What’s in Your Toolkit?
Every entrepreneur wants to run her business like a pro. Whether it’s managing your money, client leads and sales funnels, or being more productive and maximizing the minutes you spend at your desk, we all know there’s room to improve. But when it comes to working out that improvement plan and selecting the right tools to help you stay on track, the choices can be overwhelming. It takes time — a non-renewable resource in business-speak — to learn and evaluate new technology.
To get you started, here are some of the best tools — from timekeeping apps to project management trackers — to keep your business running smoothly.
The most valuable asset you have probably isn’t money; it’s time. In my bookkeeping business, we use five different pieces of technology to stay organized, but the one closest to my heart is Harvest. This time-tracking app is hands-down the best pieces of software I have tried because it is easy to use, cost effective and has a really clean, intuitive design. Introducing this app created a boom to my bottom line, and it completely changed my business.
Tracking your time like you track your budget can provide some amazing insights on how to more effectively manage your professional life. For me, this software helped me shift my business model from project-based pricing to hourly-based pricing, which has proven to be a huge boon to my bottom line. Also, figuring out how much time I spend internally to run my business — from financial management to sales and marketing, IT, HR and legal — helps me decide when to outsource. With three different pricing plans from $12 to $99 per month, rates are “built to size,” and the ability to add more users is a pinch.
If you want to avoid adding to the ever-growing list of “software as service” fees you pay monthly, you can download Klok, a cross-platform software you can purchase for $19.99. Like Harvest, it tracks time and can generate reports. What makes it special is its snazzy visual tool — allowing you to view your days in blocks of color-coded time. Graphs like these can be much easier to analyze than long, text-heavy reports. And, like Harvest, this app gives you the ability to invoice your clients in no time at all.
Regardless of what business you’re in, you need software to help you navigate the financial landscape of your business. Don’t be surprised if, in fact, you find yourself needing more than one piece of financial software. (For instance, if you run a product-based business, you’ll need a “point of sale” system, and if you sell goods or services via your website, you’ll want a “shopping cart” plugged into the backend of your website.)
QuickBooks is an industry standard across the accounting world, and for good reason. The reporting features in QuickBooks are very robust and easily customizable. Not only can you track day-to-day inflows and outflows, but with a little guidance, you can track project and customer profitability. This key feature is something savvy entrepreneurs use to gauge their pricing, as well as zone in on their most profitable offerings. QuickBooks has grown over the years and offers many “industry specific” versions of QuickBooks. I prefer their desktop versions, as they are speedier to work with, but their online version has greatly improved over the past two years. The desktop versions begin at $249.95; online versions range from $12.95 to $39.95 per month.
Not quite ready to invest in QuickBooks? Try YNAB, an acronym for You Need a Budget, and a great tool for startups and freelancers who aren’t quite sure when the next client payment might hit the bank. This software started out as a personal budgeting software, but is establishing a great reputation as a small business finance tool, as well.
I love this company’s main rule — give every dollar a job — which means you plan on how you are going to spend every dollar in advance, rather than looking in the rear-view mirror and being stumped as to where all the money went. Another key feature is planning for a rainy day and creating a buffer of cash to cushion the months and weeks when cash stops flowing in. Hands down, this company provides the best online free trainings, and their discussion board is active with employees and users alike.
Sales and CRM Tools
In business, (almost) nothing matters more than sales. Carolyn Herfurth, a sales specialist, raves about Infusionsoft, which allows her to handles to track important customer relations management (CRM) functions like contact and appointment information, but it also allows her to track her marketing efforts, sales leads, sales and Web traffic. Setting up this program did require an initial investment of a few thousand dollars three years ago, and Herfurth made a decision to have that expert also train her personal assistant to maximize the potential of this sales tool. Prior to implementing Infusionsoft, her website was initially set up with a popular shopping cart tool that just wasn’t “delivering the goods.” The investment in Infusionsoft paid off; once her initial “buckets” or sales lead funnels were set up by the Infusionsoft expert, Herfurth was off and running. Now she is going against the normal business wisdom of selling people on smaller ticket items; Infusionsoft has helped her determine her customers will often opt into bigger ticket items if the offering is right.
Herfurth sets up webinars and autoresponders, and not only can she run these once, she can run these continually which means the investment of her time and money she pays her assistant can earn her dollars over a long period of time. Likewise she can analyze her customers’ buying patterns and craft her online offerings accordingly if her services aren’t selling.
