There’s no shortage of small business software and apps designed to automate and help you run your business better. But what does it all do? And what do you really need?
In our years (decades) of experience working in software and with small business owners, and being small business owners ourselves, we’ve put together this list of ‘tech’–software and apps–you can use to help run your business better.
All the small business software included in this checklist is designed to:
- save time
- stop repeating tasks
- create systems
- automate activities
There’s never any point in having tech just for the sake of it, so do use this checklist to see where you can make your life easier, but at the same time don’t assume you need everything!
How we worked out small business software checklist
We’ve worked out our list in 3 sections called ‘basics’, ‘essential’ and ‘ideal’.
Use this as a checklist against the tech you already have, and what you don’t, and compare it with the tasks and admin you need to take care of in your business.
Small Business Software Checklist Part One: Basics
The small business software and apps every small business owner needs to run a business today.
Email: the communication tool every small business needs
We’re sure you already have email, but do check it’s a ‘business’ email with an address that reflects your business (so @yourbusinessname.com for example, not @gmail.com). Get an email that’s web based so you can easily access it anywhere and from different devices (your phone, your laptop, etc). You may want to set up your email so you can ‘filter’ messages and manage your inbox so it’s not simply one long list of messages. But…
Don’t run your small business from your email inbox!
If you’re using your email inbox to ‘manage’ your business contacts – clients, prospects and suppliers – know that there are better tools. If your ‘to do list’ is run from your inbox too–maybe you star actions or pop them into folders–there are better ways to be organised. If your actions and activities in your business are sometimes (or worse case, all the time!) determined by ‘who emailed you last’ then you’re probably missing deadlines and opportunities as a result. Your email inbox should be for checking, reading and sometimes replying to emails, but it’s not the best place to run your business from.
Documents and Spreadsheets: Your small business ‘Office’ online
If you need to compile documents – write cover letters, share ideas, write up reports, and produce quotes and proposals, the simplest way to do this is to have document (or if we’re being old school ‘word processing’) software.
If you want to set out your numbers, create forms, add up/manage values and numbers in a format you can ‘work with’ then you’ll want to have spreadsheet software.
It’s worth looking at having this software online ‘in the cloud’* and shareable. With online documents and spreadsheets you can share these with your team, with clients and prospects, and access them yourself from different devices and locations (on your phone when you are out and about for example). There’s a lot of advantages to always having your business with you wherever you are if you need to look up details, work something out, or send information.
Website: Your small business shop or shop window online (to show, share and sell from)
You could run a business without a website but having a ‘web presence’ really helps and ideally you want to ‘own your own space’ online (as opposed to space on someone else’s site–examples being a social media profile or listing on another site), so that’s where having your own website comes in.
Websites come in all different sizes
A 1-page website is still a website, and may be all you need. Or a simple site with About, Problems We Solve, Contact pages and other key information may be enough–a ‘brochure’ online.
Or you may have a lot to explain, to share, to educate your audience about as a business and authority and so a website full of useful content will help you sell what you do so much better.
Irrespective of the size of your website you’ll want to have a way of updating it easily, so go for a set up that allows you to do this. We’re not officially doing recommends on this list, but unofficially we will say you can’t go far wrong in most instances with a WordPress website.
Small business website hosting
Your website is your shop window on the internet but you will need to rent space for it–this is what ‘hosting’ is. You’ll need to pay for a space on the internet and so a hosting company provides this. It’s not expensive (often just a few £ a month) but make sure as a business you run this account, and buy directly from the hosting company to keep direct control of your website.
Your small business website name
What you call your website is of course up to you–you’ll buy a URL from a provider–a .com, a .co.uk., or whatever style of url ending you want. THEN you’ll build your website page(s) and ‘host’ them on the space you have and your URL (web address) will be the ‘sign’ you’ll hang above your shop window to name the pages or entire site.
You can have more than one web address–you could have a different one for every page of your website if you wanted to. You could have as many one page websites as you have urls, you could use them for offers, for different products, or just have them and not use them so no-one else can! As long as you ‘tell’ each url where it ‘points to’ in terms of a page you’ll be able to use it to signpost people to your space on the internet
Online Banking: Time saving finance tech that’s worth it for every small business
Banks and other ‘fintech’ companies (financial technology) invest in setting up apps and online services to let you manage your money easily online and on your phone. Knowing when you’ve been paid and paying your own suppliers quickly and easily from anywhere you are online can help your business run better.
Having transactions to hand, and in formats you can ‘upload’ to other software also helps you have all your financial information available so you can use it to make better business decisions. You also save time waiting for, and checking off, paper statements.
Graphic Design: Good looking businesses get better results
Having a tool to help you produce ‘good looking’ documents, brochures, or online images you might think this is a nice to have but we think it’s a fundamental requirement to run a business in today’s ‘visual’ marketplace. If you can’t afford a graphic designer use simple software and apps to create a better ‘finish’ to your visuals.
