4 Essential Software Apps for the Digital Small Business

By | October 12, 2011

If you run a small digital or creative business… or you work solo (freelance)… you can end up wasting a lot of time if you don’t have the right productivity tools for global collaboration. It’s all too easy to spend more than half of your day hunting through old e-mails, hassling over invoices or trying to solve complex operational problems that would take care of themselves if you were using the right tool.

Here are the 4 most indispensable tools I’ve used to manage the daily tasks of my own small business:

1. Google Docs & Spreadsheets (for document management)

Back in the stone age (a.k.a. the 1990’s) people used to mail multiple versions of documents around the office and “track changes” to see any new edits. It was a laborious process that has been thankfully made obsolete by the wonders of cloud computing and applications like Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Google Docs lacks ultra-professional features for advanced document formatting and printing (that 98% of users never use) and gives you just the basics you need to produce basic, functional documents, spreadsheets and slide presentations. You can share access to your documents with anyone, anywhere in the world and edit in real time. I find it’s invaluable in my work as a direct response copywriter as clients can look over documents in real-time as I’m witting them and leave comments that prevent me having to make major, unnecessary overhauls. If you’re still using Microsoft Office to work collaboratively with remote teams, it’s time for an upgrade!

Cost – Free for basic edition (which is very usable!). Professional edition with additional storage and live support is $50 per user, per year.

2. BaseCamp (for project management)

BaseCamp is the most polished, tested, and widely adopted online project management software out there. It stores all the messages, discussions, files and calendars associated with any one project and keeps them into an organized group… so you don’t have to spend half your day hunting through old and poorly-titled e-mail threads and CC:’s to find the discussion or file you need. Start up a project, invite all of the users to create a free account, hold your discussions and upload your files to BaseCamp and you’ll never feel “off track” again. It also has a group calendar (called “Milestones”) and a collaborative writing system (“writeboards”) – but I greatly prefer using Google Docs for collaborative writing.

Cost – Free edition is too limited to be useful. It starts at $24 a month for the basic plan that includes up to 15 projects.

3. Freshbooks – (for billing & invoicing)

After spending 3 years wrestling with complex, cumbersome & painful accounting software (Quickbooks) and having to hire a bookkeeper just to figure out how to enter my monthly expenses – I decided to ditch it and go for something more modern. The answer to all the headaches is Freshbooks – a cloud-based billing and invoicing system designed for small businesses. You can add new clients, send invoices (via e-mail or even via postal mail for a nominal fee!), track payments and expenses for tax time. If you don’t have to do complex payroll or financial arrangements and you just have a basic small business – Freshbooks will more than meet your needs. The sleek “Web 2.0” style interface design makes staying on top of your payments easier than updating your Facebook status!

Cost – Basic edition starts at $19.95 per month. If you pay for a year in advance, you can ask for a 10% discount.

4. GoTo Meeting – (for online meetings)

Forget old-fashioned phone calls! If you are working on IT or creative projects that involve the web or computers – you need to be able to have web meetings so your clients can “see” exactly what you’re talking about. If a picture is worth 1,000 words then a video is worth a million! When you need to meet with a client, you can share your screen and it’s just like they’re looking over your shoulder. The new HDFaces feature also allows people to add their own faces in high definition as long as they have a webcam – so the online meeting feels like a real meeting. It’s not the cheapest service in its class, but I’ve found it’s the most solid and reliable.

Cost – $49/month. Tip: Sign up for the 30 day free trial. If you attempt to cancel within 30 days, they will give you a special offer with a substantial discount if you buy a yearly plan.

There are many tools that can help make the life of a freelancer or digital small business management easier – but these four are “the best of the best” – the most crucial ones I have found! Please share your own favorite small business software apps in the comments below!

Note from the Editor: This was a guest post.