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!

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!

GTD Nerdery: How I Use The Hit List

It may be Easter weekend here in the UK, but for me, Friday is Just Another Work Day™. The best feeling however, is the one that accompanies ticking stuff off my immense task list, which is made easier by everyone else being on holiday.

I’ve mentioned a few of my Getting Things Done tools in the past, like the “Everyday…” list of rules to respect when working from home, which include setting three most important tasks, creating blocks of time without distraction and taking a lunch break at a reasonable time. Ok, I’ve not exactly excelled at following them but they’re good reminders nonetheless.

I’ve flirted with just about every web app or task-list software out there, having bought more than I like to admit. Lately, I’d been using Things by Cultured Code but didn’t feel 100% happy with it. In the latest round of Macheist, I acquired The Hit List which Josh Clark described as “a grown up version of Things.”

Totally fell in love with The Hit List for its ease of use, nested lists and simple tagging. Mainly the nested lists though, as that was sorely missing from Things. Plus it’s even prettier.

To show how I use it, I’ve taken a few screenshots…

“Today” view

The most practical view of it when glancing at it to see what task is going to jump at my throat if I don’t do it immediately.

The Hit List - Today view

Single-list view

When working on a specific client’s projects for a day, I’ll focus on their list, keeping everyone else out of view.

The Hit List - Single list view

“Waiting For” view

I have a notoriously bad memory, so when I email someone who assign a task to a teammate who I’ll need to chase up later, I create a list item with the tag @wf (Waiting For). It then becomes easy to quickly scan the smart folder of answers I’m waiting for.

The Hit List - Waiting For list view

You can find all three on Flickr here.

It’s a painlessly easy to use piece of software, makes for a great braindumping ground for projects. It even makes a satisfying little noise when I tick a task as completed.

I continue to use Basecamp for shared projects, but nothing on the web yet has the convenience and ease of desktop software drag & drop, offline use & speed, so until that point, solo project lists will continue to live in The Hit List.

Five tips to maintain your aluminium MacBook Pro

Getting a new Mac is a great experience; Apple have worked for many years to make the unboxing experience memorable and special. People talk about it, document it in photos or in video. But what happens when you’ve had it for a few weeks, months or years? It gets scratched, damaged or dirty. That “yummy new shiny machine” feeling disappears.

These top tips to keep your Mac from showing age are guaranteed to work an awful lot better than anti-ageing creams!

Read More...

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.]