Enavigo became a real, tiny business in June 2012. We are fortunate enough to have a four-person team. More on what we do these days in another post. A year into the adventure, I wanted to help others with a set of tips on what we use to keep a small business running.
- Fast Broadband Connection
We work from home. Fast broadband Internet connections are the backbone of everything we do. I use Verizon FiOS with 50Mbps Downstream / 25Mbps Upstream speeds and other teammates rely on similarly speedy service from Comcast. Focus on the upstream speed – try to get at least 10Mbps as other services depend on it.
- VoIP Telephone Service – Voipo
Each team member uses a Voice over IP (VoIP) telephone number from Voipo. All you do is attach a small device to your router on one end, and a regular telephone on the other end, and you are up and running. Voipo’s service includes free unlimited long-distance in the US and Canada and truly low prices for calls worldwide. Quality is very decent, especially with faster upstream broadband speeds. Voipo’s customer support team is responsive and US-based. Note that Voipo no longer supports fax service over their lines.
- Conference Call Service – Calliflower
Working remotely from home we spend considerable amounts of time talking to folks around the world. Calliflower ended up being the best fit for us. Their flat-fee unlimited service offers reservationless call setup, international access numbers and a variety of call controls and utilities (e.g. call recording). Call quality is almost on par with much more expensive big players like Intercall that charge by the minute or limit small businesses to US-only access numbers.
- Screen Sharing – join.me
Working remotely, screen sharing becomes an indispensable communications tool. As a digital marketing business, it is essential to share what you see and explain things visually. We found join.me to be the best one for our needs. Once you download the tiny join.me app, you are up and running and need no additional setup. No need to schedule anything, just fire it up and share your personal or unique-numeric meeting URL. If you can schedule your meeting in advance, join.me also gives you telephone conference line with global access numbers. join.me can also be used for free. Unlike WebEx and GoToMeeting viewers need only have Flash installed in their browsers. iPhone and iPad users can view meetings using the join.me app. If there is a single chink in this otherwise fantastic setup is that only Windows and Mac OS X are supported while Linux is not.
We love join.me.
- Email, Calendar and Contact Management – Microsoft Office 365
Most people use Gmail and as long as you live inside the Google universe there is no problem with that. The moment you become a team and need a more robust solution to manage calendars and contacts, you get to the Google Apps level – which again – is perfectly fine. Coming from larger businesses, I was familiar and fond of Microsoft Exchange. It offers great synchronization abilities for contacts and calendars and is the de facto standard for enterprise communications.
A couple of months before we started, Microsoft unrolled its Office 365 service. For $6/month per user you get the email/calendar/contacts service on a real Exchange server, tended to by Microsoft’s own IT services team. You also get Sharepoint and SkyDrive Pro, but those work best for Windows-based teams. We are not. Customer service is middling at best. If you have an outage (and they do happen) – you may be out of luck for a couple of hours if not more. Response times from the Microsoft teams were bad for direct requests, but very good if you use Office 365 community features. Go figure. I prefer it to Gmail mostly due to its “real” support to the Exchange ActiveSync protocol, supported by Apple devices and more-or-less on Android. Office 365’s Webmail is very good (Firefox works great on the Mac), and less messy than Gmail. Again – a matter of taste there.
- Accounting – QuickBooks Online
Small businesses need to spend the least time possible on non-billable work. Quickbooks gets things done. For us, in consulting, it allows decent time tracking and billing, expense management and most importantly invoicing. The user interface is simple and after some growing pains you will be up and running. If you used Quicken or Microsoft Money, this will come natural. There are many areas Intuit could improve matters – reporting and invoicing leave a lot to be desired, but overall, Quickbooks is more than fair for the money.
While many choose to use the packaged versions of Quickbooks, I found them expensive, requiring annual updates and putting the onus on us to back data up and avoid disaster. Sounds like the logic behind most cloud apps and Quickbooks is not different. There are nicer, sexier, more streamlined accounting services online than Quickbooks. Then, it is the most reliable, backed by the biggest company, and most supported by virtually every accountant.Customer support is quick and courteous (by phone), just avoid the online help system as it appears to care more about the offline, locally-installed versions of the software than about the Online one. The mobile app is not geared towards consultants’ needs (time tracking or expense entry are absent) but it’s improving.
