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Eight low-cost tools every start-up business owner needs

I don't suppose you received any emails this week tempting you to a free trial of an amazing new app, did you? How many apps did you try out? And which ones are you still using?

Are you addicted to subscribing to new apps that you never have a chance to use? Don't feel bad - we all do it! When you first start out in business, you're pulled in all directions, so of course every minute is precious. Any extra app or tool that promises to help you manage your business more easily is enticing.

Most organisations can't do without email, Word, Excel and PowerPoint (or their equivalent), but there are thousands of other software apps you could add to your suite of business applications. Our digital world offers so much choice that even the smallest, simplest business can find it overwhelming.

I've been running my small business for more than ten years. I've tried hundreds of apps because I love productivity tools. But I've continually been refining my list and I now have a shortlist of eight tools I'd recommend to any small business owner just starting out or in their first couple of years of business. The majority are free or include a free version, depending on the features you need. I use all of them daily and they ensure I keep my business running smoothly. 

1. A notebook (the paper version!) – for recording anything and everything

If I had to select a single 'tool' I can't live without, it's the notebook. I carry mine with me everywhere. I'm an advocate of technology, but somehow I still find it easier to scribe meeting notes and jot down reminders the old-fashioned way. I use a few common symbols alongside my tick-boxes to prioritise or confirm the status of tasks, and I like the way you can easily draw connections between notes. It's the catch all for everything going on in my head and during my day.

So the first tool I'd recommend to any new or aspiring business owner is to buy yourself a notebook that you love using. There's no excuse for not finding a notebook to suit your work style and reflect your personality and brand. 

An inspiring notebook is the first basic tool you need for good business

There are ample beautiful notebooks to choose from, so be sure to choose one that motivates you. Perhaps yours will have an inspiring quote on the cover, or include quotes on every page. Perhaps you’ll choose a gorgeous, tactile leather-bound cover. Maybe yours will be a funky colour, to brighten your day. Just choose an uplifting notebook that you love to look at and hold, since it'll be something you'll be carrying everywhere and using every day.

2. LinkedIn – for B2B business development

When I launched my business over a decade ago, LinkedIn had only been around a few years. It's hard to imagine, but I didn't have a website in those days. All my business leads were generated through LinkedIn. I connected with former colleagues and regularly posted updates about the type of projects I was working on. The more I communicated what I was doing, the more opportunities came my way. I also used LinkedIn's publishing platform to write and share longer articles, although I now prefer to post directly to my own blog. 

If your products and services are aimed at the B2B market, then the first social network I'd suggest you concentrate on is LinkedIn. There are similar social network equivalents across Europe like Xing and Viadeo, which are also worth joining if your business operates internationally.

You can use LinkedIn to inform yourself about your target market and connect with like-minded professionals. It also gives you access to over 6,000 online learning courses if you decide to subscribe to its training service, Lynda.com by LinkedIn. When you build a business, you have to be prepared to continually adapt to changes in your market sector, so continually expanding your own skills and those of your employees is fundamental to survival. 

3. Facebook – for B2C and B2B business development

I know Facebook keeps changing its algorithms, but this is still the primary social network you should be using for B2C. You can make an impact and reach the right audience if you share the right type of content on your Facebook business page or in a Facebook group you manage.

Let's face it, Facebook is a free platform if you want it to be. Nobody is forcing you to pay for boosting posts or advertising. Paid ads do have their place, depending on your market strategy, but the Facebook platform still includes a number of useful features that are free:

  • Facebook's messaging app, Messenger, is great for prospecting and customer service. It includes auto-response messages and enables you to communicate with business leads and current customers.
  • The Reviews tab on your Facebook page allows you to share testimonials about your business.
  • The Events tab on your Facebook page makes promoting your company events simple. You can easily invite friends and include links to tickets for the event.
  • Your friends can effortlessly refer your business services by including a link to your Facebook page in their post. They don't have to remember your website address, they just need to know the name of your business.
  • You can connect your Instagram account to Facebook, so you can manage responses to Instagram posts from your Facebook page too.

So why not make the most of what Facebook offers that's free? Then you can decide if boosting and promoting your posts are worthwhile.

Facebook is a comprehensive application with tons of features most people aren't using. If you're diligent, creative and consistent, you can make it work for your business. Even if you don't have a website, you can still make progress on your new business with Facebook.

p.s. If you're good at posting regularly, but stuck for ideas about what content to post, then you can always get some marketing guidance to inspire you into action. You'll find my practical marketing book, Facebook Inspiration, on Amazon. 

'Facebook Inspiration' provides marketing guidance to inspire you into action

4. Trello - for goals and task management

For short, medium and long-term planning in my personal and business life, I use Trello. I was already using Trello for certain types of mini-project, like planning logistics for upcoming training courses, creating my editorial calendar and managing blogging campaigns for clients. But David Allen’s Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Getting Things Done transformed me from a superficial user into a super user!

