Of course, there are a ton of cool, slick, fun and potentially great applications for businesses. But this list is about a select few that are ready to explode this coming year. In a very good way. They've all been around for a while. They all have a strong customer base and growing communities. And they're all positioned for huge growth, particular among small- and medium-sized companies.
Your company should look at these seriously, if only because so many others are already doing so. Full disclosure: some of these applications are made by companies that are clients of The Marks Group. How can they not be?
Every business should have a customer relationship management system. A good CRM application ensures that nothing falls through the cracks, everyone is on the same page and you are building a database of good information that can be used for communication, sales and customer service for future years. There are many great, affordable CRM systems available. My company sells a few. We don't sell Insightly (our plate is already full), but I like it a lot. It's inexpensive. Scalable. Easy to use. The companies I know that use it love it, and Insightly sees a large, unserved market of small companies who need what they sell. If implemented properly, Insightly will ensure that you and your employees are in close contact with everyone that's important for your business.
Here's a fact: your accounting system will be cloud-based within the next few years. Many people enjoy the online version of QuickBooks, and I can't blame them. But Xero (and a few others) is giving QuickBooks a run for the money. It's fast, inexpensive, easy to set up, mobile-ready and full of accounting features. Plus, it integrates with dozens of third party products -- from payment to billing to customer service to CRM to reporting -- that turn this application into the foundation for your entire business platform. Xero has been growing significantly since it launched in the U.S. a few years ago and is already a powerhouse in New Zealand, Australia and the U.K. I predict a big year for this application.
Human Resources management applications are booming, and if your company has more than five people, you're going to want to consider this to be a key technology for your business. Gusto automates the hiring process with all the forms you need (including custom ones you build), enables employees to self-enroll in benefit plans, manages contractors, handles paid time off and administers health insurance...oh, and it does your payroll -- all in a very user-friendly format. Like the other categories, there is plenty of competition, but Gusto is popular, powerful and growing.
Remember those days when someone would send you a scanned invoice and you would save it on your computer because there wasn't much else you could do with it? That's all changed. Popular accounts payable automation applications like Entryless can now, using Optical Character Recognition technology, read and extract any data on a scanned invoice that's emailed to you, port it over to a format for you to review and approve and then automatically bring it into your accounting system or pay it online. Entryless cuts overhead, eliminates people processing and reduces data entry problems. My prediction is that most companies will be using technology like this within the next few years.
Live streaming is not just fun and games anymore. Facebook is investing billions in its video platform, and thousands of businesses are jumping on the train. With Facebook Live, you can broadcast, to the world, all sorts of content that will help promote your business. Provide training. Offer certification. Demonstrate products. Interview an executive. Show an event. You can do this live or record something in advance, edit it and stream it later. The video will always be there on your Facebook page, so it'll help attract fans. And you can take that same video to use on other platforms, like YouTube. Have a video content plan for 2017 and, if you're active on Facebook, deliver it there.
For a while, I was mostly ambivalent about backup software. Until ransomware came along. Now this type of malware is predicted to be our biggest security challenge of 2017. Ransomware not only infects everything on your network (and in the cloud), but also locks up all your files and requires a ransom paid in e-currency (i.e. bitcoin) to unlock it. An infection can bring your business to a standstill for days or longer. I'm recommending that our clients get Carbonite and set it up to do online backups for every device throughout the day. That way, if a ransomware infection happens and your files get locked, you can just restore the last good backup and get back to work. It's a very good antidote to a very big security issue.
If you're like 99 percent of my clients, you're probably using 20 percent of Office 365. That's kind of crazy, isn't it -- considering that you own this amazing application and are barely using it. This year, my company is getting re-trained on Office 365, and I strongly recommend you do the same. The new features and applications in this suite -- Teams, Delve, Skype, Bookings, Business Intelligence, Outlook Customer Manager, Sway, etc. -- are quickly pulling Office 365 way ahead of its competitors and creating a fully integrated, cloud and mobile platform that is providing everything a business needs to run. And more is on the way: bots, artificial intelligence, developer tools, automation, reporting. It's all part of Microsoft's plan to provide fast, mobile and productive applications to its customers, and my prediction is this plan will succeed mightily.
Getting paid is getting more complicated. Many companies have to worry about taking various credit cards and accepting mobile payment services. No one is dominating the field, and no one really knows which service -- Apple Pay, Google, Samsung -- will ultimately become the most popular. But there's one way to simplify it all. PayPal is positioned for both online and brick-and-mortar payments. It works with credit cards and mobile payment services. It's easy to set up at a very similar cost. It integrates with its own point of sale software applications as well as many others. It's secure, safe and fast. I'm predicting that many businesses will find themselves migrating to this platform if only for its ease and the reduced complexity it offers.
A version of this column originally appeared on Inc.com.