As technology continues to coalesce with our professional lives, we're subject to an infinite number of apps, software and devices that are designed to help keep a small business functioning and running smoothly. Tasks need to be organized, files need to be shared and people need to know about your product.
All of this can be done with the click of a button (or a tap of screen). But navigating the seemingly endless list of business tools on the market can become more of a time sink than an efficiency boost.
From file sharing to internal brainstorm sessions to marketing and PR, here are four great techie products that every small business owner should include in his or her toolbox of tricks.
Storyboard your business
Unless you've been living under a rock, you're aware of the "pinning" storm that's flooded the Internet since Pinterest debuted its genius sharing service. As more and more brands (big and small) are finding, the site is more than just a fun way to share and discover cool products, services and ideas -- it's also a great way to get more eyes on your product and potentially discover an unexpected customer-base.
You can start by pinning photos of your product or products associated with your business and pay close attention to who re-pins your own posts, as well as who pins similar products. Once you have a solid idea of your target "pin base," get creative. There are countless ways to utilize Pinterest as a marketing tool.
One particularly unique strategy comes from car manufacturer Peugeot. The company recently began offering prizes for Pinterest users who complete a Peugeot-themed Pinterest puzzle "slash" scavenger hunt. Peugeot displays a number of images of its cars across multiple boards with at least one piece of the photo missing from each image. In order to complete the puzzle, pinners have to scan the company's social media pages and website.
Sharing files across your internal team is frustrating and time consuming, but absolutely necessary for your business to run properly. That's why when cloud-based sharing began to filter out a few years ago, the business community rejoiced. But some are better tools than others.
Google Docs is an agreeable option, and many -- if not most -- businesses have found use for Google's cloud-computing utility. But while Google Docs is great for sharing notes or a document here and there, it's lacking in organization features and is really not effective when hundreds of files are being shared with multiple accounts.
If you're looking for a secure and simple means of sharing files across the office, you may want to consider Dropbox.
Dropbox was founded in 2007 and has since become a crowd favorite for business utilities. The ability to create and organize folders is an intuitive organizational feature, as it works the same way you would organize files on your computer. Your shared Dropbox files will be integrated into the system of any computer on which you download the application, and is also mirrored on the Dropbox website.
Specific folders can be shared with any number of people on your team, allowing those people to get a notification on edits to the documents as they happen. Dropbox certainly isn't a flawless solution -- for example, edits are often "lost" when two people update a file simultaneously -- but as far as cloud-based file sharing goes, Dropbox is a solid option.
Get your business organized and boost your reputation
While maintaining organization internally is certainly important, it's what comes through to your customers that will really count in the end.
One of the struggles many small companies face is how to keep up with an overwhelming number of inbound requests for appointments. Many new businesses offering a service that requires appointment booking simply don't have the bandwidth to hire an administrative assistant, nor do they have the time for back-and-forth emails and phone calls with customers. Additionally, email and phone tag can come across as unprofessional, and clients may begin to question the notoriety of your company or product.
Integrating a cloud-based scheduling system is a must-have solution for small businesses that are looking to uphold a professional reputation, but that have limited staff and resources.
I recommend Genbook, which allows customers to make appointments from your website, social media pages, newsletter or from pretty much anywhere you can place Genbook's handy "BookNow" button. Customers can schedule their appointments 24/7 and will automatically receive confirmation. The amount of time saved and the convenience for customers is well worth the monthly fee of $40 for the standard program.
With Genbook, the middleman is removed and you can spend less time emailing your customers and more time creating great products.
Kick collaboration into high-gear with virtual whiteboarding
Whether you love it or hate it, every business must set aside time for a solid brainstorm session.
SMART Technologies' products are used everywhere from elementary school classrooms to college lectures to Microsoft's headquarters. Naturally, it's also the smartest way for a small business team to share information. The SMART Board series includes interactive white boards on which two users can collaborate using a finger or a special SMART stylus. Touch gestures include options for zooming in and out, flicking and rotating objects.
Another good option for small businesses is the SMART Podium, which acts as a portable white board. Any interactions with the Podium surface can be displayed simultaneously on any large screen or whiteboard (not necessarily a SMART product) and can be shared with people in different locations, as well.
SMART recently announced a partnership with Microsoft Lync 2010, which will allow users of SMART Board and SMART Meeting Pro in multiple locations to share dynamic audio, visual and online collaboration in real time. The partnership with Microsoft Lync is set to roll out later this year.
While SMART's futuristic collaboration tools will set you back anywhere between $2,000 and $6,000, the breadth of interaction they provide is more than worth the cost investment.
Starting and running a successful small business can be one of the most stressful (and rewarding) events in one's life. But with the technology at a turning point, the possibilities for office solutions are endless -- allowing us to build enjoyable, interactive office spaces and, ultimately, great businesses.