Whether your business is online, brick and mortar or something in between, maintaining your relationships and building your professional network is key to your success. All business is personal and having a system in place to manage, follow up on and stay connected to your contacts is important. Enter: Nimble, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software that has a social media component built into it.
Like traditional CRMs, this app keeps track of your client contacts, manages appointments, schedules reminders and notifies you of important things like birthdays and anniversaries. What makes it unique is its ability to hunt through your personal network, making suggestions on who you should contact and why. Adored by many tech blogs and reviewers, this software company was featured as one of Entrepreneur Magazine’s 100 Brilliant Companies. There are both paid ($15/month) and unpaid plans but beware: The unpaid plan is only mentioned in the small print, so be sure not to miss it.
Meredith Eisenberg is the woman to go to when you want to chat about apps. In fact her whole business, Magic Marketing Machine, helps entrepreneurs sift, sort and choose the right email, e-commerce and customer database systems for their businesses. By her own confession, Eisenberg has tried “every project management software under the sun” including Asana, Basecamp and Wrike. When she started raving about Trello, I knew it must be special — and it is.
This project management software is both visual and tactile, allowing you to create boards and cards (think of it as a Pinterest for projects). Meredith loves that the software is something you physically manipulate, moving cards from “To Do,” “Doing” and “Done” columns. Similar to a pen in hand, the physical acts of moving “cards” around a board make information stick in her brain. This little tool also has some high tech add-ons; by plugging in Gmello, you can easily add an email to a card, and specify which column it should go in.
When I asked Meredith how this app increased her productivity it came down to customer service and project completion. Having an effective project and task management system in place allows her staff to spend time focusing on client care and marketing, not ineffective project management. The fact that Trello is f-r-e-e is an added bonus!
The king of kings when it comes to project management is Basecamp, built by the masters over at 37signals. Originally a Web design company, Basecamp was born out of their personal need for an effective project management software. Nancy Shenker, founder of theONswitch, a marketing and public relations agency, shared why she fell in love with Basecamp: This tool allows you to exchange graphics, copy and information for a project all in one place — a huge plus when you have clients across the country. I found a kindred spirit in Shenker who agrees with me that email can be wildly inefficient; it’s frustrating and time consuming to rummage through e-mails to find content, comments or important details. Because Basecamp alerts the entire team when new content is posted, it ensures everyone involved has access to the relevant information. You can check out Basecamp for free, and plans start for as little as $20 per month.
Cloud Storage Solutions
For this one, I turned to my client Jodi Katz of Base Beauty Creative Agency. Her company focuses on branding, design, and packaging for some of the leading brands in the beauty industry. BBCA needed a storage solution which would allow team members to work virtually across five states and two countries, but still feel like they are in the same office. Jodi also needed the ability pass projects from one team member to another quickly and efficiently, and a tool with the ability to exchange client data without the hassle of emailing large files or following a lot of links.
She found her solution in a simple app called DropBox. When “onboarding” a client, her geographically scattered team sets up a DropBox folder which acts at the main conduit between her clients and the BBCA group. This simple file sharing app, along with carefully crafted guidelines distributed to contractors, service providers and clients, allows everyone to stay “in sync”. It’s pricing structure can’t be beat because DropBox offers both a free version and a tiered pricing plan to suit you needs.
DropBox is an amazing tool, but won’t cut it if you are working in any industry that requires more compliance. Both the medical industry, and the financial industry, can turn to Sharefile.com, a Citrix-owned file sharing tool. If you need to transfer files in a secure environment, look no further than Sharefile. And with their award-winning technology, and their American based customer service team, if you ever run into problem, you can easily reach out and call someone for help.
Mary Deshong Kinkelaar, a Certified Financial Planner™, who owns her firm shared how she transfers sensitive information over the Internet using sharefile.com. As a financial professional, Mary needs to stay organized and has to protect her client’s data and information. After dealing with lost packages containing important financial documents, and spending too much time collecting paperwork from clients, she sought out a different solution.
