As an entrepreneur, you have access to a range of affordable tech solutions to help you automate processes, streamline communications, and gain insights that were once exclusive to large companies. Despite the choices, the process of selecting the program or application that best fits your business can be overwhelming, and you might opt to stick with your current processes instead of facing analysis paralysis or decision fatigue.
If this dilemma sounds familiar, read on. Every product on this list has proven invaluable to an entrepreneur who had the need to give their business a fresh start and found a solution by adopting one of these solutions.
Regardless of your industry, there’s a good chance that at least one of the tools mentioned below will breathe new life into your business.
An efficient way to communicate with clients, staff, and vendors
1. Office 365
With business plans starting at $5 a month for each user, Danita Harris, CEO of Rated M Wine Infused Foods, says Office 365 has helped her streamline internal communications, and better manage her own schedule.”Office 365 allows me to schedule an appointment within an email and also create notes and follow-up reminders. Its intranet feature (called One Drive) allows me to upload information I need to share with my team to the same system they use to log in to for their email. I can also give them access to upload shared projects, making us all more zefficient,” says Harris. (Though still in beta, Open 365 is a free, open-source platform styled after the Office 365 product).
Makenzie Marzluff of Delighted By Hummus says that Slack (a free tool) has relieved her virtual team of the inefficiency associated with back-and-forth email communication. It’s also made it easier to categorize tasks and keep track of the many moving parts of her business. “Nothing is lost in email any more. We assign tasks and upload documents all in one place. Plus, we can access it all online, any time,” says Marzluff. Since her team began using Slack, she says project turnaround time has improved, and all employees (including herself) are more aware of what’s been accomplished and what needs attention at any given time.
“This extension for Gmail allows you to schedule when a certain email will be sent out; you can set emails to be boomerangedback to you if there was no reply,” says Jason Khoo of Ron Wave Design. He says the tool is especially handy when conducting business while traveling, catching up on email late at night, or working on projects with formal timelines you want avoid disrupting. “For business development, Boomerang also reminds you if someone you are trying to reach hasn’t responded,” says Khoo.
Small businesses can meet urgent customer needs when armed with the tools that empower them to perform under pressure. Jeff Goodwin, owner of Exactly Maid, has created a responsive business model (despite not having a central location) with the ShiftPlanning app. “We use it for seamless communication, confirmation of schedules, and late bookings. It pays for itself many times over by providing ease of scheduling and allowing for communication with employees about open projects. We also use it to confirm availability and completed work. It’s literally been a lifesaver,” says Goodwin.
A simpler way to manage your marketing
This open-source marketing automation platform maintains the functionality of tools you may already use, such as Hubspot and Marketo, while simplifying how you manage and monitor marketing campaigns on social media, email, and online. (It even allows you to create customized drip campaigns for free). Alan Blashaw, co-founder of EquityOwl, says he has found the tool to be user-friendly and intuitive while also easily integrating with existing marketing tools: “While we still use Mailchimp for a number of our email programs, Mautic [which integrates with Mailchimp] is great for automating many of the tasks/campaigns that we’ve traditionally had to do manually.”
2. MarsEdit 3
As a blogger who is blind, Max Ivey relies on this blog editing software to craft and publish blog posts (complete with images and links) using a text editor while working online and offline. “Being able to create a complete blog post without being online is a big advantage to busy professionals. It’s an easy-to-use format that also gives people who may be intimidated by popular blogger platforms the confidence to manage their own blog,” says Ivey.
Content marketing with blog posts, social media updates, infographs, and videos can help you reach more customers, but creating content doesn’t guarantee it will get read by those you most want to reach. To get a better sense of what’s “newsworthy,” Alex Reichmann, CEO of iTestCash, relies on Buzzsumo’s tool for real-time inspiration about popular industry stories that are read and shared most often by his target audience.
More hours in the day
1. Stay Focusd
Lori Cheek, founder of Cheekd, says that this Google Chrome extension, which lets you set specific time restrictions on certain websites with a 10-minute default option, helped her become more disciplined about the time she spends online and on social media. “It’s so easy to get sidetracked when you get a notification from social media or a news site. You think you’ll just read the update, but there’s a world of procrastination opportunities that amount to many wasted minutes of the work”StayFocusd allows you to determine how much time you’re “allowed” to spend daily on each site. Once you’ve exceeded your allocated time, you can’t access the site for the rest of the day.
For $1 a minute, Jill Schiefelbein, founder of The Dynamic Communicator, says this transcription service, which is accessible from a mobile device, or desktop is accurate, and has fast turnaround times. “I use this service to get transcripts of client intake calls (I always inform the client of this) so that I can focus on the conversation instead of taking notes. I also record (not write) blog posts and articles, then edit from the transcription,” says Schiefelbein.
The process of invoicing, collecting payment, and exchanging signed and legally binding service contracts with clients is a necessary aspect of running a business, but the process can be time-consuming. Paige Brunton of The Paige Studio says that the software tool Bonsai has simplified the administrative aspect of running her creative small business without requiring her to cut corners or bear unnecessary legal risk. “Bonsai offers simple invoicing capabilities and contracts written by lawyers that are easily customizable. My clients don’t need to go find a working printer or fax machine when they can e-sign; my last contract was signed within two minutes,” says Brunton.
A simpler to serve your customers
If you own an e-commerce business, efficient shipping is key to your success. Despite being a critical business process, it can be daunting to manage. “Prior to using ShipWorks, we had to manage orders from the backend of multiple sites like Amazon.com, Staples.com, etc.” says Andrew Jacobs of JAM Paper & Envelope. “As though shipping from multiple sites isn’t tough enough, we also had to log into multiple sites to print orders, make shipping labels, upload tracking numbers, and mark items as shipped.” Since transitioning to ShipWorks, Jacobs says his team can manage orders in one location, connect to any website on which they sell, set up rules, and run reports.
2. Live Chat
Customers’ expectations for service don’t diminish because your business is small. Jermaine Valentine of Web Heroes says that Live Chat (which starts at $16 a month) has reduced call and email volume and made his company more customer-friendly. “It allows you to provide online chat to customers and has a ticketing system to streamline customer support. You can set up departments and have multiple agents assigned to specific departments. Having knowledgeable staff members on hand to help with pre-sale and support questions has really supercharged our customer service,” says Valentine.
As the owner of the boutique travel agency Leavetown, Mike Liverton says that Checkmate’s software empowers his team to proactively communicate with all of guests via text from one platform: “We can check if guests are okay, find out how their trips were, ask for reviews on this platform, and also allow them to text us via Checkmate. It has been a big hit with our staff, who save lots of time with the tool, and with our guests, who love the quick and easy communication with us.”