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!

Three Reasons Why the Mac Community Makes Me Happy

As some of you know, in recent months, Andrew and I have been working on Alfred, our very own Mac productivity app. It’s been exciting, sometimes tough, but definitely enlightening. And finally, the fruit of our labour, the Powerpack, is nearly ready to be released.

We’ve met and talked to tons of Mac users, developers and bloggers. Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to give a talk on social networking for business at the Apple Store in Cambridge, meeting more recent Mac converts.

While I’ve been a Mac user since the late 80’s (thanks grandpa for the hand-me-downs!), it’s only in the past few years that there has been enough of a community for it to really become exciting – which brought me to make these observations.

The enthusiasm of Mac geeks is boundless

This energy could have something to do with Apple’s approach – superlative “everything changes” descriptions – or with the feeling of being a trailblazer by always being on the hunt for a shiny thing more beautiful, more efficient and more undiscovered than the last shiny thing.

Sometimes, I admit, Mac users (myself included) love our gadgetry and possibly annoy those who don’t feel so strongly about their computer setup. But then, if that’s our personality, it’ll be either Macs, cars, stamp collecting or some other obsessive compulsive passion.

From the more practical angle, we spend an obscene number of hours a week at the computer so why not make it an environment that’s a pleasure to use?

So we just celebrate it! We post pictures of our desks on Lifehacker’s workspace Flickr pool, we publish our favourite apps on iusethis and show off our gadgets to anyone who’ll listen. (Or is it just me?)

A great willingness to contribute and participate

As our Mac productivity app Alfred is growing, I can’t begin to count how many offers to beta test, help out and write about it we’ve received. Sure, some are self-serving and coming from bloggers who are mainly looking for an exclusive sneak peek into the app, but all have some sense of altruism, where the ultimate objective is to make the Mac community better.

We have asked for feedback on Twitter, with questions like “Which colour scheme do you use?” to “Who’s still on Leopard and why?” Simple yet important questions, to which we sometimes received in excess of 100 responses within a few minutes from posting. It’s difficult to express how useful this instant feedback has been.

Aside from the practical or technical responses we received, the general chatter about the app and positive comments on blogs and on Twitter have been the fuel to our long evenings and weekends of work. Looking back at the Alfred favourites page is all the motivation we need to keep going sometimes.

The openness of Mac developers

I’m sure most people have worked this out but I’m not a developer, so it’s news to me. Through exchanging with Mac developers who use Alfred, meeting nice folks at CambMacDev and other events, it’s become clear that most Mac developers are willing to lend a hand, share some useful tips or offer feedback.

Even as the non-developer that I am, I’m enjoying the exchanges, gaining some great business insight that will help me shape the future of Alfred. We’re lucky not to be dealing with the Russian roulette that is the iPhone App Store, but there’s still a lot to learn about the Mac ecosystem.

Overall, it’s just a great fun ride to date, and it’s only the beginning! Who knows where the next few years will take us…

[Image credit: Itty Bitty Mac Earrings by PixelParty on Etsy]

The Unavoidable Apple iPad Review

In a “sun set to rise tomorrow morning” announcement, I can now confirm that, as a convert to the Church of Steve, I bought an iPad on the day of launch.

While it may seem like a given to you, wise readers, I had somehow convinced myself in the two days before launch that I did not need a shiny iPad and would wait a few months to buy one. Of course, by 10:30am on the day of launch, after watching the stream of excited tweets from those who had bought one, I grabbed my car keys and heading into town to pick up a 3G iPad.

In order to put it through its paces, I decided to leave my laptop at home a few weeks ago while we were on holiday for a week. The iPad would be the closest thing to a computer I’d have access to. (Well, Andrew did have his MacBook, should all hell break loose and access to our webservers was needed for some reason, but the aim was to steer clear of it.)

First observations

Battery life

As soon as I opened the box and sync’ed the iPad with iTunes for the first, I simply couldn’t put it down. After a day and a half of non-stop use, the battery still had plenty of juice. Since then, the battery seems to have gotten even better with a few full cycles.

Keyboard

I expected the worst of the keyboard, and it’s nearly as bad as I thought. I can type at a fair pace on it, almost as fast as I do on a normal keyboard. It’s miles better than my first eee PC, which had a ridiculously awkward keyboard. The hiccup is that I have to look at my fingers. As a result, I’ll be getting an external Bluetooth keyboard of some sort soon.

eBook reading

I left for the holiday with a half-read paperback of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I knew I’d finish reading it within mere days, but I was too late to grab a copy of the two following titles (The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) before going away so I picked up a copy for the Amazon Kindle, a bit wary of reading on screen.

