Having owned my own small business for about a dozen years now, one thing is certain.
I've got a lot more gray hair.
That happens when you get older. Luckily, as I've aged I've also gotten smarter in a lot of areas as well.
While the internet has been a key tool pretty much since the first day I started my own business, there has been an explosion of apps and tools recently that make those early days working for myself seem like the Dark Ages.
The Dark Ages would be around 2004 or so.
Productive and Profitable
There are tools on the internet now that can help just about every small business, whether it is online or brick and mortar. When I'm evaluating whether I should use a particular app or tool, I'm looking for one or two specific benefits, including:
- Does the tool make me more productive?
- Can the tool make my business more profitable?
If it doesn't do one of those two things, well, I'm not going to be very interested. There's lots of shiny new toys out there, and if you try them all you'll waste way more time than you'll ever save.
Which defeats the purpose.
When I'm evaluating if I should use a particular tool, I'm looking for these specific benefits... Click To Tweet
Finding the Right Tools for Your Small Business
So, how do you find the right tools to help you be more productive and profitable? You can try the trial and error method of trying out every new shiny toy you see. Or, you can check out our list of the apps and tools I feel are essential in running my small business every day.
Again, each of them either make me more productive, more profitable, or both.
You'll notice I stay away from the latest trendy picks, many of which provide dubious value at best in my mind. There's no Periscope or Tworlds on this list, and no "Get Rich on LinkedIn" type crap either.
These are the apps and tools that do that actual heavy lifting in my business every day.
So, let's be productive and get on with the list, shall we?
(Disclosure: I use and believe in all of the tools below. I'm also an affiliate of some, though not all, of them. That means that if you happen to click through my link and become a customer of an app I'm an affiliate of, you don't pay anything extra, but I might earn a small commission. Kinda like buying me a cup of coffee.)
Formerly Google Apps for Work and Google Business Apps before that, this is the email solution you should be using for your small business. I'm sorry to break it to you, but you cannot look professional if you are using an @comcast.net, @att.net, @yahoo.com, @aol.com, @gmail.com, or other similar address.
You need to have a business email address based on your business.
With G Suite, you can get custom email addresses (firstname.lastname@example.org) for you and your team using the convenient and easy to use Gmail interface. Have multiple email addresses? Not a problem. I've got about 8 or 9 different email addresses in my account, and can send/receive email from any of them.
In addition to being able to fetch email from any other account you have, you get 30GB of storage on Google Drive, and can get more if you need it. With that, not only do you have a backup of all of your files, but you can access them from anywhere on just about any device.
Throw in Calendar and Hangouts, and for $5/month you can't go wrong.
If you have a home office, you don't want to be giving clients your home phone number. And if you're like me, you might not be interested in the hassle of dealing with the phone company to get a separate line for your business. (I have Comcast, whom I loathe.)
Skype allows me to have a business phone line and voice mail, without the need of actually getting a business phone line from the phone or cable company.
In fact, I don't even need a phone.
I use Skype right on my Mac with an inexpensive Plantronics headset. Sound quality is great, and if I don't feel like speaking, I can type messages back and forth with the person on the other end in real time.
With one click I can access my webcam if we feel like chatting with video, and we can share our screens so that the person I'm talking to can see exactly what I'm doing on my computer.
You can create an account and actually start using it for free, but that will only allow you to communicate with other Skype users.
But, for less than seven bucks a month, I get a local phone number and unlimited calls to the US & Canada, allowing me to speak to anyone, regardless of whether they have Skype or not. Pretty hard to complain about that.
If you have clients in other countries, you can easily add countries to your calling plan for a couple extra dollars. You can also get their app on your smartphone so you can still use Skype when you're away from your computer.
I use Skype every day. Check it out here.
Ecamm Call Recorder for Skype
If you're using Skype, you will absolutely love this little tool. With the Ecamm Call Recorder for Skype, you can press a button and create awesome HD recordings of your Skype video or audio calls.
You can record a picture-in-picture version of your video chat, or switch to a side-by-side split screen version. Great for creating podcasts, interviews, or for recording coaching or consulting sessions to provide to your clients.
Feel like getting fancy and editing your calls? Ecamm has a unique feature that splits you and your caller onto separate audio tracks. Very slick.
Sorry Windows users, this a Mac-only product. It's only $29 and you can download it and try it free for seven days.
I just recently discovered this app, and I've already got a huge app-crush on this. If you ever try and schedule calls, meetings, or other appointments with clients via email, you'll feel the same way if you try it out.
Disclaimer: you need to be using Gmail for this to work. Of course, if you use G Suite, you're all set. Your email recipient can be using any platform.
