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!

"Look Ma, no slides!": The Art of Speaking Without Slides

Bored cat

Last night, I gave a talk at Cambridge Mobile Apps Group (yeah, it’s a mouthful, I know!) about marketing your own app with no budget.

When I arrived at the venue, Tony, the event host, shot over to say hi. With a slightly concerned look on his face, he told me that the room our event was meant to be hosted in was mid-renovation so I had no projector or screen for my talk.

After mentally skimming through my slides, I reared up for the challenge and decided to see how my talk would go without my 45 carefully crafted slides. Sure, I’d avoided death by Powerpoint by following every Presentation Zen recommendation and the slides were bright, colourful and even contained the requisite kitten picture. Would they be missed?

The outcome was better than I could’ve hoped for. I had more fun than I’ve ever had giving this talk to a crowded room of 30 or so curious geeks*. Rather than giving a presentation, I could become a storyteller.

By only glancing at my computer every so often to check I was still on track, I could actually connect with the audience and have a conversation. The questions at the end were great and the feedback confirmed that the informal style had suited the occasion.

So what’s the moral of this story?

If you can, try to give talks with little or no slides when you’re telling a story you know well. I was talking about the growth of Alfred over the past 18 months, which is something I’ve lived; blood, sweat and tears.

By spending more time looking at your audience, you can gauge whether they’re enthralled or bored out of their mind. Embrace the lack of technology for a change, take a deep breath and have fun.

It takes practice and it’s important to learn not to get lost in waffle and anecdotes (I’m still working on that one…) It certainly doesn’t mean that you should “wing it” and not prepare your presentation; your talk should have structure and a storyline, but the slides no longer become a crutch you rely on to get through your points.

Last week, I attended Ampersand conference in Brighton and some of the talks were downright fantastic. In particular, Jason Santa Maria and Mark Boulton, two speakers who used slides, but were also enthusiastic, passionate storytellers who pulled us right in.

Storytelling is a skill worth developing so next time, try dropping the slides.

[* I use geek in the nicest, most friendly sense as I consider myself one too, of course!]

Amazon EC2 4-day downtime debacle: Keeping your users in the dark is naughty

Amazon Web Services logo

A few days ago, Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (or EC2 to you and I) had a catastrophic failure. The world kept turning, but unfortunately, the third-party collaboration/SVN tool we use was on the affected East USA zone where the issue started on Thursday. It wasn’t until late Sunday night that we regained access to our SVN server.

That’s effectively four days of downtime, where our Alfred development was at standstill at a point where we had huge plans for the next release. The third-party was kept in the dark by Amazon as much as we were, twiddling our thumbs waiting for things to get moving.

In the past year, Twitter’s uptime has improved and it has become even more of an essential tool to many people than before. Increasingly, Twitter is in fact being seen as a source of up-to-the-second information and news, with the newly redesigned homepage further driving the point home.

Twitter homepage

Yet, at the time of writing, Amazon hasn’t used the awscloud account to update customers of the status of the outage or the reasons behind it. There are plenty of theories floating around about hardware failure, Amazon’s Cloud Player becoming too popular too soon, but we’ve not heard an official word.

AWS Health Dashboard - April outage

It isn’t for lack of smart cookies at Amazon either; knowing a few of them, I’m baffled why no one felt it was worth using it as a channel for communication. The AWS Health Dashboard was updated fairly frequently with obscure, meaningless status updates and no background information.

Many organisations dismiss Twitter as a social network made for sharing what you’ve had for breakfast but in times of crisis, it can truly come into its own. As far back as 2007, emergency services have used Twitter to disseminate information and help the population when fires raged across Southern California. The Los Angeles Fire Department as well as news outlets tweeted updates to help people get to safety or stay away from affected areas.

More recently, Japan’s phone networks were overloaded after the earthquakes in March – with NTT DoCoMo restricting up to 80 per cent of voice calls, especially in Tokyo – but Twitter, Facebook, Mixi and Skype were lifelines for those hiding under desks during the seemingly never-ending earthquake.

While the EC2 debacle was nowhere near as life-threatening as an earthquake, it was the perfect opportunity to post short, simple updates on Twitter, letting those directly and indirectly affected know that Amazon wasn’t asleep at the switch.

My confidence in cloud computing has been less dented by the outage itself, and much more by the feeling of helplessness Amazon caused by giving us no clue what was happening! I wonder if we’ll ever find out why they chose to be so uncommunicative, and whether they’ll improve if there’s a “next time”.

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! :)

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