One of the biggest decisions a small business has to make is investing in the right software solutions. Technology is a key asset for any-sized business; day-to-day operations are dependent on it. In today’s competitive business landscape, it has become essential for small businesses to leverage technology – software solutions in particular – to maximize productivity and keep operational expenses low. Before start-ups can leverage technology, they must first purchase or acquire the right software solutions to meet the demands of their business. This task is not doubt an intensive one requiring time and effort. But it doesn’t have to drive you up the wall.
Fix your budget
As a small business, it’s natural that budget would be your first concern. You will need to decide what part of your total budget can be committed towards purchase of software. Will you be able to afford a large up-front payment or do you prefer to make monthly payments? Once you set your budget, you can explore sources of funding as well as payment arrangements.
Determine your needs
The solution to any business problem starts with identifying needs. What value will the certain software solution deliver to your business? What software is good-to-have but not entirely necessary for your line of work? These are some decisions you need to make. The software needs of a small freight trucking business may be different from that of a content marketing start-up. By understanding your priorities and examining the processes you currently have in place and expect to include in the future, you can chalk out a list of key requirements. As part of this process, you will also be identifying the key areas within your business where software solutions can be deployed.
Here is a look at some of the common areas of business where the use of software for daily operations becomes necessary:
Accounting: Accounting and book-keeping are rather mundane tasks that you’d rather have a software product to help you with! On a serious note, it is imperative that your small business tracks finances efficiently and without any errors. If you need a centralized accounting and bookkeeping system from which you can pull tax or expenses data quickly, a well-rated accounting software is the way to go.
Desktop accounting software for small businesses
1. AccountEdge Pro 2012
Pros: Fully-featured, easy to use, a good choice for multi-user support
Cons: Importing data from other programs is not easy
2. Intuit QuickBooks 2012
Pros: A good choice for accounting newbies, easy set-up, a convenient calendar view, allows sharing of custom report templates
Cons: A lack of inventory features, limited user support
Some online and SaaS (software as a service) accounting options
Pros: Helps in document and project management, offers several add-ons
Cons: Little online help, can get expensive for multiple users (starts out free and goes up to $149 per month)
Pros: Available for free, easy interface
Cons: Does not support electronic tax payments or state tax tracking
Pros: Available free (allows a maximum of 20 transactions a month), excellent interface
Cons: Does not offer item-tracking or US payroll
Inventory management: If timely and efficient order fulfillment is the difference between gaining and losing customers, you will need assistance from a top-notch inventory management software. It will help you track and control inventory and handle orders, sales, purchases and deliveries.
Free inventory management software:
1. Pos Maid
Pros: Simple to build inventory database, automatic stock report generation, good customer service
Cons: none as far as small businesses go
2. inFlow Inventory
Pros: Easy to use, excellent linking of inventory with sales and purchase
Cons: Creation of custom documents is not as easy as it can be
Ecommerce software: If you are a B2B or B2C ecommerce business, you may want to invest in software applications that allow you to sell your offerings and conduct business online. The simplest shopping cart software, for instance, will serve as a real-world order form that allows convenient sale-purchase over the internet. There are different kinds of shopping cart software you can choose from, so you may want to consider the pros and cons of each before zeroing in on one. You have the option to buy or lease software; you can also choose open-source applications that have a strong developer community.
Popular open source ecommerce platforms:
Pros: Market leader, highly scalable, built-in SEO, free
Cons: Needs efficient and careful management (especially as your online store grows)
Pros: Easy to install and use, free, top-notch front-end features, simplified product management
Cons: Not easily customizable, frustrating back-end
3. Zen Cart
Pros: Free, excellent product/service management, several free and paid templates
Cons: Reporting is too basic, add-on integration is not easy
Social media management software: If your social media presence is an important sales driver and you don’t have the time or the resources to offer real-time responses, investing in social conversation software like Hootsuite and Sprout Social makes sense. On the other hand, if you want to be an active social media player by understanding the interests and spheres of influence of social media participants, social influencer software like Klout could be useful. For creating customized Facebook applications and promotions on YouTube and other social media channels, opt for social marketing software.
Pros: Easy to set up columns and search by list, hashtag, handle, etc; provides basic Facebook and Twitter analytics, easy to schedule tweets
Cons: Nothing to speak of, very handy for small businesses
Pros: Integrates email and social media very well, ideal for less tech-savvy business owners
Cons: More tech-savvy business owners may prefer something less basic
3. Sprout Social
Pros: Easy user interface, useful feedback
Cons: Small business plan is available for $39 per month and supports 20 profiles
Logistics software: If you need to handle multiple shipping partners for your online import-export business, you can add a good logistics software to the list. Do a bit of research to identify the best paid and open source logistics software in the market.
Data analysis software: If your work involves extracting, analyzing and manipulating data on a regular basis, a data analysis software can help. The software is also useful to handle massive amounts of data – you can accumulate and organize it easily, efficiently and quickly. Some of the big data pools you may need to handle in a well-organized manner include employee information, product information and customer information. The right CRM or HR software can help you accomplish this and stay on top of your business.
Project management software: Managing multiple projects takes more than just a highly-competent project manager; it requires clearly defined objectives and steps of action from planning to implementation. Project management software can provide a roadmap, help manage risks and define goals/work for every member of the project team.
Project management software can help with milestones, calendars, scheduling and tasks. It can also provide chat and forum support by enabling online communication between teams, vendors and freelancers.
Tips on choosing project management software:
It must fit your business and allow business systems to integrate
Must be flexible and scalable, supporting growth and multiple users
Must streamline operations and reduce costs
Buy a subscription to web-based project management software – you can pay by the month or year as opposed to an outright purchase.
Opt for business project management software packages that offer free 15-day or one month trials. This can help you make an informed decision
Is there a solution for your needs?
Depending on the niche you operate in, you will have to research to determine if there actually exists a software solution for your specific need(s). Even if there isn’t one that completely addresses your niche-specific requirement, can it be modified by the provider or even at your end? Do you have the means to get a custom software system/application designed from scratch? These are some of the questions that need answering.
Making an informed decision
The decision-making process must involve participation from not just you – the business owner – but also employees who will be using the product. A product rating system based on appropriate criteria can help you arrive at an informed choice. Some helpful tips in this regard are:
Opting for product demonstrations without identifying your requirements
Starting without a shortlist of products and adopting a “let’s see how we go” attitude
Testing the software product without a scenario
Getting swayed by any extra or added functionality that is not really a critical requirement
It goes without saying that you should give due attention to product ratings (from customer reviews), product support and vendor reputation before committing your small business dollars and time.