Online services available to business owners and entrepreneurs are ever expanding. Because of this, it can be very difficult choosing a service or finding the time to spend on learning each new service. What is worse, after spending that time learning how a new service works, you find that it cannot be used in your business as effectively as you had hoped. You are left with exploring the next online tool. I have ran into this problem many, many times.
Note: On this page, I have prepared a list of services I prefer to use over all others. I give my reasons for choosing each service in each description, which you may find beneficial to your business.
As you are already aware, communication is the most important part of your business. You must be able to communicate to new and existing customers, as well as to team members, employees, and contractors. Email is still the most effective way for external and internal business communications. Here are my email tools of choice:
Communication & Schedule
If you have not heard of Gmail, where have you been? For the past decade, Google’s free email solution have lead the way in both function and design. Google also offers a premium service for businesses, which gives all of Google’s powerful communication and productivity tools to small business. My business uses multiple accounts in Google Apps for Work, where we use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, and other services. As the business owner, I have full control over what services my team can use and who can access each.
Sometimes you may find yourself tripping over trying to have phone meetings by scheduling, getting everyone on the call, and making sure all callers stay connected. That is where I was until I came across UberConference. UberConference includes many great features, but the ones that standout to me are the ability to schedule conference calls with many individuals in many places at once. UberConference will send out email notifications and reminders of calls. It also gives a phone number and pin to make sure the call is private and only available to those you want on the call. I can keep going on how awesome the features are, but I won’t – you have to check it out for yourself. It has a free option!
CRM & Team Management
Streak is a very interesting premium solution. It is hard to describe everything that it does. It is much easier to list what it doesn’t do. The simplest way to describe what Streak is, is to imagine Microsoft Excel as the interface for your email client with all of the features of a top-shelf CRM. Yes, it is that cool.
Streak is a Gmail addon for Chrome, Google’s web browser. Within my business, we use Streak as our CRM, keeping all communication between us and out clients together. Streak also allows use to market to our prospects and leads easily by grouping contacts into stages for campaigns. Even beyond its use as a CRM, I use Streak to manage which team members are working on each project. I also use Streak’s calculating abilities to track project expenses. One of my favorite features is the ability to mass mail merge directly within Gmail.
I have tried many email marketing services with great success. In this realm, I have many favorites, but MailChimp stands out above the rest. The reason why I prefer MailChimp over other services (that are great), has to do with the their API. MailChimp has opened their service to third party development and connection that gives a great deal of flexibility to how contact lists are populated and how emails are sent out.
Besides this flexibility, MailChimp’s email builder and template system are excellent. My team can easily build marketing emails using the same template for each, or we can custom build an HTML email with MailChimp’s shortcodes. Another awesome feature is the ability to create automated email campaigns. Automation isn’t exclusive to MailChimp, far from it, but their setup is very intuitive, and easy to manage.
No matter how talented your team is, unless everything they need is organized and easily accessible, work will take too long to complete. Having solutions in place to reduce time and maximize efficiency in your business is a must, especially for pleasing clients and moving onto the next project quickly.
Secure Password Manager
If you are like me, you may have more passwords than you can remember. Having to remember client account passwords adds an even higher degree of difficulty to the problem. In steps LastPass. For the past several years, I have enjoyed the security convenience of keeping all account usernames and passwords in one place.
LastPass has nice extensions for your web browser that loads any website accounts into a convenient dropdown menu to select a profile and log in. No more having to stop and lookup login information, it is all right there in a matter of a couple clicks.
However, probably the most revolutionary feature of this password manager, is the ability to share account login credentials with others, securely. That means you don’t need to share a password, it remains hidden, but the person whom you have shared the account with is able to access it. You can also revoke access at any time.
Note Taking & Word Processing
On my phone and on my computer, my notes are always synced and organized. I use many notebooks for client work, my own projects, or for saving bits to come back to in the future. My favorite ability of Evernote is on the phone app. I can take photos, video, audio recording, write, and type to notes and still keep everything organized and together. Another great feature of Evernote, is the ability to share notes to anyone via email or bring in collaborators via the business package.
I had known of Trello for awhile, checking out once or twice to see if it was a good solution in my business. At first, I could not make room for it, simply because I had Streak doing much of the project management and organization. It wasn’t until my team had 7 simultaneous projects concurrent with our normal amount of support work, that I realized I needed an alternative to Streak.
From that point on, Trello has been an excellent solution. This little change made all of the difference and allowed the team to continue to work on multiple projects at one time. The best parts of Trello are the simple card and item, drag and drop, features of the interface. Make a card, assign a person, give a deadline, and keep all communication in one place.
