What’s happened in business technology during the past decade is very much like the change ushered in during the first Industrial Revolution.
Before the advent of the factory, master weavers made textiles by hand and only the wealthy could afford them. That all changed with automation. Today, that same principle is why business technology that would have cost the better part of a hundred grand less than a decade ago is available for next to nothing — and sometimes it’s even free.
And don’t get entangled in the “human versus machine” debate. Think of this as “human plus machine.” That’s the winning formula, and it’s a big advantage for small operations. Because of how quickly technology changes now, big business regularly falls behind smaller, nimbler competitors. This is the phenomenon that’s been called the “consumerization” of technology.
Until around 2007, technology was geared toward the business sector because that’s who could afford it. Then Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, and coders around the world rushed to develop apps for that new platform. In short order, the best technology and the newest, hottest apps were available for a couple hundred dollars. Today, workers at the base of many large corporate pyramids come into the office carrying iPads, and they’re asking their IT people why a free app is easier to use and more effective than a system the company spent fifty grand to implement five years earlier.
That’s a powerful change in a few years.
In just a few more years, most of this new technology also will look slow, inefficient, and antiquated. That’s why you’ve got to view it as your friend. The only way technology becomes your enemy is if you close your eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist. Be the quickest, most forward-thinking small business in your niche by being the first to automate what used to be costly and tedious.
To help with that, here are a few powerful, low-cost digital tools to help in seven essential areas. These technologies are constantly evolving, and new entrants are coming into the market every day, but any of these should help you catapult your business into the Digital Age.
Most people are still doing scheduling the old fashioned way. It goes something like this:
“Can you do Thursday at one?”
“Oh, no. Sorry. What about four?”
“Shoot, no, that’s when I pick up my kids. How about Friday?”
And so on.
Most small-business owners can’t afford a personal assistant (yet). But you don’t need a spacious budget to outsource scheduling.
Calendly is an online fixed-calendar system. You set up your preferences and it automatically syncs to Office 365, Google Calendar, and most other calendar programs. It knows your availability, and you can tell it when you want people to schedule times, for how long, and what kind of buffer you want between appointments. People who want to meet with you go to the site and book time.
There are even more sophisticated programs entering the market, too.
Amy — whose website is the mysterious-sounding “x.ai” — is a polite, Siri-like robot that handles scheduling. All you have to do is blind-copy Amy’s e-mail address into an e-mail about scheduling, and Amy will automatically respond to your counterpart by saying something like, “That sounds great. When would you like to schedule an appointment? Justin is available at these three times. Do any of those work for you?”
Your counterpart replies, “Yeah, Friday at two works for me.”
Amy responds: “Okay, great. It’s all set. Thanks.”
Amy is a friendly system that requires no setup and automates the entire process. Over the course of months and years, Amy will save you untold numbers of hours that you can redirect toward making your business better.
Document management is big. In businesses of every kind, it’s astonishing how much time gets wasted just looking for things. It doesn’t matter whether your business is general contracting and you’re trying to find a bid you did for a project, or you’re an attorney and you’re trying to find a brief you need. Whatever your business, document management sucks up a lot of time and, therefore, money.
That used to be necessary. We used to live in a paper world, and you could try to be as organized as possible in a paper-filing cabinet, but it just was what it was. You lost time looking for stuff.
That’s unnecessary now. It’s cheap and easy to go paperless. Systems such as SharePoint, Dropbox, and Google Drive, among others, make it so. These programs offer at least the same power that was only available to Fortune 500 companies 10 or 15 years ago. Today, you can have all of your documents indexed, organized, synced, and instantaneously made available on every device, from your office computer to your personal phone.
If you’re not managing your documents in the cloud, you’re at a disadvantage. Your competitors are getting wise to this better way of doing business. Meanwhile, the cost of a system like Dropbox or Google Drive is negligible, and it’s going to save you time, money, and sanity.
Waste not one more second in the obsolete world of paper.
We used to live in a world where you had a physical office with a physical phone system and a receptionist who just sat there and directed calls. It was expensive. And if that receptionist was on lunch break, or it was after 5 o’clock, there was no one to route the call. That’s just the way it was.
Not any more.
The PBX — private branch exchange phone system — has moved into the cloud. There are a number of virtual PBXs available now with RingCentral being a great example. RingCentral will represent your small business with every bit of the professionalism as the phone system at a Fortune 500 company. You can have as many extensions as you need — “press one for shipping,” “press two for receiving,” and so on. You also can have your company’s main line ring directly to your personal phone, or alternate between the two, depending on day and time. It all depends on what’s right for your business. And these systems cost as little as $20 a month.