Small Business Software Checklist Part Two: Essentials
Email Systems for Small Business
Sometimes called ‘email marketing’ or ‘email automation’ this is how you can send emails to a list of names and not have to send them one at a time. You can also manage different lists with different people in them e.g. prospects and customers. With an email system you can also include a form on your small business website or a web page that people can sign up to and add themselves to your email list (for news, offers, or to receive something you want to share in exchange for an email address).
Making your marketing automatic
Using an email system you can have automated emails which can be sent out on ‘triggers’ e.g. new prospects–when they sign up to the list they get extra information, new customers receive thank yous and welcomes, or lapsed customers – can be sent tempting back offers.
You might wonder why we’ve put an email system as a ‘essential’ and not in ‘ideal’ small business software but we’re putting this in the context of the market today. All of your competitors will be emailing their prospects and clients, and so just having an email account to write to people one at a time isn’t enough, you need to be able to send email out to ALL the contacts you have–both prospects and customers.
Nurture and create customer connection
For all the reasons you’d want an email system for lead generation, you’ll also want an email system for your ‘ongoing marketing’ – your nurture campaigns. Once you’ve welcomed a prospect or client into your business, you’ll want to share news, information and ideas to inspire them so they stay interested in your business.
It can happen that prospects are ready to ‘meet’ with you right away the minute they hear about you, but that’s usually the exception not the rule. For the rest… you’ll want to keep reminding them how you can help solve their problem (s). And you’ll want a email system to make that nurturing easy.
Consistent content gets the best results (but don’t forget to make offers)
Sending out consistent, and good content to your ‘email list’ will keep them interested and connected with you. Ideally you’ll have split up your list into ‘segments’ so different people are getting sent different things based on what they are interested in, or because they are at different stages of the ‘sales process’ with you. If you don’t have time or the option to segment, then a one size fits all email is still helpful in keeping momentum going in your marketing.
And don’t forget to email offers too–not just great content. Email systems are for making sales–either directly or by an invitation to a conversation or meeting.
Online Calendars for Small Business: Know when you’re available for appointments
When you’re making sales or follow up appointments an online calendar means you’re never without your schedule as the one you access from your phone is the same as the one ‘in the office’. And if your team need to know where you are, or book appointments for you, choose an online calendar you can share with them so it’s not just available to you.
Also consider adding other people to your online calendar–so that everyone’s appointments all show up on the same view you’re looking at. This is very helpful for planning team activities knowing when everyone is available (or not) and for noting family activities so you don’t work when you want to be (or have to be!) elsewhere.
Accounting Software: Making your small business accounts easy and up to date
There’s a LOT to be gained from using accounting software in your small business and not working it all out on a spreadsheet (although as a ‘better than nothing’ option an online spreadsheet you can share with your accountant or team is helpful).
Accounting software is a big time saver, allowing you to send invoices, reconcile bank transactions, have your profit and loss to hand and get your VAT return worked out for you. There are a lot of ‘cloud’* based accounting software options now which mean you’re able to access your accounts from anywhere online (as opposed to software you have ‘locally’ on just your laptop or computer). Cloud based accounting software will mean your business numbers are mobile with you.
Connect your cash to your accounting
Online accounting software can also be linked to your bank and credit cards, so transactions are uploaded automatically, and you won’t need to refer to paper statements and type all the details in yourself line by line. You can invoice while out and about, check your key numbers, and easily keep up to date with transactions, creating reports as you need them.
Always be up to date with your accounts
If you’re used to only knowing what your numbers are when your accountant hands your accounts back after your year end, it’s a big change to see them in ‘real time’ but one that will put you in charge of your business all the time. If you can see transactions as they happen, and your accountant can too, they can advise you on actions to take now, not just provide an analysis of the past at a later date.
Online accounting software means your accountant can be working alongside you as a partner, advising as you need it, not as someone who simply tidies up after you! Knowing what’s working in your business (or not) right now means you can improve it (or stop it being a problem) quickly. Used well, accounting software will help you grow a business more quickly, as you can make better business decisions.
Website Analytics: Who visits your website, when, where from, and what are they looking at?
If your website makes up any part of your sales and marketing process (see note about why you’d want to ‘own your space on the internet’ ^^) you will want to know who is visiting your site. Knowing who is visiting your website and from where, what they are looking at, what they click on, how long they spend on your site, and what they are viewing it on (phone, desktop or tablet) is all very helpful information. If you know these ‘website analytics’ you will know how to best review and refine your enquiries, connection and sales stages of your sales and marketing.
