In the  current economic environment, businesses are seeking the greatest impact for the least amount of inputs. This is especially true for small businesses, which comprise most of the U.S. economic system. Cutting, streamlining, and integrating are a few actions being taken by small businesses to capitalize on their investments, especially in information technology. The good news is that there are numerous online tools and resources to improve business processes. In this article, I will suggest a few 0nline products (free and proprietary) that I use to operate my web design and hosting business, AM Media Creators. The article will organize the products by business function.

Communication, Collaboration, & Project Management

Google Apps (Free & Proprietary)

Google Apps refers to the suite of Google products offered in the cloud. Included within Google Apps are (1) GMail for Business, (2) Calendar, (3) Documents, (4) Video, (5) Shared Contacts, (6) Groups, and (7) Sites. In addition, Google Apps is connected to the larger sphere of Google products and services, i.e. Google Analytics, Music Store, etc. Designed to replace enterprise solutions (Outlook, GroupWise, etc.), the Apps suite is a must-have for any small, medium, or large organization. The suite is offered in the following packages: Standard, Business, Education, Government, and Non-Profit editions. For more information on these package, see the comparison chart.

In fact, the pricing for this product is reasonable, considering the immense amount of computing power and options available. As of August 2011, the annual costs were as follows:

  • Standard = Free
  • Business = $50 per user (or $5 per user each month)
  • Education = Free for academic institutions
  • Non-Profit = $30 per user

Resource Link: http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/business/index.html

Crocodoc (Free)

Crocodoc is document repository and commenting system. I currently use this tool to provide writing and design samples (non-websites) via the current website. Specific tools include a viewer (PDF, Office documents, and images), commenting and markup, and the ability to embed the document into a webpage or social site. Documents can be uploaded via e-mail or the website. Specific applications for this tool include reviewing business documents, designing a portfolio, research management, and other related activities.

Resource Link: http://www.crocodoc.com

TeamViewer (Free & Proprietary)

In technology start-ups, it is a common reality for most meetings and communication to take place over long distances. While e-mail and phone calls are appropriate, they may not serve every customer or need. This is why TeamViewer fits a much needed role in small business administration. Serving as a web conferencing and remote access service, TeamViewer allows for personalized attention to my customers. And, although some customers may not be technically savvy, I have found the service to be accessible for all users.

Specific tools include remote control for support, multi-monitor support, recorded sessions (support or presentations), meeting and presentation tools, mobile applications, file transfer, and many others. Highly recommended among the business community, TeamViewer is a must-have tool for any small business with remote clients.

Resource Link: http://www.teamviewer.com

TeamLab (Free w/ Premium Features)

As indicated in the last recommendation, technology start-ups rely heavily on a globalized economy with remote clients. The same applies to those who may work for or partner with your organization. For this reason, we use TeamLab to coordinate our projects and communication. TeamLab is a comprehensive tool for business collaboration, document and project management, and customer relationship management.

Available as a Service-as-a-Solution (SaaS) or self-hosted solution, the tool offers your company a great resource for communicating with your colleagues. Specific features include project management (milestones, tasks, time tracking, reporting, discussion, and team building), business collaboration (employee listings, news & events, blogs & forums, instant messaging, photos, wikis, and bookmarks), document management (editing, sharing & storage, importing, version control, etc.), and customer relationship management (contacts, tasks, opportunities, etc.). All of these features are wrapped into a great interface with strict access rights management policies, mobile capabilities, and close integration.

Resource Link: http://www.teamlab.com

Event Planning

Event Bright (Free with Premium Features)

For those who are responsible for managing large events, the hardest part is usually the registration and ticket-handling process. While most small businesses cannot afford high-end services, there is still a need for a high-quality tool. The consumer will not accept anything less than quality. For such needs, we have found Event Bright to be an excellent resource for publishing, promoting, managing, and ticketing events. With integration to social media and payment gateways (PayPal and Google), you can be sure that Event Registration and Ticketing will happen without a glitch.

The site offers a professional portal for advertising events, registering participants, distributing tickets, managing attendees, and collecting fees. The service holds no bars on quality and will only collect a fee as monetary tickets are sold. Otherwise, the service remains free for events without a fee. Promotion takes place with an integration with MailChimp (e-mail marketing) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). When registered, the system will automatically send a ticket via e-mail, process name badges, and create a check-in list.

Resource Link: http://www.eventbright.com

Research

Zoomerang (Proprietary)

One of the larger responsibilities of AM Media Creators is online surveying and research. For such activities, we rely on Zoomerang for our data collection and descriptive analysis services. Whether you are desiring a simple informational survey or a statistical research tool, Zoomerang can accommodate most needs. We have found the tool especially effective for satisfaction surveys.

