Tentacle Inbound specializes in serving all the digital marketing needs of small- and medium-sized businesses across the U.S. But beyond that, we are also a small business ourselves. It started as a consortium of freelancers, and over the years evolved into a more comprehensive repertoire of valuable digital marketing services for the unique needs of small businesses, and thus Tentacle Inbound was born.
But mo' growth comes with mo' problems. Whether it's growing the size of our team of experts, growing our clientele list, or growing the number of services we can offer our clients - we're adding more and more moving parts that need managing. In order to avoid getting bogged down in the day-to-day details of running a business (what we have to do) and put all our focus on serving our clients (what we do best), we needed to streamline and find ways to be more efficient.
Thankfully, there is no shortage of apps and cloud-based services to choose from. Here are our personal favorites that we would highly recommend to any startup, small or medium business.
1. Trello for Project Management
Trello is a fantastic platform we use to manage all our projects and deadlines. It's perfect for small businesses - especially businesses with freelance contractors or remote employees, as we have - to keep communication high, and stay informed on the status of every project in play. For all you list-maker extraordinaires out there, Trello is beautifully and logically nested into boards, lists and cards.
At Tentacle Inbound we have an all-encompassing project board that has a card for every single client project in our queue, but we also have a board dedicated exclusively to professional development, education and training opportunities. When we have particularly large client projects, like a major website redesign, that utilizes multiple team members and has lots of steps, we may even create a separate board just for that project, and archive it when it's all complete. (These boards are great for things besides work, too - I planned my entire wedding using Trello.)
The boards are then broken down into lists. I like to organize mine by project status - Doing, To Do, On Hold and Done. We can quickly get a pulse on how every project is moving along at a glance. The "On Hold" list is especially helpful so we can remember to follow up with our clients when we're missing pieces we need to get the job done for them. Our clients appreciate that nothing slips through the cracks around here.
On each of the lists are cards. We create a card for every little task that needs to be done. On these cards, you can add a due date, add a checklist, upload attachments (including from your computer, or straight from Dropbox or Google Drive - see below), add comments to the task, tag other team members, use color-coded labels to group and categorize projects, and more. We use purple for "Content" projects, green for "Finance & Operations" projects, blue for "Dev & Design" projects, for example.
We can add and remove team members to and from boards and tickets, and it's simple to assign a card to people as it becomes their turn to contribute to the project. It makes collaboration and teamwork an absolute breeze, helping ensure we get the project done right and on time every time.
Until recently, my only real complaint about Trello was not having nearly enough color coded labels to categorize my tickets. However, it was just announced in November that Trello would offer unlimited labels, and my little organizer heart soared.
One last thing (though there are many, many more we could rave about) about Trello is that you can switch from the list view to the calendar view. If you use this tool for deadline management, you can get a quick view of everything in the project queue and what's due in the immediate future. If you couldn't tell, this is easily one of our favorite apps for small business! In fact, I have it set as my default web page for when I open my browser so it's always front and center to get me back on track.
The Deets on Trello
- Cost: Free, Gold & Business Class ($5 per user per month) Memberships
- Available On: Desktop/Web-Based, iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows Devices
2. Ballpark App for Estimates & Invoicing
Estimating, invoicing, billing and reconciling is the worst - especially when you would much rather be spending your time doing awesome digital marketing for people, not juggling invoices, checks, receipts, paperwork, accounting, etc. Fortunately, we have Ballpark App, an awesome tool to do fast and easy estimates and invoices. (This link is good for 10% off if you want to try it out yourself. You're welcome.)
The invoice and estimate creation tool is insanely simple to use. Simply add the number of hours (or products, or services, or a number of other options), the task, and the hourly rate and the tool does all the math for you. You can easily apply % or $ discounts as-needed. (We are implementing an anniversary program where clients get 10% off their invoice in their anniversary month each year, just for being loyal customers.) Plus, the invoices and estimates are easy to customize and brand, so they look beautiful when they arrive in your client's inbox. (I never thought I would ever describe an invoice as "beautiful.")
Its reporting tool lets you digest the information quickly on how much invoice revenue your business is generating month-to-month, or on a by-client basis. It also helps you figure out which clients are the best at paying super early every time, and which might need a little extra nudge before the invoice due date. You can do easy exports of the data if you need to slice and dice it in Excel for accounting at the end of the year.
We love the buttons in the system that allow us to mark an invoice as paid, or apply a payment toward the final invoice. Our clients really appreciate the confirmation that we have received their payment, so they have peace-of-mind that everything is handled. We also love the easy "Approve" button for estimates, so clients can kick off a project right away if they're satisfied with the proposal.
It's a great hub for our client information so we always have their contact information on-hand. It integrates easily with both Stripe and PayPal, so collecting payment from our clients digitally is a breeze. It also allows you to set a percentage (2.9% is the default) to add to cover the PayPal fee if you choose. Ballpark App also includes an awesome time tracking tool, where you can start the timer when you begin a task or project, then stop it when you're done, and immediately add it to the relevant client's invoice. It helps ensure we are billing our clients fairly and accurately every time.
