Don’t install it, browse to it
Want to build your business on a world-class software infrastructure? You can, for just a reasonable monthly fee.
The Web’s not just a great place to promote your business. It’s also a great way to change the way you do business.
I’m a big fan of the growing number of really excellent on-line applications that can replace some of the tools you may have used in the past. These are accessed via a Web browser, and typically paid for with a low-cost monthly subscription.
There are several advantages over traditional software:
- There’s nothing to install, so you save hard disc space on your computer and don’t bog it down with more software than you need to.
- You can access your files from any computer, anywhere in the world.
- You don’t have to spend time managing non-core systems – so more of your time is spent earning.
- Many hosted solutions are multiuser, so you can collaborate with other people, wherever they are, without spending a fortune.
- They can grow as your business grows – because you usually pay for what you use, in terms of features and number of users.
- I don’t see on-line services replacing many applications, but I do see them as an essential part of my business. Here are my current favourites.
Basecamp – project management
With clients all around the UK, and working regularly with a developer in Spain, it’s essential that all of the information related to a customer’s project is kept in the same place. We use Basecamp, which provides everything from to-do lists to task calendars and version-controlled document libraries. We have an open-book approach to project management, so customers have access to their own projects, so they can both contribute and see how we’re progressing.
Freshbooks – accounting
Like most creative people, I have an inbuilt dislike of all things accounting. I used to use QuickBooks, but it’s not cheap and (to be honest) a bit over-the-top for what I need. Freshbooks hits the spot. I can create estimates and invoices easily, which can then be e-mailed directly to clients. Estimates can be turned into invoices with one click. There’s a lot of useful reports (for example, to see who owes what, and the value of each client) and you can also add time to projects too, so you can invoice on a time and materials basis as well as fixed price.
CuteSendIt – file transfer
What’s to be done when you need to send a file that’s way too big to e-mail? It’s a common problem these days, as people need to send increasingly large files quickly – cutting the files to CD/DVD and posting them is a bit low-tech, not to mention slow. CuteSendIt allows you to transfer really large files over the Web – and the best thing is you can send files of up to 100Mb free. It’s quick and simple. The file is uploaded to a private server, rather than sent via e-mail, and your recipient is e-mailed a link to download it – when they do, you get an e-mail to confirm delivery.
MailChimp – e-mail marketing
Sending e-mail campaigns via a standard e-mail client is more than a bit limited – in terms of list management, mailer design and campaign statistics. Outlook just isn’t up to the job. MailChimp provides an excellent solution. You manage your mailing list on-line – and you can easily integrate sign-up forms into your website. E-mails can be really nicely designed using the built-in editor. Best of all, once the mailer is sent, you get a wealth of campaign statistics, such as successful delivery, number of e-mails opened and the number of clicks from the mail to your site. We like MailChimp, but Mailer Mailer and Constant Contact are pretty good too. But, the reason we like MailChimp more is that it can integrate to websites and computer systems seamlessly, using the API, and you can also (for a bit more money) access other really useful tools to take your e-mail marketing to the top of the pile.
Glance – remote presentations, training and support
Home and remote working is all well and good, but sometimes you need to give presentations, train people or provide support. A great way to manage tasks like these without actually getting in your car and giving up a whole day is to use a tool such as Glance. Glance lets you share your screen with anyone on the Internet. It’s easy – you install some software on your machine, but people who are viewing only need a Web browser. I use it all the time, combined with the good old phone, to deliver presentations and to provide training and support.
StatCounter and Google Analytics – Web site traffic measurement
One of the advantages of the Web over traditional marketing methods is that it’s relatively easy to measure the results of your activities. As standard, we install two measure tools on each of our sites – StatCounter and Google Analytics. Google Analytics is quite simply a must-have for any website owner – it’s a great tool that really helps you to fine tune your website, based on visitor activity. If it has one drawback, it’s that it provides a strictly Google-centric view – so we also install StatCounter, which is agnostic and also provides an additional layer of detail. The basic service is free, and it’s easy to upgrade to access more statistics.
Google Apps – the Web-based office
They may be underpowered versions of Word and Excel, but Google Apps does provide a neat way to compose and edit documents – and collaborate on them very easily with people in your own organisation. You can build intranets with Google Sites, taking information sharing to the next level. Yes, you need to be on line to use them, but Google Gears allows off-line editing too. Best of all, the e-mail client is excellent – nailing spam almost completely, and offering both POP3 and IMAP support, so you can use your desktop mail client too. With a low price per seat, this is a great option for businesses – why waste time and money on your own server infrastructure, when Google will do it for you?
Smart Survey – detailed questionnaires and surveys
There are lots of reasons to run surveys – to ensure that customers are happy with your services, for instance. The problem is that managing a survey can be very time-consuming. Smart Survey handles on-line questionnaires with aplomb. You can easily create on-line questionnaires and invite people to fill them in. The resulting answers are instantly turned into detailed statistics, saving you the hassle of importing the answers into Excel. There’s a free version for up to 50 responses and prices are reasonable as your needs grow.
Apart from being great tools in their own right – each of these integrates well into pretty much any size of business. For us (and many businesses like us) who work with partners around the UK and abroad, many of them make it far, far easier to collaborate on the same projects. The only disadvantage is that it’s more money out of the door each month, but when you weigh it up over a 2-3 year period, you shouldn’t be paying over the odds compared to building installable software.
So, before you install it, see if you can browse to it.