Small Business Stack: Every Tool You Need to Fuel Business Growth
The Software As A Service (SaaS) model has been great news for businesses. Instead of relying on software that requires updates and is limited to one computer back at the office, just about everything you need to manage your business can be done in the cloud, anywhere. The question is: which one(s)?
Which tools are simply another login that you have to remember?
Before I get to the list, here’s a quick checklist to help you choose a tool that you need, rather than because it seems cool:
- Be honest about your business size (customers, employees). Don’t choose a huge monster of a tool if you don’t need all the wizardry.
- Write down the areas you’re struggling to manage. Where is growth happening and it feels like organization and management are getting away from you?
- Note the areas employees have suggested improvement. Maybe that old cork bulletin board for important notices isn’t enough anymore.
- Consider the tools you already rely on. You’ll want to choose tools that integrate with what you already use.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few tools that can fuel business growth.
Your Online Presence
Your business is online in multiple places–social profiles, review sites–not just your official website. Claim your profile wherever you can, and be actively monitoring it. A silent presence is a negative presence.
Yelp (and other review sites)
Claim your business on Yelp. Make sure the information there is accurate. You can only respond to customer reviews if you’ve claimed your business (though do avoid being defensive or aggressive when you respond). Also consider TripAdvisor, and similar sites.
If content marketing and a strong social media presence is a key part of your business, CoSchedule will help you plan all of that content and even help automate some of the publishing. Using a calendar, you can plan content, communicate with team members, set social content to publish, and use different permission access to control who can see and do certain tasks.
This cloud-based design app makes it easy to create professional graphics for social media posts, blog imagery, and even things like menus or other business-related documents. It’s all drag-and-drop, and the high quality layouts and tools (both free and paid) make your graphics look professional.
Cloud Storage And Document Creation
At this point, every business needs to be using the cloud. Keeping a safe copy of your data is crucial, but so is being able to access it. Cloud storage means you can access your important data anywhere.
OneDrive is a souped-up version of cloud storage, allowing you to also create and collaborate (with notifications) on Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote documents and files in the cloud. There are business options for more security as well. The selling point for OneDrive is that those Microsoft file formats are common file types for businesses. Having a cloud storage system that natively reads and creates them is a big plus for many businesses who have hundreds of such files already on hand.
Dropbox has long been a standard in cloud storage, but has been working hard to upgrade what it offers. There are now business plans, the ability to create documents within the Dropbox system, and some team communication features that are associated with specific files. Sync makes it easy to keep a copy on your hard drive as well as the cloud.
This popular note-taking app is cloud-based with attractive mobile apps. It’s become much more than a simple note app in recent years as it takes aim at the business community. There are now team collaboration features that help you manage your important notes and documents, as well as permission levels and a tie-in with Skitch, the popular image editing app (which, unfortunately, now only works on a Mac).
Communication can make or break your business, particularly between team members. Whether they’re working retail or in an office, choose a standard method of communication between everyone.
HipChat is private messaging and file sharing for your team. Create rooms for specific projects or groups, have chat conversations, share files and links, and connect from anywhere using the desktop or mobile apps. HipChat integrates with lots of popular tools has a clean interface that is user friendly. It also has desktop and mobile apps.
Slack is also a chat system that your team can use for communication between each other. It’s becoming the standard for this type of tool. Users create channels so that conversations and shared files stay organized based on topic. You can even create private channels if necessary. Team members can also direct message each other. Slack integrates with a lot of other popular tools (Dropbox, Asana, Google Drive, and more). Native mobile apps as well as desktop apps mean your team is always able to connect no matter where they’re at.
Skype has been the go-to tool for voice and video communication, as well as chat. While other services have certainly come along that do the same, Skype is the one nearly everyone is familiar with, and is still very much up to the job of keeping your team connected no matter where they are.
Good news for Chromebook users: Skype now works fully on your device, through Skype for Web.
Boomerang is something you add to your Gmail account that lets you schedule when you’ll send and receive email messages. Sometimes productivity doesn’t always line up with great timing, so instead of sending an email out to your team late at night, get the work done now and schedule it to send at a more reasonable time.
If you’re working with your customers online, or are struggling to manage customer support requests via email, it’s time to consider a better solution.
Zendesk brings multiple support channels to one location and turns them into support tickets that are easier to manage. If you’re fielding customer questions from social media, email, chat, or phone calls, Zendesk can help bring some organization to that confusion.
