Small Business and Startups: What I am Using Now (5 Free Tools!)

As a manager of a small online business, I wear a whole range of hats: I supervise marketing, customer service, engineering, business intelligence, HR, and operations (among other things).

My days are full, my hours are long, and my budget is ever limited.

I anticipated this when writing a business plan and starting the business, but anticipating something and managing the reality of that thing are very different concepts.

Like all of us, I am constantly looking for money-savers and productivity-boosters, and because my days are spent in front of my computer, I need tools that allow me to do the most work in the shortest amount of time for the smallest investment of cash.

Fortunately for me, there are roughly, um, gazillions of apps, websites, SaaS products, and off-the-shelf software products to help me. To choose amongst these, I look for several key qualities in a new tool: 1) does it solve the problem I am addressing, 2) can it be used collaboratively?  3) is it easy to learn and stable? and 4) is it affordable?

Here are a few free tools that can help you to run your small business more efficiently.

1. Social Media Content Management.

Buffer solves a major problem for me: how to stay as active as possible in social media channels with a minimal investment of time and without having to monitor my own feeds and lists every minute of every day.

Using Buffer, I can share content to my Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn accounts from any webpage, with a click. It allows me to schedule specific days and times I want to share, customize the messages I send, and select an image to include with the scheduled post so that in one or two short sessions per week, I can make sure there is always rich content queued up and ready to share.

Multiple people can share and manage one Buffer queue, and the simplicity of the software means the learning curve can be surmounted in minutes. Buffer does offer high-volume business plans for power users, but for most people, the inexpensive “Awesome plan” offers plenty of horsepower.

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2. Online Search Ad Management.

Do you manage your PPC campaigns on Google? Do you find yourself scratching your head as you attempt to navigate through the thickets of your campaigns online?

If you’re sharing that pain, I recommend Google’s free tool. Adwords Editor allows you to download any or all of your Adword accounts into a simple, easy-to-learn interface where you can make changes, set up new ad groups, view various statistics and play what-if with your campaigns, keywords, targeting, and ads.

Once you are happy with your changes, one-click will upload those and synch up your online Adwords accounts.

It also works in the other direction: any changes you or your collaborator make using the online Adword manager will synch to your Adwords app with the click of a button.

It takes a few sessions to get up to speed with the tool, but if you already have a basic familiarity with Adword campaigns, you should be able to navigate your way around by the end of the first sitting.

3. Spreadsheets.

OK, I confess. I love Microsoft Excel.

I have been a steady user of this product for over 20 years now and, if I may say so myself, I know my way around a spreadsheet.

I may not be the most powerful of power-users, and my spreadsheets may not be equal to what they use at Los Alamos National Lab, but I do know how to make those suckers sing.

But the problem with Excel spreadsheets starts to become obvious as soon as collaboration comes into the picture.

First of all, not everybody has Excel installed on their machine, and second of all, there is no meaningful way to track changes and save histories.

Google docs have offered spreadsheets for a while now, but until recently, this product has been a pretty pale comparison, especially when using large data sets or working with pivot tables and other reports or charts.

Well, I am not sure when this happened, but the team at Google has made some welcome changes, and Google spreadsheets have greatly improved. They now have available a reasonable number of custom charts, pivot table functionality, multiple worksheets, and some very nice functions and tools. As anyone who already uses Google Docs knows, collaboration is a no-brainer and includes powerful features for commenting, revisioning, and history.

And pricing? Well, you just can’t beat free.

4. Sprint planning.

Agile, schmagile. I have spent my entire adult life working with teams, scheduling complex workflows, and coordinating between departments and individuals in discreet functional domains.

What you call your own team’s workflow matters much less than finding the organizing principles that work for your project and your team.

As a technology company, our engineering team is always challenged by time and capacity, and we have tried many tools over the years to help us manage the process, organize the queue, set priorities, and collaborate effectively.

Here’s where PivotalTracker comes in. Tracker has a powerful workflow that allows your team to organize multiple projects, prioritize (and re-prioritize) the order of tasks, track progress, and easily communicate changes.

Reporting and scheduling are simple and powerful, and transparency is inherent so your entire team knows at any time what work they have on the horizon, what deadlines are waiting to be met, and who is responsible for any of the multiple pieces of work that make up your complex system. Pricing ranges from free and up with multiple levels for teams with differing needs and of different sizes.

5. Shift scheduling.

I can confidently say that our customer service team is, pound for pound, as good as those at any other company in the world.

I kid not. These folks are awesome.

But some of them are full-time, some are part-time, some are in school, and some have kids that are in school.

Imagine how difficult it can be to give them the flexibility we promise and accommodate their disparate scheduling needs. We used to do this on a spreadsheet that we were constantly updating and consistently cursing.

Well, along came ShiftPlanning, an online SaaS tool that can be used collaboratively, that is super easy to learn, and that costs us just a few bucks a month.

ShiftPlanning has a simple interface, allows both managers and workers access to the master schedule and time clock tools, allows users to request schedule changes, swap shifts, ask for vacation time, and pull reports on hours worked and upcoming shifts. Managers have multiple options for viewing schedules and employees, powerful reporting features, integrations with popular payroll services, and the ability to customize groups by skills and positions. Especially handy is the at-a-glance view that will show you who is working this week, doing what tasks, and at what time.

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