5 Essential Tools for Small Businesses

One of my favourite things to do when I’m not out pitching for new accounts or putting out fires at the office is figuring out ways to run the business better and more efficiently – so we’ve experimented  (often to the annoyance of my team) with a whole bunch of online productivity tools and platforms – some of them we’ve now incorporated as core parts of our daily workflow (see below) while others (the duds) we’ve hastily discarded.

Rube Goldberg machine

At our agency it all boils down to 5 essential tools that will also work wonderfully for all kinds of small businesses and teams of 15-20 people.

I’m loving this set up because:

  • It’s robust enough for us to manage all of our processes –  down to the nitty gritty minutiae, while also flexible enough to allow team members with different roles to work together on multiple projects and timelines.
  • It’s simple enough to not get in the way of real work.

Keep it robust, flexible, and above all – simple. Don’t go creating Rube Goldberg machines.


#1. GOOGLE APPS FOR COMMS / SCHEDULING / AND DOCS

Life before Google Apps: Can anyone still remember how we survived in those dark days? If you’re a small business and you’re using an ISP hosted solution coupled with Outlook, I strongly urge you to switch to Google Apps. NOW.

Google Apps

Yes, unfortunately the good guys at Google have decided to charge a monthly subscription fee for each user (it was free for up to fifty users when we signed up!) – nonetheless, the suite of integrated tools are well worth the price.

Noteworthy bits:

  • Google Calendars: We use shared calendars to keep track of all our client meetings (for account servicing folk), internal discussions (for those brainstorming / design critique sessions), and we even have one for annual leaves to keep track of who’ll be sipping piña coladas on the beach and when.
  • Google Drive: We manage our invoice / cashflow records the old school way – via a spreadsheet with multiple tabs, and shared amongst the directors for realtime collaborative viewing / editing. We’ve tried countless other SME accounting tools, but I still find a spreadsheet the fastest and most flexible way of making quick calculations and projections. (Note: I’m looking for a better way to do this – if you’ve got any ideas please let me know in the comments!)

#2. ASANA FOR TASK MANAGEMENT

If like us, you have a hierarchical, task-based process, Asana is our preferred tool to keep track of those micro-tasks across all of projects, timelines, and team members. It’s the web app that everyone on the team will open up daily (after their morning coffee), and use as a structured to-do list. (Note: We were using Basecamp before this, but we needed something more robust. Also, Asana integrates quite nicely with Google Drive.)

Asana

Noteworthy bit:

  • We’ve got Asana integrated with Harvest (see below) – so every task within a project is tracked for time.

#3. HARVEST FOR TIME TRACKING

If you’re in the service business and you haven’t started tracking how your team uses their time – start now. It takes a while to gather enough data to generate actionable insights, but when you do you’ll see things in a completely new light.

One of our biggest productivity breakthroughs was getting our task management tool to integrate with our time tracking tool. This makes it SO much easier for us to keep track of where we’re spending our time.

We used to use Toggl, but having to create logs for each individual task on a separate platform meant that the team had to do double the amount of e-paperwork – and that meant lost productivity and (more importantly) people weren’t logging accurate hours, preferring to enter big blocks of time to cover multiple, unrelated tasks.

Harvest

Noteworthy bit:

  • One of the ways we use Harvest is to gauge profitability on different project types (ie. are we spending most of the teams time on project A, when these two guys working on project B and C are generating 3X more revenue?). It’s like popping open the hood and finally seeing how all the parts work together!

#4. TOMS PLANNER FOR BIG PICTURE PLANNING

I’m a visual, pen and paper kinda person – so before discovering Toms Planner we were using big print outs of Gantt charts built in Excel, and then going to town on them with highlighters and markers. This was great – for that one planning session – and not so great if we needed to update the plan.

With Toms Planner we’ve got the Gantt chart in a super easy to use drag-and-drop / drag-and-stretch interface AND colour coded bars.

Tom's Planner

Noteworthy bit:

  • We use Toms Planner to plan our projects one full year in advance, with each project broken down into the key phases (ie. with web we might have design, development, revisions, testing phases), while actual tasks are managed through Asana. This gives us a relatively detailed visual overview of what’s going on at any given moment, while also being easy enough to update on the fly.

#5. BASE CRM FOR CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT

This is a relatively new addition to our process, but it’s quickly becoming one of my favourite tools. Base CRM is essentially a hub for you to keep track of your sales leads, incoming deals, and upcoming pipeline – wrapped up in a fantastic interface. If you handle business development, you don’t realise how much you’re keeping in your brain until you start offloading everything onto Base.

Base CRM

Noteworthy bit:

  • I also use Base with Zapier, an API automater, so that when a deal has successfully been won, Asana automatically creates the associated project folder – which lets the team know that there’s a new incoming project, and that we need to talk about upcoming tasks!

So there you have it, five tools that have helped keep us sane over the last couple years – but at the end of the day, the tools you’ll need will depend on the workflow / processes you’ve chosen to implement.

What are your favourites? Let me know in the comments if you’re using a similar set up or have come across better alternatives and ideas. Thanks guys!

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11 comments

  1. Good list. I would add Hipchat.com and Evernote.com also. Take a look at Brightpod.com – a pm tool for digital marketers built with time tracking and a content calendar.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, I considered adding Evernote (obsessed with it as my goto app for everything from random thoughts to project notes) but I haven’t decided whether to roll it out across the whole team yet. Still trying to figure out whether it would improve efficiency / workflow.

      Will check out Hipchat and Brightpod too. Thanks!

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  2. Hi Jiksun, Thanks for your article. These tools are really vital for business owners. I am familiar with majority of the tools you’ve mentioned here. I would like to suggest one business intelligence tool named Talygen. You get invoicing, time tracking, CRM, project management and many other modules intact.

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  3. Hi Simon, thanks for stopping by. Will check out Talygen – thanks for the suggestion!

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  4. Reblogged this on numbergeek.

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  5. Great tips. Thank you for sharing these.

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    1. Always welcome – thanks for dropping by!

      Like

  6. Nice tips, I also use Evernote for random ideas it’s a great catch all. I am starting a small business and every little bit of organization with daily tasks, schedules, workflow, and project management is a big help. I love reading about other businesses testing out new apps and how they have benefited, or not, from them, it really helps other businesses filter out the poorly constructed apps.

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    1. Let me know if you come across any good ones too. And best of luck with your new business!

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  7. Another tool I’d recommend you to add in this list is proofhub project management tool. Loaded with features like time tracking, gantt chart, proofing tool, group chat and much more. Give it a go. http://www.proofhub.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the tip! Will give Proofhub a go.

      Like

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