Anyone who lived through the late 90's remembers the endless barrage of buzzwords about computerized productivity. "The paperless office" and "e-business" are but a few of the slogans capturing how the Internet was going to revolutionize our work. Annoying as these slogans became, the ideals behind them were unquestionably desirable. Who wouldn't want to work in a paperless office? Reality hasn't fully caught up to these ideals, but various Web 2.0 startups have come awfully close. Today we take a look at 12 services that help small businesses operate more efficiently and inexpensively. Neglect them at your peril, because your competitors surely haven't!
Expense Tracking & Money Management
Plain and simply, no modern business should be operating without Mint. Mint functions by synching with your bank accounts, extracting your financial data and sorting it into charts and graphs that let you make intelligent decisions. Any small business owner who sits at a desk covered in random bank statements, accounting pads and "back of the napkin" calculations will appreciate the simplicity and automation Mint offers. While the service is intended for individual use, small businesses can benefit from at least 90% of Mint's functionality in exactly the same way. Simply import your corporate bank accounts or credit cards and watch as Mint breaks down your finances in precise, useful detail.
No small part of a business owner's day involves "running the numbers." For all the advances made in social networking, business is still fundamentally about profit and loss and the many numbers and metrics further down the chain. Failure to stay on top of these metrics day to day can spell huge losses or even bankruptcy. That said, knowing your numbers need not require lugging out your old TI-84 graphing calculator. And don't even think about using the calculator on your phone. Instead, use Instacalc, the free web 2.0 calculator that can handle everything from addition and subtraction to calculus and generate results in any number of easy-to-read charts or graphs. No matter what your key numbers are, Instacalc makes calculating them quick and painless.
An all-purpose money management service, Wesabe fulfills many of the same goals as Mint.com. What makes it independently useful, however, is that Wesabe is also home to a community of small business owners and entrepreneurs that discuss financial advice and strategies amongst each other. In fact, community participation lies at the core of Wesabe's entire approach to money management. One manifestation of this is how Wesabe "generates detailed merchant reviews from the community, allowing you to see what others think, making you a smarter consumer." With reviews like "if Chuck Norris were a personal finance tool, he'd be Wesabe", can any small business afford not not to give the free service a crack at managing its finances?
The number one challenge of any remote business is getting people in different places to work toward the same goals. In this regard, Basecamp is a bonafide godsend. The 37 Signals product is a full-service product management platform, permitting teams to enumerate tasks, set milestones, and leave a documented record of all progress (or lack thereof) on any given project. Gone are the days of firing off an e-mail or text message containing tasks that get lost in corporate limbo. With Basecamp, everything that is discussed and agreed upon becomes a matter of public record, allowing for maximum accountability from all team members. A 30 day free trial is available, followed by flexibly priced subscriptions virtually any business can afford.
Another invaluable web 2.0 product from 37 Signals is Campfire, a collaborative chat platform intended for use side by side with Basecamp. Unlike instant messaging services, Campfire was built from the ground up with business chat in mind. Features include secure, password-protected chatrooms for discussions with clients or employees as well as secure one on one chats. Your sensitive data is safe on Campfire, which has gone out of its way to use encryption and other safeguards that protect private corporate information. Additionally, Campfire chats support easy dragging and dropping of graphics, diagrams, spreadsheets and other media pertinent to your discussions.
Even small businesses are increasingly finding themselves dealing with remote customers or vendors via the web. Sadly, online communication is seldom as clearly understood as face to face. Frequently, business owners in these situations find themselves saying things like "ugh! If I could just show this guy what's on my screen everything would be crystal clear!" GoToMeeting doesn't put you face to face with your clients, but it may be the next best thing. The service works by replacing awkward phone calls and web chats with interactive "webinars", where each party can not only speak verbally, but also see what's on the other party's computer screen in real time. Imagine the difference between a graphic designer visually showing a client examples of a logo or web layout, for instance, versus merely articulating it over the phone. There's no contest! GoToMeeting.com offers a free trial so you can try it out without risk.
Of course, not every small business can do away with instant messaging completely. No matter how hip to the game your own employees are, your colleagues outside the company may still be clinging to AIM and Yahoo. But that doesn't mean you need to have four different IM programs running at once! Instead, head on over to Meebo.com. From here, you can sign in to every IM service imagineable, from AIM and Yahoo to Facebook and Google Talk simultaneously. One interface, one window. Just sign in, leave it open in a stray Firefox tab and use it when needed. No more memory-hogging IM applications on your office computers!
Invoicing & Billing
It goes without saying that the point of any business is getting paid. Unfortunately, many small businesses burden themselves with cumbersome invoicing systems involving envelopes, filing cabinets and manilla folders. Who has the time to stay on top of such a manual, outdated procedure? Say goodbye to all of your invoicing hassles and use Freshbooks, the service that automates and records every invoice you send out. Ideal for freelancers and service businesses, Freshbooks can be set up to invoice on set intervals, eliminating the need to juggle different payout dates mentally. While paid subscriptions are available for larger businesses, the free option permits unlimited invoices and an unlimited number of clients to invoice.
Another excellent web 2.0 billing and invoicing service for small businesses and contractors is Sidejob Track. Offering everything from customizable invoices, the ability to invoice by project total or percentage increments and simplification of reporting your income to the IRS, Sidejob Track will whip your company's outmoded, outdated invoicing system into automated, digitized, 21st century shape. Best of all, joining is completely free!
Basecamp is great for company-wide organization, but what about the personal schedule and tasks of an individual businessperson? For this, no web application is superior to Google Calendar. On a single screen, you can maintain several calendars (say, work, exercise, family) demarcated by different colored labels. Best of all, Google Calendar lets you get an update on upcoming tasks via SMS text message, no matter where you happen to be.
Another excellent, nuts and bolts, "get things done" application for individual businesspeople is Neptune. Built on the principles of David Allen's time management classic Getting Things Done, Neptune is a simple, no-frills system that contains your desired tasks, e-mails you a reminder in the morning, and allows you to store documents pertaining to the tasks you enumerate. It works on any modern browser and has been featured time and time again in collections of the best Web 2.0 productivity apps!
Remember The Milk
A frequent complaint about online calendars and organizers is that they're great as far as they go, but if you forget to log in and use them, what good are they? Web 2.0's answer to this question is Remember the Milk, which will e-mail, text message, and instant message you reminders at pre-set intervals. If you're the kind of person who needs to be reminded over and over to get something done, Remember The Milk is one of the most worthwhile programs on this entire list. It has the potential to immediately transform how you retain and execute your day to day tasks.