Unless you're building your business from scratch, you probably use various apps, cloud services and platforms in your day-to-day operations. However, those apps probably don't work very well with each other—or with your legacy software. That leaves you constantly moving data from one app to another or reentering the same information in multiple apps.
The tools that were supposed to make your work easier have now become more work. How can you make using your apps and platforms more efficient so you spend more time making money than you do working in apps?
Access and Streamline Administrative Systems
"Small businesses end up spending too much time on administrative functions rather than on profit-making and progress," says Laurie McCabe, co-founder and analyst at The SMB Group.
It's a hard cycle to break, because admin work is a necessary part of any business. Billing, accounting, payroll, workforce management, supply ordering, and other back-office functions are business-critical, to be sure. But they shouldn't distract you from front-office work or consume too many of your working or waking hours. So how do you begin to break this cycle of administrative busywork without dropping the admin ball?
"Take stock of where you are today. Instead of trying to patch systems together, find what's working and what's not. Look for issues you haven't yet addressed, too," says McCabe. "Look at what will move your business forward rather than what will keep your business in place."
Don't just add additional apps to the mix in an effort to keep abreast of your workload. Instead, look for places where you can add efficiencies that get the work done and that push your company ahead.
Invest the time to think this process through carefully. If done correctly, streamlining your operations will save you money, increase your profits, and propel your company forward. Be sure to plan for your company's growth too, because you don't want redo this exercise again anytime soon.
"When our company looks for software, we start by quantifying the problem we need to solve, or the opportunity we want to pursue," says Will Reynolds, CEO of SecureDocs, a virtual deal room for fundraising, mergers and acquisitions, and other deals for small business.
"Items that drive revenue will always be the most important—our marketing software is our biggest expenditure. Cost-saving software and time-saving software follows that. For us, the choice comes down to a balance between usability and the total cost of ownership," Reynolds added.
Which Comes First: Platform or App?
If you're just starting your business, and you don't have software platforms or apps in place, the answer to this question is simpler.
"Start with a cloud platform right off the bat if you're a startup," says McCabe. Look for a platform with integrated apps that address all your needs. "If you're looking for a complete overhaul of an existing setup, then the sky's the limit. You can choose any platform with integrated apps that suit your needs."
However, if you're like most small business owners, you have a combination of apps, platforms, and legacy systems in place. How do you straighten out that can of worms?
According to Jonathan Levine, CTO of Intermedia, an IT services company, you have options. "Several cloud-based tools can help tie applications together. Examples include services like Microsoft Azure Data Factory, Zapier, Elastic.io, IFTTT, ItDuzzit, and CloudWork," says Levine. "These tools can orchestrate applications, synchronize data between applications, or cause actions in one application to trigger actions in another."
It's smart to put a lot of thought into platform and app selection and integration, because your future success depends on making good choices.
"Switching platforms is a dangerous task for small businesses, so pick something that you can customize over time to suit your business needs," advises Brendan Peterson, product marketing manager of Scribe Software, a data migration and integration product provider.
"Integration drives [employee] adoption, so make it a priority. Whether it's just syncing old contact data, or tying in a legacy database to your new systems, employees will immediately benefit from having that data at the tips of their fingers instead of calling IT in to get a dump of data. Integrate early, and integrate often," advises Peterson.
But what if you're too overwhelmed with the choices, find them too expensive, or you're simply too busy to stop and change everything?
"Pick an anchor app that you like and that works well for you—maybe Sage, Intuit, Salesforce.com—whatever your favorite, most useful app might be. Then look at its ecosystem to find other apps that integrate with your anchor app," recommends McCabe.
If you've identified a need for which you do not have an app, you can likely find one in your anchor app's ecosystem. If not, try several apps for the free trial period, choose one that does what you need, and look at its ecosystem for additional integrated apps.
"The burden of integration is moving to the supplier," says Mike Bertrand, founder and CEO of MoneyStream, a money management app provider. "If possible, stick with products that already talk—are integrated—with each other." But be careful of future-app promises.
"Company roadmaps change," warns Bertrand. "If a company says that it's planning a future integration, understand that the integration may be a ways off. And don't be surprised if it doesn't show up at all. Not necessarily due to bad intent, but for good business reasons that have nothing to do with your small business."
Other Sources for Help with App Integration
If you're still unsure how to proceed after reading and using the tips above, you can hire a consultant, a value-added reseller, a professional integration team, or turn to your peers for suggestions.
"Use your network to ask what's worked for companies and individuals in a similar business," says Garrett Brown, chief revenue officer at Bitium, an identity and access management security supplier.
"Beyond that, Quora is a great resource for getting crowd-based feedback on any questions you may have," Brown adds. "Online software review sites like G2Crowd.com and TrustRadius.com can be helpful for learning the basics about a product and for identifying competitive products that you might also wish to evaluate. But beware of sites that allow providers to pay for placement or reviews that might not be genuine."
Don't forget to ask professionals you work with regularly for their recommendations on software, too.
"Your CPA or accounting services provider is another great source of information. The good ones will have the ear of accounting technology vendors and will know about all the latest products and features," says Dennis M. Najjar, co-founder of AccountingDepartment, a virtual accounting and bookkeeping service. "They will also have feedback from other clients who use them and be able to warn you about any pitfalls they've experienced."
While change may be daunting, remember that the reason you went into business was to make money, not to just have something comforting to do. Adding efficiencies to your business will pay off in the end.
"Change is hard for a small business," says McCabe. "Take the time to streamline stuff and automate the backend so that you can move on to bigger profits and more growth."
Pam Baker has written for numerous leading publications including, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, the NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.
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