Don’t buy the best

Sounds weird to hear that right? All our lives we’re taught to only consider the best.

I had a boss once who said that when you buy a new car you always buy the top of the range one in its class. Get the best brands be it clothes or gadgets, best schools or college.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Buying quality is always a smart choice. But as is life not everyone can afford the best and many need to look at alternatives. These alternatives don’t have to be inferior in quality either.

This analogy can also be applied to business. Large multinational corporations can afford the best that Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and Adobe have to offer. Sure, even these vendors have come under increasing pressure to lower their prices but their products and services are still out of reach for the small business.

Enter the alternatives!

out of reach for the small enterprise

Ever heard of Bamboo HR? What about Freshbooks? HubSpot? Nimble? None of them or some of them? Well these technology platforms will change the way you do business without raiding your bank account.

For some unexplained reason SME’s think they need the traditional software solutions provided by the big guns. They get an IT professional to come out and he offers what he expects the business owner would want, typically MS Office and Exchange, Adobe Photoshop, Pastel etc.

Don’t get me wrong, these are great products, but they are not the best for the small business owner. They’re at best familiar to use and at worst overly costly and don’t scale well at smaller sizes. What’s happened in the past few years is that, in some and not all cases, very smart people have left their jobs at the big technology giants and started their own technology platforms that aim to solve specific problems (normally in the cloud) for smaller entities. These services and products are normally subscription based and can be cancelled anytime without penalties.

Your information within the platform can also be downloaded in a open-friendly format and then you can import that data into another service should you decide the current vendor no longer provides what you need. It makes making decisions on business processes and systems more flexible, reduces risk and allows you to test a system before going in whole hog.

With the proliferation in these products and services, it has become important for the small business owner to do a little bit more homework to ensure that the chosen platform can deliver on the business needs. Most of these technology platform vendors offer free trials and live chat (and phone) support and I’ve found them very helpful, available 24 hours and very flexible when it comes to adapting their systems to integrate better with your systems. All this makes it easier for the business owner to try out the platforms on a test case basis and make a decision from there.

As a quick cheat sheet, I’m going to group the different kinds of services and list my favorites in each category.

Business process and productivity platforms

These services are mostly cloud based and focus on business processes such as HR and payroll, accounting and POS. These platforms endeavor to simplify and centralise those tasks that normally would require additional staff that the business owner, in an effort to reduce costs, normally handles him or herself often through an elaborate system of Excel spreadsheets! Speaking about Excel, you no longer need to buy expensive disc-based software to be able to send email or draw up a letter. All the major productivity software vendors have cloud based solutions that will ensure you are always able to bash out that slide deck no matter where you are at a fraction of the cost.

HR: BambooHR, Accounting: Freshbooks, POS: vend, Productivity: Google Apps for Business, Office 365 Online, iWork, Evernote

Website and e-commerce

Long gone are the days where you should be swindled by a business telling you that they can build a website for you and integrate e-commerce costing thousands. These days even the most novice technology user can easily set up a website with integrated e-commerce and make the whole thing look awesome. Your website should be your primary online investment and, if you can handle e-commerce, you should integrate it. Social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and Places and LinkedIn will help generate awareness and engagement (through good content mind you) that will drive potential customers to your website where your website needs to be easy to use so you can convert those visitors into customers.

Website: Squarespace, e-commerce: Shopify, Make it look nice: Canva and Death To The Stock Photo

Marketing

This one’s a little more tricky, but, if you have a clear idea of what your product/service is and who the target market is you will find a solution that suits your needs and pocket. It will also depend on the life cycle of your business, are you in the early stages looking to bootstrap, have a few dozen clients who keep the bills paid or early growth stage and looking to ensure you are looking after your clients and optimising your interaction? These life stages will also determine if you need more complex services such as CRM software and optimisation software or if your biggest focus is that email database and the Facebook page.

Email marketing: MailChimp, CRM: Salesforce or Nimble, Marketing: HubSpot or Infusionsoft, Advertising: Google AdWords and Google Display Network.

Cloud storage

Renting costly server space from that IT guy who’s a friend of a friend? Cancel that now and get massive amounts of storage in the cloud. Currently there is a race to zero which means cloud storage companies are locked in a price war and that means that prices have plummeted. Although there are certain risks associated with cloud storage, these risks are easily mitigated by being vigilant with passwords and 2-step authentication functionality and reduced cost and accessibility.

Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud

Content generation and analytics

Lastly, we’re going to tackle on how to populate those finely crafted social media pages that you set up for your business as well as how to measure not these pages, but also your website and email marketing efforts. If you decided that you want to have a social media presence you have to populate those channels with relevant and interesting content. As it is not always possible to generate the content internally you can focus on sharing content from other sources that your audience will find interesting. Content sharing services make it easy for you to find, curate and share content with a few clicks and takes only a few minutes out of your day. Lastly, you need to make sure that your social media channels, email marketing and website are delivering on the time and monetary investment through conversions from visitors or readers to customers. Most analytics platforms have easy to use interfaces and setup processes and robust support functionality if you get stuck.

Social media content and sharing: Feedly and Buffer, Analytics: Moz, Sproutsocial, Simply Measured, Google Analytics, Socialbakers

Your biggest focus should be to remove complexity and reduce the number of decisions you have to make so you can focus your energy on those activities that will generate revenue, attract clients and help you grow. These suggested platforms are all geared to help you achieve one thing, saving you time so you can concentrate on being the visionary your business needs.

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