Specific tools within the Zoomerang PRO package include real-time results, customizable reports, and numerous export options for further analysis. Additional branding can be added to surveys for a personal or corporate touch.

Resource Link: http://www.zoomerang.com/pricing-features/

Support

Screenr (Free and Proprietary)

AM Media Creators is a technically-oriented company, with a number of technically-inept customers. And, quite frankly, I don’t feel that it is appropriate to pull client up to our level. Rather, it is our responsibility to create systems and processes that accommodate to their level of understanding. Therefore, I am forced to provide substantial documentation and how-to videos to instruct users.

A great tool for such projects is Screenr, an instant screencast program. Sure, your company could expense a great deal of money to purchase a high quality program, i.e. Camtasia. Or, you could use the free resources available such as Screenr. In fact, the software does not even require an installation. All that is required is the most recent Java installation. With up to 5 minutes of recordable time, you can quickly and easily record and send instruction to your clients. This program is a must for small businesses that (1) need to save money and (2) understand the value of clear instructions.

Resource Link: http://www.screenr.com/

Social Media

TweetDeck

The best advertising is always word of mouth. But, the cheapest and most readily-available advertising is social media. Currently, it is recommended that small businesses use the tools provided by sites such as Facebook.com and Twitter.com. (Note: There are other reliable social media sites to consider; however, the two previously mentioned can easily be considered the most used.) While not absolutely necessary, it is also suggested that small business use a combination of the two, as each attracts a different and possibly broader audience. To manage these accounts, it is helpful to use an aggregation or central communication tool, i.e. TweetDeck. Other solutions exist; however, our best experiences have been in conjunction with TweetDeck.

Recently acquired by Twitter, TweetDeck offers a central location for managing and updating your Facebook and Twitter account(s). The software, which is available for Google Chrome or Window/Mac installation, provides the following features: arrange your social media feeds in organized columns, focus on trends, schedule your communication, monitor and manage multiple accounts, and keep you up-to-date on communication related to your organization. So, if you are interested in building a social presence, we strongly encourage you investigate the TweetDeck option or a comparable software.

Website Development

WordPress (Open Source)

WordPress is a robust web software, used to develop and design websites and blogs. Backed by an immense open-source community, WordPress is quickly becoming a standard platform for beginner, intermediate, and advanced web specialists.  In fact, a large number of large, well-known websites are supported by the WordPress framework. (See the Showcase page for a comprehensive list of sample sites.)

Whether you are a web designer or a small business owner,  you can use WordPress to build a stable platform that is sustainable, scalable, and efficient. As needed, additional tools (A.K.A. plugins) can be downloaded to meet the unique needs of your website (i.e. scheduling, event hosting, etc.). The look and feel of the site is editable by adding and modifying themes, which are available as open-source or premium (proprietary) downloads. (See the Elegant Themes section for a possible theme solution.)

Pros

  • Scalable framework for any-sized organization
  • Supported by large community of theme, plugin, and widget designers
  • A comprehensive documentation site
  • The famous 5-minute, easy installation
  • Astetically clean design in the administrative section
Cons
  • Requirement for additional tools (web hosting, FTP client software, and web editor software) and expertise (knowledge of PHP, MySQL, and CSS for editing themes and plugins
  • Hard to transfer between servers
  • Not the highest security standards
  • Not the best tool for e-commerce
  • Originally designed for blogs, so it is limited from a CMS (content management system) standpoint

Elegant Themes (Proprietary)

Once WordPress is installed, the next logical step is to enhance the look and feel of the site through the theme. Themes can be downloaded directly within the WordPress system and quickly activated. However, these themes are usually simple designs, used primarily for blog site. Another option is to pay a web designer  to develop a custom theme. In most cases,  this is a costly expenditure.

If you are looking for a more advanced site design without the extreme costs, I recommend Elegant Themes (ET), a premium (proprietary) WordPress theme developer. In fact, ET releases a new theme every 1-2 months. But, more importantly, ET offers its themes for a great rate–$39 per year. Usually, a premium theme developer will offer themes for $39 each. So, to say the least, ET offers an incredible deal that is hard to beat.  As well, you will be given access to some of the best themes on the web.

In summary, I recommend that small businesses find innovative ways to serve their clients better with available technology. I am confident that with minimal expenses a small business can find tools comparable to any enterprise service. While the the above list is not comprehensive, it provides a short list of relatively important resources for my business. I invite you to comment and add your own suggestions. Additional resources and suggestions will be prepared for a future article.