App-y New Year: 10 apps to help you build your business in 2014
The global economy is becoming a planet of the apps, especially business apps. Not just those familiar social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, but the numerous downloadable software or Web-based programs designed for specific financial, marketing, or management purposes.
“As far as business apps, there’s a big landscape out there,” states Dana Arnold, public relations and social media director for Hiebing, a Madison-based integrated marketing and advertising agency. “When I look at the spectrum, there are some that help with productivity, and there are some that help with calendars or travel. There are a lot of different categories.”
This fall, Apple alone announced that it has more than 1 million apps in its online store, many of which are devoted to business and productivity. To separate the wheat from the chaff, we asked some social media experts and entrepreneurs to help us identify 10 must-have apps for business. Here’s their list:
Intuit’s QuickBooks might be the acknowledged market leader in business accounting software, but Brian Lee, president of Revelation PR, Advertising and Social Media, believes FreshBooks is a versatile alternative. A cloud-based accounting app, it handles functions such as time measurement, expenses, invoices, and online payments.
“If you need to add your time and your billable hours, you can do that with FreshBooks,” Lee explained. “Or if you want to accept payments through a service like PayPal, you can do that through FreshBooks. The other thing I like about this app is that it integrates with other apps out there like Basecamp, Gmail, and MailChimp.”
Jason Iverson, owner of Acuity Consulting Services, offered glowing testimony about FreshBook’s versatility. Most of Acuity’s clients are managed services clients, and they are tracked in Zendesk, a customer support tool, which ties into FreshBooks. Acuity also uses Xero, a full-blown accounting tool that also ties into FreshBooks. “The really cool thing about Freshbooks is we use it to manage invoices and expenses only, but we actually tie it to two different applications as well,” Iverson says.
FreshBooks has changed the way Acuity communicates with clients, enabling it to provide a more detailed accounting of its work. “We can post the time, the project, and the actual work done straight in FreshBooks, and then it allows us to create invoicing from those entries,” Iverson noted. “So it eliminates a lot of overhead for us and keeps our records really pristine, and it’s really well documented for clients — all the work that we’ve done.”
The app is designed to scale up, so while it’s offered free to very small businesses, it grows along with the organization. Users are charged based on the number of clients they manage, and it’s free for the first three clients. “The neat thing with all these apps is that they really do a good job of being modular enough that they can work on that small business level, and they can work on an enterprise level,” Lee says. “When you think about a business starting up today, it is worried about costs. A lot of people want to go as lean as possible.”
What computing device does FreshBooks work best on? That depends on the function. If you’re on the job site and you need to keep track of your billable hours, the smartphone or tablet works well — you just hit a button and it starts the timer. If you want more detailed expenses or you have to type in a number of things, you’re better off on a desktop computer or laptop.
Salesforce is a powerful customer relationship management service, but it has a steep learning curve and can be cost prohibitive. That helps explain why Lee has gained an appreciation for Insightly, a Web-based customer relationship management tool for small businesses. According to Lee, it’s easier to use, the free version can handle most of the CRM functions Salesforce does, and it integrates with programs like Microsoft Outlook.
According to Lee, the free version is free forever, up to three of your employees can use it, and you get a certain amount of storage and content. When more people in your company need to be on the same software, and you have more contacts, you start paying more.
Insightly can be used on multiple platforms, and this can be an advantage if you’re comfortable with virtual keyboards. “If you’re not well versed with typing or if you’re not familiar with the virtual keyboard, of course your laptop or desktop is going to be better for that,” Lee explained. “On the road, using Insightly on your portable devices is going to be handy if you need meeting reminders, or if you need to look up contact information or review your notes prior to a prospective meeting.”
Keith McHugh, co-owner of Aynkay, LLC, a new residential real estate firm, has used the app for several months. He has experience with his own Access database and products like Sage’s SalesLogix CRM, which he described as “pretty darned robust.” But even with that, his most important CRM consideration is keeping all of his project- and opportunity-based information in one spot. Insightly allows him to do that, which helps prevent opportunities from falling through the cracks.
McHugh believes the app is well suited to small, project-based businesses that must track a good deal of information and keep different types of information together. “As a new business trying to stay organized and capture a lot of information, not dropping the ball on something is probably one of the most critical aspects of what I’m trying to do,” says McHugh, “and I think that’s what Insightly does an excellent job of doing.”
McHugh, who uses Insightly primarily on his desktop, is looking forward to using the reports Insightly creates, and to taking advantage of its Web-based forms, which help him “multiply himself.” The app allows you to use fields to create a Web-based form that can be “put out there” for somebody else to do the keying, whether it be John Q. Public or a sales lead. “You can direct them to a website that will have that individual key information for you right into Insightly,” he stated, “and they will send you an email saying you just had somebody enter data to your database.”
Toggl, another cloud-based app, is used for both time tracking and time management. It’s Lee’s favorite time-tracking software because he can quickly add clients and projects, and he can choose the level of detail he wants in his reports.
“At my office, we all have a [program] widget installed on our computers, so it’s easy to enter time manually by using a timer,” he explained. “Even if you don’t work at a company where you bill your time, Toggl can be a great tool to see how you are allocating your day, and if you can be more efficient with your time.”
Lee says people would be surprised if they kept track of work time for an entire week, tracking what they did minute by minute. With Toggl, they might see that they are misallocating time or spending too much time on low-priority projects. If they need to plan future projects, they can look at historical data for a similar project and use it as a planning guide.
Toggl can be used on both smartphones and computers, and the payment model is based on the number of users within a company.
One of Arnold’s favorite apps is Evernote, a digital note-taking application. With Evernote, which can be used on any device, people create notes in the form of text, photographs, or audio memos. You can file things, take audio notes or type in notes, share notes, clip Web pages, store images, and do personal tasks like plan a trip. The app is free up to a pre-described limit, and additional use is granted to paid subscribers.
