Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Value startup tools

OK, this is uncanny: I come to write today's blog post on some of the tools we're using to support a business startup and find that the BBC is covering a similar story on the same day! Bizarre.

The key point, as the BBC says it, is the quote that "It's never been cheaper to start a business," according to Bindi Karia from Microsoft.
  • Firstly, make selective use of cloud computing: there are dangers as well as benefits in having all of your eggs in the cloud basket. We are careful about which of our business assets we entrust to others.

  • Next, use GoDaddy or 1&1 or one of their very many competitors: with simple tools from them you can set up a basic website and email hosting and more (e.g. hosted custom databases) and have most of the complexity handled for you quite easily.

    This week I'd planned to push a web re-design tender out to suppliers for proposals; but I realised that with a bit of investment of time I could achieve what the business needs at this stage with the tools I have available to me, for a lower cost. We'll save that budget to spend elsewhere and buy in professional services as we need them later, and when we have more revenue to justify it!

  • We've chosen to handle our business finance tracking, saving on accounting costs, with the use of QuickBooks on a local computer as we've done for many years, but Intuit also offers a hosted version if you want access for several colleagues, or from smartphone and tablet devices while travelling.

  • It's easy to connect your blog on Blogger or WordPress to Twitter, and from there push updates out to your business Facebook page, LinkedIn and a ton of other services.

  • We use a hosted version of FogBugz to communicate internally; and we've given a full account (that we pay for) to one of our key clients - They've said how much they appreciate the complete transparency. FogBugz is also set up to acknowledge most of our incoming email and allocate it to the right person. We can all check on progress of the incoming cases, including our customers and clients who send in an email and get an immediate acknowledgement complete with tracking number and a web link for them to see what's happening. We're about to implement the FogBugz Wiki to assist our customer support documentation still further.

  • TechSmith tools enable us to prepare high quality video quickly. We can then upload them to YouTube and we've got user training and documentation that's a lot more engaging and easier to keep current than long documents that won't get read. This week's client project status report will be in the form of a 5-minute video, tailored to the client's staff needs. They're more likely to understand what I'm communicating more quickly than by reading a report, and they can pause and re-wind to go back over stuff. And I'll track viewing figures to know how useful it has been!

  • http://bit.ly is one of several services that we can use along with Google Analytics, Feedburner and more to track our marketing reach. Feedburner handles subscriptions to our websites, sending out emails to subscribers whenever there is an update. Have you seen Klout yet? We use a combination of tools like this to check our effectiveness as it's not just about efficiency and low cost!

  • But our biggest saving has to be in office space: with a team scattered across two continents and six time zones apart, why would we need an expensive physical office at this stage of business development? Of course, we have to have a legal Registered Office, but there are plenty of other companies around that will offer to forward any physical mail that arrives; and even provide physical meeting space that we can hire by the hour if we need something more formal than a coffee shop or hotel lobby with WiFi.

  • Managing a geographically diverse team can be tough: that's one reason that FogBugz project management is so incredibly valuable to keep us all appropriately informed. But here's where combined instant messaging, video calling, shared virtual whiteboard and remote desktop viewing/sharing all come into play. We even sometimes invite a prospect or a client to view a shared desktop over a voice conference call so that we can do a sales pitch or training session without the costs and time delays of travel. This is so effective that I've even been able to conduct all-day, chargeable group training events using remote access software!

  • Phone services, too, are virtual: "Skype In" provides us with two virtual numbers, one in the US and the other in the UK, for a small annual fee; "Skype Out Unlimited World" plan enables us to call out to regular landlines and mobiles, either as part of the monthly fee or at low additional cost. We can route unanswered calls to voice mail or a mobile cell phone as we wish. When we need it we'll implement virtual switchboard facilities, fully hosted, so that calls can be answered and routed appropriately.
Best of all, many of these services are either free of charge (if we allow advertising alongside) or low cost and paid for monthly: this helps our cash flow as we don't have to find large sums for investment up-front and can generally switch a service off if it's not proving its worth, or a better alternative comes along.

UPDATE: The nice people at Intuit contacted me today (12 Nov 2012) to ask me to update the QuickBooks link above. Happy to help!
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