If you’re like many small business owners, you end up wearing a lot of hats. From accounting to project management to sales, you probably have a hand in most aspects of your business, particularly when you first launch and as you grow.
The right tools can help streamline and improve your business operations as you go through your crowded to-do list. These days, there are many free or low-cost apps and software to help with everything from marketing to money management. Here are our top picks.
Benefits of small business tools
Although there are theoretically countless reasons why your business might benefit from small business management tools, below are some of the most important ones:
- You can prioritize your short and long-term needs . Running a business involves juggling small daily tasks and long-term projects simultaneously. With small business management solutions such as project management tools and team collaboration software, you and your employees will know what to do today, tomorrow, and long after that. The result is a business more likely to meet its goals on time.
- You can stay organized . Although paperless offices and remote work eliminate the annoyances of overflowing file cabinets, digital file storage can just as easily get messy. Small business management tools solve this problem. Cloud-based digital storage programs such as Google Drive and file sharing apps such as Dropbox gather, organize, and streamline access to all your documents. This way, your team can find whatever it needs at all times.
- You can maximize productivity and efficiency . No more searching for lost papers or forgetting tasks – with small business management tools, your business operations will proceed with few interruptions and maximum results. And you know what they say: Time is money.
Small business management tools: types and examples
There are no shortage of tools that can help you organize, sort, and manage the day to day tasks you’re responsible for each day. Among the most prominent types of small business management tools are those listed below (with examples for each):
One of the best ways to advertise your business is through online directories. Google research has found that four out of five people surveyed used search engines to find businesses, so you want to be represented on as many sites as possible. Simply visit these directories and add or claim your business for free!
For more, visit The Ultimate List: 57 Online Local Business Directories from the HubSpot Blog.
Data analytics is the use of techniques and predictive models to gain valuable knowledge from data. The insights from data are used to recommend action or to guide decision making in business. It sounds complex and expensive to launch an analytics program but that’s not true anymore. Here are two platforms to turn your data into easily digestible information.
- Google Analytics is a valuable tool to help business owners understand their online traffic and audience. Small business expert Neil Patel has written an article to help you use the platform wisely: 11 Ways You Can Improve Your Business With Google Analytics.
- The kissmetrics app helps you understand customer behavior across devices so you know what customers are doing, what’s working, and what’s not. Key insights are surfaced and you can leverage ready-to-go reports with the analytics you need to make better marketing decisions. You can also access all your data anytime, without limits.
WordPress is what we use for the SmartBiz Small Business Blog so it’s our #1 and only recommendation. Check out our blog here – we think it’s beautiful and it’s relatively simple to use once you get set up. The software was designed for everyone, with a focus on accessibility, performance, security, and ease of use. With minimum set up, you can focus on sharing your story, product, or services.
Ready to blog? The SmartBiz blog has a thorough article to help you get started: Develop a Blog Strategy for Your Small Business.
As you travel through the business lifecycle, it’s a great idea to consult with professionals who have been there before. Here are a few resources:
- The Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) – a comprehensive small business assistance network. SBDCs are hosted by leading universities, colleges, state economic development agencies and private partners. There are nearly 1,000 local centers available to provide no-cost business consulting and low-cost training to new and existing businesses. Best of all, many of their services are free. Search by zip code to find your local SBDC here.
- SCORE is the nation's largest network of volunteer, expert business mentors and have assisted more than 11 million small business owners since 1964. You can find your local chapter on the SCORE website here.
If you’re ready to expand, outside funding can help. Proceeds from a loan or other sources can be used for business building initiatives like hiring, equipment or inventory, marketing, or debt consolidation, depending on the lender. Here are a few options to explore,
- Crowdfunding is basically using a little bit of money from a large amount of people to launch or strengthen your business. You can crowdfund through friends, family, or even strangers online with platforms like GoFundMe or Kickstarter . However, getting a business funded successfully through crowdfunding isn’t a slam dunk. There are other negatives to this strategy including administrative hassles and unwanted publicity, among others. If you have strong financials and good credit scores, a traditional loan is the way to go.
- SBA Loans are known as the “gold standard” in small business financing with low rates, long terms, and very low monthly payments. You’ll need to be in business for 2+ years and have good credit to qualify. The SmartBiz online marketplace matches you with the bank most likely to approve your loan so you won’t waste valuable time going from bank to bank. Pre-qualify for a business loan up to $350,000 in 5 minutes here.
- Bank term loans are issued by banks and are typically a fixed-rate loan repaid with equal monthly payments. These loans usually have shorter terms than an SBA loan and are designed for business owners who need funds faster than other options. Lenders will want to see financial documents proving that you can support the loan payments for the life of the loan. Credit scores are key. You’ll get lower rates, longer terms, and a larger loan amount if you’re seen as a low-risk borrower.
- Accounts receivable credit lines are another option if you’re not quite ready for a loan. An accounts receivable credit line can shore up your cash flow or fund business building initiatives. You’ll need to demonstrate that you have solid invoicing and collections practices in place, strong business financials, positive cash flow, and established business credit. Additionally, your customers must be “low risk”, meaning they have strong commercial credit.