This customer support system is from SalesForce, a company that makes many popular business tools. It brings multiple support channels (social media, email, phone calls, real-time chat) under one roof. It has many powerful tools (filters, cases, automation, rules) that can help you stay on top of an active customer base. However, if your customer support need is light, you might not need this much power.
Help Scout has automation features, collaboration features, and a clean interface (including reports) that’s pleasing to use. It allows you to create multiple mailboxes so that team members can work on customer support together even if they are in different departments. Everyone knows what kind of needs the customer has; that information isn’t segregated by department. You can also create a knowledge base website as well as use embed tools that make it easy to put a form in any website page to help customers get answers.
Snappy takes an email approach to answering customer questions. It also makes it easy for you to create a knowledge base or frequently asked questions page so that your customers can find out information on their own. You can set up triggers to help automate the support load, embed support widgets on your website, and get reports on where customer satisfaction is at.
Olark integrates with your website so that customers can speak with you and your support team live via chat. It will also generate data that will tell you where and what customers are looking at on your website.
Each business has different project management needs, depending on whether you are a service business or working with clients. Still, staying organized is important; these tools can help.
If your team’s workflow involves post-it notes and whiteboards, Trello might be a good organizational app for you. Users create boards, grant access, and move notes around on the boards. There are a variety of notes you can create, and team members can have conversations as well as attach files to the notes. It’s a pretty flexible system that lets you fit your workflow into it easily, and could be useful in just about any business.
Asana is a fairly full-featured project management app. You can track how projects are progressing, communicate and share files between team members inside specific projects — pretty much everything you need to do to stay organized when you have a lot of complicated projects going. Asana is better suited for businesses that are project and client focused.
IDoneThis uses a different approach to project management. It uses email, which your team is probably using anyway, to check in and see how everyone is doing in completing tasks and meeting their goals. It’s a handy tool to use if you want to avoid time-wasting meetings and just want to see what people have left to do.
If a simple to-do list approach is all you need, then Todoist might be perfect. It’s cloud based, so you can access your tasks anywhere, desktop or mobile device. You can create recurring tasks and subtasks. You can share tasks with others and do some basic collaboration on those tasks. The design is extremely clean and simple.
Money And Finances
There are a lot of money management options available to you, but the key for small businesses today is finding a solution that’s in the cloud. No more being trapped in software on one computer hard drive.
Square is best known as the popular point-of-sale tool for many small businesses, but it also has online sales and inventory capabilities. Your free Square account gives you the capability to manage payroll, invoices, gift cards, online store setup, and sales. It’s becoming an all-in-one small business money management tool.
This cloud-based accounting system is free, with additional paid options. It has an easy dashboard for managing your invoices, payments received, bank statements, payroll, and more. Customers can pay their invoices electronically. Accounting reports can be printed for tax time.
QuickBooks has a reputation for being a standard in business accounting software, but in recent years have made a transition to the cloud. Now you can tap into that full suite of accounting options from a cloud-based environment. Because it’s a standard for businesses, many other apps integrate with it easily, including tools like project management apps (where you’re tracking employee time spent on projects). It’s the more pricey option out of many, but it’s solid.
With a modern and user-friendly interface, Gusto makes it easy for you to manage your employee payroll and benefits, including tricky state payroll tax and workers comp. It also integrates with many other apps, some of which you’re probably already using.
If you have a business that requires your employees to track the time they devote to client projects, Harvest can keep you from wasting time while doing it. Time-tracking is notoriously onerous. Harvest has a clean UI that brings together timesheet approval, invoicing, expenses, planning, and payments. It’s in the cloud, so your employees can track their time from the road.
PaySimple is a cloud-based payment gateway software that is especially helpful for service businesses in need of a secure, simple way to accept online payments. They make it easy to give your customers varied payment options like credit/debit cards, ACH, eChecks, recurring payments and card-on-file payments.
Schedule Shifts And Set Up Appointments
Calendars and schedules: these are just about the trickiest things to manage. You’re trying to juggle employee schedules, customer appointments, team meetings–it’s a lot to deal with unless you have the perfect tools.
Employee scheduling doesn’t have to be a hassle. When I Work makes scheduling employee shifts easy–whether you’re at the job site or on the go from your mobile device. Employees can receive updates to remind them of their schedule, and can easily access it from their mobile device, too. It can make your job as a scheduler easier by automatically assigning qualified employees to shifts that are open on your schedule.