On top of that, you can make sure your customers reach a human being every time they call. It’s easy to connect your virtual PBX to a virtual receptionist like Ruby Receptionists. With this technology, it doesn’t matter if a customer calls at midnight or it’s business hours but you’re in a meeting. If you don’t want your customer to get a voicemail, you can connect them to a human receptionist who will take their message and deliver it to you — all at a price point designed for the limited small-business budget.
For customers who don’t want to pick up the phone but who are on your website and would prefer to chat online, consider something like Olark. It allows you to install a “chat with us live” functionality at the bottom of any site at a very low cost. The Olark app can also notify you whenever somebody initiates a chat, and you can reply instantly if you want.
Strange as it may seem, Web development is starting to look as quaint as custom tailoring. The suits available at Men’s Wearhouse are pretty darn good, and you just need a tailor to make some minor alterations after you’ve selected what you want.
A similar phenomenon is happening in Web development. You can now have a beautiful, highly functional website off the rack from a company like Squarespace, Weebly, or Strikingly. Along with it, you’ll get great tech support and the cost is negligible.
In terms of customization and flexibility, PageCloud is trying to change the Web development game — especially for graphic designers who want more flexibility than a template affords but who don’t know how to write code.
Of course, as CEO of your small business, fussing around on Squarespace or PageCloud to tweak your site is still not something you should be doing. But you won’t have much trouble finding someone at a very affordable hourly rate to do it for you. You won’t need a $100-an-hour Web developer because Squarespace has already done the coding. You’ll need someone who’s very Internet literate — say, someone born after 1990 — to interface with Squarespace on your behalf for roughly two hours a month. You won’t have any trouble finding someone for the job.
Marketing operations used to be a major drain of time at a small business. You typed the same e-mail that you’d typed 200 times before and sent it off to a customer.
If you find yourself or your staff doing that type of repetitive work — whether in marketing or any other area — odds are there’s technology that can automate it. Doing so will add more value to your customers because you’re not wasting time doing stuff that could have been done by a robot while you were sleeping. Instead, you’re focused on meeting your customers’ needs in ever-greater ways.
Let’s say somebody visits your website and subscribes to your blog, or fills out a short form to download your free e-book. An automated message goes out welcoming them onto your team. It tells them what to expect. From there on, actions are automatically triggered by other events. If they pick up the phone, it applies a tag to them, and automatically sends out another e-mail. If they purchase something on your website, it automatically sends them a receipt and adds them to a certain distribution list of existing customers, as opposed to prospects.
Marketing software performs whichever functions are necessary within the specific parameters of your business — for pennies.
If history is any indication, tax and regulatory law will become only more complicated in the future. That means the question to ask is, “Will that complexity drain ever more resources from my business? Or will I turn it into a competitive advantage by efficiently managing that complexity in a way my competitors aren’t?”
It used to be that small-business owners had no choice about dealing personally with HR paperwork. You couldn’t afford even a part-time human resources person to do it for you, and the only software out there was designed for huge corporations — with price tags to match.
That’s changed. There are great and highly affordable options available. Most small-business owners haven’t caught on yet, though, and by being among the first to shed this burden you’ll be at the helm of a more cost-effective business.
Zenefits offers a completely free platform for human resources. They can afford to give this away because they’re also an insurance company and they hope you’ll use them to provide benefits to your company. They’re giving away tremendously powerful software for you to use for life, whether you ultimately choose to use them for insurance or not.
PEOs, or professional employer organizations, are a powerful way to outsource payroll and benefits.
Justworks is one example of an organization that will actually become a co-employer with you and serve as the employer of record for the IRS. This is as simple as set-it-and-forget-it. Once your PEO is in place, you only manage your employees in terms of their contribution to your business operations. You let someone else handle payroll, benefits, and all the corresponding regulatory and tax laws.
The upshot is huge savings for you in time, money, and headaches.
The law profession is changing dramatically, and lawyers are scared because technology is replacing some of the work they used to do. That might be scary for lawyers, but it’s unequivocally great news for everyone else.
Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom are sites that connect you instantly with legal services, whether you want expert advice, document creation, or a legal process like trademarking. There’s also Priori Legal, which is a network of attorneys who specialize in servicing small businesses and act as outsourced corporate counsel.
These kinds of websites are changing the legal marketplace at a breakneck pace, and that translates into enormous savings for you. You’re probably still in the mindset that any legal expertise is going to cost you well into four digits but that’s wrong. You can leverage this trend and become more legal efficient and tax efficient (through a tax-law strategy) than ever before. While your competitors are lost in a legal maelstrom, you’re sailing to long-term profitability.
Small businesses can’t afford to keep doing all these things on their own. It’s critical to automate scheduling, document management, communication, Web development, marketing, employee management, and legal services. The savings in time and headaches will be tremendous, and help you run a leaner, more profitable business.
Embrace these technologies and you will start to embody that all-important three-word business plan: “Do less, better.”