With the thousands of apps and software tools available right now it’s easy to get confused about the tools you need to run your small business. “There’s an app for that” applies to almost every problem or challenge that a busy business owner can face.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the thousands of choices.From the free tools to the high-cost premium options, there are just so many out there. Below I’ll take you through my favourite tools (of the moment) and how I use them in my business. Of course with new tools coming out (almost daily it seems) these may change, however those listed below are tools that have been part of my arsenal for quite some time and are used almost daily.
I use G-Suite (formerly Google Apps for Work) to manage my email accounts. My goal is to reach Inbox Zero every day (or at the very least every couple of days) and the system I have set up in Gmail allows me to do that. (Note this is not a free gmail address, but the Gmail tool within the G-Suite). I can quickly check and action my emails to ensure they don’t dwell in the inbox, torturing me by their very presence.
- It’s a cloud-based email service so it can be accessed from any device, anywhere in the world.
- Every action is synced across devices so I never have to double-up on tasks.
- I can organise every email using tags, allowing me to empty my inbox quickly knowing that I can easily retrieve any email I may need.
- A great search function means I can easily find any email that has come into or gone out of my inbox.
- Google filters out newsletters, promotional emails, social media notifications and updates so you can focus your attention on the priority emails. (You can also train gmail to filter these emails according to your preferences).
- I have each of my (many) email addresses coming to the same inbox so there is less risk of emails falling through the cracks or being ignored.
G-Suite costs about $5 per month and includes access to the full range of Google tools including Google Calendar (see below), Google Drive (cloud storage) and more. It’s powered by Google – one of the largest companies in the tech space – and so is constantly being evolved and updated.
There is also a range of plugins that integrate with Gmail to help you organise your email even further. Tools like:
- Boomerang – lets you write emails now but send later.
- Wisestamp – lets you create eye-catching email signatures that can communicate valuable business information.
- Rapportive – shows you the LinkedIn details of people you are emailing.
- Streak – a Customer Relationship Management Tool that keep track of your client communication.
Most of these have both a free and paid version with varying levels of access.
Mailchimp is a popular workhorse when it comes to email marketing. Easy to use and set up, it offers free email marketing and list-building tools for small lists (up to 2000 people) and simple email marketing (limited automation). Once your list and email marketing becomes more complex it becomes more expensive but it’s a good place to start.
- Free up to 2000 subscriptions.
- Customisable forms and confirmations. These can be embedded on your website for email collection.
- Drag and drop templates to design your emails.
Mailchimp more expensive when you start adding automation and email sequences, and is limited when it comes to segmenting or detailed automation.
There are many tools that can drive your automation and customer nurturing sequences. These tools allow you to target customers depending on the actions they’ve taken on your website or the ways they’ve interacted with your emails (e.g. emails they’ve opened or links they have clicked).
I have recently started trialling ActiveCampaign as a cost-effective solution that enables targeting and email sequencing. Considerably cheaper than many of the other options (Infusionsoft, Salesforce and others) it still allows moderate levels of targeting and segmenting. As the complexities of my marketing funnels increase it will be important to monitor the efficiency and reliability of the tool, but so far, so good. (I have had feedback from colleagues that ActiveCampaigns support is a bit hit and miss, so that’s something to keep in mind if you’re not confident in using tools such as these).
I love stationery. The sight of kikki k sends me into a frenzy and I’m a sucker for a good planner. Having said that, the Passion Planner I bought for 2016 has sat largely untouched as I carry out almost all of my activities on my phone or computer. So for 2017 I’m officially banning myself from even buying a paper diary and will be surrendering to the convenience and “always in my pocket” nature of digital technology.
I also use my G-Suite account to manage my calendar. Linked to my Gmail account it allows me to manage several different priorities and a mix of personal and business appointments in a straightforward, efficient way.
The reasons I use G-Suite include:
- It’s cloud-based so I can access my calendar from any device, anywhere so long as I have an internet connection.
- I can setup different calendars for different purposes – family, work, health and fitness, fun and friends, content calendar – and a calendar for each person in my family or team. With a simple click of my mouse I can make each of these calendars visible or not visible so I can see the full level of commitments, gaps in my team’s or family’s schedules, or I can switch them all off to focus on my specific appointments.
- Each of the calendars can be colour-coded so I can see what’s happening at a glance.
- Google Calendar can be integrated with other tools (such as Asana and Trello) or with a range of appointment setting systems.
To manage coaching sessions or other client appointments I also use Calendly, an online appointment-setting program that integrates with my Google Calendar. Calendly helps me avoid the constant to-ing and fro-ing with clients or potential clients to try and set appointments. It saves signifiant time and lets clients choose a time from my availability that fits in with their own schedule.
In setting up Calendly I can choose to integrate it with specific Google Calendars, allocate set times for certain types of appointments (e.g. coaching appointments only between 11am and 3pm Monday to Friday) and set certain gaps between appointments for travel.
I then just have to send my Calendly link to clients and they can book their appointment. The client and I both receive a notification email with details of the appointment.
There is a free option of Calendly to get you started, or the premium versions (starting from $8USD per month) allows you to set up different appointment types and durations.