Website behaviour helps you understand your customers better
The more you know about how your prospects and customers behave the better results you’ll be able to generate with your small business website acting as a ‘window’ or ‘shop’ to the rest of your business. Knowing what questions they want the answers too by seeing which of your blogs or pages they read the most will help with sales conversations in person. Seeing which of your offers create the most interest, or knowing which products they want to find out more about gives you valuable insights into what your market wants. Knowing what people do ‘before they buy’ means you can do more of that if increasing sales is your goal.
Small business software Checklist Part Three: Ideal
If you’re happy to close all the gaps in your business and use tech everywhere you can to save time, build systems, and remove admin tasks from your schedule, here’s our ‘ideal’ small business software checklist
A small business CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system: To track, note and connect more closely with all your contacts
A small business CRM is the step up from an email system, where instead of having contacts in simple lists instead you have a database of contacts you can tag with who they are, their interests, preferences, and campaigns you’d like them to be part of. You can email according to all combinations of ‘tags’ and get very specific and scientific (if you want to!) about who sees what communications from you and when. You can also make notes about each prospect and customer, and ‘track’ them through your enquiries, connection, sales and getting paid process.
CRM is the backbone to having great sales and marketing admin. It records all the information you need to know at every stage of your marketing and sales processes, it allows you to get really clever with your communication. And it also means you’ve got ONE place to store contact information and activities that they are connected with.
Lead Generation with your CRM email system
If you’ve replaced your email system with a CRM that also manages email marketing, you’ll be able to take care of all your attraction and engagement from one place. You can send out different emails to prospects with different interests and at different stages of their problem solving, for example some might be ‘researching’ while others are ‘ready to buy’.
Nurture marketing with your CRM email system
If a small business CRM has replaced your email system this allows you to manage all your ‘ongoing marketing’ too, and in a much more detailed way than just having different lists of people. You can also make notes against contacts, write up any calls you have with them, record appointments, and be so much clearer on ‘where they are’ as a prospect or customer
Project Management or ‘Workflow’: Knowing what work is due and when keeps your small business on track
To track your projects and work effectively it might be enough to have an online spreadsheet of to do’s and actions, but a lot of small businesses benefit from a project management or workflow tool to take their to do’s a more organised step further. You’ll know how long/complicated your to-do list is, so this will be something you’ll know right away if you need it or not!
Projects and Pipelines give you clarity
Even if you don’t need software for projects (for your business itself or for client work)–consider if you need a way to ‘manage’ and ‘see’ where all your prospects are at in different stages in your sales process–what’s often called a sales pipeline. You don’t want to miss opportunities to provide a quote or proposal, or worse still, not follow up on any you’ve sent out.
It might also be important for you that everyone in your small business can see what stage projects have reached, and who is working on what. When there’s an app or system that everyone has access to in your business, everyone knows who is working on what and when so not only can there be no excuses, and there shouldn’t be bottlenecks either.
Website Plugins: Doing more things with your small business website to get better results
Website plugins are a great way to make your small business website work better for your business. You can ‘plugin’ a lot of different actions to your website software that will save you time, make your marketing and sales work better, and even help you get paid.
The best way to think about plugins are as added extras to a basic website. Think about what you’d like to be able to do on your small business website and THEN look for plugins. If you start by browsing for plugins to see what looks interesting it’s like going to IKEA–you’re bound to buy a lot more than the wine glasses or picture frame you came in for just because you had to ‘walk past’ everything else!
Here are website plugins that most small businesses would benefit from:
- A forms plugin means prospects can make enquiries right when they are looking on your site, you can qualify them with great questions, and all their contact details will (ideally) be going straight into your CRM system where emails and responses can be triggered as a result.
- A ‘landing page’ plugin– that allows you to easily set up stand alone page of your website designed to offer one service or product (for free or paid for).
- An SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) plugin. If you know you want your website to show up on Google get a plugin to ‘prompt’ you how to add all the SEO details (titles, descriptions and tags etc) to each of the web pages you have.
If you’d like to have a private resources area of your site–known as a membership site there are plugins that offer that too. A membership site allows you to sell online content on its own as payment can be asked for before access is granted, or provide extra resources to support clients already buying from you. Typical membership site uses are to host videos, classes, downloads and other ‘resources’ of value your clients would want to have access to.
Team Communication: Keeping everyone up to date with what’s happening in your small business
If you don’t need a project management system because a simple shared online spreadsheet serves you well, you still may want somewhere to have ‘team conversations’ in your small business. Having one place online where all chats take place (so you’re not using your email inbox as a to do list and reference library can be really helpful. You can use a team communication tool to organise topics of conversation and then search what you’ve said! You can share messages privately or across your team, and there’s only one place to look when you want to communicate. No more loooooong email threads where you’re sure you remember saying that but… can’t find where you did!
Remarketing: Getting repeat viewings by following people around the internet
If you’re using Facebook or Google to advertise your small business (or are thinking you might do paid advertising with them in the future) add the relevant remarketing pixel or conversion tag to your website now so you can track visitors and advertise back to them when you do. If you’ve ever wondered why ads ‘follow you around the internet’ this is why!
