I was asked last week via Help a Reporter Out, to provide some thoughts on essential software for small businesses, along with some advice on operating systems. I thought I would share my entire note, not knowing if any of it will get used or when.
Major software categories small business owners should consider
- Office Suite (Microsoft Office, Apples iWork suite, or if on a budget, consider OpenOffice or OfficeLibre)
- On-line storage and file sharing
- Security software
- Mail client
- Note taking and organization
- Task management
- Social media clients
- Vertical software
Operating Systems Selection
Major issue here is really budget. If you can and want to pay a premium for Apple, then you should get the equipment you really want. And there are now multiple ways to run Windows on the Macintosh (even through iOS) so that isn’t really and issue any more. If you are budget conscious then you will probably need to buy a Windows machine, which are now running at sub $300 for basic configurations. More so than operating systems though, I suggest that people buy the most machine they can because slow performance can be frustrating and it takes time from doing profitable work. If you can splurge for a machine with an Intel i7, then do so. Get at least 4GB of memory, but 8GB is better.
For those really on a budget considering refitting an older machine (or a newer, low end machine) and run Linux. Linux will run equivalent open source software for most commercial tools, and of course, all web-based services work just as well on Linux as they do on Macs or Windows-based PCs.
The biggest issue though is always client compatibility. If you work with people who use a particular program on a particular platform, they may expect you to understand their experience. You may be able to open a Word document in OfficeLibre, but you may not be able to produce a document that opens in your client’s version of Word that looks the same as the one you created in the OfficeLibre word processor.
What else should small businesses consider?
Office Suite issues
- Consider how much you will need to share files with your clients. Many people end up with both Apple and Microsoft if they have a Mac (as the Mac software is now free with the purchase of a new Mac).
- Look at Office 365. For a little over $8 a month you get Office on the desktop, access to Office on mobile devices and 1TB of online storage.
Cloud-based storage and file sharing
- If you have Office 365 you have the best deal in online storage, which is pretty much unlimited for subscribers.
- Get free Dropbox anyway as many people will want to share through Dropbox regardless of other sharing solutions
- File sharing features offer rudimentary collaboration solutions. You may be small, but you also may find yourself working with other. Look professional and prepared. Regardless of which file sharing solution you select, be consistent internally with the service you use for file sharing, even if customers and clients request other services.
Mail client considerations
- You will likely be living in e-mail for a significant amount of your day. Find a tool that works for you. Mac and PCs offer a lot of options. If you have a Microsoft backend, like Office 365 or hosted Exchange, you’ll want to stick with Outlook to avoid issues.
- Worry about your business not if you are getting hacked.
- Check with your online service provider. Many of them offer full security packages for free.
- Online vs. desktop. Much of this is moving to web services in “the cloud” but that can be much more costly than standalone accounting software. Figure out what you really need in terms of features, but also how you plan to work accounting. If you do things in batches rather than real-time, a desktop solution is probably best.
Note taking and note organization
- Consider Evernote so you keep all of your notes in one place. Also includes team features and sharing, but really decide how you want to share tasks and notes, because if you end up with too many options for partners or employees, they will get confused and switch back to e-mail. Pick one tool and stick with it.
- Task management in “mail systems” don’t cut it. Look into a web/iOS/Android/Desktop solution that works for you. There are dozens to choose from. Take time to figure out how you work and then invest the time in maintaining your tasks in one place. Many are low cost so you may want to play, but only evaluate one tool at a time because it just gets too confusing to keep your to-dos in too many places. Hot this week are Slackand Trello.
Social media clients
- If you are going to be promoting yourself on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or elsewhere, then you probably want something like Hootsuite or another social media tool to keep all of your tweets and posts coordinated.
- Think about MindManager, iThoughts or iMindMap or some other mind mapping software. Brainstorming is a great tool for generating content ideas but the tools also do a very fine job of task management. You may be able to kill one bird with two stones. These programs, however, tend to be expensive, so consider this optional.
- This may be your most important category, but I can’t tell you what to buy because each business is different. You will need the software required by your clients or your discipline. This may include illustration tools, development environments, simulations, databases, research subscriptions, photo retouching, diagnostics, etc. If budget becomes an issue, all of the other tools can be found in adequate free or low cost versions. Don’t skimp when it comes to the tools that butter your bread.
Other small business software tips…
- To reiterate, buy the biggest machine you can afford and buy a name brand – think quality and ease of service.
- Buy from a reputable retailer with return and repair policies
- Really look at cloud-based services vs. desktops. Often cloud services aren’t as good yet and they often costs more over time than a one-time desktop investment. May seem old-fashioned, but do the math. The cloud-service providers aren’t just moving to the cloud to be ubiquitous, they are moving their business models to subscriptions which increases their long-term revenue while reducing the variability in that income. If you pay a fixed amount to a supplier forever, then they win. Sure, you stay current, but for a small business, the latest may not be necessary for everything, and just because the cloud is The Thing, if may not be the right thing for your business..