When you are an entrepreneur and a businessman, there are more than a few things that you are doing on a daily basis. From planning your business, generating leads and converting them to paying customers, through keeping customers happy with your product /services, and keeping employees happy with your charm and money – there’s a lot going on there.

The last thing you want to hear is ..

We did not get help when we needed the most, and so we went back to Macedon.

– Alexander, The Great

Oh yes, that happens to most of us. We keep so busy in pushing ourselves and tasks fall through, things don’t get done, or we are just not there at the right time.

Fear not, fellow business people – help is at hand.

Smart people in this world have gone through the same predicaments as you and came out the other side successfully. All they needed was their spirit of adventure, will to get things done under some challenging circumstances, and a few tools of the trade. I am sure you have the spirit willing (this is not a self-help blog after all) – so let me help with the tools part. But, before going further – did I hear you asking my qualifications for preaching such information? Here we go..

My Story

In later part of Y2018 I brought about a big change in my life. I went from a super IT job to creating a technology business on my own – all I had was savings for a few months, a rock-solid family that supported my decision, and my experience. I knew a bit about the way forward – after all I had lot of freedom at work to implement things that I saw fit. But, I was in for a surprise.

My main work revolved around creating a product for a highly distributed client base in India. I was trying to figure out how I could implement a high-level plan that I had put together – as efficiently as possible. My day was planned out to be –

  1. Mentor small teams to develop distinct parts of the application
  2. Incrementally detail out user requirements and stories
  3. Lead back-end application development from the front
  4. Collaborate with leads who had promised to jump on the platform – show them demos and iterate new development/patches
  5. Monitor for consistent user experience
  6. Monitor budget

What my day turned out to be?

  1. Finding ways to keep potential customers (with conflicting interests) happy
  2. Keeping team members motivated and aligned to the goal
  3. Keeping track of the many collaboration issues across teams, while getting involved with every aspect of the development process
  4. Talking to new leads since who I saw as partners were not quite that, and generating interest about the product
  5. Preparing presentations, documentation, and marketing materials
  6. Competitor analysis (mainly local – so that needed a lot of leg work)

As you can imagine, that pulled me in ten different ways. Yes, I enjoy those moments. But, that’s like being on a roller-coaster – you want it to end, hopefully soon enough after getting a scare or two.

roller-coaster-business

As you might have expected by now, I was miserable for sometime. I missed deadlines, could not talk to the right people on time, my Excel spreadsheets with tasks for self/others, and to-do lists were a mess, and anxiety on missed tasks/deadlines always seemed waiting for me.

Enough of you esteemed folks scoffing at this what may be a well-known story for you. Let us get back to the order of business. As I expected my experience of managing chaos kicked in – the results were not evident as in a large company with structured processes, but we were getting there every day and moment :).

While I fully expect the tools to behave and help you out, the said processes are not easy to change overnight. That’s the reason behind the year 2021 in the post’s title. Anything that starts this year easily finds its way to the next year, and so do all the good practices that you follow today. I know that was cheeky – deal with it.

The two big carry-away items out of all the circus –

  1. Amazing people can do wonders for your business
  2. Right tools can make you invincible (almost)

Our focus here will be on the tools.

Tools to Organise your Small Business

Being tight on budget and effort/time, I had to decide a few things quickly (apparently I wasn’t quick enough). So, I did not take a lot of time to subject these tools to the evaluation they deserve. Instead, I was quickly picking them for tasks, organising myself and the entire team with those tools, making quick adjustments when a few tools did not work for us, and moving on to newer problems. In this process I missed out some of the tools developed locally and appeared promising, but I did not have the patience to go on a journey only to have a hard-stop much later in the game.

Obviously, another important aspect was money. I did not have the budget, nor the will, to spend on tools before the company made any profits. So, it was down to free or super inexpensive tools.

One advantage that my team and I had was that we live on technology. So, we are not quite afraid to experiment, fail quickly, and move on to something else – and many of those were tested on our own servers to save subscription costs.

1. Personal Planning: Microsoft Todo

“Every day starts with organising the self” – that was not a philosophical statement.

With limited resources and time, it is important not only to plan ahead, but keep changing that plan throughout the day. But, you need a brain dump of all those planned things that take a fall for the unplanned tasks. That’s where personal organisers come in.

Over years, I jumped hoops among many a free and paid to-do products, but my true love would go to an app that –

  1. is simple. Shows tasks, can store due dates, and some details (does not act like it is saving the world doing this)
  2. is available on most platforms I use – namely Windows, Web browsers and Android phones
  3. has pleasant user experience – two clicks and some text should be all that is required to record something

My favourite tool was Wunderlist, but that’s gone – so Microsoft Todo it is.

All I need to do now is to –

  1. Have my phone or computer handy to record tasks
  2. Always put a due date for each task
  3. Be prepared to change the schedule at the nth moment

In addition, any long running tasks or task for the team goes in to the project management tool (see below). This way I don’t track everything myself, but rely on the good people out there to get things done.

