The start of a new year often is when people decide it’s finally time to start their own business, especially now that the economy is rebounding. A startup’s first year is an exercise in running lean, which includes using tools that wring the most productivity out of each employee.
Fortunately some of those tools are free. Often that’s because the companies behind them want to get users hooked so they’ll eventually upgrade to a paid version. That works great for a startup because those are opportunities not only to minimize overhead, but also to see which tools have the features that work well enough for their organization’s workstyle that they’re worth upgrading when the revenue starts flowing.
Here are six types of tools that startups should consider:
- File sharing. Many startups have people working from home offices because it’s cheaper than renting space, so productivity hinges on their ability to share documents and files. Ditto for startups where employees spend a lot of time on the road. Box, Dropbox and SkyDrive are among the options with free versions, albeit typically with only a few GB per account. Google Drive is also one of the easiest ways to share spreadsheets, Word docs and presentations if formatting is not one of your priorities.
Either way, look for user interfaces that are intuitive enough that employees don’t have to waste time figuring out how to upload and share files. Also look for products that include a mobile app, which beats trying to use a website on a smartphone or even a tablet.
- Hosted VoIP. Established businesses of every size have spent the past decade shedding or never even buying on-premise PBXes and traditional circuit-switched telephony. Instead, they’re using hosted, IP-based PBXes and VoIP services from companies such as our own Phone.com and Shoretel, which make it easier and more cost-effective to use productivity-maximizing services such as presence, conferencing, recording, transcription and call screening.
Hosted VoIP also makes it easier to extend those services to smartphones and tablets. One obvious benefit of that is when customers and colleagues call an employee’s office number, it can ring their smartphone’s VoIP app simultaneously, minimizing phone tag and the productivity waste that comes with it. Less obvious is how this also is an opportunity to keep deskphones to a minimum and instead let employees use their smartphone and/or tablet for calls.
- Cloud backup and storage. Another part of hosted PBX’s appeal is that it avoids the outage risks inherent with on-premise hardware. The same benefit is driving SMBs to use cloud backup and storage services such as Carbonite. Besides ensuring that single tornado, flood or fire doesn’t wipe out mission-critical data, these services also make it easier to support telecommuters, remote offices, mobile workers and other people who need reliable, secure, anytime, anywhere access to that data.
- Internal communications. Even new companies struggle with email overload, which saps productivity and can lead to lost business when important messages get buried. Yammer is an example of one type of alternative: It creates a private, internal social network where employees can post and discuss news and other information that otherwise would clog up inboxes, get overlooked or both. For those that want more comprehensive features, such as project management, Basecamp allows to share files, post comments, assign tasks to team members and track calendar items.
- Collaboration and conferencing. Gone are the days when every meeting meant a group of people all in the same room. Services such as GoToMeeting and join.me are critical for facilitating conferences not only between geographically dispersed employees, but also with business partners and clients. Look for services that can support a combination of audio, video and document collaboration, as well as a wide variety of endpoint types, including mobile devices.
Of course, there will be times when an in-person meeting is ideal, but that doesn’t require leasing an office whose conference room sits idle most of the time. Instead, consider office-rental providers such as Alliance Virtual Offices and Regus. These providers also offer services such as mail handling, live receptionists and office addresses, all of which can be a convenient, cost-effective way for startups to add a professional cachet that an apartment or café lacks.
- Scheduling. Like email, schedule management is a challenge that grows as a company grows. Early on, it’s usually not an option to hire an administrative assistant to coordinate schedules, such as for conference calls, or so customers can book appointments.
A cost-effective alternative is online tools such as Acquity and BookFresh, where colleagues and clients can see when there’s availability and then schedule meetings and calls. These tools maximize productivity by, for example, eliminating back-and-forth emails coordinating schedules. Look for solutions that integrate with Google Calendar, iCal and Outlook to eliminate having to manually enter items once they’ve been booked.