It turned out to be a great read while indoors or outside in the evening. Even with polarised sunglasses out in the sun, it was just about usable – though only in landscape mode as the screen “disappeared” when in portrait mode, as is often the case with polarised lenses. I wouldn’t have been keen to take it to sandy beaches or too close to the pool (but then I don’t do beaches anyway!) whereas I wouldn’t have been too fussed to see a paperback get wet or covered in sunscreen.

The Kindle reader is, to date, my favourite of the available eBook readers. It has a huge selection of popular, current titles and all paid books I’ve downloaded to date have been well formatted. Much of the Project Gutenberg books are also available, but generally not very well laid out.

It probably won’t replace paperback novels on holiday, but certainly will be the end of carrying books – whether business or leisure reading – on long train journeys.

iPhone apps

I didn’t have very high expectations for upscaled iPhone apps, but most look good enough that they’re usable. They’re obviously no match for the iPad-specific apps that take advantage of the larger real estate, but until these become more common, many of the games and useful apps work fine in 2x mode. Some of the games would benefit from simply rotating to be the “right” way around for an iPad used in its protective case, and are progressively being updated.

3G functionality

I can’t really comment on using 3G as the Apple Store didn’t have the Three SIMs when I came in store, but I can already tell that it’ll be very useful. There certainly isn’t ubiquitous wifi around here, so 3G will make the iPad useful when travelling around the UK.

Favourite iPad apps

[Note: None of the links are directly to iTunes, since iTunes link are a bit annoying. Most links are to the developer site or app announcement.]

  • Evernote is incredibly swish in iPad version and as useful as ever
  • The Amazon Kindle app makes for easy reading
  • NewsRack is an excellent local RSS reader, sync’ed with my Google Reader account
  • Weather Pro HD looks fabulous and provides an overdose of weather data my husband really loves
  • Things, a to-do list app, looks great if you need a slick but simple app that can sync with your Mac and iPhone’s lists, though I admit that I haven’t bought this one
  • GoodReader and DropBox work brilliantly hand-in-hand – find the file you put in your DropBox, then view it in GoodReader

Much to my disappointment, I’ve yet to find a Twitter client I’m satisfied with. Tweetdeck is hopeless and crashes regularly, Twitterific makes poor use of space and the other options also haven’t won my heart.

I also hope a grocery delivery company like Tesco creates a good iPad app for food ordering – however, as they can barely get the web-based ordering to look good, I’m not getting my hopes up just yet.

Favourite iPad games

Well, what? You didn’t think I’d gone all grown up on you, did you? Of course, I’ve always loved iPhone games, from the simplest to the quirkiest, so some of my first downloads were game apps.

Some of the early HD games I picked up include:

There are also a few good contenders for 2x gaming (using the double size button to play iPhone games on a larger scale), including Fare City and Fruit Ninja. If either of these come out with a gameplay variation for iPhone, I have no doubt they’ll be great fun.

Where I view it being useful

In the past few years, I’ve often lugged my very heavy MacBook Pro in its (lovely but also heavy) brown leather and pink satin Lin & Leo bag to London for the day. Getting home at night, I’d feel completely lopsided with a sore back. Yet, my laptop would have had very little use in the meetings – so little in fact that I wondered whether to take it at all.

With the iPad, equipped with the super-useful DropBox app, I can have access to all the key files I need that day – just in case. With the SIM giving me Internet access anywhere, I can stay on top of things in a way that’s more comfortable than by pecking at the iPhone keyboard. By leaving my phone alone, it also means that I don’t burn down the (less impressive) iPhone battery and can still call home on the return journey to ask my husband to put a bottle of wine in the fridge.

Beyond navel-gazing at my own needs, I can see the iPad being a game changer for people who like to browse the web while watching TV – which seems to be most of my generation. It’s a cracking screen for browsing and effortless to use as there’s no learning curve for software.

I’d be curious to hear about the favourite apps and most interesting use you’ve been making of the iPad. What drove you crazy Mac people to get one too? If you don’t have one, do you think it’s all hot air or are you green with envy?

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to iOS4 for the iPad, to see how much multitasking and the new fine touches we’re seeing on the iPhone will add to the user experience.

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!