Another great feature has been the ability to connect Trello to our other solutions via Zapier. Now, we can create projects in Streak and manage all tasks in Trello. We keep a board per client, and with the ability to connect Gravity Forms from our company website, any support requests can go immediately to the support team – no need for management.
File Sharing & Backup
Gone are the days of emailing large files, mailing CD/DVDs, dropping off a flash drive, or using file upload services to get digital files transferred between all necessary parties. Dropbox, with a business option of 1TB, gives plenty of space for most of my business’ digital projects. All files are easily shared with all team members, as well as with our clients for review.
We are also able to have our client websites backup directly to Dropbox, automatically, on a schedule. I talk more about this ability with InfinityWP.
I love efficiency and effectiveness in anything I do. If given the choice, I would rather skip repetitive tasks and avoid mundane minutia by farming it out. However, that makes it a problem for someone else on my team and ultimately still my problem. Instead, if tasks can be automated, I try to find the best way of going about it, for myself and clients.
Basic API Automation
I know what you are thinking. Yes, that is the name of the service. If This, Then That is very self explanatory. The service at its core goes by the saying, “If this happens, then that needs to happen as well.” It is a great service for setting up most basic automated tasks, such as for connecting your calendar to a social network, tweeting a facebook post, and more.
Advanced API Automation
If you are impressed with the automation that IFTTT can deliver, then you are going to love Zapier. Zapier puts API connection and automation on steroids. Zapier’s service includes many productivity tools not seen in IFTTT and also includes timing and logging options. With only a few “Zaps”, you can completely automate many processes, saving you a great deal of time. My favorite zaps include Streak to Trello for task creation, Streak to MailChimp for automated emails, and Gravity Forms to Trello for direct support ticket creation.
Sometimes a project requires the aid of others beyond your team. When we must do this in my business, we turn to freelancers and sub-contractors to get the job done. However, these professionals may not always be local.
Freelance Talent & Sub-Contractors
When my team needs to grow, I need to bring on the right person. Finding the right person can be difficult when limited to a local region, but with the connectivity available to business owners and entrepreneurs today, your team can be located all over the world. Upwork (Formerly Odesk & Elance) is a great solution for finding freelance or sub-contractor help, without the hurdle of being geographically locked.
My team consists of very talented professionals. Each person has been hand selected. Instead of posting open positions within my business and advertising the availability, I look for individuals who are already performing at a high level and show a great interest and discipline for their craft. After a series of interviews, tests, and preliminary work, I offer them the chance to join the team.
Freelancers & Quick Digital Work
Though I have not turned to this solution for quite some time (my team is large enough to handle most tasks now), Fiverr has been an excellent place to find a freelancer or simple digital service to complete task work.
I have used Fiverr in the past for video and audio work, when I simply did not have the time or tools to do the work myself. My suggestion is to find services that have great reviews and a fast response time.
Some services I chose not to categorize above, but still highly recommend them to business owners and entrepreneurs who are looking for a new option.
Business Class Web Hosting
I cannot say this enough – not all hosting is the same. Like many services, you get what you pay for. However, that does not mean you need to pay a lot. For nearly 20 years, I have been using different hosting services, including my own, for client websites and my own projects. Over this time, I have learned what makes a great hosting provider and what truly separates the best from the rest.
Inmotion Hosting has been my provider of choice since 2009. At that time, I was giving up on running my own hosting service and was ready to outsource all of it. I took many providers into consideration, as the transition was not easy and large problems could surface during the move, making a lot of clients unhappy. Inmotion was able to help me through the move carefully and without issue.
Since the move to Inmotion Hosting, I have used nearly all of their hosting services, including VPS and dedicated servers. I now recommend Inmotion Hosting to all of my clients and those looking to move to a great hosting service.
CDN, File Stroage, & Backup
Fast hosting servers are great for serving up websites quickly, however they aren’t the best option for constant streaming of video, audio, and graphic content. All of this happening simultaneously to a hosting server will slow it way down, sometimes to a crash. Instead, having a CDN (Content Delivery Network) in place, can keep your website fast and serving media to everyone who visits your website.
Amazon’s Cloud Services have been my business’ go to service for creating a CDN. Amazon gives you or your developers all of the tools they need to get a CDN up and running quickly. After it is setup, your content can be served from the Amazon server, while your website is being served by your existing host.
In addition to being a great service for a CDN, Amazon’s Cloud Services also work great for backup. For the largest of backups (20GB and larger), we send to the Amazon servers instead of downloading or transferring to Dropbox. It is much faster, and with a backup of that size, space can be taken up quickly if you need to keep multiple backups.
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