Small Business Tools: What I Use
I like to practice what I preach, so the technologies I write about and recommend are those that I use. Not that they’re always the right fit for others, but at least by using them myself, I get a good idea of both their strengths and weaknesses. Much of what I’ve listed below isn’t free, but in my opinion, all more than justify their cost.
It might go without saying, but I have Windows 10 installed on the notebook that I use as a daily driver. I deploy and write about Microsoft technologies, so it makes sense for me to use Windows. And unlike if I opted to use a Mac, or one of the many Linux distros, I can run the most up-to-date and complete version of Office, and get built-in compatibility with Microsoft’s cloud services, such as OneDrive.
Say Goodbye to Traditional PC Lifecycle Management
Traditional IT tools, including Microsoft SCCM, Ghost Solution Suite, and KACE, often require considerable custom configurations by T3 technicians (an expensive and often elusive IT resource) to enable management of a hybrid onsite + remote workforce. In many cases, even with the best resources, organizations are finding that these on-premise tools simply cannot support remote endpoints consistently and reliably due to infrastructure limitations.
The primary reason I use Office 365 is for hosted Exchange, which just works better than POP3/SMTP or IMAP. But Office 365 Business Premium also allows me to install Office 2016, and I get access to editing features in the corresponding mobile apps along with 1TB of cloud storage per user. I like that Word Mobile connects to OneDrive and offers a list of recently opened documents, even if those files were accessed using a different device.
I prefer Outlook 2016 over the web-based Mail app in Office 365, as it provides easier bulk email management and proper offline access, although I do think that the Outlook GUI is overcrowded and still has plenty of room for improvement. But in terms of speed and reliability, it’s not the dog it once used to be.
OneDrive and SharePoint Online
Old habits die hard and many small businesses still rely on sending documents backwards and forwards in seemingly never ending email conversations, often resulting in confusion about which is the latest version of a document, who has made edits when and for what reason.
While the consumer version of OneDrive doesn’t offer the same flexibility as OneDrive for Business or SharePoint, it does provide some document management features, such as being able to share documents with users external to your organization, version history, and the ability for multiple users to edit documents simultaneously.
OneDrive integration with Outlook supports Modern Attachments, which is a nice way of getting some of the benefits of a document management system right inside Outlook. For more information, see Office 365 Tip: Using Modern Email Attachments on the Petri IT Knowledgebase.
When I’m collaborating on bigger ongoing projects, SharePoint team sites are invaluable, providing advanced versioning features, content approval, workflow, shared calendars and notebooks, and acts as a repository for all the information connected to a given project.
Forget about Outlook and SharePoint tasks. Wunderlist is the only solution that really works for me, and I like the ability to share tasks easily with my contacts. I love the search ability, as sometimes my task lists get quite long. Additionally, Wunderlist is supported on all major platforms, and there’s also a web app.
I’ve personally found Slack to be revolutionary, along with many others who agree that this is the best way to communicate with colleagues in small teams. Conversation threads are easier to read, navigate and search than email, and I also use Slack for ad-hoc document sharing when a SharePoint team site would be overkill.
Not that Slack is the only lightweight team collaboration solution. Outlook Groups also offer conversation threads, plus shared files and calendars, but unlike Slack, at the time of writing only licensed Office 365 users can be invited to join a group. Although advanced features — such as eDiscovery, litigation hold, and dynamic membership — may appeal to some organizations.
For a more in-depth comparison between email and Slack, see What is Slack and Is It Better Than Email? on Petri.
To be fair, I don’t use Skype often. I mostly correspond via email or Slack. But when a face-to-face meeting is the best option, Skype is my go-to solution. I also have a Skype number that forwards to my cell.
I’m not sure how I lived without Zoho Books, the cloud-based accounting software designed for small office and home businesses. It’s not the cheapest option around, but it allows me to stay on top of invoices and received payments, and importantly includes reports that provide information about my cash flow situation. In other words, it gives me an insight to the financial workings of my business that I’d never had before.
Zoho Books connects to my bank using a secure RSS feed, matching received payments to invoices. It also helps me to deal with invoices sent in one currency, but after conversion, are deposited in another. While it did take me a couple of days to set up and familiarize with, Zoho Books helps me to ensure I get paid on time and plan for the future.
Free for a single user if you don’t need to send out more than five documents a month, signatures created in DocuSign comply with the ESIGN act, and there’s a court-accepted audit trail should you need to prove the validity of signed contract.
As a digital transaction management platform, DocuSign not only provides trusted eSignatures, but it’s also easy to use. Recipients are directed to the parts of a document that need their attention, and transactions are encrypted and tamper-proof, with the ability to require additional proof of identity from the document recipient.
I do recommend reviewing this software thoroughly before signing up for a paid plan, as customer support isn’t always what it could be and if DocuSign doesn’t meet your needs, you could be left high and dry.