The best online tools for small businesses

One of the hardest things for small business owners is finding the right tools to manage their business. Unlike big corporations you simply don’t have the money or the manpower to start sourcing all-singing all-dancing systems.

In some ways this is a blessing in disguise – who wants a 12-month 20 man project to install some unwieldy CRM anyway? On the flip-side, it can mean that everyday processes are a bit of a grind (to say the least) and nothing’s ever quite as smooth as you’d like.

But, as they say, all is not lost. There are now many low cost (and even free!) online tools that can help to ease the administrative nightmare, business-wide. In our experience, taking advantage of just a few of these tools can make all the difference to how you run your business.

Here are some of them.

Trello – oh hello!

We only started using Trello about 14 days ago, but it’s already changed our lives. It’s simple – ridiculously so – but that’s one of the reasons why we love it.

Trello is basically an online organiser that allows you to set up boards for different projects/lists and then track their status. It’s got that beautiful drag and drop thing going on, so you can move a task from ‘To do’ to ‘done’ in one swift little motion.

Key to Trello’s usefulness is the ability to share a ‘board’ with others in your team. So they can see what you need them to do, and even update the list themselves when something’s been done - preventing endless email trails that almost always result in miscommunication and confusion. C’mon, we’ve all had the “but I sent you that email at 14:15 on 1st January 2010.” Kind of chat.

Oh and did we mention that it’s free?

Highrise

Highrise has been the saviour of Clever Business Websites. And that’s no exaggeration.

Highrise is just a simple little CRM, but it’s fantastic for any small business that’s outgrown Excel and doesn’t have the cash for something bigger.

Highrise is lacking in many ways: it won’t prompt you to fill in fields and there’s not a great deal of reporting functionality, other than exporting info to Excel. But what it does do, is allow you to keep a full contact history of all correspondence with clients and track important information like deals.

The system will also help you to compile an automated ‘to do’ list so that you can stay on top of every contact, and it will email you with reminders when follow-up is due.

Definitely worth a look…

Basecamp

Admittedly, we’re not sophisticated users of basecamp, however we thought it was worth a mention. As a quick guide, Basecamp is another great way of overseeing projects.

We use it to see which websites we’ve got booked in and when, and who’s responsible for them. There’s much more that it can do (we don’t want to undersell it), so we’ll leave you to explore it for yourselves.

Basecamp isn’t free, but it costs little enough that you won’t need to skimp on the sherry at Christmas. There is a free trial, if you want to check it out.

Mailchimp

Oh Mailchimp. Did someone once say that mailchimp is proof that there is a god? Well, whether they said it or not, we’d have to concur.

Mailchimp is, actually, the god of email marketing. Here’s why:

Mailchimp allows you to send large-scale email campaigns and do it for free – yes for free! Ok there are plenty of features that they’ll get you to pay for, but to date we’ve sent out hundreds of email campaigns using mailchimp and not paid a penny.

You can track all sorts of important information, like who’s opened your email, who’s clicked on your links and (depressing, but equally important), who’s unsubscribed.

It does a lot of the thinking for you – it can check how spammy your subject line is, it automatically includes unsubscribe links, and it won’t send emails to dodgy looking addresses.

Of course it’s not perfect – you’ll probably need a bit of assistance with the design. But once you’ve set up a template you’re pretty much good to go for thousands of emails to come.

Survey monkey

Another handy little marketing tool – survey monkey allows you to send basic surveys for free.

Like mailchimp, if you want something really swanky, you will have to pay for it, but for the small business owner who wants a quick but professional customer survey (as an example), it’s invaluable for helping you compile meaningful surveys and then analyse the results.

It will even suggest certain types of questions and phrasing, to help you get the best responses. So it’s more intelligent than you might think.

In conclusion

This is not a definitive guide to online tools for small businesses. But it should give you an idea of what’s out there and how each tool can help your business.

We haven’t been bribed, blackmailed or in any way coerced into writing this guide. These are our truly unbiased opinions for you to ignore or enjoy. We’d suggest the latter…

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