When personal computing first became a thing 30-something years ago, it was seen as a godsend for small business owners.
Computer software was able to handle tasks that owners either didn’t have the time or skills to do—or the money to pay someone else to handle. Typing, filing, accounting, and marketing were just a few of the skills that small businesses could take on with greater confidence and professionalism.
Still, let’s not look back at those days with the kind of soft-focus nostalgia humans are so good at conjuring. It’s impossible to deny that the old software wasn’t nearly as robust as what’s available today. Plus, there was one other major issue with computing more than 30 years ago: not many people knew how to use a computer—if they could even afford one.
Fast forward to now, when pretty much everyone has at least some basic computer skills (and, yes, that smartphone you’re reading this on is a computer). That’s a great starting point, but the business apps of today don’t even necessarily require a strong technological understanding. Mobile hardware and apps demonstrate computing at its most human. With a gentle learning curve and lower cost of entry, it’s no wonder small businesses are increasingly turning away from the desktop. If you can read and make gestures with any of your fingers, you can use software to help manage—and grow—your business.
There are so many tools available that it would be foolish to try and get to them all. I’ll just list what I think are some of the best for people starting small businesses. While I make no claims that this list is definitive, I can assure you that it definitely is a list.
Finance and accounting
QuickBooks is one of the first examples of small business software, debuting over 30 years ago. The fact that it’s still around is pretty astounding, given the speed at which technology evolves.
Intuit has kept up with the changing landscape and evolved its software, with advanced features that feed a powerful reporting engine. They’ve also rounded out QuickBooks as a suite to include payments and point of sale. On their own, neither of these added services would necessarily be considered a best-of-breed solution, but there’s something to be said about keeping it all under one roof. Business owners can have a very high degree of visibility into their operations from a single dashboard, and are able to make smarter decisions based on a wealth of data.
To describe Freshbooks as “QuickBooks light” does a bit of a disservice to both companies—but I’m going to describe it like that anyway.
Freshbooks is geared toward small businesses that need efficient and accurate client billing as a top priority. It does take care of the accounting basics, too, but its focus is on making it easy for freelancers, contractors, consultants, and agencies to invoice and receive payments. Really, the smaller the business, the more valuable a tool Freshbooks is. Tracking time and invoicing for it are beyond easy, as is getting set up to accept credit card and ACH payments.
Don’t look here if you’re looking for full-fledged accounting software. However, if you just want to make it easy to get paid and then hand over all your data to an accountant to make sense of it, Freshbooks will free up all your hours wasted on admin tasks so you can get more work.
At first glance, Slack just looks like another instant messaging platform, but it’s light years ahead of old tools like ICQ or AIM that were used widely in the 1990s.
Designed specifically for businesses, Slack organizes team conversations into channels, so that conversations never get confused and information (like file attachments and links) are easy to find.
But Slack has been moving beyond interoffice communication with open communities—kind of like email forums, but in real time. Slack communities are becoming an effective B2B marketing tool, as like-minded professionals seek help with problems, share resources and information, host Q&As, or just have more general discussions around the topic at hand.
Companies can either create their own communities or join other ones. When owners become active and respected members of these communities, they act as brand ambassadors and increase interest.
4. Google Hangouts
Hangouts is to video calling what Slack is to instant messaging. One-to-one video chats are helpful, but what about when you need to have a team meeting?
Hangouts supports up to 25 people at once, and automatically places each attendee’s screen focus on whoever is speaking (while the intelligent muting feature reduces crosstalk). The built-in screen sharing means Hangouts is great for giving presentations and demos, and the public “Hangout on Air” option means you can stream them live to anyone in the world with no limits on who can join. These are then automatically saved to your YouTube channel—instant evergreen content that you can refer back to again and again in your marketing.
Whether you’ve got five or 50 employees, managing their schedules can be a nightmare of contingency planning and availability guesswork.
