Top 10 Tools for Creative Business Owners

Top 10 Tools for Creative Business Owners

I know, I know. You want to get off your computer and phone so you can spend more time at your workbench. But a handful of well-chosen tools can actually reduce the amount of time you need to spend on technology so you can focus on the work that matters.

Let’s get stuck in, shall we? In no particular order, we have…

1. Google Calendar

Organising your time is critical in business, but even more so when you’re the owner and your work hours are often blurred with personal time. You can use a paper calendar or day-planner of course, but a digital version such as Google Calendar has many advantages.

An obvious but important one is that it’s with you wherever you are. Using your phone you’ll be able to schedule in a meeting with that store buyer right then and there at the trade show.

Setting up a separate calendar for each of your areas of responsibility is also important. If you’re trying to focus on your client deadlines you’ll want to have just the ‘Business’ calendar showing, but then if you want to schedule a time for a client meeting you can switch on your ‘Home’ calendar to make sure it doesn’t clash with your daughter’s piano recital.

Don’t just limit yourself to traditional calendar items. How about your blogging schedule? Your babysitting club? Or your staff roster? You can either keep them private or share them with collaborators as necessary. This is another reason why your separated calendars are vital – your spouse doesn’t care about your editorial calendar and your assistant doesn’t need to know about Thursday night’s bikini wax.

Cost: Free

Get Google Calendar here!

2. Gmail

Since switching from Outlook to Gmail I’ve been whizzing through my inbox, then actually shutting it off to get some work done (imagine that?).

‘But wait!’, I hear you cry, ‘I’m trying to look professional here, I don’t want to be sending my emails from a Gmail address.’

You don’t need to! I send email through my own domain by setting up an account through Google Business Apps and my clients and contacts are none the wiser.

The single biggest thing you can do to immediately ease your inbox overwhelm is making use of the filtering and labelling function to direct incoming mail into folders that make sense for you. For example, all of my Etsy and Hardtofind sales go into my Orders folder which I check once daily, right before I head to the post office. The newsletters I’m signed up for go straight into my Subscriptions folder so they don’t interrupt me. I can’t overstate how critical this has been to keeping me focused and efficient.

If you find yourself writing the same type of email over and over, the canned response plugin will be your lifesaver. Another super handy add-on is the delayed response from Right Inbox, which is excellent for scheduling your responses to fall within business hours (just because you’re replying to email at 10pm doesn’t mean you want clients to think you’re still available at that hour!).

Cost: Free trial | Full version from $5/user/month

Get Gmail for business here!

3. Zendone

After a well-functioning inbox and calendar, an efffective to-do list is the next crucial weapon in your business ninja arsenal. There are a TON of options out there so it can be a bit overwhelming to decide. After much research, I landed upon Zendone. It’s based on the Getting Things Done method and integrates with Google calendar and Evernote. Even if you’re not a crazy fan of these like I am, you’ll be able to see the logical and powerful system.

Just like with your calendar, you can set up multiple tabs for each area of your life. From there you create Projects under which you list the sequential steps required to complete it. You can create recurring projects, assign deadlines and even mark it as ‘delegated’ to remind you to follow up. The other great part is searching tasks by context, that is, where do you need to be to complete the task. For example, when I’m whipping out my photography gear to take a photo for my blog, I’ll check the ‘Camera’ context and find that there were a couple of other things I needed to shoot too and save time doing it at the same time.

Unfortunately Zendone is still in Beta testing at the moment, so there’s no tablet or phone app as yet. But for someone like me who works predominantly on a desktop computer it has been tremendously helpful.

Cost: Free

Get Zendone here!

4. Evernote

Where Zendone keeps track of my tasks, Evernote keeps track of my ideas. I was forever writing things down on scraps of paper or in various notebooks and could never find the idea for the blog post / new product / genius marketing campaign when I later needed it.

I started with the free version and it was great and I later upgraded to the paid version to deal with the larger file sizes when I started using it to photograph and organise my receipts.

Some other ideas for using it are:

  • Use the Web Clipper to keep track of interesting articles and blog ideas
  • Store inspiration for top-secret projects that you don’t want the world to see on Pinterest
  • Store your ‘someday’ ideas for travel, house projects, recipes and more
  • Forward invoices and other paperwork directly to Evernote via email

Cost: Free | Premium version $5/month

Get Evernote here!

5. IFTTT

I have been on a mission to automate as much as I can in my life and work. Not to become some impersonal machine, in fact quite the opposite: to automate the repetitive tasks so I can spend more time on what is really important.

Of course many apps and software have their own fancy synching/integrating functions which is great. But who wants to spend hours working out how to do it in each proram?

This is where IFTTT comes in. Standing for If This Then That, it’s the genius concept that brings all of your tech tools together. Facebook, WordPress, Evernote, Google Reader, Email, Dropbox, Instagram, Google Drive… you name it!

I’ve really only scratched the surface, but here are just a few of the ways you could use it:

  • Send Instagram photos to your Dropbox retrieve them later to use on your blog
  • Send starred items in Google Reader to Evernote so you can refer to favourite articles later
  • Send your Facebook status to Twitter so you only have to log in once
  • Receive an SMS on your friend’s birthday so you remember to call her at lunchtime
  • Receive a text when rain is forecast so you don’t show up at your client meeting looking like a drowned rat

Cost: Free

Get IFTTT here!

6. Hootsuite

As great as social media is, it can be a total time suck. Especially if you have more than one platform and have multiple ventures, you could find yourself logging in and switching between accounts all day long.

