Imagine if your office building was designed without hot water or a parking lot or a roof. Now imagine the reverse – a building with fifteen bathrooms and nowhere to hold a meeting. You might be able to succeed in that kind of environment, but you’d be starting off with a massive disadvantage.
The structure of the software you use is just as important. Companies either have the tools they need or they sit on all the wrong tools, hoping that they can muddle through with what they’ve got. Historically, developers have referred to a foundational set of software tools as a stack.
A LAMP stack, for instance, is a web-based stack consisting of Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. This gives a developer all the tools they need to build a functional website. WordPress can run on a LAMP stack.
If any of the pieces are missing, though, the whole thing falls apart.
Today, we’re going to take a look at software stacks in a more general sense. The term has morphed over the years to include things like marketing software and customer management. I want to talk to you about the basic tools every business should have, why they should have them, and how they fit together.
Financial software basics
I spend most of my time thinking and writing about the finances of small businesses. It is my undying belief that every business should employ some sort of accounting software. In a perfect world, that software would also include some expense management tools, but if you just end up with a way to track it all manually, you’re still going to be in a solid position.
Accounting software is the sun around which the rest of your financial stack is going to revolve. The rest of that stack is made up of expense management software, invoicing software, and some sort of budgeting or planning software.
The Small Business Association says, “Accurately tracking financial data is not only critical for running the day-to-day operations of your small business, but it is also essential when seeking funding from lenders or investors to take your business to the next level.”
You might be able to do all that on your own, but there’s no reason to. Accounting software has cracked this nut. Just get some – here’s a list of free accounting options – and start running the business.
There was a time when everyone you needed to know was in your Rolodex – still a company, somehow. Now, you can skip the index cards and move everything online. With a customer relationship management (CRM) software, all of your contacts are in one place, they’re all full of information, and you can even automate some of the work involved in keeping those relationships fresh.
Many CRMs include email marketing automation, allowing you to keep in touch with your best potential and returning customers. That, again, gives you more time to spend on growing your business.
CRMs run the gamut from basic (Less Annoying CRM) to incredibly sophisticated (Salesforce). Startups just need a place to start putting all the contacts that they’re collecting, so feel free to start on the smaller end.
We’ll talk a little about scalability at the end.
We’ve given entire presentations on building a small business marketing stack. This is the one area where your business details are going to really affect the kind of software you purchase.
The folks over at TFM Insights have a nice 2017 roundup of marketing automation solutions that’s worth checking out. The author sums it up by saying, “The goal is to be able to speak to customers and prospective customers in a relatively personal way but at scale.”
If you’re building an app, you might need sophisticated web tracking and retargeting tools to get the most out of all the visits you generate. If you’re a consulting firm answering government RFPs, a good CRM might be all the power you need.
You need something to manage the marketing function of your business, but the scale and feature set of your software can vary drastically based on your particulars.
Productivity and communication
If you have ten people on your team and you can each save just five minutes a day, by the end of a month, your business will have saved almost 17 hours. That’s 17 hours of work you can get done and paid for by finding five minutes of time savings.
Productivity and communication tools are the best way to find those extra hours. When I say productivity, I’m talking about note taking tools, social media add-ons, and the like. These are the things that help you manage the back-end by getting out of your way.
Communication tools are arguably the most important piece of a young company, but they’re also readily available. Slack, the email client of your choosing, Skype or Google Hangouts, or anything else that can keep you in touch with your clients and colleagues.
Business is all about building relationships, and relationships are built on communication. Don’t get started without a strong communication plan in place.
Data security software
I would feel horrible if you went through all the steps to make your business a success, put in place all the software you needed, built up that customer-base, and then lost a month’s worth of work because you weren’t backing your data up.
A survey from Backblaze found that, in 2016, 41 percent of respondents never backed up their data or did so less than once a year. Throw in those that backed up just once a year and you’ve got a full 66 percent of respondents backing up less frequently than they go to the dentist.
If you work in the cloud, this is going to happen automagically. If you’re a Google Drive and Docs users, for instance, then everything is being backed up to Google’s servers as you go along.
Some things, though, work better when you manage them locally. Huge video files or financial information that requires special storage, for instance. In those cases, you should absolutely have a backup system in place.
In my old office, we used a dual system with a local backup and a secured cloud-based backup. Always diversify the physical location of your backups. If you put it all on a local hard drive and the building catches on fire, you’re out of luck.
Scalability and a sample stack
The last thing to consider before making any software decision is your long term plan. How big is your business going to be and when is it going to hit that size? You should assume that things will change – including the software you use – but it would be nice to not change every three months.
Pick a set of solutions that can grow with you for at least a while. With that in mind, here’s a software stack that I think almost any business could use to get off the ground. These are all free options, by the way.
- Financial – Wave
- CRM – Insightly
- Marketing – Leadsius
- Communication – Slack and Google
- Data backup – Google Drive (manual, but 15 GB free)
Those should be enough to get you up and running. We’re going to keep our focus on the new small business throughout the start of 2017 over on Knocking Down Doors. I’d love for you to follow along and share any insights you’ve had during the startup process. Good luck out there.