Blog Topic Challenge: "Favourite tools for getting things done"

Jane Dallaway suggested that I write about apps that help me get things done. As a Mac user, I love to try out new applications written by smaller developers, so I thought I’d share the list of everything I use regularly, so go have a look at my profile on IUseThis.

I’ll go in more details on best GTD tools in the near future, for tonight, I’m just checking in and sharing this with you!

MacHeist Bundle

While we’re on the topic, I thought I’d flag up a GREAT deal on MacHeist. Ten apps for $49 is simply fantastic, especially since 25% goes directly to charity. If you’re a Mac user, I highly recommend having a look at this offer before it runs out!

Big discounts on Mac software

This is just a quick little heads-up for my fellow Mac users, Give Good Food to Your Mac is giving some big discounts, varying from 30% if you buy 3 apps to 70% if you buy ten.

None of the apps were particularly interesting to me, since I’m already pretty well equipped, but you’ll find the fabulous PixelMator, the popular Money and the useful CCSEdit apps, so it’s probably worth having a poke at the site if you’re new to Mac and need to equip yourself for cheap.

Top 10 useful apps for Mac newbies

A week ago, Leopard, the latest version of OS X, the Apple Mac operating system, was released. I already thought that the rate at which my friends and acquaintances were deserting Windows for Mac was high back when Vista came out, warts and all. I knew nothing. It’s less of a trickle nowadays, and more of a thundering tsunami wave heading Mac’s way!

Since I haven’t had the opportunity to really sit down with these friends lately, I thought the least I could do as a faithful disciple of Apple was to share my list of top 10 useful applications, which I consider to be must-haves when using a Mac. They vary between productivity apps, cool alternatives to overpriced professional products like Adobe’s and just outright fun stuff.

  1. Quicksilver: No Mac is complete without Quicksilver, in my opinion. The main feature I use is the quick launcher – create your own keyboard shortcut from which you can call up any application or file without going into the app folder. Leopard’s Spotlight can now do that, but if you’re patient with Quicksilver, you’ll realise it does a whole lot more than just quicklaunch…
  2. Skitch: Hands down THE best quick-fix image resizer, editor and uploader. Completely intuitive to use, you’ll get from zero to LOLCat in 4 seconds!
  3. Pixelmator: For slightly fancier image editing than what Skitch allows, Pixelmator might be the perfect solution for those of us who get a rash from using Photoshop. It’s $59 for a license but it’ll probably do everything you and I need.
  4. Adium: Stick MSN Messenger, GTalk, ICQ, Yahoo! Chat and whatever else tickles your fancy from a single client. Less clutter is good.
  5. Flickr uploader: Pretty straightforward app – put pictures in, tag images, upload to Flickr. Simple, quick, fuss-free. Oh and free too.
  6. Parallels: This is a necessity more than anything, but Parallels allows those new to Mac to still access their Windows apps, and gives web designers/developers a way to check their sites in Internet Exploder.
  7. TaskPaper, OmniOutliner Pro, OmniFocus: I know I’m cheating here, but I didn’t want to drag on too much about GTD and productivity apps, because they’re not to everyone’s taste. However, if you’re looking for a friendly OS X GTD app, try one of the above, ranging from utterly simple – TaskPaper – to complex and complete with OmniOutliner and OmniFocus. TaskPaper certainly does the job for me, with contexts, projects and archiving of done items. Simple and practical. Have a play and let me know what you think!
  8. Unison: If you need a Usenet reader, Unison does the job wonderfully well. Produced by the great team at Panic, it’s priced at $24.95, but comes with a 15 day trial.
  9. Coda: I don’t personally use this one, but seems to come as a consensus from most web developers I know who are Mac users. Another Panic app, it’s priced at $79 and probably also comes with a trial period.
  10. iStat Menus: If you’re keen to know how much memory is being used, how much network activity you’re racking up, etc, you’ll like this app. You can put the most essential pieces of info directly in your toolbar, editing settings from within the Systems Preferences. iStat Menus is donationware.
  11. Bonus! Activity Monitor: Now this one might seem strange, seeing as it’s a utility that is already part of OS X, as opposed to a 3rd party download. However, too few people are aware that the tool is there. When your machine whirs itself into a frenzy and you can’t work out why, open Activity Monitor – or leave it running in the background as I often do – and find out which application is guilty. If you use Firefox, it’ll often be the guilty party, I warn you.

Right well, this should get Tom and Darla started, shouldn’t it? 🙂

[Update 07/11/07: Andrew pointed out that Chris Pirillo totally outdid me with his post of Top 100 mac apps.]