Is there an app that can genuinely help your small business?
It’s a big question. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the ‘app’ – those handy little pieces of software that help us navigate our day-to-day needs – sometimes needs we didn’t realise we had. It’s hard to imagine life before them, but even harder to imagine the numbers involved. Last year saw 197 billion downloads around the world, a figure expected to surpass 350 billion by 2021.
So how far have we come in those 10 years when it comes to business use?
Ker-ching: apps to help you manage money
For small businesses, cash flow is the perennial problem. Making sure your company has a healthy balance (and that you know what it is) will always be a part of running a tight ship. A good place to start is Freshbooks, which tops Business News Daily’s 2018 list for small business accounting.
For small businesses, cash flow is the perennial problem. Making sure your company has a healthy balance (and that you know what it is) will always be a part of running a tight ship.
Freshbooks is a cloud-based app, which highlights your outstanding balances and makes it easy to see things like invoices, client records, expenses, time tracking and project management. It’s available from USD 15 per month, though price plans rise along with the number of clients you’re billing. There is no contract, so you can cancel with no fee whenever you want.
Another accounting app garnering attention is Zoho Books. It’s aimed at smaller operations and is popular with sole traders, but it’s worthy of a mention here because it’s good at growing with your business. It’s a simple online app that syncs with your accounts. You can create and send invoices, track time and expenses and build reports, plus Zoho runs a range of apps that you can bolt on as your needs change. It’s also cheaper, priced in the UAE from AED 29 per month, although pricier plans let you create sales orders, purchase orders and manage inventory.
Chit-chat: apps to help you communicate
These days every business is expected to have a Facebook account, an active Twitter feed and a LinkedIn presence posting articles, infographics and snippets of wisdom. However, all this is essentially shouting from a window unless you’re getting some feedback about what your audience think.
That’s where apps like SurveyMonkey and MailChimp come in. The first lets you send surveys to your customers and analyse the results – it’s up to you whether you incentivise participation, but it’s a more personal approach than asking a question on Twitter and hoping for the best. The entry-level package is free, but to make real use of it you’ll need to at least upgrade to the USD 26 per month option.
MailChimp is also free at the most basic level, though the USD 10 per month package gives you more flexibility. It’s an email campaign tool that has been around for a while now, but several new features have been added for 2018, including Google remarketing, free automation for all users, landing pages and pop-ups for your website. MailChimp allows you to monitor campaign progress, edit subscriber profiles and run reports, all from your handheld device. Beware, though – if you’re looking to send lots of huge-volume emails, it’s a big jump to USD 199 per month.
For internal comms, email alone no longer cuts it and stalwarts like Skype and Slack loom large in 2018. But what about managing work flows? HubSpot may be a step up in terms of cost, but as a marketing automation tool it’s hard to beat. You can manage contacts between your marketing, sales and service teams, see the progress of leads, communicate with other teams and study campaign metrics. To get everything on offer, you’re looking at USD 2,400 per month, but it’s worth studying the cheaper packages as they may give you what you need.
Settling up: apps to make payments easier
The way customers make payments is changing. People expect paying for things to be easier, quicker and mobile. According to recent figures, mobile payments are expected to surpass USD 1tr by next year. While the UAE is moving away from being a cash-based society (a 2013 MasterCard report grouped it with countries just beginning their journey away from cash) it’s not there yet.
However, a number of ‘digital wallets’ are available, including Emirates NBD Pay, MashreqPay and Etisalat Wallet. This year Apple Pay also entered the market and the Emirates Digital Wallet, led by the UAE Banks Federation, aims to support the UAE Central Bank’s aim ‘to reduce and ultimately eliminate the circulation of cash, minimising financial risk and fraud’.
While it’s not yet available in the UAE, Square Point of Sale plans to move into new markets in the future and the technology is worth a mention. It enables you to accept payments anywhere, turning your device into a mobile point of sale for credit and debit cards. One to watch.
People power: apps to make sense of social media
A growing collection of social media accounts raises two questions: what do you fill them with and how do you manage them? Downloading an app won’t create killer content for you, but you can at least keep track without checking half a dozen separate apps. Hootsuite lets you manage multiple social accounts from a single app – it’s currently helping more than 10 million people to do so and it allows you to track customer engagement too. To get the best out of it you’ll need to subscribe, which means contacting them about pricing, but many of the key features are available for free, including scheduling posts, photos and videos.
The Buffer app is also worth a look. It’s another social media aggregator that allows you to schedule campaigns across a range of social media platforms. It doesn’t offer the complexity or range of Hootsuite but it’s a leaner, cleaner interface – ideal if you just want to make sure things are posted on time.
Under lock and key: apps to keep your files secure
Hacking is a huge and growing problem and the last few years have seen SMEs brought well and truly into the firing line. Symantec’s report for December 2017 shows the biggest rise in ‘phishing’ (masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an attempt to gather personal information) was among small businesses. The highest rates of malware were reported among organisations with 251-500 employees, with one in 215 emails harbouring something nasty.
Hacking is a huge and growing problem and the last few years have seen SMEs brought well and truly into the firing line.
Being up to date with the growing, ever-changing complexity of fraud is the best defence but, that said, it’s helpful to know that shared files are safe. Firefox ‘Send’ is a file-sharing system that uses ‘a safe, private and encrypted link that automatically expires to ensure your stuff does not remain online forever’. At the moment it’s not strictly speaking an app, in that it’s being tested as a browser experience; however, it’s still in development and may well go on to be a self-contained app. Until then, you could always try Box, another file sharing app that takes security seriously enough to offer its own encryption service, Box KeySafe. This lets you track exactly what is being accessed, when and where. It’s currently used by over 50,000 businesses, including Pandora, Boston Scientific, Gap and Nationwide.
Helping out: apps give assistance, not answers
Running a small business is demanding – it takes time, dedication and money. As you focus on your core operations, it’s easy to find yourself losing track of some administrative functions and thinking, ‘If only I had an XYZ app, then everything would be better.’
The truth is, apps don’t replace skills. To run a business and keep it in good shape, you need to be fighting fit yourself. Apps won’t give you great time-management skills, make you a great leader, or magically move you to the front of your field. What they will do is give you a handy means through which to apply the business skills that you’ve developed. You’ll market yourself, but they’ll make it easier to keep track. You’ll run a tight ship, but they’ll make it easier to review the paper trail. You’ll work hard to understand security and risk, but they’ll give you a helpful level of reassurance.
It’s a bit like making a New Year’s resolution to run a marathon – downloading a shiny mileage app won’t do the work for you. Be choosy and look for real value. You would do that with employees, premises and third-party providers, so do the same with apps.