As a business owner, you wear many hats. You are faced with overseeing every facet of your operations from A to Z, and needless to say, this can be an unbelievably stressful task. In most cases, there never seems to be enough hours in a day to finish what you want.
The leanest businesses are constantly looking for ways to make common tasks easier while yielding better results. At the end of the day, the success of your business depends greatly on the organizational systems in place. Luckily, given the current state of technology in the workplace, there are many resources out there to help ensure that nothing slips through the cracks.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through our top tips, tricks, and tools that every small business owner needs to be successful. You’ll learn about free small business apps, tools for small business owners, speech recognition software, and more.
Tools that make life easier
We’re all looking for a magic solution that can help us save hours in our day. While we’re not quite there yet, there are a number of tools that can optimize your day-to-day operations in almost every area you touch, including planning, marketing, customer service, and more.
From productivity methods to popular apps, here are 11 tools that can make your life easier.
- Pure Chat: Pure Chat makes it easy to talk with customers in real time directly on your website to ensure each of their concerns is being addressed. It also collects data on visitors to help identify patterns to pre-qualify leads or start proactive chats.
- Nutcache: As your operations start to grow, the need for quality project management will become more and more apparent. For this reason, many businesses are choosing to implement an agile system. In a nutshell, agile project management is a methodology that focuses on team-based solutions, continuous improvement, and critical problem-solving. Nutcache is a battle-tested and refined agile solution designed to manage the entire project delivery lifecycle. Using proven agile methodologies, like scrum and kanban, the program is built to be flexible in adjusting to the way your team works best. Managers can easily visualize projects from A to Z, map out assignments, and monitor progress to competition.
- Unroll.Me: This app is built to get rid of the constant flow of clutter and organize your inbox so you can focus on more important issues. Unroll.Me makes it incredibly simple to unsubscribe to all the junk mail you get on both your computer and mobile device. If there are email blasts you find particularly valuable, you can combine them all into one condensed message with a feature called “The Rollup.” From here, you can create intuitive categories that automatically organizes your subscriptions so you can find exactly what you want quickly and easily.
- Streak: Streak is a Gmail plugin that groups your leads together, gathers and marks important conversations, and tracks threads leading to deals you end up making. Every lead can be marked as “hot lead,” “pitched,” or “proposal sent,” letting you see your pipeline build up right inside your inbox.
- Zendesk: This is a full-fledged customer service and support system which helps you go beyond just attending to your customers to cultivating a relationship with them. Zendesk collects all the communication you receive from your customers, in the form of emails, tweets, or comments, and brings it together in one place.
- 1-3-5 List: An example of beauty in simplicity, 1-3-5 encourages you to “get things done by setting these few, simple goals for the day.” Choose one big task, three medium tasks, and five small tasks, and simply check them off when complete and add new tasks the next day. By limiting you to a finite and accomplishable list, this system can help you feel in control of setting realistic goals, and meeting them.
- Wunderlist: Named as one of the best by both Apple and Google Play, Wunderlist bills itself as a tool for home, work, and play. Wunderlist has a long list of features, including public and collaborative lists and real-time sync.
- Bullet Journaling: Bullet journaling is a system ”for the list-makers, the note-takers, the Post-It note pilots, the track-keepers, and the dabbling doodlers.” It organizes the present, records the past, and plans for the future, centering around a technique called rapid logging.
- Post-Its: Sometimes all the fancy systems in the world can’t beat a simple Post-It note. This concept can be summed up in one simple line “If it won't fit on a Post-It, it won't fit in your day.”
- Evernote: Evernote may be the most beloved and most frequently recommended productivity app. The website promises that “for everything you’ll do, Evernote is the workspace to get it done.” From writing, collecting, finding, and presenting, Evernote allows you to keep track of everything you need, and share and collaborate with others.