A simple-to-use approach makes Calendly one of the easiest scheduling tools you can use with customers. After you complete your preferred settings of available times and days, you can go live and start taking appointments right away. It integrates by checking availability with Google Calendar or Office 365 to keep you from being double-booked if other events have called you away.
This online booking calendar connects either to Google Calendar or iCloud. It makes sure you’re available, can take payments for appointments (if appropriate), and sends out notifications and reminders to you and your customers.
Doodle is similar in style to Calendly, and just as easy to setup and use. The free version is pretty useful in and of itself, integrating with Google Calendar and making it easy for you to set up meetings with team members and clients, avoiding conflicts with already scheduled events. The poll option lets meeting attendees weigh in on preferred schedule times, allowing Doodle to help choose the best one.
Google is more than search. They want to help businesses (and even have a blog dedicated to doing so). I collected all of the Google tools in one place rather than divvying them into the previous categories simply because those of you who already use Google in your own life and in business may prefer to use as many of these closely integrated (and single login) tools as you can.
Google Apps are a step-up from their consumer-level products, particularly in regards to email. Rather than having a Gmail address, for example, Google Apps lets you use your custom domain. You’ll get enterprise-level security, and better controls over who and how tools are used, including mobile device management.
Measure your website user’s behavior using Google Analytics. It’s easy to use and integrate, and does a good job showing you which pages of your site are popular, where your traffic is coming from, how search terms are performing, and so on. While most businesses supplement Google Analytics with additional tools that hone in on specifics they need, it is definitely a must-have tool whether you choose to do that or not.
Google makes it easy to get your businesses information online and in front of potential customers. Business hours of operation, location, photos, and more are easy to plug into the system. Search returns show a map of where your business is located and makes it easy for customers to read reviews and find your business on a map.
Google Drive (And Documents)
There’s no shortage of cloud storage, but if you’re already using a lot of Google tools, or want more options than mere storage, Google Drive is ideal. You can create Google documents, spreadsheets, drawings, and more inside Drive, making all of your files available–whether you created them with Google or not–in one handy place. With lots of organizational tools, integrations, and permission options, as well as Google’s powerful search, your Drive makes absolutely every type of file easily accessible to anyone you want, any where.
If you need a basic note or to-do list-making tool, Google Keep might work. It’s extremely basic, but you can share notes with team members, add tags, and do some basic management of each note. It has a great mobile app (as well as a desktop app), so shared notes can be accessed easily by your team anywhere.
With a simple dashboard, Google makes it easy for you to keep your website optimized for great search returns in the Google sphere. You can also access help for when things aren’t right with your site, and receive messages and warnings if something seems broken to Google’s search bots. If you’re trying to stay in good standing with Google (and you should, since their search engine is hugely popular), Webmaster Tools helps make that easier.
You can connect your business printers to the web using Google Cloud Print. This lets you, and anyone you give permission to, print from anywhere and nearly any device, simplifying how you share a printer and turning your printer into a kind of fax machine where you can send a printed document to your office printer from your tablet while on vacation.
This Calendar is one of the gold standards of the internet. It’s easy to create calendars suited to specific needs, share them with your team or even the public, and manage events and tasks. It even makes it easy for two busy people to find the time for a meeting by taking into account their schedules. With beautiful mobile apps and integration with lots of other tools, this calendar is often the foundation for those other time management tools.
Spaces is something new from Google, and is similar to Slack or HipChat. It creates groups where you can have team conversations around specific topics or projects, making it easy to keep the chat conversations and shared files focused on a specific area. It works in the Chrome browser as well as on mobile apps, making it easy for your team to stay connected.
Merchant Center lets you manage your product inventory with Google. You can use this service to encourage online sales, promote your brick-and-mortar business locally, or tap into targeted ad campaigns.
Google Alerts are basically an automated way to stay on top of a topic of interest. You can tweak your alerts to be specific or broad, and define how often you want the alerts sent to you. Possible uses? Monitor competitors, watch for mentions of your business online, and stay on top of industry trends.
Hangouts make it easy to communicate with your team and with customers, using an interface for phone calls, chat, or video. It works on your desktop in a browser or with plugins, and it also has mobile apps.
This list is by no means the end. There are so many great tools out there. Which tools have you used that have made a positive impact on your business?