“It’s pretty robust and it’s free,” she says. “The way that I use it is as an individual, but I also think companies can get this as their shared note-taking device. If you are working on a project together, you can use it in that way, too. If there are project teams that work together and need to share files as they are taking notes together, they can share features of it.”
While digital note-taking is more the exception than the rule, people are becoming more tolerant of it. “If I’m with any client and I’m taking notes digitally, I always call that out in advance,” Arnold says. “So within the boundaries you need to set for yourself, you have to make sure that you’re really honoring that because it is very easy to multitask when you’re operating off your device, and when emails and text messages are coming in.”
Kay-Tee Franke, president of Engaging Results Communications, is a big proponent of any app that allows people to act as a portal, allowing access to other media from one spot. That’s why she endorses Dragon Dictate, which uses your own voice and speech patterns to “take dictation.” After users read a narrative long enough to help the program recognize their voice, they simply fire it up anytime they want to make an audio note or transcribe audio recordings with their voices.
For use on computers and smartphones, Dragon Dictate is used primarily to streamline communication. Franke, who uses it on her iPhone, has taken the program a step beyond dictation and into social media. “Among the reasons that I like Dragon is that I can simply push the record button and not only leave myself a note, but I can send it back to the office if I need someone to schedule a meeting,” Franke says. “You’re basically a portal and when you speak into it, you are able to email that note to someone else with the click of a button, and you can also share that information on social media.”
With Skype’s free video call feature, Dana Arnold can get face-to-face dimensions in a meeting, even when she’s in Madison and the person she is connecting with is in another state. She considers it ideal for businesspeople who frequently travel. “I always appreciate face-to-face meetings and try to hold meetings that way whenever possible,” she stated, “but we work with companies all over the country, so that’s not always feasible. I’ve found that a handful of clients are actually comfortable with Skype.”
Perhaps that comfort level stems from the fact that the images are pretty clear, whether they are transmitted over a phone or a computer — so clear that Arnold can tell whether they are paying attention. Indeed, the app accommodates people who want to pick up on visual cues. “There is an added dimension that you lose when you don’t have video or you are not seeing someone face-to-face,” Arnold noted. “If I’m presenting something to them, I’d want to do that in person because I’d want to make sure that I have 100% of their attention.
“It makes it tougher for them to be multitasking when they are talking, if they know they are being watched.”
Arnold also stated her appreciation for an app used by several of the service-related businesses she frequents, including her hairdresser and her favorite pizza place. For merchants, the card reader Square Register serves as a roving cash register because the enabling accessory component fits in one’s pocket, allows you to accept payments on a smartphone or iPad, securely encrypts every swipe of a customer’s credit card, and links right to your bank account.
If Arnold is any indication, customers will appreciate it as much as merchants do. “I have been dazzled by it as I’m interacting with small businesses,” Arnold says. “It basically turns your phone or your tablet into a cash register.
“As an end-user, I love it because if I’ve used Square Register at one business, it recognizes my credit card at another business. If I ask for my receipt electronically, I’d rather have it texted or emailed to me, and the user can select those things as opposed to actually having their receipt printed out. The first time I swiped my credit card using this app, I entered in my information right there on the tablet and let them know how I wanted to receive that receipt.”
According to Arnold, there is a 2.75%-per-swipe transaction fee for the business, but even with that charge, she says, the app makes sense for service businesses with higher average check amounts because of the convenience factor.
McHugh endorsed Google’s telecommunications service, known as Google Voice, even though he’s not sure how much longer he can afford it. While Google has not been able to promise that the voice-over-Internet service would remain free after Dec. 31, 2013, and McHugh is looking at alternatives like Phonebooth, which costs $20 per month, others might find Google Voice a bargain at any price.
He likes having calls routed to his home landline and cell phone, and he can program the app to ring up to three phones at one time. “Whoever gets to it first picks up that line,” McHugh explained. “When I end up with an office outside of my home, if I want Google Voice to ring my office, my cell, or my home phone, I can do that. I’m always available, and I can make calls out of Google Voice but connect it with whatever phone I want to.
“Google Voice also has a voice-mail capability and it transcribes those voice mails, and you can set it up to email them to you when they come in.”
For McHugh, Dropbox is likely to be of service longer than Google Voice, in part because it’s free and in part because it has a simple purpose. After installing Dropbox on his computer (it also syncs files with smartphones and tablets), the cloud-based file-sharing and file backup service enables him to share large files, including photos and videos, that email struggles to transfer.
He’s moving Word files, databases, spreadsheets, PowerPoints, PDFs, and pretty much anything else under the 2-gigabyte limit of the free version. It’s another example of how free apps serve small businesses that are wise enough to take advantage of them. “I have a Word file that was 20 Mgs [megabytes], and it just doesn’t work to send that via email,” McHugh noted. “It does not quite have the quality of the automated document processes and workflows on the higher-end products, but it’s wonderfully flexible.”
Franke is fond of Waze, a social-supported GPS system that downloads to a smartphone. Users either speak into the app or type into it to identify their destination or the multiple stops they are making. Waze not only provides turn-by-turn directions, it is also supported by a social network that offers real-time user content. That content might include photographs of an accident site or a traffic jam, or anything that communicates adverse conditions.
In short, it does everything a standard GPS does, and members of the network earn points for reporting hazards to the police or updating the map to correct an error. “If there is someone else on Waze, it will identify them as a friend if we are connected, or just as a random car on the map,” Franke explained. “What they are doing is alerting you to a place that you could be driving by, such as a construction zone, or where there is a car broken down or a hazard on the side of the road, so that I know what to expect on the road. It’s kind of a GPS on steroids.”
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