Running a small business isn't easy. I know. I run one. As a freelance writer, I've learned that you need to run your writing career as if you were running a business.
Writing takes up about 10 percent of my time in a good week. The rest is spent on invoicing, accounting and sales. I spend more time on client relations, managing contractors, website optimization, social media promotions, product development, security monitoring, and on and on and on than I ever do on writing.
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Running a small business can be extremely stressful. But here are 25 must-have technologies that will help you make your SMB a success.
First, let's start with one of the biggest challenges for SMBs: staying organized. For years, my accounting system was a big envelope. Recently, I noticed late-night commercials for the 1) Neat Scanner. I was embarrassed to admit that it looked like a good idea, and when I was invited to meet with the company at CES and demo a scanner, I bit.
I came back from CES with my typical jumble of paperwork and business cards. Instead of stuffing them into manila folder, I fed them into the scanner, which captured each receipt or card, categorized it and stashed it into an appropriate folder, such as "travel receipts" or "2012 taxes."
But what really made life easier was the mobile client. Now, instead of filling your pockets with receipts, you just snap a photo of your receipt and load it into the cloud-based filing system.
Neat also allows you to create and file PDFs from whatever paperwork lands on your desk. Then, you can use 2) Canvas to turn paper-based forms into mobile apps. Many Canvas apps already exists for such industry sectors as healthcare, education and construction, but you can also send your form to Canvas, and they will turn it into a mobile app for $50.
Sales, marketing and support
The marketing tool that was recommended to me most often by small business owners is 3) Vocus. Michael Yack, president of Toronto-based FS Local, said, "[Vocus] lets me work 12 hours a day on growing my small business while not falling off the face of the social media planet. I have one social media 'inbox' where I can read and reply to my Tweets and Facebook posts, thank bloggers for their posts, and then log out and get on with the day. When we get a new customer, I can log back into that same system and send out a press release, which notifies all my fans and followers for me and it reminds me when someone has mentioned me, so I can thank every fan."
Vocus recently rolled out a new feature, Buying Signals, which scours social media to find people who are seeking particular products or services. Then, it puts you in touch with the leads most relevant to your business. For instance, if you're an optometrist and someone in your city Tweets "I just broke my glasses," you'll be alerted. Pricing starts at $250 per month.
The trouble with leads, though, is that most prospects do not buy immediately. Instead, they'll want to do research, kick the tires and may even have objections you must overcome. This is where many small businesses fail: they dont follow up.
According to Robert Clay of Marketing Wisdom, 63 percent of people requesting information on your company today will not purchase for at least three months, and 20 percent will take more than 12 months to buy.
Many small businesses can't afford the expensive CRM suites that would help guide them through the process of nurturing leads and overcoming objections, so they lose out on potential sales. In fact, according to Clay, 92 percent of salespeople have already given up before the prospect is ready to buy. If you want to be in the 8 percent still standing consider 4) Followup.cc, which lets you schedule a follow up to an email the minute you respond.
In the Bcc area, simply put firstname.lastname@example.org or March30@followup.cc and Followup.cc will automate the follow-up process for you, sending you email reminders, allowing you to snooze those reminders if you're busy, integrating with your calendar, and automatically importing the contact info of those you follow-up with most frequently. A browser plug-in even lets you schedule follow-ups for websites, rather than keeping a million and one tabs open like I do.
Pricing ranges from free (for a plan with 20 reminders/month) to $99 per year for a plan with added functionality and unlimited reminders. 5) viClone helps SMBs tackle customer support challenges. Providing consistent, high-quality customer service is a major undertaking for SMBs. Online customer service is the easy choice for SMBs since phone support is prohibitively expensive. However, even online customer service and support (Email, Live Chat, Ticketing Solutions) can carry big price tags, especially in labor costs.
Moreover, most automated systems are targeted at the enterprise and are too expensive for SMBs.
ViClone's virtual agents are designed for SMBs. The agents have self-learning capabilities and can support more than 35 languages.According to Alexander Malov, viClone's COO, users are typically able to configure the virtual agents to answer their customers' top 15 to 25 most frequently asked questions, which will reduce the number of support requests by as much as 80 percent.
Now that you have customer leads, you need to have the tools in place that let them buy from you. By now most people know about 6) Square, a high-flying startup that gives retailers a small card reader that attaches to smartphones or tablets via the headphone jack. A Square alternative is 7) Leaf, which provides you with a purpose-built tablet. The tablet serves as your Point of Sale (POS) infrastructure. You can augment that by downloading apps for other smartphones in your business. The Leaf backend includes business management software and customer care tools.
