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!

Trust by Positive Brand Association

A few moments ago, I subscribed to the 4mations “Keep me updated” mailing list, out of curiosity of what it’ll turn out to be (how did I get there anyway?!)

Campaign MonitorI’ve got a past in email marketing so even though that subscribing should, in theory, be fine, I hesitated. I’m aware of how dodgy or how careless/naive some senders can be – recently, it took me a battle with an agency that shall remain nameless before they acknowledged that I’d requested repeatedly to be unsubscribed, so things like that peeve me off.

But I subscribed. And it was immediately followed by the familiar green tick mark from Campaign Monitor confirming I was subscribed.

And you know what? I definitely had a fuzzy feeling inside thinking “yup, I can trust this sender. Even if they write total rubbish, I’m confident I can unsubscribe, should there be a need.” I bet you I would’ve bypassed the hesitation had the subscribe field been accompanied by the Campaign Monitor tick. Think that could help increase subscriptions or give users confidence?

What brands do that for you? What logos give you the confidence to hand over money, personal details or your precious time?

Email marketing software: The good, the bad and the downright ugly

Back when I worked in email marketing, I kept meaning to write about what it’s like to work in that field and what applications have blown my mind, or been the bane of my life. In March, I wrote an article for the Digital Web magazine about the Seven Deadly Sins of Email Marketing, but it focussed more on list management and attitude.

Spam is bad!Today, I received an email from an old colleague asking for tips on the best email marketing software to use in her new role. Instead of responding via email, I thought I’d turn it into a post, since it isn’t the first time the question comes up.

The first step in deciding what type of email marketing application to use is whether you’re looking for a one-off-cost downloadable application or an online service-based application. At first glance, the downloaded app will appear to be the best option, and by far the cheapest. That’s the one big pro about it – it’s a one-off purchase. Now, I’ll be perfectly honest and say I’ve never used one of those apps, so the only recommendation I can make on that level is to look for reviews before you buy.

However, I can explain the cons of using a downloadable app.

One of the greatest challenges in email marketing is deliverability. By this I mean the percentage of total email addresses on your mailing list who receive your newsletter to their inbox.

Think of the process as a funnel:

  1. Total number addresses in your list
  2. Delivered emails
  3. Opened emails
  4. Clickthroughs to your site
  5. Your reader taking action on your site

On that second level of the funnel, if you’ve chosen to use a downloadable app, you have to count on your ISP and your domain name, cross your fingers and close your eyes very hard when you hit the send button. Why am I saying this? It’s because you don’t have the online service’s great ISP relations squad behind you. You get no help whatsoever from your app to ensure your email is delivered, rather than wiped by the server or treated as spam.

If too many users flag you as spam or the ISP recognises your IP address as being troublesome (not necessarily by your fault, could be due to a previous owner of the address or because you’re sharing it on a network), you might find your whole domain blacklisted. This includes your entire sales team’s email addresses – and that can’t be good for business! Establishing relationships with masses of ISPs worldwide and ensuring nothing goes wrong is a full time job and a very difficult process, which small businesses can’t really manage on their own.

So there, that’s one of the many reasons I support online email marketing apps. They’re the guardian angels of deliverability.

No matter what, online email marketing services also vary wildly in quality. I’ve used a few of them, ranging from the extremely user-friendly Campaign Monitor (my preferred choice) to the awfully antiquated and highly aggravating Epsilon DreamMail and Axciom Digital’s Impact dinosaurs. [It should already raise a big red flag when the service is only usable in IE 6 on Windows…]

Services like Campaign Monitor suit the vast majority of small/medium businesses with to their simple and slick user interface, and are still priced very reasonably. The team does everything in its power to offer great email templates, and gives some of the best email marketing tips I’ve ever read on its blog.

Quite at the other end of the scale, services like DreamMail and Digital Impact give me a rash. They’re from a completely different school of thought, offering far too many radio buttons and tick boxes*, resulting in some very costly mistakes over my time doing email marketing. The service is slow, unreliable – often down “for maintenance” at peak times, unbeknownst to our assigned (and unreachable) account manager. Sure, the cost per email sent is lower when sending very large mailouts (to the tune of 3-4 million emails a month) but the service is dire and the time spent fighting with the system is disproportionate to the benefits gained from the cost-saving exercise for a business any smaller than that.

You might think I’m drawing a grim, black and white picture of the older and more traditional services, but speaking on behalf of those who’ve used it before and after me, we’ve gained a full head of grey hair between us from using them. Go for small, human services who are in tune with their users’ needs. Aren’t they the ones we want to see flourish anyways?

[* I once asked my account manager what some of the tick boxes did and what mysterious options were for. His answer? “Oh they’re deprecated, don’t use those. We should remove them but nobody’s done it yet. We’ll have a new product for Europe at some point but this is the US service, minus a few features.” Yeah, mate. That makes me feel like we’re very important customers… And we’re not talking about 2-3 small tick boxes, but nearly half the interface not being functional for us.]