Any and all small businesses – from auto repair shops to dog groomers to online purveyors of beef jerky – are now, whether they like it or not, connected to the sweeping second-hand of technological progress. It follows that there exists a huge box of online and downloadable small business tools scattered here and there, multicoloured, some simple, some complex, much like the various screwdrivers and grip pliers you may have at home. All of these tools have been designed to assist small business owners in achieving greater control over their work and workplace without leaving the connected environment of your email, phone and network systems. The days of going to get your QuickBooks, or even Microsoft Office, in a box from Future Shop are largely past. We live in the App jungle, where ideas can bubble up and make enormous waves in record time – or fly away like so much chaff. At Merchant Advance Capital, we take great interest in how your business makes use of the tools you have chosen: they can often can be an indicator of a healthy, prosperous relationship between you and your customers. We believe that certain fundamental small business tools – social networks, apps, and web services – and their effective use, can benefit your business in terms of productivity, profitability and exposure.
If you operate a storefront business that occupies physical space, Yelp can be an extremely valuable service to consider using. People coming through your doors every day with mobile devices in hand can leave their opinions behind in a “comments jar” that is much bigger than any physical one. Yelp is a tool that provides a seamless and highly informative blend of geographical, factual and testimonial information about your business all at once – where’s the nearest hair salon, is it open right now, and do they do great highlights? Bang, there’s your customer. Plus, it is optimized for mobile users. It can come with a double-edged warning, though: if your business practices are unsavoury, or you do something unkind to customers that have put their online trust in you, the backlash from Yelp’s community of visitors can be swift. It goes without saying that not every review you receive may be a positive one – but even these less-than-complementary comments can be used to help you refine and rework the critical customer experience details that may help your business model. Some of the best businesses we’ve seen on Yelp are taking the time to actively respond to customer concerns right in the comments that sit below their reviews – a remarkable display of transparency and commitment to service.
Time Management Apps
There are many, many players in this field, especially in the App Stores of your favourite device. Your blogger recognizes that time management is a deeply personal process that individuals may tune to their liking over many years. The jury is therefore still out over whether these tools are worth the investment of effort by any given person. Generally, apps such as these work to tally the daily amount of time you spend on certain tasks, correlate with your online calendar, and portion out your days in the most efficient manner possible. This organization is coupled with friendly, if urging, reminders noting that you can only devote five more minutes of time to working on that spreadsheet or watching the SciFi channel in a given day. Your well-intentioned blogger, for his part, has tried many such solutions for mobile devices, and each has felt like it needed more time to set up, integrate, and calibrate with existing calendar information than would otherwise be acceptable to budget. Not to say that these are without any merit, of course: for those businesspeople who bill precise hours, work as sole proprietors or on a project-by-project basis, or need minute-to-minute statistical feedback on the allotment of their time, small business tools of this type could be a boon given the right setup and complementary suite of associated calendar management programs.
Asana (and Task Management Apps)
Here at Merchant Advance Capital, our Administrative team are big, big fans of a piece of free webware called Asana – we are happy to suggest that it could really make a difference for any small business with a need to delegate tasks between members of a team or among various teams. Their slogan is “teamwork without email” – though we find that their services integrate with a standard GMail workflow with relative ease. Task management solutions such as Asana allow team members to create goals with discrete deliverable components, to assign those components either to themselves or to a co-worker, and to provide feedback to the whole team about what gets done, when and by whom. This can do wonders for efficiency. Through use of this tool, we have saved the time spent on daily progress-checking meetings in favour of a simple glance at the status of Asana. The service is also mobile-compatible for those who need to task or be tasked on the go.
This has been mentioned in a previous blog post, which you can read here: video and photoblog services like Instagram and Vine (though, now that the former has included video capture, Vine may look significantly worse for wear) are experiencing a moment in the sun when it comes to their viability as small business tools for marketing. Quick, digestible videos or prettily filtered snaps showcasing the highlights of a product, service, or delicious sandwich available through your business are absolutely alluring when it comes down to a simple and cost-effective form of advertising. We can think of some small businesses that use these platforms almost exclusively to promote themselves: there’s a certain indie cachet, as it were, associated with them. Don’t bother with the glut of lookalikes – sticking with the industry leading and most recognizable services (with the largest subscriber counts) will likely benefit you in the long run.
Accounting and Financial Apps (Wave, Xero etc.)
Wave may well be the standard bearer for low cost and easy-to-use web, app, and mobile-enabled small (and they do mean small) business financial software. The company’s mission statement is to provide a comprehensive suite of invoicing, accounting, payroll and payment management tools that are optimized for businesses with nine employees or fewer. It is also free to start using several of the services included, and features some mobile compatibility with Invoicing through your phone or tablet. Though we have not seen financial data from many clients using Wave (or, for that matter, any other competing app-based accounting solutions), we acknowledge the status of these services as legitimate providers in this field that have made a mark on the small business app ecosystem. It is worth noting that Wave and several of its competitors, such as Xero, are undergoing rigorous testing by Canadian blogger The Small Business Doer (@gregalam), should you wish to learn the more detailed ins and outs of certain apps of this type and investigate as to whether one of them might work for your business.
This last recommendation is more of a case study. Much news has recently been made about Yo, an app-developer startup taking the “simplicity first” mantra of modern communication to its logical extreme. The app makes a 140-character tweet look like War and Peace: users are able to send and receive missives consisting solely of the two-letter exclamation “Yo” with a single tap. The developers refer to this concept as “contextual communication” – you look at the fact that you have received a message, look at who it’s from, and infer a conclusion from it based on context. If, for example, Merchant Advance Capital were to send a client with a great payment history a quick “Yo,” it could mean “Good news! You’re now eligible for a re-advance!” If this same message went out to a client with a history of issues, it could take on the tone of a reminder – “Please contact us to discuss your payment schedule.” This, of course, is pure conjecture, and your blogger does not necessarily see ultralight messaging as the future of business communication – however, as a case for a new bubble in tech startups, Yo provides some interesting points to mull over. Firstly, concept aside, could this really be a practical addition to your suite of small business tools? Secondly: its developers received in excess of $1 million in “angel investor” funding. Given that the programming underneath Yo’s hood is as simple as it comes, is this justified? Lastly: can it be called a huge success in viral marketing for its founders’ business efforts? Perhaps here is where it becomes possible to read between the lines of two letters. These are but a few of the interesting and potentially valuable tools that your small business can assess and hopefully use to productive effect. The blog will likely revisit this topic in the future and perhaps provide profiles of other interesting or newly made additions to the small business toolkit. For now – experiment! As noted, many apps require a light initial cost and setup time to start using to full effect in the workplace. You may discover a way to reinvent the way you do business in the connected marketplace.