The Deets on Ballpark App
- Cost: Solo - $12.99/month for 1 user, Team - $29.99/month for 10 users, Agency - $99.99/month for unlimited users
- Available On: Desktop/Web-Based, iOS
3. Fancy Hands for Fast Personal Assistant Task Completion
Once again, we like to find ways to streamline our work so we can focus on what really matters - delivering digital marketing results for our clients. We're a lean, agile smile business. We simply can't afford to get bogged down by the little things.
Enter Fancy Hands. Fancy Hands fancies themselves a "personal assistant" service. We use them to accomplish all sorts of little day-to-day tasks that must be done to run the business, while we keep our attention on the work itself.
Fancy Hands can integrate with your e-mail, connect to Google Calendar, Basecamp, Asana, Trello (see above!), and the list goes on. There is a handy Chrome browser extension so you can add tasks on the fly without even having to visit the website, plus Android and iOS apps so you can get help on-the-go.
Fun fact: If they make phone calls on your behalf, they introduce themselves as your "Assistant," which I love, because as a small business, I can't actually afford a real personal assistant, but it sure makes me feel fancy. And these people are fast. I can only think of one task that wasn't completed same day, even within hours, and it was because they had to reach out to multiple people for me, who took a while to respond.
Just a few examples of things we have used Fancy Hands to help with:
- Getting print estimates for design projects
- Registering team members for educational seminars and workshops
- Scheduling a conference call with multiple people and setting up the dial-in line
- Contacting our mailbox service to find out about getting spare keys
- Researching and comparing technology or devices
- Researching and buying gadgets we need for the office
- Checking us into business flights as early as possible to get good boarding spots
- Researching and reserving locations for client meetings
- Researching client holiday gift ideas, and purchasing them for us
- Proofreading contracts before sending to clients and contractors
The Deets on Fancy Hands
- Cost: Ranges from $3-6 per task depending on membership level. Starter - $29.99 for 5 requests per month, Pro - $49.99 for 15 requests per month, Premier - $149.99 for 50 requests per month
- Available On: Desktop/Web-Based, iOS, Android, Chrome Extension
4. Feedly for Organizing RSS Feeds
For those of you who remember Google Reader, it was a frustrating day when we all heard it was going away. But that service ending led us to something far, far better - Feedly.
Our SMB clients are in a number of different verticals, like travel and tourism, art and jewelry, B2B strategic planning, health and nutrition, and beyond. We do content marketing and copywriting for web here at Tentacle Inbound. This means that we need to have a deep understanding of the topics that matter to our SMB clients and their customers, plus stay current on all the latest news and headlines in each of these verticals.
Also, in our line of work best practices and technology change constantly, so we typically subscribe to a lot of blogs to keep up with the latest. Feedly helps us create custom groupings based on client or subject matter, helping us stay organized and filter down the constant inundation of content seamlessly. It has a beautiful interface, and the Android and Apple mobile apps are sleek too. On the mobile app a slick, user-friendly swipe helps you fly through the articles.
Customize the look and feel of your Feedly dashboard with your background color of choice, and how the articles are displayed - magazine-style, as cards, or titles only. If you get too overwhelmed with all the content, you can wipe the slate clean and "Mark All as Read" to get that pesky little number back to 0. If you see a headline that catches your eye, it's easy to book mark it for reading later or you can save it straight to Pocket with a quick click. Social sharing is also a breeze in Feedly, with quick buttons to share content to Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Buffer and many more. You can also save the most valuable articles to Evernote for easy access later (see more below).
The Deets on Feedly
- Cost: Free, or $5/month ($45/month) for Pro
- Available On: Desktop/Web-Based, iOS, Android, Kindle and more
5. Pocket for Saving Content to Read Later
How many times has someone shared something interesting on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Feedly (see above), or even through inter-office e-mail, and the headline caught your eye, but you simply didn't have the time to read it in the moment? And how many times have you been on the go, or stuck in a waiting room somewhere, and your internet access died or you lost signal, so you were stuck twiddling your thumbs with nothing to do? If these describe you, then Pocket might be the thing for you.
To save articles, you could go old school and bookmark them in your browser, but being completely honest, my bookmarks folder is where articles go to die. I use bookmarks for frequently accessed tools, but articles will never get read once they go there. Now, when articles about women in business, startup culture and business building, or tutorials and education on the latest digital marketing techniques, catch my eye in my Feedly feeds but I don't have time to digest them, I quickly save them to Pocket to revisit later. If I'm out and about browsing the web and sliding down bunny trails and a great article pops up, I've even have a Pocket extension installed in Google Chrome. You can also simply e-mail a link to firstname.lastname@example.org, and it will add the item to your reading queue for you.
With Pocket, even if you don't have web access at the moment, you can retrieve articles (with images, styling, and all) you saved for later for your reading enjoyment. It's not just articles, either - you can save images (like infographics!) or videos you want to watch to your Pocket app, and pull those up for later consumption, too.
Once you're done reading, you can mark it as read and save it to your archive, you can delete it entirely, you can star it as a favorite for a re-read later, or schedule it to share it. You can share via Facebook, Twitter, Buffer and e-mailing to a friend. It also includes a link to the original source of the article in case you want to see it right at the source. Oh, and if I haven't said it enough in this post, the Pocket interface is beautiful.