Online Appointment Booking Systems: Self service sales calls and meetings
Online appointment booking systems are a way to book appointments (phone calls or in person meetings) without all the back and forth it usually takes to find a day and time that suits. A ‘self service’ online appointment booking process allows you to share when you’re available, while prospects and customers can ‘book in’ a time that works best for them. This is a huge time saver for you, and more convenient for the person booking too–a win win.
Never double book again
Ideally you want to sync your online booking system to your small business CRM so meetings are added automatically to a contact record. Also link your booking system to your online calendar so it recognises any potential double bookings and stops them happening.
All the ‘finding a gap in the diary’ then confirming the appointment back and forth emails or phone calls can be dispensed with if you have an online appointment booking system. And that can be a lot of admin time and energy saved, and appointments can be confirmed quicker so you don’t lose the interest of prospects.
Quote or Proposal Builder: Make quotes and proposals easy to put together so you send them quickly
Yes you can type quotes and proposals you need to send out up every time in a document or spreadsheet… or you can use a quote or proposal builder, with a styled template to work from, and simply ‘tailor’ the relevant content each time.
If it’s a quick process to put together a quote or proposal you’re a lot less likely to put it off until you have a pile of proposals and you’re dreading getting started. Clear, smart, easy to send proposals and quotes speed up the sales process
The art of a good proposal
There’s a definite ‘art’ to a good quote or proposal, so it’s a lot easier to use a system that’s done all the hard work for you so you can produce good looking, well thought out quotes or proposals and (which is as important, if not more) send them to prospects quickly after you’ve spoken.
Nothing says lacking enthusiasm (even if you’re are excited to work with them) than not sending a proposal soon after you’ve had a sales conversation. If your small business relies on sending great, prompt, quotes or proposals as part of your sales process, this is a very important piece of software or an app to have to hand.
Payment Systems: Making it easy for customers to give you money!
If you offer more ways to get paid you make it easier to get paid (and you’ll probably get paid faster).
There are apps that allow a small business to set up Direct Debit payments which are great if you sell monthly services. There are also apps, software, devices and online services that let you process credit, debit and contactless cards. If you know your customers prefer to pay these ways, make sure you have the technology to support it. Don’t lose sales because you can’t accept money the way your clients want to pay. Even as a small business you can offer a wide range of ways to take payments.
Add-ons to your Small Business Accounting Software: Extra ways to automate your accounts and finances to save time, and work smarter
There are some really great time and effort saving add-ons to accounting software every small business owner can benefit from, and there are others that are only relevant depending on your type of business.
Having an add on for keeping records of your receipts is very handy for up to date expenses and bank reconciliation. Cashflow is also something every business should have a good handle on–an add on app that specialises in cashflow forecasting can really help with this too when it’s pulling data straight from your accounts software.
If you’re paying yourself a salary, or have a team on PAYE, then you’ll save a lot of working out if you use Payroll software and not spend time figuring out all the up to date tax and allowance rules yourself.
You may want to get more sophisticated small business website and online tracking analytics tools that will give you an even greater level of detail of what, why, where from, what next, when, and how your website and other online pages are being looked at.
Enhanced analytics can extend to social media too. The more you know about what your prospects and customers want to know, the better you can focus your marketing and content to answer all their questions and provide the most useful advice, as part of your sales process.
Summary Small Business Software Checklist
- Docs and spreadsheets
- Online banking
- Graphic design
Essential (add to basics)
- Email system
- Online calendar
- Accounting software
- Simple analytics (for your website)
Ideal (all of basics, essential and…)
- Project Management or ‘Workflow’–to track your projects and work
- Website ‘plugins’ for forms, landing pages, membership site, etc.
- Team Comms
- Facebook remarketing
- Online appointment booking system
- Proposal or quote builder system
- Payment processing
- Accounting add-ons–receipts, cashflow, payroll, etc.
- Enhanced website analytics
Final thoughts… on where to start with small business software for sales and marketing admin
The best place to start is with an email system to aid communications or way of managing ‘contacts’ and accounting software to account for sales and results in the business. These are the 2 ‘bookends’ of your business–attracting, engaging and connecting with prospects, and at the other end, getting paid and reporting your income.
It’s a good idea to build from the ‘foundations’ up–by choosing your small business accounting software first. If you can make sure everything connects into your key business system that’s keeping your accounts, then you can always track the performance of your small business from one end to the other.
But don’t go and fill every single gap in your small business with unconnected software and disconncted ‘tech’. It can create more of a headache making each app and software system ‘talk to each other’ in many cases, than the time you’ll save from having them. Ideally you want as few apps and software as possible, doing as many of the ‘sales and marketing admin tasks’ as they can. Less is most definitely more, but some is better than none.