Internal Communications and Project Management
Internal communication and project management are key, especially if your employees work remotely or operate out of separate locations. Here are three very popular apps to keep your team connected.
- Asana - The SmartBiz Loans sales and marketing teams use this web and mobile app to manage and track projects. It keeps the stakeholders informed and helps to meet deadlines and goals.
- Slack – SmartBiz also uses Slack, a real-time messaging and collaboration tool for teams. In our fast-paced office, employees can get the information and answers they need to swiftly assist customers and complete projects.
- Trello – Like Asana, Trello is another leading option for creating, assigning, and completing tasks according to priority levels and deadlines. Users can also message other users if they both belong to the same project board.
Money Management and Accounting
Businesses need to pay attention to their bottom line to stay financially healthy and expand. However, account reconciliations and expense tracking can be a drain on resources and your sanity. Here are four apps that simplify financial tasks.
- QuickBooks – QuickBooks is perhaps the biggest name in small business accounting. Its flexible, expansive suite of accounting, expensing, and tax tools suits businesses of all sizes and ages.
- FreshBooks – Unlike its similarly named competitor, FreshBooks focuses primarily on invoicing, though it certainly doesn’t lack accounting tools. You’re best off using it to create, track, and manage your invoices and accounts receivable.
- The Xero accounting app allows you to perform key functions like managing invoices, viewing accounts, uploading receipts, and tracking expenses via your tablet. Xero also offers automatic bank reconciliation that instantly imports your credit card, PayPal, and bank transactions through a single dashboard. Save yourself from mundane paperwork by using their time-saving tools like recurring invoices, convenient batch payments and automatic update of payroll information.
- “Hate accounting? Love Brightbook .” This is how Brightbook, a free online bookkeeping system, describes itself for freelancers, contractors, and small businesses. From the moment you login, you can immediately see where you stand; who owes you money, who you owe money to and what your cashflow is. Online review site Cloudwards outlines two weaknesses. Brightbook is lacking many advanced functions and there are no bank feeds. Get more details about the pros and cons from Cloudwards here.
“Operations” is a broad and flexible category, but that doesn’t make it any less important for business managers such as yourself to prioritize. You can do exactly this with the following platforms:
- Zendesk – You can use Zendesk to guide all your sales and customer service operations. Think of it as a management system for all team members whose primary role is to communicate with current or potential customers.
- BambooHR – With the BambooHR app, you’ll have a much easier time overseeing HR operations such as managing your employees’ benefits and time off. Bamboo HR’s higher-level Advantage plan also includes hiring tools.
- DocuSign – Through DocuSign, you can sign forms without printing them. You can store these files in the cloud too. In using both these functions, you’ll face fewer interruptions to your everyday operations.
In today’s day and age, it is imperative that your employees have necessary information available at their fingertips. Dropbox offers the most versatile file sharing solution that also facilitates real-time communication among team members. It provides a secure platform for storing, accessing and sharing crucial documents such as invoices, leases, policies, contracts, videos, photos and SOPs by simply using your tablet or smartphone. The SmartBiz marketing and social media teams use Dropbox to organize content. It’s easy and effective.
There are a lot of time management apps out there but Evernote comes out on top. Evernote is a place to record and save all notes, photos, thoughts, and anything else you can upload. Everything is saved in the cloud so your data can be accessed from your phone, computer or tablet. The basic app is free and includes key features like task lists, idea sharing and synching.
The MyMinutes app is a personal time management app for iPhones and Android that’s perfect for the person who can’t stay focused on tasks throughout the day. Wasting too much time on Facebook or surfing the web? My Minutes helps set time limits. Use the app to set a goal (for example, “Spend 30 minutes writing proposal”) and you’ll get an alert when the time is up. Also included are daily starters, running notifications, and motivational streaks that build up as you reach a goal.
Social media is invariably part of the modern business strategy, but that doesn’t make managing it easy. That’s where the following tools come in:
- Hootsuite – You can use Hootsuite to schedule posts across dozens of social media accounts, run social media ads, view analytics and more.
- Buffer – You can use Buffer to publish and analyze social media content across up to 25 channels. Buffer’s higher-end tiers come with task management tools as well.
As the number of employees who work remotely steadily increases, video conferencing platforms are becoming ever more important, if not entirely inescapable. Popular platforms include:
- Google Meet – If your company uses Gmail for its emails, then Google Meet might work well for your video conferencing needs. It syncs with all your Google Suite apps and includes standard features such as screen sharing. Its free plan allows hour-long meetings for groups of up to 100.
- Zoom – Perhaps the most ubiquitous video conferencing tool, Zoom is the modern-day standard for all kinds of virtual meetings. Its free plan sets a cap of 40 minutes on meetings of three or more people, so small business owners with larger teams may need to pay. The money might be worth it for keeping your business connected wherever, whenever.