The free version of Pocket is already perfect for my purposes, but the Premium membership also has some very cool searchability, permanent archiving, tagging and sorting of articles.
The Deets on Pocket
- Cost: Free and Premium ($4.99/month or $44.49/year)
- Available On: Desktop/Web-Based, iPhone, iPad, Android, and Chrome and Firefox Browser Extensions
6. Evernote to Save Valuable Information & Resources
So quick recap. We use Feedly to find articles, we use Pocket to save them for reading later, and now we need to save them for reference on the fly. In comes Evernote to the rescue.
For example, when working on international SEO, we constantly refer to a list of Google country and language codes, as well as a list of ccTLDs by country. It's rare I go more than a week without referencing this list from Distilled.
I've seen colleagues take notes at conferences using Evernote to refer back to later. When you watch 36 conference sessions on as many topics, learn piles of information that the moment you hit the airport you've completely forgotten, and jotting down scribbles in your spiral won't cut it... Evernote is the perfect tool.
Every article gets a title, formatted body content, tags, and assigned to a notebook. The notes can support attachments. The Evernote search engine explores the entire context of each article to find the right note for you, even when you can only remember a key word or two. No more digging through old e-mails to find what I need. Each article ("note") gets grouped by "notebooks." For example, all articles abut "Business Building" get a notebook, and all the more technical digital marketing resources get their own "Website Marketing" notebook.
Evernote Premium members can even search their digital office documents - Word Docs, PDFs, etc. - and the notes can support more and larger attachments. It also allows you to work in Evernote from your phone and scan business cards.
A few ways we use Evernote:
- Instantly saving digital business expense receipts to a Notebook for the year
- Scanning and organizing business cards of prospects or potential candidates
- Storing eBooks and white papers for later reference
- Ideas and inspiration for running the business better
- Gather information and resources on a specific topic for writing tutorials and blogs
The Deets on Evernote
- Cost: Free and Premium ($5/month or $45/year)
- Available On: Desktop/Web-Based, iPhone, iPad, Android, and Chrome and Firefox Browser Extensions
7. Google Drive for Document Management On-the-Go
Ok, this one may not be particularly surprising to anyone. Anyone who has a Gmail account has probably experienced the growing integration of Google Drive (Docs, Spreadsheets, etc.) with your e-mail inbox. But as a web-based employee with many remote team members and contractors, it just makes sense to host our documents securely in the crowd. I can think of no easier way to share important parts of projects with the relevant team members - and only the relevant team members.
As our team members are all over the country, meeting with our clients on-the go, and logging on from many different devices in many different places at any time, accessibility is just critical. We work from numerous different devices, and oftentimes we grab a computer without thinking which one, throw it in our bags, and we're out the door. I have no words for how derailed we can get when we realize we don't have everything we need to get the job done at any moment. Without Google Drive, we wouldn't be nearly as flexible or agile as we are.
It's easy to collaborate on documents in real-time, make changes and add comments, and interact with one another to get the job done right and on time. Files can be downloaded in client-friendly formats compatible with the Microsoft Office Suite that nearly all of our clients use, and exported into PDF format to avoid unintended changes. It's easy to organize all of our files in clear, client-specific folders so nothing gets lost. When we have a piece of work (like a contract or project plan for example) that is similar from one client to the next, we can easily copy a document, move the file into its proper folder with the click of a button, and make all the minor changes we need much faster than we could in a desktop application.
While we primarily use the Documents and Spreadsheets features, you can also build Presentations, Drawings and Maps in Google Documents. There are a number of different apps you can fold into Google Drive to further heighten what it's capable of.
The Deets on Google Drive
- Cost: Free for 15GB of space, up to $299.99/month for 30TB of space.
- Available On: Cloud-Based, Android App, Apple Apps, Mac or PC Desktop Apps
8. Dropbox for Easy & Safe File Storage & Sharing
Much like Google Drive, Dropbox allows us to work from anywhere and safely store and access files and documents we need to get our best work done. As your client list begins to grow, the space starts to shrink, and eventually you need more.
We frequently use Dropbox for file sharing and to collaborate on projects with our clients. When we do website builds and redesigns, clients have images, logos, downloads and plenty of large files they need to send, and e-mail just can't hack it. The desktop client makes it a breeze to upload and download files to and from Dropbox from any computer, and you can access your files in a pinch from mobile devices. You can collaborate within folders, or you can package it all up and send it to someone.
The free Dropbox account starts at 2GB of storage, but Pro and Business accounts can grow and expand with you as your business does.
The Deets on Dropbox
- Cost: Free for 2GB of space, $9.99/mo ($99.99/yr) for 1TB at the Pro level, and $15/mo per user for 1TB space per user
- Available On: Cloud-Based, Desktop Client, Android, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Kindle Fire
What about your small business? Do you rely on apps and software to streamline, make your business processes and systems more efficient, and save time and money? Tell us about your favorite apps for small businesses in the comments below!