Now, using sharefile.com, her clients can upload information securely and at their convenience. With Sharefile’s notification system, Nancy and her team can see right away what documents have been uploaded, and what’s missing, both key elements of keeping “the client engagement process”moving along. When I asked Mary how this app changed her business she pointed out that it truly allows her to work on a virtual basis with her clients; this is crucial as she maintains two separate offices. Sharefile’s low price point, and boosted up security has allowed Mary to work more efficiently with her clients, saving her time and peace of mind.
Business used to be about location, location, location. Now our mantra is content, content, content! Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin, an executive business coach, was looking to save both time and money when creating videos for a product launch as well as create free content for her web site. Enter a new and enhanced Keynote, Apple’s competitor to the PowerPoint market.
With new built-in share tools allowing you to post your videos to YouTube and Vimeo, or email QuickTime files, promoting your material takes the click of a button. Also, you no longer need audio software to add voice to your presentations, a huge shift that decreases the need for you to have enhanced tech skills or outsource to a high cost AV company or person. Keynote’s ability to combine three key functions, audio, video and presentations, allowed Elizabeth to create, produce and launch her Ultimate Job Seekers Toolkit within a three month time frame.
When researching content creation I reached out to a facebook friend Adam Hommey, founder of Help My Website Sell™ and The Business Creators' Institute™, who works with entrepreneurs to increase website conversions and simplify their internet marketing technology. I know Adam uses social media to sell his services often so when I asked him what content tool helps his business the most, his answer surprised me. I thought surely he was going to supply me with another web tool, but rather he focused on using technology to increase his customer service experience.
After having a low level argument with a client over repeatedly teaching him some best practices for blogging on WordPress, and becoming increasingly frustrated with teaching clients and team members the same information over and over Adam knew he had to find a solution. He turned to Camtasia, a screen recording and video editing app, which Adam uses to answer client questions and troubleshoot using video.
That client he got in an argument with? “I heard nothing back for a day. But then, he called in a state of elation, saying ‘I sent your video to my girlfriend and told her 'This is what REAL customer service is all about.' Thank you for finally making this clear to me!’ This was six years ago. To this day, barely a week goes by without him emailing me a question and asking me to video the answer.”
How did Camtasia specifically change his business? It gives Adam the ability to explain technical processes, as well as abstract concepts, on video which means the information “sticks” more with both his team and his clients. Because his customers gain more value through the customized videos, the value of Adam’s services have increased dramatically for his clients. From an efficiency standpoint, it reduced Adam’s live phone call volume by over 40% over time, living more brain space to find new clients and generate more services and programs.
Adam pointed out that the perceived value of video training, coaching, and consulting, easily recoups your investment in Camtasia, which can be a little pricey for some at $300. For Adam, this was a small investment in customer service proved to be outstanding. For the skittish, there is a no-risk trial version, so you can experiment with the software before making a commitment.
Who better to talk to about how to manage a schedule but a busy mom and business owner? I reached out to Patty Lennon, the mastermind behind the Mom Gets a Busines Conference and a crowd funding consultant and specialist. Patty found a way to effectively manage her personal and her professional schedule efficiently using Timetrade, an online appointment scheduler which syncs with most major calendar programs.
After instituting Timetrade, Patty was able to block out sections of her lightening speed schedule for basketball, ice skating and school drop-offs. Carving out specific blocks of time helped her to avoid over scheduling or, worse, timing a business call when her personal life and family needed her to be somewhere.
Those features were helpful, but the real payoff is efficiency. By using timetrade Patty, or her assistant, sends potential sales leads and Patty’s coaching clients a link to “schedule themselves.” When people follow the link, they find themselves viewing Patty’s calendar and available time slots. Her assistant no longer banters back and forth with others trying to hash out a time that “works” between both parties. Patty’s assistant is freed up to do other work and her business incurs no labor costs for scheduling time. There is a free version of Timetrade with limited scheduling options, but at $49 for a year, this is an app that quickly pays for itself.
We live in a world of phone and Skype appointment, but we all still need one on one services. A wonderful scheduling option for massage therapists, doctors, hair stylists, aestheticians or therapists is CalendarSpots.com which “allows you to turn your service into a sellable product.” This is a perfect product for businesses, such as a salon, where multiple people may need to access the ability to book appointments: the client, the provider, receptionists etc. Calendarspots has some nice built-in features such as sending, and building, newsletters to clients, as well as booking both people and rooms (helpful if you have a spa). Monthly fees range from $9 per month to $39 per month which includes an SMS feature to text your clients about upcoming appointments.