Basically what Assitant.to does is allow you to schedule meetings in seconds, right from within an email. Once you install the app, when you compose an email, you'll notice a little bar at the bottom of the editor window. You first choose the length of time for the meeting, enter the location or phone number, and then a window opens with your Google Calendar schedule. You can pick several times to give the email recipient choices, and BOOM, assitant.to plugs them right into the body of your email, all formatted nice and neatly.
When the recipient opens the email, they simply click on one of the choices and BOOM AGAIN! The appointment is automagically added to your calendar, and both you and the recipient get an email confirmation within seconds.
If one of us decides to cancel or reschedule the meeting, the other person is automatically notified via email.
How slick is that? Oh, and did I mention it's FREE? You heard me, free.
So Zapier isn't necessarily an app itself, but it's a SaaS product that allows you to integrate different web apps so that they can share data.
As an example, let's say you had created a to-do notebook in Evernote, and every time you add a new to-do note into the notebook, you'd like to create a new task in Asana based on that note.
Sure, you could manually copy your note, open up Asana, find the right project, and paste that note into it to create a new task.
If you remember to.
With Zapier, you can make that happen automagically by creating a Zap that does it for you. A Zap basically consists of a trigger (the creation of a new to-do note) and a corresponding action (creating a new task in Asana based on the note). You set this up once, turn it on, and it takes care of the rest.
Now, that's just one simple example using two web apps, but Zapier works with about 700 different apps, so you can pretty much automate almost any process you can think of. They've even got a ton of pre-made Zaps that you can simply turn on and start using immediately.
Zapier allows you to simplify your workflow by creating set and forget processes that automatically handle repetitive tasks that you've been doing manually.
If you're a Coach, Consultant, Lawyer, or any service provider that bills clients for your time, or need a drop-dead simple way to track your time spent on any task or project down to the minute, then you should try Harvest.
I've been using it for over a year now and swear by it. It allows me to track time for all of my projects, right down to the minute, and generate an invoice right from the app that is emailed to the client.
Harvest integrates with Paypal and Stripe, so clients can pay the invoice right online.
They've got an app for your phone as well, so you can even track your time while away from your computer. Great for client meetings.
When I say "project management tool", do you think of post-it notes? No worries, we all start there.
But if you're ready to put on your big boy pants and lose the post-it notes, Asana will make your life more organized, projects run more smoothly, help you keep things in order, and cause unicorns and rainbows to appear.
Okay, the last one is an exaggeration, but the rest is true.
I've been using Asana for a long time, and having checked out other project management apps, to-do list organizers, and collaboration tools, I'm very happy with it.
Create projects, tasks within those projects, and assign them to anyone on your team. Set due dates, upload files, add notes, you name it. And, it integrates with our favorite time tracking tool Harvest. We can activate our Harvest timer right from within Asana.
And, if you've got less than 15 people on your team, Asana is free. We like free.
I had someone ask me the other day if I could fax them an agreement. They weren't impressed when I told them I donated my fax machine to the Smithsonian back in 2002.
We live in the digital age. The time for paper, faxing, and other old-fashioned things is gone. Just like the pay phone and 8-tracks.
If you deal with any type of client contracts or other docs that require signatures, HelloSign allows you to handle the whole process quickly and easily online. Upload your doc, mark where the recipient(s) need to sign, and send it off. They'll be able to digitally sign it with a click, and you'll each instantly get an executed copy.
It integrates seamlessly with Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Drive, and they offer a free level to get you started.
If you're in the US, you may not have heard of WeChat yet, but a half billion people around the world have, and they like it.
While it does a few other things, basically it's a free app that let's you send voice messages to other WeChat users anywhere in the world.
I'm located in NH, and my nephew and sometime collaborator Nate is currently living in Beijing. Yes, the one in China. We use Skype to speak to each other (free!) regularly, but there are times when we just want to send a quick message.
I can speak a 60-second message into my phone, and bad-a-bing, Nate gets the message on his phone. Great for when I need to tell him something quick, and as easy as holding a button on my phone and speaking.
When I first left the corporate world and embarked on my own entrepreneurial way, like just about every other small biz out there, I used Quickbooks to manage my accounting. I was a one person show, so I wasn't hiring an accountant and from what was available at the time (2004ish), QB seemed to be the way to go.
And for some, it may still be.
Not for me though. I wasn't using 70% of the features, it was bloated, complicated, and every few years Intuit forced you to pay full price to upgrade to the latest version.
I decided I was done, and started the search for something simpler, and better. After a few swings and misses, I found Wave Accounting.
I'm glad I did. It's perfect for what I need and does everything I need it to do.
Here's how Wave describes who their product is for:
"...when we zero in on what to include in our features, it's freelancers, contractors, entrepreneurs, and owners of companies with 9 employees or less that we keep in mind."
And they nail it.
