Looking To The Cloud: Small Businesses Embracing Apps

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“Here I had an eager prospective client and no way to accept payment from her, as I didn’t even have a website up yet,” she recalls. “I signed up with 17hats, drew up a contract, sent it to her through 17hats, she e-signed it, then I sent her an invoice through the app, she paid it through the app via Stripe.”

Horan was in business within 24 hours of signing up for the service, which provides templates, a quote builder, bookkeeping, time tracking, to-do lists and other tools for solopreneurs.

“17hats is, hands-down, the cloud-based service that I rely upon most in my business,” she says. “I use it to manage both client-facing and back-end processes like project management and workflow, client contracts, invoicing, client on-boarding questionnaires and project completion surveys.”

As cloud-based tools proliferate, small businesses looking to be more nimble, efficient and organized have been turning to them for a variety of key tasks, from billing, scheduling and collaboration to project management, time tracking, video conferencing, marketing, hiring and customer engagement.

Cloud applications, or software-as-a-service apps, are transforming business at companies of all sizes, allowing them to quickly set up productivity-boosting technology to replace manual activities and on-site enterprise software. Gartner forecast that cloud apps would grow 20 percent to $46.3 billion globally during 2017.

In 2015, online solutions consultancy BCSG estimated nearly two-thirds of small businesses already employed three cloud apps, and projected strong growth.

Several entrepreneurs recently discussed their favorites, citing relatively familiar names like Google DriveDropboxAsanaTrelloHubSpotSalesforceFreshBooksEvernote, and QuickBooks, and numerous lesser-known tools. Many of the apps are free or budget-friendly.

“Dropbox and Google Drive have changed my entrepreneurial life. Dropbox for sharing guided visualizations with my clients and managing evergreen content like opt-in offers. Google Drive for collaboration with my staff on various time-sensitive and sometimes overly complex projects,” says Steph Lagana, a business strategist and spiritual teacher who runs Mythical Enterprises.

Google Drive also has been “a great way to keep my business numbers at my finger tips. With apps like Google Sheets for my phone, I never have to be far from my data, which is a game changer for me,” she says.

Google Drive, with components like Docs and Sheets, allows users to create, edit, store, share and synchronize spreadsheets, budgets, text documents, calendars and other files across devices, providing 15 GB of cloud space for free. Dropbox, a file sharing and storage app, also allows team collaboration.

Some entrepreneurs have found apps to help them handle tasks that could otherwise test their math or technology phobias.

“My new cloud-based app crush hands down is Zoom,” says Mindful Sales Trainingfounder Anis Qizilbash. “It’s a webinar and meeting application. Love it for webinars and coaching calls as it’s so easy to use, which is super important for a technophobic person like me. Scheduling us super easy, and it allows you to record video calls, the lack of which was a huge pain point before.”

Amanda Austin, founder of Internet dollhouse store Little Shop of Miniatures, relies on QuickBooks Online.

“It automatically communicates with my business bank account, the Shopifyplatform on which I run my store, my business credit cards – pretty much every tool I use to run my business. It lets me create quick and accurate reports and reconcile my accounts. This is so much better than trying to sort everything on Excel, which I once did,” says Austin.

The tool costs Austin’s online shop only $10 a month. “I wouldn’t even be able to hire a bookkeeper for 20 minutes for what I pay per month for QuickBooks Online. It truly is an indispensable tool for a numberphobe like me running a business.”

Taylor Bladh’s Los Angeles optometry practice uses Solutionreach. “For our industry it has been fantastic with appointment reminders, confirmations and even a text messaging service to let people know when their glasses or contacts are available for pick up,” office manager Josh Bladh says. “It has helped streamline what used to take an extra couple hours per day down to 10 minutes.”

Toronto solopreneur Julie Ritchie, who owns two boutique matchmaking services, relies on a few key tools: customer relationship management software Salesforce, FreshBooks accounting software, UpWork for freelance talent recruiting, and Genius Scan, which allows her to scan documents from her iPhone, avoiding Kinko’s trips.

“I feel as though I could not run my business without these services. Or, at least it would be much, much harder,” says Ritchie.

BJ Nickol, president of apparel maker All American Clothing Co., uses customer service tool Freshdesk, which “keeps our three customer support reps on the same page.” Nickol, who founded what is now a multi-million-dollar business with his father in 2002, says the software “keeps all of our customer interactions organized and alerts us if something has slipped through the cracks. The combination of features and price are tough to beat.”

New York lawyer Todd Spodek uses task management app Todoist, among other cloud apps, in his three-office firm. “I am obsessed, and have now become evangelical, in having everyone at my firm use Todoist,” Spodek says. “It’s the only way to manage the never-ending saga of to-dos for active clients.”

Concrete Camouflage, which makes concrete stain supplies, uses CanIRank to track its SEO marketing efforts and Google keyword rankings. “I like CanIRank because it provides you with actionable advice that is simplified and easy to understand. The app sends personal instructions on what you need to do to increase your organic traffic,” CEO Earl Choate says.

“I’m an experienced small business entrepreneur but not an SEO marketing expert. It’s nice to have a tool that is educational and tells you what you need to do, instead of overwhelming you with data to interpret,” Choate says.

Barbara Krapf, president of DecoratorsBest, says Avalara software has saved time and money by handling the company’s complex sales tax requirements, allowing her fabric and wallpaper business to build staff in areas that can help it grow. “We would be totally bogged down if we didn’t have Avalara handling all of our sales tax in over 20 states,” she says.

Jennifer Maguire, president of a seven-year-old PR firm, likes Fancy Hands, a virtual assistant service. “It has been the best investment in my productivity and sanity when building my business,” she says, even though she did hire real-live admin support as her business grew.

Fancy Hands has placed more than 850 calls and scheduled more than 150 appointments and other admin tasks amounting to 19 days of time for Maguire, who says the service has allowed her to focus on more important aspects of her business.

One of Maguire’s clients, Role Model Mentors, which connects parents with tutors, uses several cloud collaboration apps – SlackSkypeGoToMeeting, Asana, InVisionand Google Drive – for a workforce spread across several time zones, co-founder Derek Correia says. “The combination of voice, chat, document and project collaboration helps us work seamlessly, despite the distance.”

Freelance marketing consultant Justin Quick, meanwhile, says Zoho invoicing software has helped him avoid significant credit card processing fees when clients pay him rankhaya.com.

“My more expensive services can be $3,000 or more, so I was losing a large chunk of change when I used a regular PayPal button or Stripe payment link to sell my services. I got a tip from another freelancer to use a free Zoho account and use their invoices to get paid,” Quick says.

“Not only does it look more professional to send an itemized invoice, but if I select Paypal Business as the form of payment, (which requires the client to use cash rather than a credit card), I tend to only lose 50 cents instead of $100-plus to get paid, and that adds up over time.”

Source: Visualizza su forbes.com

by Dinah Wisenberg Brin