

Part I: Why and when should I start my own community forum?
Part II: Setting up your forum: Top tips for using Get Satisfaction
Part III: Making the most of user feedback

Why we chose Get Satisfaction

From the first time I came across Get Satisfaction in 2007, I’ve been looking for a suitable context in which to use it but the opportunity never came until now.

In the early days, what struck me about it was that there was a natural positive aura to the service. Users weren’t simply encouraged to post questions and problems, they also were prompted to praise the product when applicable!

I’ll admit I was also swayed by the cupcake images that are used as default icons for new users. As co-founder Amy Muller said in a 2009 interview with Ciara Byrne, “we felt that cupcakes were associated with satisfaction and happiness. What’s not to love about a cupcake?” Indeed, what’s not to love about a cupcake?
Continue reading

Why and When Should I Start a Community Forum?

lovely cookies

A week ago, we launched a community forum for Alfred and I couldn’t be happier to have done so.

This series of post covers why we chose to start a forum, as well as some tips for setting up and running your own successful community forum.

Part I: Why and when should I start my own community forum?
Part II: Setting up your forum: Top tips for using Get Satisfaction
Part III: Making the most of user feedback

Don’t forget to sign up to the RSS feed if you don’t want to miss the rest of the series!

Why choose a forum

When we launched Alfred, our main means of support for users was Twitter. When we needed more than 140 characters, we’d swap over to email.

As our community grew, once we found ourselves with a few thousand users reading our tweets (gasp!), yet many asked the same question frequently (eg. Will you be adding x feature?) because they hadn’t seen the older answer to it.

Let’s face it: Twitter is today’s news but tomorrow’s virtual chip paper. It was time to look for a new way to provide answers. That isn’t to say we’ve entirely dropped email; on the contrary, we’re now able to focus email responses on those who really need one-on-one answers.

We chose a forum because it allowed us to answer publicly, leaving longer-lasting, more valuable answers which could be revisited the product evolved. So is a forum right for everyone?
Continue reading

Amazing launch party cake

Alfred App: 0.7 launch cake

It would be an understatement to say we’ve got great friends – they’re downright awesome! For our end-of-summer BBQ, which was also a bit of a deadline/launch party for the Alfred Powerpack, Lee made us an Alfred bowler hat shaped cake!

What better way to celebrate having been recluse shut-ins for months, working away, than by having a great day with friends? Even the rain stayed away for most of the day.

More photos coming soon, I’m sure, but I had to share this one!

[Photo credit: Michael Dales on Ember]

My new pal Alfred: Mac quicklaunch application

The past few days have been just a bit of a mad ride, following the launch of our Mac quicklaunch application, called Alfred, which garnered +2500 users in its first 48 hours.

We created the Alfred App to fill our own need: A quicklaunch tool that can search your local computer as well as the web, that is fast, looks good and, most importantly, doesn’t chew through memory like a hungry hyena.

After some intense development weeks, we launched it on Sunday night, while watching the Canada-USA Olympics hockey final (wooh!). With the intention of sharing it with a few friends for a “quiet beta”, we mentioned it on Twitter and went off to bed.

Little did we know, on Monday and Tuesday, the stats were on fiiiire with over a thousand downloads per day, great feedback via Twitter and a bucketload of feature requests by email.

Users have described us as a perfect Quicksilver replacement which, as a long-time user of Quicksilver, is a true honour. It was with much sadness that I read at the end of 2007 that developer Nicholas Jitkoff would no longer be evolving Quicksilver (considering I recommended it to every new Mac user I met) so when Andrew suggested that we develop our own flavour of quick launcher, I was over the moon! Designer Ollie Kav created the fab look of the site, working closely with us.

If you fancy trying it out, you can go to Alfredapp.com to download the beta version – the main reason we need your email address is that we haven’t yet built in an auto-updater so this will allow us to let you know when the next version is available.

We’ll launch an Alfred blog in the near future to keep a roadmap of features and let users know how things are progressing, but for now, you can keep us company on Twitter!

Oh hello there!

I'm Véro - a crafty, knitty, spinny gal who enjoys making (and drinking) a cocktail or three. If you've stumbled here, you might enjoy browsing some of my older posts with the tags over to the right or finding out more about me.

Say hi in the comments or on Twitter! :)

Archives