This is an article that I had planned to write sometime in the future when I felt that my business was more established. But several conversations with fellow small business owners over the last few weeks have made me rethink that. I realised that a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with simply getting things going with their businesses, often hindered by the seemingly high cost of setting up. And here I am referring to things that are not necessarily the core part of your businesses, but more the support systems that form the backend infrastructure that will help you to put your product out there or deliver your service. They generally do not make use of the free online business tools that are available out there.
In my very short journey (this time around) as an entrepreneur, I came across the term bootstrapping – that’s when you do everything yourself at minimal or, better yet, no cost. So, for example, anything and everything from creating your own graphics, including designing the branding material, building your own website..just making everything happen with as little outside financial or other resources as possible. This is the route that I have chosen to take in getting my business up and running. I can’t begin to tell you just how steep the learning curve has been and I won’t mention some of the really difficult and painful lessons that I have learnt along the way. But I have also come across some really useful online business tools that I, and anyone else who is so inclined, can use for free. All my learnings have been through trial and error, or to borrow from my mother, through ‘loop en val’. Let me take you through some of the ones I am using on a daily basis right now.
Where do I start with this one? I am not just talking about the search functionality, which is exceptional to say the least – especially if you use boolean terms so that you can be very specific in what you’re (or not) looking for. Think Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides and Gmail. The first four allow you to do what you would normally do with a regular Microsoft Office or iWork package – create documents, spreadsheets, presentations and file them all. All without buying and adding any extra software, just as long as you have a google account, you’re good to go. Gmail – a concern for some might be the gmail.com email address. Not to worry, you can actually set it up so that you can connect your other accounts for sending and receiving emails. So you most definitely can use your firstname.lastname@example.org address and still be as professional as can be (just remember here you will have to pay for the domain). What’s really nice about all the Google tools, if you’re using Chrome as your browser, is that you can also add extensions to enhance them. On Gmail, for example, you can add an extension that allows you to work with Gmail offline – very handy when you don’t have connectivity for whatever reason. So you can’t send or receive in real time until you’re connected again.
Anything to do with numbers has never been my strong suit. Since I can’t yet afford to have an accountant on retainer, I needed something that was not going to make the accounting process even more painful than it has to be. This allows me to keep track of everything to do with my business finances – from creating cost estimates and invoices, send them directly to client with my company branding, to issuing statements and generating income reports by customer or expenses by service provider. My two favourite elements of Wave: 1) it allows me to link directly with my bank account so that I can import my bank statement and 2) I can scan all my receipts using my phone and the system can automatically allocate them. It doesn’t always get it right so there are times when I have to make corrections, but overall it is bliss.
This tool does exactly as the name implies, it is the central point for all things marketing and sales for your business. A lot of it’s components are paid for, but a fairly recent discovery for me has been the CRM – completely free. With this tool you can build a comprehensive database of existing and potential clients and service providers, including their social media information. You can also, create and track deals (and link them to their respective customers) as well as incorporate the pipelines and keep an eye on their value. Since communication is a critical component of getting customers through Hubspot CRM you can also manage, automate and track all email your communication with clients and vendors – even see when emails have been opened. Lastly, you will need to stay up to speed with all the things you have to do to build those customer relationships and move the deal pipeline along. Just use the tasks functionality that can also be linked to specific deals and customers so that you know what you need to do, for who and by when.
If you’re not a graphic designer creating our own images, or even something as simple as a business card, can be a headache of note. Not only do you not have the skills, but you probably don’t have the right software. Enter Canva, an online graphic design tool that hugely simplifies the process. All the images in this blog and my social media platforms as well as my business profile, all done through Canva. You can even create brochures, presentations, magazines…anything that requires beautiful graphics. You can even check out the resource of designs created by other people in the community for inspiration or take a look through the free samples they provide.
I read. A lot. For work and entertainment. I want to be able to take out my latest book whenever I feel the need, whether I’m waiting for a meeting to start or waiting in the queue at the bank. I also like to make notes and highlight important passages – something I could never bring myself to do in actual book, it just always felt sacrilegious to me. And often, I’m reading multiple books at one time and like to chop and change, depending on my mood. With Kindle, as long as I have my phone with me, so is my entire book library. Once a book has been downloaded, I don’t need to be online to actually read it. Unless, of course, I want to look something up – a word, an image, concept – a lot of which can be done directly from the app.
The functionality on this tool has grown exponentially since I first came across it over 7 years ago. Just google it and you will see a myriad of examples of how people are using effectively for productivity. And I’ve tried quite a number of them from task management to setting it up as my entire document creation and management system. Now I use it mostly for collecting my ideas on anything and everything. Some of the notebooks I have include recipes, article ideas, notes and quotes from books that I have read. What I love most about this tool is that I am then able to tag the files in each notebook – with recipes, for example, I’ve tagged them according to breakfast, lunch, supper and snacks. I’ve even tagged which recipes are appropriate for my son. This makes it a lot easier when I’m searching for just lunch recipes or snack ideas for my son’s lunch box.
There are more tools that I use in my everyday work for my business, and even more that can be found on the internet. But in the interests of not waffling on for too long…. So let’s sum up – all of these tools have free versions, with which you can do quite a bit. But they do also have paid for upgrades that come with even more features. The other nice thing is that they are all cloud based, so I can access them from any of my devices. And they can be used across platforms. If you are going to go this route though, you do need to make sure that you have good strong internet connectivity. Without that, you are very limited in using tools like these.
Your turn. Please share how you are bootstrapping your business, be it through online tools like me or doing things ‘in the real world’?