At $50 per month, Leaf is more affordable than many other mobile POS solutions, although Square offers more flexibility to start small 2.75& per swipe (on up to $275 per month).
Now that you have leads, customers and sales, it's time to start analyzing your business to see what you can do better. Big Data isn't just for big business anymore.
Real-time customer analytics service 8) Woopra allows small businesses to identify note-worthy customers. You can spot hot leads, rescue lost customers, speed up customer onboarding, etc. Woopra also helps you spot overall trends in customer behavior, such as pinpointing where exactly most prospects bail out of the sign up or buying process. Pricing ranges from free for a basic account to $500 per month for a high-octane account that measures 10 million actions per month and retains data for two years.
Prism from 9) SiSense offers Big-Data-as-a-Service to help you crunch data from a variety of sources so that you can create business strategy based on data analysis. Prism's drag-and-drop interface lets you create data mashups and visualizations from SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL, PostgreSQL, Excel, CSV files, Google, SalesForce, ZenDesk and other databases.
Prism helps you visualize trends, identify critical metrics and formulate complex business queries without having to write a single line of code. Pricing is $50 per user per month or you can contact the company for a flat fee per server.
Now that you have leads, sales and even data to help you optimize your business, it's time to decide if you're ready to expand. Hiring is, perhaps, the single most stressful event for small business owners. Getting the right candidate isn't easy, and hiring the wrong person can devastate a small business.
First, how do you even determine an appropriate salary? Sure, you can scour job ads trying to find ballpark figures, but a better option is to use 10) Payscale, which has collected salary and career data from more than 35 million people, covering 12,000 job titles and 1,100 distinct industries in 150 countries.
But how will you determine whether a candidate is a good fit? Services from 11) Pairin and 12) Hireology should help. Pairin focuses on "a candidates behavioral DNA and potential for success, instead of the time-consuming evaluation of a resumes historical data." Pairin identifies optimal interview candidates through the modeling of existing top employees in the same positions based on 137 performance drivers. Pairin also lets you compare a candidate to an existing in-house employee. Pricing ranges from $49 for a one-to-one comparison to $199 per month to assess unlimited employees and unlimited applicants against job listings.
Hireology, meanwhile, has analyzed thousands of interviews across hundreds of companies to identify 67 traits that help predict the likelihood of success in a specific role. The process starts when a business posts an opening. Hireology then asks you questions to zero in on the most appropriate traits. Pricing starts at $24 per month for a single opening.
Conferencing & collaboration
You've brought in employees, so now it's time to make sure they can actually collaborate on projects. If you're like many small businesses, many of your employees may work remotely at least some of the time.
I know from experience that videoconferencing tools leave a lot to be desired. Enterprise-class tools may be too expensive for SMBs, while the low-cost (or even free) solutions like Skype don't always perform well.
Moreover, different users will already have different tools installed and will prefer to use what they know. 13) Blue Jeans Networks' technology serves as the glue that holds all of these various conferencing tools together. It allows people to use whatever videoconferencing tool they want. Schedule a meeting, send users a link and all they need is an end device with conferencing capabilities (laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc.).
For instance, early customer Envision Studios, a commercial casting company, uses Blue Jeans-powered videoconferencing to connect casting directors watching via their iPads in Florida with ad agency reps who are on their office PCs in other states. This makes casting less expensive, while also letting agencies tap into a much larger talent pool. You can try Blue Jeans free for two weeks.
14) Bitcasa is an online storage tool that offers 10GB of storage for free. You can get unlimited storage for $69 per year. It includes mobile client tools, and although it is targeted at consumers, SMB features will be rolling out soon.
You can also elect to mirror all your devices (PC, laptop, smartphone, etc.) to your Bitcasa Infinite Drive. Your files are then automatically and continuously backed up and available anywhere. Everything is still available offline, and your changes will sync up when you are back online.
15) Box and 16) Soonr are online file sharing and collaboration services. Both let you securely share (and store) large files, while keeping them in sync across devices. Box for small businesses is priced is $15 per user per month. Soonr's pricing starts at $9.95 per month for three users.
The two main tools many small business owners use to run their businesses and track customer interactions are email and Excel spreadsheets. Most owners eventually realize that this approach leaves records scattered across various accounts, hindering sales and marketing efforts and even compromising the customer experience. Meanwhile, big CRM solutions like those from Saleforce.com and Oracle are out of reach for many SMBs.
17) Insightly combines CRM and project management functionalities in one application, so users dont have to manage multiple applications. The cloud-based solution, which tightly integrates with Google Apps, allows users to easily keep track of customer interactions and manage leads, proposals, opportunities, projects and files from any device. Users can start with a free account and upgrade as needed. The most expensive plan, supporting up to 40 users, is priced at $99 per month.