- Trello: Trello acts as a board of virtual Post-It notes, allowing you to move from content planning and creation to distribution in a simple, yet robust platform. Cards, colors, and stickers keep projects organized and defined.
Free small business apps
Free tools to help you run a better business? Yes, please!
Whether you find yourself acting like a designer, copywriter, salesperson, or strategist, these free tools for small businesses can help. They’ll save you hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. And they’re available for a grand sum of… drumroll… $0 apiece.
1. Sales: Research your prospects with Crystal
Account required: Yes (free, with some paid features)
Useful for: Anyone who needs to connect with prospects
Type in someone’s name for a quick, in-depth analysis of publicly available information such as social media profiles. Crystal will estimate the accuracy of its analysis, which predicts behavior and motivations. You’ll get advice on how to communicate effectively with that person, and you can even access free email templates for actions like requesting a sales meeting.
2. Marketing: Get professional advice from MarketingProfs
Account required: Yes (free)
Useful for: Anyone seeking input from marketing professionals
The MarketingProfs Know-How Exchange lets you crowdsource answers to your most common questions about advertising, SEO, customer service, websites, and other topics of interest to small businesses. You can also respond to other users’ questions to help your peers and position yourself as an expert in the community.
3. Writing: Analyze your text with Expresso
Account required: No
Useful for: Anyone who wants to write better copy
Expresso promises to make your writing “more readable, precise, and engaging.” Just copy and paste your text for a quick analysis and the software will highlight common pitfalls like weak verbs, passive voice, and overused words. Hover over the highlighted text to view suggestions to improve the quality of your writing.
4. Research: Save the best resources with Pocket
Account required: Yes (free)
Useful for: Anyone who is short on time
Ever see an interesting headline and think “I should read that sometime” then promptly forget about it? Pocket lets you save videos, articles, pages, and more so you can come back and view them later (even if you’re offline). When you’re ready to consume the content, log in to view a Pinterest-like board of your favorite stuff.
5. Design: Create beautiful graphics with Canva
Account required: Yes (free, with some paid features)
Useful for: Anyone who needs to create graphics
Churn out social media posts, ads, e-books, and other marketing materials in a snap. Canva offers millions of images, fonts, and templates (many free, some paid). You don’t need any design skills to use it—just drag and drop to create beautiful, professional-looking designs in minutes.
Small business automation
“When I grow up, I want to spend all day at the office answering emails and collecting paperwork,” said no one ever.
But the reality is that routine office tasks can easily consume an entire workday. In a survey by the National Federation of Independent Business, small business owners said they devote two-thirds of each day to finances, communications, sales, and management—and only one-third to actually conducting business.
Here are some of our favorite business tools and tips to automate office tasks.
Business automation tools
Automation is no longer the distant dream it was a few years ago. In fact, many of the modern tools are affordable and simple to use, so small businesses can easily make the most of them.
Here is a list of six automation tools that can help small business owners take their efforts to the next level.
Keap is an all-in-one sales and marketing automation tool geared specifically to small businesses. The tool helps businesses build their campaigns to track and record leads’ behavior, then scores each one individually based on the ease of conversion. Once the leads are recognized, the tool sends personalized messages to contacts based on certain triggers.
Keap helps businesses nurture relationships with their customers and ensure they stay connected with the brand. The platform includes a robust mobile application with full lead forms, and page and email building capabilities.
Pricing: Starts at $99/month
FreshBooks is an award-winning software that prides itself on making financial management easy and enjoyable. The platform is designed with small teams in mind, and understands both the giant and the minuscule problems they face.
With an emphasis on automated task prioritization, tracking payments is an intuitive process with no hiccups. The invoice to payment feature is a must-have for every small business. The tracking system provides full details in relation to when a customer receives an invoice, when they open it, and, of course, when it is paid.
Following suit with the way the world is moving, FreshBooks is 100 percent optimized for mobile so you can operate your entire system on the go.
Pricing: Plans start at $15/month.