Final word – get an accountant. Don’t roll your own – it will take too much time and you will make an error at some point.
- Payroll – Intuit Online Payroll
Getting started with employee number one is the biggest hurdle as the other employees are set up in more or less similar fashion. Payroll is the most important first item to check off that setup list. Industry giants ADP and Paychex both offer small business services but seemed to me to be more geared towards the 20+ person operation. Intuit Payroll, the companion product to Quickbooks, offers a relatively simple setup with fairly decent phone support. And trust me – you need phone support because you will not know everything about payroll when you get started. Direct deposits and tax payments are simple to set up as well. Again, there is barely any support for health insurance deductions and not all unique situations are covered, but the price is right.
- Laptops – Apple MacBook
Mac laptops are more expensive. So is dealing with Windows, and trust me, Windows needs dealing with. The initial cost difference, normally $300-500 will quickly be covered by not having to futz around with software and IT issues (yup, 2013, software issues) or the eventual slowness borne into the Windows lifestyle. Windows 7 is great, and I do believe that. It will still require attention and any time away from your billable work is a waste. So spend the money and get a Mac.
- Office Applications – Microsoft Office AND Keynote AND Google Docs
There is no substitute to Microsoft Office. If you want to be compatible, work with others in real enterprises on documents that live and travel by email – Office is the way to go. Google Docs can say it is compatible, just skip it. When you author or work with Word and Excel, need to view PowerPoint – you need Office. The most affordable way to get it is via Amazon download.
The two items that make Office for Mac (not Windows) less than ideal are Outlook and PowerPoint. PowerPoint on the Mac is just clunky. It works but is not smooth or easy to use. Outlook for Mac, on the other hand, is barely a shadow of its brawny self in the Windows Office 2013 form. Email formatting is limited (tables? what tables?), and small items that limit your quality of life abound. Office 365’s webmail is becoming good enough to use instead of Outlook, but I am still not there. Yet. Microsoft can do better than this.So why Google Docs?In our world, we need to share documents and allow others to edit them. Office 365 makes strides to get there. Google Docs is there. So if you need to have others view and edit a spreadsheet or author a document with you, Google Docs is the way to go. Yes, it is far from ideal to have a mess of files, spread between your local disk and Google docs, but collaboration trumps order sometimes.
and why Keynote?
Because despite being released in 2009, it remains the best way to create presentations. It’s smooth, video capable and straightforward for even the most challenging tasks. While it generates monstrously huge files and does not embed fonts, it still ends up producing the most beautiful presentations out there. PowerPoint does not. And if you want to stand out for the better, Keynote is a great start.
- File Sharing and Backup – Dropbox
There are many file sharing solutions out there. Dropbox offers the simplest way to keep files synchronized and backed up between systems. Its downloadable sync tool runs on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux and makes sharing files incredibly simple; instead of sending huge file attachments, you can just send a link to a Dropbox file. For collaboration, share a folder with your team. It’s not new, but we love it.
- Project Management Software – Rational Plan
If you use a Mac or want an affordable, stable and very useful project management software – Rational Plan is the tool for you. The user interface guides you through the project life cycle, from definition to tracking. You can also just jump right into the Gantt chart. If you need to talk with folks using Microsoft Project, Rational Plan reads and writes to Project quite well. The Rational Plan viewer is free, so anyone can see your plan in detail as well. We love it and find it better than virtually all online project management tools out there.
- Diagramming – Cacoo
The final tool that helps us both collaborate and create is Cacoo. It’s a great web-based diagramming application that offers more or less what you get out of Visio for a fraction of the price. It runs in your browser and can generate image files or PDFs which you can then use offline. The user interface is intuitive and powerful and we never had to resort to Visio since we started using it.
- Virtual Fax – PamFax
Some companies and government agencies expect to receive Faxes. We found PamFax to be a good cost-effective choice. PamFax gives you a dedicated phone number for incoming faxes. Faxes are sent through a Windows, or OS X app, the PamFax website or the company’s iOS apps.