18) LiquidPlanner is a cloud-based predictive project management tool designed to execute millions of schedule calibrations over the course of a project.
LiquidPlanner helps focus teams on what's most important: strategic projects and tasks and/or those with the most revenue potential. Users estimate how long a task should take (giving a range), and after searching through calendar availability, vacation time and set priorities, LiquidPlanner calculates when various tasks should be completed, giving both best- and worst-case scenarios.
When project priorities shift, LiquidPlanner automatically updates the schedule to reflect the changes. It comes with a mobile companion, so you can stay on track while on the go. Pricing starts at $29 per user per month.
Security is a constant concern for small businesses. Sure, they're smaller targets than major corporations, but these days that doesn't mean much, especially when a business in Idaho may well be attacked from somewhere in China or Russia.
Moreover, like every other business, small businesses expose themselves to data breaches when employees are out of the office. One tool to help prevent this is 19) Pocket Desktop, an encrypted USB drive that stores all of your important information (files, banking info, emails, etc.) and lets you take your desktop with you and keep it secure in the process.
Remove the USB drive from, say a home PC, and you leave no trace that you were ever there, and there is nothing left over for someone to steal. A 4GB drive costs $20, while a 16GB one is $60.
Have you ever done something at a hotspot you shouldn't have? Maybe you checked your credit card account to make sure you paid your bill on time, or you logged into your bank to check your account status. On public hotspots, this is risky business.
20) Hotspot Shield combines the malware protection of an antivirus program with the privacy capabilities of a VPN. Hotspot shield encrypts your connection to a WiFi network, and you can even use it with mobile devices. The service is free if you don't mind seeing ads, or you can remove the ads and get faster service for $30 per year.
Most small business owners grant app permissions to all sorts of things. It's impossible not to these days. The problem is that this exposes tons of your personal information and could set you up for identity theft. With the cloud-based service 21) MyPermissions, small businesses can track the permissions they grant to apps and sites and remove or control those permissions. MyPermissions will notify you when new apps have been unknowingly granted access.
You can run it as a browser plug-in for your desktop and also download an app for your smartphone. The service will even email you monthly reminders to check your privacy settings. I ran it on Chrome and found that four apps that I no longer use still have access to my information. With two simple clicks, I was able to close them down.
Boosting online performance
Since pretty much every business has an online presence, it's important to make sure the online component of your business is a sail, not an anchor. Yet most small businesses lack the resources and expertise to properly maintain and secure their sites. Enter 22) CloudFlare. This service protects sites from spambots and malicious distributed DoS attacks and helps boost site performance.
CloudFlare features a "learning network," which means that new attacks on any website are automatically detected and blocked for both the website under attack and the entire community. Thus, as more and more sites sign up for CloudFlare, the network grows smarter and protection gets better. You can get started with CloudFlare for free.
23) SiteApps is a service that taps into Google Analytics to make recommendations for how you can improve your website. For instance, I launched a new site, Startup50, at the end of January. I ran SiteApps and learned that a significant number of readers access my site from tablets. SiteApps recommended a tool that would create a mobile optimized version of my site which I had actually already done through the WordPress plugin Jetpack. It also found that users were spending less time on my site than in they were a few weeks ago. SiteApps pointed out that it was probably a faulty Google Analytics measurement and showed me how to correct it.Other apps that may be recommended to you include lead-capture forms, social media widgets, user segmentation surveys, etc. You can get started with SiteApps for free.
Small businesses looking to boost their mobile presence can use 24) Bizness Apps to develop, edit and manage mobile apps without having to learn any coding. Business owners start the process with a mobile template, customize it to match their business needs and then Bizness Apps turns them into native apps and distributes them to the iOS and Android markets.
Pricing starts at $29 per month for an optimized mobile website and runs $59 per month for mobile app creation, analysis and management.
If you are a small business with fleet vehicles (caterers, taxi companies, landscapers, etc.), you should look into the service from 25) Fleetmatics. Using GPS, business owners can track fleet vehicles in real-time and help them avoid congested routes, prevent unauthorized trips and even eliminate time sheet fraud.
San Francisco-based customer Atlas Towing says that it is on track to save $16,000 in fuel costs this year through improved routing and the elimination of excessive idling.
Jeff Vance is a Santa Monica-based writer. He's the founder of Startup50, a site devoted to emerging tech startups, and he also founded the content marketing firm, Sandstorm Media. Follow him on Twitter @JWVance.
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This story, "25 must-have technologies for small businesses" was originally published by Network World.