WorkflowMax offers a project management and scheduling software that allows you to keep an eye on every project and ensure your team stays on schedule. You can easily enter in objectives and assign team members accordingly, then track your employee’s progress along the way. With email notifications and an interactive scheduling interface, you will never have to worry about missing a deadline again.
You can use the program to create custom invoices with your own company logo and adjust pricing per project as needed. WorkflowMax can also work with invoicing software such as Xero, so transferring invoices from one program to the other is effortless. It also offers a timesheet management program that streamlines your payroll system.
Pricing: WorkflowMax offers a two-week free trial and no long term contracts. Plans start at $15/month per user with no set-up fees.
ScheduleOnce is an all-inclusive tool that takes the question and margin for error out of scheduling appointments. Customers can easily schedule their own bookings which are then automatically added to the calendars of all parties involved.
On your end, you have complete control over the availability and time slots visible to your customers. Once you accept a booking, the customer is sent a confirmation with all the necessary details. You can even set the program to provide automatic reminders, as well as follow-up messages with your electronic business card.
Perhaps the best aspect of this software is how easily you can integrate it with your website with widgets, buttons, or a full embed. From here, people can make appointments without ever leaving your platform.
Pricing: Plans range from $5-$49/month depending on the size of your operation.
5. BrandsEyeAimed at small businesses on the cusp of becoming mid-sized businesses, BrandsEye is a comprehensive social monitoring tool that goes beyond just scouring the web to bring you all the social mentions related to your business.
It automatically provides you with a number of insights into how your social media strategy is progressing and the changes you should make to improve your campaign. You can create reports to study and understand the performance, as well as the ROI of all your social media efforts. You can even monitor the campaigns of your competitors.
Pricing: To know your exact pricing plan, you will have to contact their team.
6. SisenseBusiness is all about data. In fact, some experts say big data is currently the most valuable resource in the world. However, it is only valuable if you know what you’re looking at and how to use it to your advantage.
As much as small businesses stand to gain from big data, it can be extremely difficult to know what to look for, and not get overwhelmed in the process. This is why automated business intelligence software like Sisense is a lifesaver.
This all-in-one cloud-based tool works to give you the full view of your most relevant business analytics by automatically preparing reports of complex data with an interactive dashboard. You are then presented with this information in a variety of visualization models.
Pricing: Pricing varies greatly on business needs. You will need to reach out directly for a quote.
How to automate office work
When busywork is automated, tasks always get done, even when your employees forget about them or call in sick. Your staff can just focus on the work you hired them to do.
Here’s a look at how you can automate five common office tasks.
1. Respond to emails from prospective customers.The average person receives 88 business emails a day, according to The Radicati Group, a tech market research firm. If you spend a quick five minutes answering each one that adds up to 7.3 hours. Throw in a lunch break, and the workday is over.
You can’t and shouldn’t automate every email response, but software can pitch in, especially with replies to prospective customer inquiries. When a prospect fills out a contact form, the software automatically replies with an email. In one templated response message, you can welcome the newcomer, send your rates, and answer frequently asked questions.
2. Streamline repetitive tasks.Say you mail every new customer an informational packet or, if you’re really nice, a box of cookies. But sometimes, you get so busy with other work that it takes you weeks to mail the gift—or you forget to send it altogether.
No customer goes cookie-less if automation software is in charge. When a tag is applied to a new customer, the software reminds you that it’s cookie time. Plus, it pulls the customer’s address from your records so you don’t have to look it up.
If you’re not the cookie-sending type, that’s OK. The same strategy can apply to practically any task you need to complete more than a few times. With a process in which task A is followed by task B, automation software can help keep you on track.
3. Send and receive documents.Our increasingly digital world still leaves a paper trail. Personally following every step is a drain on time and resources. Take yourself off the trail (for the most part) by automating processes that collect and send documents.