Trello is now my go-to place for viewing everything that's happening in my life. It's an online edited version of my Notebook, I suppose. I have fifty lists on a single Trello board, but these lists cover all my commitments and future desires. Although fifty lists might sound overwhelming, having everything documented in a single place is actually rather calming. You're more likely to feel anxious when you don't have a clear picture of where you're heading and what your next actions are. With Trello's kanban boards, though, you have a clear visual of what's on your plate. And that's really useful for anyone who has a tendency to overcommit.

Trello helps you see clearly how much capacity you have – or don't have. It makes you consider all your commitments, before taking on others. For example, I love helping out people and doing favours whenever I can, but my goodwill means I often have an optimistic view of how much time I actually have available to help.

When you start writing down every commitment you have, it becomes very obvious what your priorities are and what you need to drop to take any more on board. I have one list for today's tasks and appointments, and another for what else I intend to do in the week. I have a 'niggles' list, and specific lists for each major client project I'm working on. I have a list for each of my hobbies (such as, photography and playing piano), as well as one for 'Friends and Family', so I prioritise making fun plans in between the hard work. Basically outstanding items in my notebook are transferred into Trello, and scheduled according to priority. Trello also includes a calendar, so you can view your tasks on the calendar. It's easy to categorise tasks by different colours, and to move them between lists.

5. Nimble – for keeping valuable contacts top of mind on social media

Since I'm a heavy user of Facebook, I rely on Facebook's notification system for my Facebook updates. For Twitter, though, I predominantly rely on Nimble's engagement panel. I receive a daily alert by email, reminding me of important interactions by valuable contacts.

I realise there are lots of other tools out there like commun.it  that do this across several platforms, but I like Nimble's simplicity. It's also a great tool for building up a rich picture of someone's social profiles very easily. Excellent for when you first start speaking to a new prospect. I like the tagging feature too, where you can tag how you met someone and what they're interested in.

Nimble's engagement panel highlights valuable customers to engage with

6. Insightly CRM – for managing your sales pipeline and business processes

I use Insightly to manage my sales pipeline and invoice process. I first came across Insightly when I was researching simple, free Customer Relationship tools for a new client who manages a website development company.

The thing I like most about Insightly is that you can create different types of pipeline – not just sales pipelines, to manage different sales processes, but also lead management or project pipelines. You can also associate sets of activities with your pipeline or project stages. This is really handy for project-based businesses that have groups of tasks that must be repeated for each individual project, like web development projects, photography projects or training programmes. 

7. Expensify – for managing expenses

Expensify is my life-saver. I loathe any form of time-consuming admin. Expensify has made a huge difference to my sanity. I frequently travel abroad to deliver CRM and marketing training, and the last thing I want to do when I get home is be burdened with several hours of administrative tasks.

With Expensify, you can take a photo of a receipt and quickly categorise it by expense type and client. Creating the invoice for your client only takes a few minutes. You simply associate the relevant category of expenses with the report. There are also inbuilt approval processes for teams who need them. What's also great about Expensify is that it integrates with popular accounting software solutions to keep all of your finances in one place.

Expensify makes light work of managing your expenses

I use both the app and browser versions of all the business tools mentioned above. If I’m planning, some apps like Trello are better viewed on a large screen. But if I just want to add a quick update to a task on my list, I edit it directly in the app on my phone.

More useful software and resources for small business owners

These eight apps aren't the only ones I use, but they're the primary ones I'm using in 2018 to run my business. If you’re interested in other CRM systems like Salesforce or Pipeliner CRM, you'll find more information on the Software section of my website.  I also update the Resources page when I come across handy apps (and books) worth sharing.

I'd be interested in hearing which of these apps you already use, and what you like most about them. Of course, if you've other tools that you prefer, then please share those too.

I'm not claiming these apps are the best online tools for everyone, but this particular combination of apps continues to work well for me. Personally, I love productivity hacks, so I hope I save you a little time by sharing my shortlist of eight. Maybe you'll find one or two worth trialing and persisting with? Above all, I wish you luck in finding the best apps for running your new business efficiently and successfully.

It's time to begin running your business efficiently with the right apps

Sunday, 14th January 2018

Written by Vanessa Hunt

Vanessa worked as an independent CRM Consultant from 2006, before establishing Vanessa Hunt Consulting Ltd in January 2010. She's held training and management positions in software organisations and consultancies such as Maximizer Software Ltd, McAfee, Detica and CSC Computer Sciences. With twenty years' experience in training, marketing and CRM, she's very much at home in anything martech, CRM or cloud related. When she's not in the classroom in heels, she's outdoors in muddy boots!

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On the 7th of February 2018, Brian Sheridan said...

Hi, you might consider adding a tool like Fluid UI to the list. It is used mainly by students, entrepreneurs and startups as well as designers. It allows you to create and share wireframes, mockups, prototypes and then to share them with team mates and potential users which allows you to get valuable feedback. We have a free forever plan which is a great start for anyone on a budget.

On the 11th of February 2018, Vanessa Hunt said...

Thanks Brian. I appreciate your taking the time to suggest Fluid UI (https://www.fluidui.com/) as well. I'll share this on my Facebook page, since I know several website designers who may find it very helpful indeed! The pricing looks reasonable too.

Comments for this post are now closed. Thanks to all who contributed.