It automatically pulls in transactions from bank accounts, credit cards, and even Paypal. It gives me the reports I need, and though I don't currently use these features, it handles payroll and invoicing as well.
Best of all, it is completely free to use. Not just a trial, or some limited feature set, but the full product is free to use. Really.
Ever wonder how people make all those images with the inspirational quotes superimposed over a beach or mountain view, that they share on social media?
Well, some of them have Photoshop.
A lot use Canva.
Canva allows you to create stunning images, presentations, posters, Facebook timeline headers, and more, quickly and easily. You don't need to be a graphic designer to create some seriously cool stuff on Canva.
They've got tons of images, layouts, and elements that you can use for free, and the premium elements are only $1 each.
The one problem with Canva is that once you start playing around in there, you may never stop.
Want to add a little flair to your email signature? Try WiseStamp.
I've been using it for about six months now and really like it. Here's a sample sig:
It's convenient to not have to type that stuff every time I send an email, and let's admit it, I just like having my picture everywhere I can.
But, in all seriousness, it does add a touch of professionalism to your emails, and I can honestly say I get quite a few clicks to our blog through my email signature.
I can create multiple signatures for different email addresses if I want, and I can choose which signature I use on any individual email. Or, I can choose not to use one if I don't want to.
Okay, WiseStamp may not technically make you more productive, but it gets points for the coolness factor, ease of use, and anything that gets a click to a blog post is worth checking out.
I've written in the past about the need to use strong passwords in your digital life. Your kids' birthdays, pet's names, anniversary date, pa$$word, and other lame passwords provide you with zero protection.
My passwords, which are different on every single site I use them on, are 25 characters long, comprised of random upper and lower case letters, digits, and symbols. Like this:
(Feel free to try that anywhere you like. It's not one I use.)
Okay, I can hear the complaining from here.
"That's too difficult. I can't remember that. It's too hard to type. Waahh, waahh, waahhhh..."
Passwords are supposed to be difficult, impossible to remember, and hard to type. That's kinda the point.
So how do you log in anywhere if you can't remember passwords? You use a service like LastPass, that's how.
LastPass stores all of your passwords for you, so you just need to remember one master password. No more passwords written on sticky notes or in a notebook that you're bound to lose one day.
They've got a free version you can download on your computer, or you can go Premium for a whopping $12/year and use it across all of your devices. It's going to cost you a lot more if you forget that password notebook at Starbucks the next time you're on a Frappucino run.
Last, but far from least, on our list today is Evernote. I must admit that I first tried out Evernote over five years ago, and at the time couldn't figure out what all the hype was about. It wasn't intuitive, and I really didn't like it.
So I forgot about it.
And then, for some reason which I can't recall, a few months ago I decided to check it out again. Holy crap am I glad I did.
A lot has changed in the 5+ years since I first tried Evernote, and in really good ways. I've only been using it for a short time, and I'm hooked.
Hell, I'm writing this post in Evernote right now.
If you're not familiar with it, Evernote is an app that lets you create notes, clip web articles, capture handwritten notes, and snap photos to keep the physical and digital details of your projects with you at all times.
You can create multiple notebooks to organize your stuff by category, project, client, or however you like. In each notebook, you can create as many notes as you want. A note can be just that, a note that you type, but it can also be an image, a link, a snippet from a web page, an entire web page, a pdf, a doc, you name it.
To create this post, I first created a list in my Blog Posts notebook of the tools I wanted to talk about. Then I saved links to their websites and images that I needed for the post in that notebook as well. Then, I created a new note where I actually typed out the draft of this post, which was then copied into WordPress to create the version you're reading now.
I worked on this post over several days, so keeping all of the material for it organized in one Evernote notebook was much better than trying to find images on my desktop, links in my bookmarks, and the rough draft in a Google Drive folder somewhere.
I've created a notebook that holds notes on each of our clients. With Nate in Beijing, I can share that notebook with him, so that we always have the latest updated info at our fingertips.
And, Evernote lets me use it wherever I am. I'm writing on the desktop version for Mac currently, but I've also got it on the web, on my tablet, and on my iPhone. And, they all stay in sync with each other. So if I'm by the pool looking at something on my phone that I want to save, I can clip it to the Evernote app on my phone and it will be on my desktop version the next time I sit in front of the computer.
It isn't overstating things to say that this tool is going to change the way I work. No guarantees it will be all puppy dogs and unicorns for you, but you never know unless you try it.
Go Forth and Be More Productive
So there you go. Thirteen tools to make your life as a small business owner more productive.
I use pretty much all of them daily, but of course your mileage may vary. Let us know below if you've used any of these, or if you have other favorites worth a mention.
Share with Your Friends and Colleagues
If you wouldn't mind doing me a favor, could you share this list with your friends and colleagues on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn?
I'm sure they could benefit from some of these tools as well.