I find Hootsuite great for managing my multiple Facebook pages and Twitter, all from the one screen. In addition to the time saved by having a single account, it can also help you schedule your posts. No, I don’t have to remember to get up early every Saturday and post congratulations messages to my wedding clients – I batch prepare and schedule these ahead of time. It’s great for things like promoting your blog posts and for spacing out your updates so they don’t all appear at once.

Cost: Free

Get Hootsuite here!

7. Dropbox

Want a sure-fire way to annoy bloggers, editors and family? Send them huge files as email attachments.

If that’s not your aim, sign up for Dropbox. I initially used to set up shared folders, but after a media contact deleted all of my press photos and a client started using it to store all of their music, I now only share the links to the read-only folders.

The main thing I use Dropbox for is my online press kit – media peeps can browse and download product photos and headshots at their leisure so they can get what they need even if I’m not availabe. I also frequently use it for submissions and to share high-res photos with family.

If you have colleagues/employees or often work remotely, you will find it significantly more useful. You can even use it to replace your hard drive if you wish.

Cost: Free up to 2GB | Pro version from $10/month

Get Dropbox here!

8. Xero

We’re nearly at the end and we haven’t even talked moolah yet. I know it’s not sexy, but managing your cashflow, invoices, bookkeeping, budget and tax is super important for any business.

When I started my business I am embarrassed to admit I had a woeful accounting system. I can honestly say that Xero changed the way I think about my business overnight. With automatic bank feeds, easy budgeting and a user-friendly interface, I now have to spend very little time grappling with my books. When it’s tax time, I simply make sure everthing is up-to-date and my accountant logs in and does the rest!

Outright is another popular options for a cloud-based accounting system. I chose Xero because they realise that not everyone lives in the US (ability to handle multiple currencies, Australian banks and GST, yes please!).

Cost: From $29/month

Get Xero here!

9. Analytics

I’m sure you’re putting in loads of effort with your various marketing strategies, but if you don’t track the results you’ll never know what’s working! Google Analytics takes out the guesswork.

I mainly use it to track where my traffic sources are coming from so I can then maximise those opportunities (hello Pinterest marketing!). Other handy tools are demographics, click-throughs, time spent on site and most popular pages. If you dig a little deeper there are also loads more insights including tracking your e-commerce sales, advertising campaigns and a whole lot more than I haven’t even got to yet.

It’s a little technical but it’s a goldmine of data. You’ll be able to confidently ditch that advertising campaign that didn’t work, make that traffic-spike-causing guest post a regular thing and craft your message to better appeal to your market.

Cost: Free

Get Analytics here!

10. Google Drive

As we’ve unchained ourselves from our workdesks and increasingly embraced multiple devices and location-independent working, it’s more important than ever to have access to your documents wherever you are. Dropbox is one way, as we’ve explored, but it does require the original software to be installed on the device in order to open and edit the file. For example I can put a Word Document in my Dropbox, but I can’t open it on my mobile phone or iPad since Office isn’t installed.

Google Drive (formerly Docs) has the advantage of having its own inbuilt file formats for things like documents and spreadsheets. The advanced functions and formatting of Word aren’t yet matched, so I wouldn’t use it for your fancy business plan or proposal. For basic internal use, especially for collaborations, it is excellent.

It’s not just for word processing and data though, you can use it just like a hard drive on your computer and store any kind of file and have it available synced to your various devices.

Cost: Free

Get Google Drive here!

***

Now, I haven’t tried every option out there so this is just my personal experience.

If you have any favourites you’d like to share, please tell us about them in the comments!

15 thoughts on “Top 10 Tools for Creative Business Owners

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this post! I use some of these for my day to day but others I don’t and it’s great to be more productive with these tools.
    I signed up for google apps to use my email because I’ve never liked the look/customization options with my hosts email. I’m using their completely free option right now because I don’t need anything else. I’m not sure if you (or anyone else reading this) has much experience with this kinds of things, but I have it set up and it’s forwarding my emails properly but I was wondering if there’s a way to get all of my old emails on my host ported over to google apps?

    Thanks again!

    1. Glad you found it useful, Kendra! Hmm, I was able to bring over all my complete archives but I can’t recall exactly how I did it. Has anyone else had experience with this and would be able to chime in?

  2. Being brand new to the blogging/etsy scene, I am very hesitant at the thought of all the extra time that will be needed in front of “gadgets”, when I barely have time to create my ART while being a mom to 2 boys. But your post has given me a lift in spirits. “I CAN DO THIS… I hope”. Thanks for saving me some of the time it would have taken me to research all these wonderful tools!

    1. Hi Sarah, I am definitely not a technology-for-technology’s-sake type of person, but I love gadgets and apps that make our lives a little easier, more enjoyable or more productive. I hope this column will give you some tricks on how to use technology wisely to give you MORE time to spend on your art. Good luck!

  3. Oh my goodness Alicia! That list was amazing. So helpful and I am definitely going to start using some of your suggestions – 2013 will be my year to not only be better organised but also condense. I haven’t had a chance to read the post until now (how ironic…) but I’m so glad I did =)
    Ashleigh.

    1. Thanks for your lovely feedback, Ashleigh. My next post is going to be all about getting organised for 2013 so feel free to drop me a line with any questions you have or things you are struggling with and I’ll do my best to incorporate them.

  4. Fantastic website you have here but I was wanting to
    know if you knew of any forums that cover the
    same topics talked about here? I’d really love to be a part of community where I can get feed-back from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Bless you!

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