PRODUCTIVITY TOOLS (TASK MANAGEMENT)
There are so many task management tools available, and I have tried a LOT of them. Often preferences come down to format and design – how you prefer to set up and interpret information.
The main “to-do list” that I use is Asana. In it I capture everything that needs to be done, emptying my brain of ideas and tasks safe in the knowledge that they’re kept secure and ready for when I need them.
HOW I USE ASANA:
- I have different “Workspaces” set up: one for my own business, one for my clients and one for my personal life.
- Under each Workspace I list Projects. For example, each client has its own Project where every related task is held.
- Projects can be duplicated, so I have set up project Templates that hold each step of the project. So when I have a new website client, I copy the Website Project Template, name it with the client’s name, and can then step through each task.
- You can also invite Team Members to work on projects, so it’s a great way to set up specific processes and checklists for delegating or outsourcing.
- Tasks can be allocated to a specific team member, and given a due date.
- Tasks can even be broken up into sub-tasks if there are several steps in one task.
- Within the tasks there are discussion boxes where you place comments or attach files relating to the task. It’s a great way to keep information in one central place, rather than spread over email, Messenger or other communication programs.
- You can manage notifications so that you are alerted whenever a new task is added, allocated to you or changed.
- You can email tasks to Asana using a specific email you set up within the platform. This is really helpful to manage emails by moving those that require action out of your inbox and into Asana. When you email them, all of the information within the email is captured in the task.
- You can also integrate Asana with certain calendar systems to show tasks that are due on a specific day.
Asana has a robust free option, and the Upgraded version starts from $5 per team member (check price).
Evernote is my external brain, housing so much information relevant to my work, interests and personal life. Whenever I come across information or an idea that I want to file for later, I save it in Evernote.
I have notes in Evernote for each client, holding any information relevant to them or their project.
How Evernote is organised:
- At the base level are Notes – files that can contain information as either text, photos, audio or video files.
- Notes are collated into Notebooks, where you can choose to keep all Notes relating to one topic together.
- Notebooks can be held together in Stacks, which is the top level of organisation.
- Notes can also be tagged with keywords that enable you to search by that keyword to find all related information.
- The search function within Evernote is very strong, also enabling searching for keywords within the documents themselves.
Using Evernote, I am moving towards a more paperless office and home. I have Notes for each client containing relevant information, the brief for their project, scans of meeting notes and other important details. I also capture my ideas for blog posts, business development, new products and social media content in a Stack for my business. On a personal level, Evernote is great for storing photos / scans of school notices, birthday invitations and other household related information to remove paper clutter.
A new alternative to Evernote is Milanote, a tool for organizing creative projects into beautiful visual boards. By design, it feels a lot like working on the wall in a creative studio – visual, tactile and sometimes a bit messy – Milanote is a great fit for designers who work in teams remotely.
- Write notes & to-do lists, upload images & files and save things you find on the web
- Organize visually using the flexible drag and drop interface.
- Boards by default are a private place to think, but with a single click you can create a shared workspace for collaboration with your team
- Milanote is filled with hundreds of built-in templates to help you get started with a variety of different projects, from creating a mood board to writing that perfect creative brief.
- Free version available with no time limit.
- PRO version $9.99 per month (monthly and annual plans)
As a service-based business, it’s important to track the time I spend on client projects. I use a program called Toggl in which I can set up Clients and Projects and track the time I spend on specific tasks. The free version is a simple “online time sheet” style program. The premium version has other features including billing /budget tracking, revenue management plus detailed reporting.
Toggl not only helps me measure the time spent on client projects, but also time spent on planning, business development and content creation. It lets me see if I’m using my most valuable resource (i.e. my time) in the most effective way for my business. Coupled with RescuTime (below) it keeps me on track and aware of exactly where the hours are going.
The premium version starts from $10 per user per month.
RescuTime is a program that, when installed on your device, tracks the time you spend on specific websites or website categories. You can tailor the settings to suit your goals and the sites you need to frequent, but the reports RescuTime emails can be real eye-openers as to just how much time you’re spending in different areas. Based on your settings, it tells you what percentage of the time you spend online was “productive” time. It’s rarely as much as you think.
Obviously a program like RescuTime isn’t failsafe. As a marketing consultant I spend a lot of time on social media for my clients. The program can’t differentiate which is productive social media time (there can be such a thing) or me scrolling through mindlessly looking for entertainment. But it is a great reflection of which sites are taking our focus.
I use Canva every day, multiple times a day. An online design tool, I use it to create all of my design and visual assets. Canva is free to use, and has a range of stock photos that can be bought for $1USD.
There is also Canva for Work, the premium version which lets you upload your own fonts and create your own brand settings. Canva for Work also has the “Magic Resize Button” where you create an image once, and then click one button to resize the image to the best sizes for use across different social media platforms or presentation dimensions. It is a massive time saver, especially if you are creating blogs for business or visual social media content. Canva for Work costs $12.95 per user per month.
So these are my favourite tools to organise my business and my work. I’d love to hear your favourite tools to keep yourself on track. Share them in the comments below.