Deputy puts the scheduling platform in the cloud. This means all the data is accessible online, so that employers and employees can access it through apps on their own devices. Employees can submit shift requests and block out when they aren’t available, and management can create schedules in minutes by defining the criteria for each shift and the software does the rest. Everything is transparent, so no one can claim they didn’t know they were scheduled to work (I’m looking at you, Jeff).
Serving as a great example, U.S. restaurant chain Masala Wok creates monthly schedules for its 300 employees in all 12 locations in five minutes.
Deputy also integrates with other business apps (like accounting, payroll, and POS), automating some tasks and facilitating others. When you compare the cost of labor for each shift with historical sales data from your POS, for example, you can easily schedule staff within your means. The fallout from understaffing can cost you just as much, if not more, as overstaffing, and it’s hard to grow a business when you’re losing money—so a solution that helps reduce the likelihood of this is well worth it.
Even the self-employed, who are are their own employees, have no idea what their workers are up to all day. That’s because it’s hard to stay on task when there isn’t someone acting as the boss to keep you accountable.
RescueTime aims to be that boss. It tracks time on websites and in applications so that users know what they’re actually spending their time on. For instance, I can’t imagine why it’s taken me 182 minutes to make it only 1,128 words into this post. But then I consulted RescueTime, and saw that I’ve spent 84 of those minutes taking Harry Potter-themed quizzes on Buzzfeed.
The good news is I can set goals and be more accountable to myself—and my business—with RescueTime. The bad news is I’ve been sorted into Slytherin when I had my heart set on Hufflepuff. Still, having that kind of insight into work habits can help self-employed people understand how much time they’re losing, and how many more hours they could actually be billing for.
It’s one of the more popular social media management tools for a reason: there’s just so much you can do with it to grow your social media presence—and, by proxy, your business.
Features like scheduling posts and managing followers get the tedious admin jobs done with minimal hassle—creating one post for multiple platforms should be enough to convince any social media manager to give Hootsuite a try. Having one platform to view and engage with any comments from followers is another great time-saver.
Hootsuite’s reporting functionality is pretty limited unless you’re willing to pay extra, but that doesn’t affect social listening, my favorite feature. You can monitor for keywords, phrases, competitors, anything—it all shows up in a single stream you can peruse. This can be used strictly for research, or it can be used to identify conversations you’d want to chime in on. Being engaged on social media is more important than just being there, and social listening is an excellent, targeted way of doing that.
Email marketing has been around long enough that I probably don’t need to explain it to you. But I do want to mention MailChimp and the way they’ve taken that marketing to the next level by automating sales campaigns.
You can create customer segments based on a number of criteria, such as demographic data or purchase history, and then trigger an email to those segments based on rules you create. In practical terms, this means that, for example, someone who buys a 90 day supply of vitamins might get an email with offers on day 80, or regular customers who tend to buy in the spring and fall might get a little extra love during the summer. These are just a couple of scenarios in which your marketing could nearly run itself.
Because every link in a MailChimp message is trackable, you can see in-depth data about how your campaigns are working out—who’s reading them, who’s clicking on the links, who’s actually making purchases because of the email. You can tweak them more, or let them run if they’re working to your satisfaction. You can also create a segment of people who are subscribed but haven’t opened, say, the last five emails.
The point is, MailChimp does most of it without intervention from you, and in many cases, a single sale per month is all it takes for the service to pay for itself.
Mobile technology has changed the landscape of computing for small businesses. It isn’t just that apps are easy and affordable to use; apps built for the web, smartphones, and tablet are, feature-for-feature, far superior to more traditional offerings from even a few years ago. They’re designed not just to simplify operating, but with features aimed toward actually growing your business.
Whether you’re a freelancer wasting time on social media and manually sending invoices, or a restaurant that’s scheduling employees on a whiteboard while marketing with paper menus in mailboxes, you could be doing a lot more with your business using software.
The good news is, you can probably afford to use a few apps—which means you can’t afford not to.