The paper-swapping process starts when you use automation software to tag the people you’re targeting. The tag prompts a document—like a W9 tax form for new contractors, for example—to be emailed. When the form is filled out and returned to you, make a note in the system that the process has been completed. Without that note, the software automatically follows up with reminder emails, sparing you from chasing down papers.
4. Send appointment reminders.Customers need reminders (and sometimes reminder reminders) about their appointments, but that doesn’t mean you need to take the time to notify each customer personally.
Let software play the role of secretary by automating appointment reminders. When a staff member completes a web form containing the customer’s name, email address, and appointment time, the form triggers automated emails to be sent to the customer. Schedule a confirmation email immediately after the booking, with reminders sent the week and day before the appointment.
5. Order coffee for the team.Even the greatest intern in the history of interns couldn’t beat automation software at a coffee run. The typical order process is inherently inefficient. To collect orders, someone might spend a half-hour roaming the office, doubling back in search of those who were M.I.A. Or, maybe someone asks for orders via a group email, triggering a chain of annoying “reply all” responses that clog inboxes all morning.
Automation software streamlines the process for everyone. An automated email directs your staff to a web form in which they can enter orders. After a “last call” email is sent to non-responders 15 minutes later, an order summary is automatically sent to the coffee runner. Everyone gets what they wanted, and no one spent more than a moment on the ordering process. Cheers!
Voice recognition software
Do you want to take your productivity to the next level? How about never having to type a word again? Okay, you might not be able to avoid typing forever, but speech recognition software can go a long way in saving time on mundane tasks like writing emails or taking notes.
Here are some of the most popular voice recognition software and the equipment you’ll need to get started.
Voice recognition programs
The technology behind voice recognition software has improved immensely, so you don’t need to worry about suffering from the unfortunate effects of auto-correct.
Here are some options for voice recognition software:
- Apple Dictation: If you are a frequent Mac, iPhone, or iPad user, you already have a quality dictation app at your fingertips with Apple’s Siri-powered, built-in technology. And for quicker dictation, simply ask Siri directly. You can ask her to send an email, respond to a text message, place a call, and more.
- Windows Speech Recognition: Windows also offers free, built-in voice dictation software. Available on all versions of Windows since XP, Speech Recognition lets you type and use simple commands with your voice.
- Google Docs Voice Typing: Do you spend a lot of time writing notes or documents in Google Docs? Use Google’s Voice Typing to type with your voice, add formatting, and move around your document. This is only available in Google Docs inside Google Chrome.
- Dragon NaturallySpeaking: Created by Nuance Communications, Dragon is the industry-standard speech recognition software that works on all programs and browsers. It offers a variety of different products based on your industry, with prices ranging from $100-$500.
Which microphone to use?
Almost all speech recognition software comes with a built-in microphone, but the best option for quality is to use an external microphone.
If you want to start simple, the earbuds that come with your phone are a good place to start. If you want to upgrade, here are the kinds of microphones you can use.
- Headset microphones: The recording quality is the best with a wired headset because the microphone is right in front of your mouth. They can be purchased at any office supply store or online, and there is no need to spend a lot of money on your headset — you can find a quality one for $20 or $30. You can also go for a wireless headset, which is usually more expensive than a wired headset, but you have more mobility and freedom.
- Desk microphones: If you don’t want something on top of your head, a desk microphone is a slightly less expensive option. Office supply stores and online stores sell an adequate desk microphone for under $20.
Running a small business is intimidating. It takes a lot of patience, courage, and close attention to detail. However, technology makes all kinds of ventures more viable and sustainable for the long haul.
By automating certain business processes and leveraging business apps, teams can free up valuable time and invest it in more strategic tasks that will ensure rapid growth for the company. Some tools are extremely affordable (or even free!), while others come with a high price tag. This means business owners must choose a tool depending on their specific needs and budgets. But, regardless of the tool you choose, know that each one is designed to help businesses have better control and make smarter choices.