Edit: I originally wrote this in 2014, but lately I’ve been getting a lot of requests to update this list to reflect what we’re doing now. I’ve added a new tool, but the principle remains the same: keep it simple!
One of my favourite things to do when I’m not on the road pitching for new accounts or putting out fires at the office is figuring out ways to run the business better and more efficiently. 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.
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. G Suite For Emails / Calendars / Docs
Life before G Suite (or Google Apps – as it was known then): 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 G Suite. Now.
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.
- 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 Spreadsheet: 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.)
- 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.
- 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. Tom’s Planner For Big Picture Planning
I’m a visual, pen and paper kinda person – so before discovering Tom’s 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 Tom’s Planner we’ve got the Gantt chart in a super easy to use drag-and-drop / drag-and-stretch interface and colour coded bars.
- We use Toms Planner to plan our projects one full year in advance, with each project broken down into the key phases (ie. for branding projects we might have stakeholder interviews, market research, concept development and so forth), 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. Slack For Everything Management
We’ve been using Slack for about two years now, and it’s become an indispensable part of our workflow. If there was a virtual environment that our entire team could literally live in, it would be the eggplanty-colored world of Slack.
We use Slack for everything from team comms (“Hey @jiksun, what are the specs for the #project-name-here mock ups?” or more commonly, “What’s for lunch, guys? I’m frikkin’ starving.”) to project management (via individual #channels) to project file repositories (see below).
The way channels and file management features are structured out of the box may not be to everyone’s liking, but the built in flexibility often allows one to bend it to ones needs.
I’m not kidding when I say that Slack is a virtual representation of our company, warts and all. But that’s why I love it.
- I’ve recently discovered (nay, invented) a great workaround for storing “files-you’ll-need-at-some-point-but-not-now” – I’m talking about those huge PDFs / Word Docs and whatnot that clients send, like marketing copy or web content, that often get lost in Slack channels that get a lot of activity if you drop them in directly as part of the conversation.
- This method may sound a little convoluted on paper, but trust me: it works perfectly. Let me know if you’ve got a better solution. Here’s what we do:
- We’ve created a channel called “#client-files” – this is a channel dedicated to files only. No chatting or other activity in here.
- In #client-files we post one-line messages with the client name, project name, and brief details about each archive. This is literally a list of “messages”, with each “message” representing a project or client. (ie. “#bobs-burgers marketing content files”) Notice how I’ve used the actual project channel hashtag for added convenience. Genius!
- Next, with Slack’s new commenting feature it’s super easy to “comment” on each “message” – each comment includes different Dropbox links to shared folders holding all the “files-you’ll-need-at-some-point-but-not-now”, leaving Slack itself clutter-free.
- Here’s the kicker: you can share comments (your Dropbox links) directly into your project channel from the #client-files channel giving you a way to independently keep files up-to-date and the links to access them working across different platforms. #mindblown
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!