2. Customer and activity management: Zoho CRM / Yetiforce

I will not lie – I wanted to avoid this whole CRM thing since I knew it will suck the life out of our sales, marketing and service folks – in my case, all me.

But, I went ahead anyway – could not live without reminders to check on customers, follow up on tasks, or record my frustrations in an application.

Zoho CRM is a great option if you are a limited group logging into CRM applications.

  • Capture leads and contacts
  • Capture opportunities (limited functionality) – put a value to it and get heartburn on how much revenue you lose every day
  • Record conversations – email, phone or personal meetings
  • Do all this anywhere, anytime

In hindsight, we could have stuck by Zoho and avoided the headache of jumping across apps. But, hey – call us adventurous and stupid.

source: Yetiforce

We had been playing around Yetiforce CRM for a customer (don’t ask) and had this idea to put that to practical use –

  1. Good customisation options – though we quite did not need that for customer management in the short time we had
  2. Data merge functions – that we used for everything from invoicing to (mostly internal-facing) emails
  3. Workflows that automate tasks
  4. Yetiforce enabled us to build small views for capturing timesheets and see customer feedback translated to our stories
  5. The best part was that we could get access to as many people as we wanted (all of 3-5 people) without incurring additional costs

Alternatives

  • Take my word – if you are really small, just maintain the entire database on Google Sheets (you can do some smart automation)
  • Streak CRM based on Gmail is good for simple tracking and is free
  • Odoo suite of applications can take care of CRM and far beyond that, and they are inexpensive

3. Project Planning: Phabricator

Our initial plan was to use a Git based tool and call it a day. But, the user experience was not that great, there were complaints about how data entry gobbled up time, and how things could have been better.

source: phabricator

We switched to Phabricator, which was free to self-host, and had great features. And, it can work on any respectable host that supports PHP.

  • Create Kanban boards and manage sprints
  • Document entire stories and work with the story until implementation
  • Create simple rules to alert people about assigned tasks and automate those nagging things that no one wants to do
  • Tasks could be created, scheduled, assigned, merged, and sub-tasks created
  • Small conversations happened within the tool in the context of the task – no more emails and “oh.. do you remember the email last week – that totally had all the details”
  • We loved the version control integration (relevant for tech teams)

Alternatives

If you feel Phabricator is too technical in nature, you may be right. It really depends on how you look at the problem. Fortunately, there are more than a few great alternatives –

  • Asana – great project management features
  • Trello – simple, but effective dashboards for the team
  • Gitlab or GitHub – again, makes sense for tech teams, not so for others

If you can self-host, here are two tools that can be easy to install (available with Softaculous in your CPanel) –

  • ZenTao: A lot of features, easy to use and track activities
  • Rukovoditel: Can also bring non-PM functions like simple CRM, easy customization to the table

4. Gmail + Office (latter not free, but read on)

Gmail may be one of the most valuable products that we had access to, despite not quite paying money for any of that GSuite goodness. Internal communications or those conversations with the entire world are easily had on any device and from anywhere.

Google docs make it quite easy to create and share documents, presentations, and spreadsheets among internal employees and customers. All you need is a browser to work on the artifacts directly or start importing stuff to your heart’s content. While this is great for personal use, business users need to pick the Google Suite of products – not an expensive proposition by any means, but there is money involved :).

Combine the power of office with Google Drive and Gmail, and you can push collaboration to the extreme – seriously, you need to invent brain-interface for something better.

Alternatives

  • Free option with locally installed software – LibreOffice
  • Zoho Office Suite
  • From a communication perspective for countries like India, it is difficult to beat Whatsapp

5. Customer Feedback

We are in strange times.

  • Everyone wants to do things differently and stand out of the crowd
  • No one likes to do things differently when asked by someone else

If you are a company wanting money from a business, you clearly see that they don’t quite want to change- they are just human beings doing their thing. But, talk to them as their customers and you will hear a different story, I am sure.

So, while you are driving change or not – one thing is for sure. You will get quite a lot of feedback from your customers, leads, partners, and so forth. As leaders, we accept all that feedback and try to action them. As puny humans, all the feedback will just make us more confused and feel cornered.

Don’t get fooled though – customers won’t provide feedback when you request them to. So, your reliance on surveys through surveymonkey and such will quickly fail. The better ways for a small business-facing-business is to do everything yourself, and direct customers to their own feedback to keep some semblance of professionalism.

And, that’s where feedback management systems come in. You collect feedback, pour over it at length (let’s say two minutes), classify requirements that hopefully other customers asking for as well, and transfer them requirements to your project management tool.

We very much wanted to start with something like this, but what we ended up was with a combination of –

  1. Public Trello boards which were made colorful
  2. Emails to draw attention to trello boards
  3. Someone to painstakingly monitor Trello and keep our product management in sync

The customer behaviour largely depends on your line of business – so YMMV.

End Word

Small business is a difficult place to be in. I have rediscovered my respect for those business owners by finding my own successes and failures on the way. While the above tools help, you and your team are the true heroes of the story.