While business owners that use an iPad might be quick to tell you it’s an invaluable business tool, the truth is that mobile devices like tablet PCs and smartphones are only as useful as the apps they run.
While many of the apps created for these devices are useful for small businesses, few that aim to solve all of your business problems actually achieve their lofty goals.
Given this, in order to make the most of the bewildering array of business apps available, it’s best to approach the iTunes store and Android Market with an open mind, rather than a set objective. While they won’t run your business for you, a number of these apps can make your life a lot easier if you give them a try.
Despite the mountain of marketing spin accompanying the tag ‘cloud computing, the concept opens up some considerable possibilities for small businesses. One notable advantage shared by ‘cloud-based apps is the ability to access and share information remotely, from a variety of devices, making collaboration between remotely situated employees more workable. Accordingly, some of the most useful and forward-thinking business apps are those that take advantage of this capability.
Evernote is one such piece of software. It’s effectively a note-taking app for the iPhone, Android, and iPad. Users create notebooks either on their desktop or mobile device, and can then share viewing and editing permissions with others also using the app, allowing for collaborative note-taking and editing between remote users.
Particularly useful is the app’s web clipping function, which lets users bookmark and shares information found whilst trawling the net. Users install a desktop browser plug-in that allows them to ‘clip’ a webpage, and tag it or send it to a particular notebook for later reference. Joe Winston, co-director of Party Machines finds this useful when researching prices.
“I use the web clipper in my desktop browser when I’m looking through suppliers, so I can look through and compare the information in my downtime when I’m on my phone,” he says. “I can tag it by the supplier when I’m looking through. I just search for the supplier and all my notes on that come up.”
Apps like Dropbox and Box can really simplify file sharing. In the same way that Evernote lets users share information, these apps let them share whole files like PowerPoint presentations or images, again facilitating remote collaboration between staff members.
As the director of BBS Communications, Matthew Hart has found the document-sharing app Documents To Go particularly useful when dealing with contractors.
“We’re a consultancy, so we’re often working out at our client’s offices,” he says. “I think one of the limitations we’ve encountered is with needing some kind of mobile software to open Word docs and edit them and send them on. That’s where Documents to Go has really helped.”
Hart has also found that using Dropbox allows him to circumvent his server’s limitations when it comes to emailing large files.
“We use that to send files within the business and to remotely-based consultants; particularly larger files that our server doesn’t handle,” he says. “If we have to get video files or images to journalists or to clients, we use that. It certainly hasn’t put systems across the board, it’s more just how you manage it personally.”
John Hagerty, director of Be Business, prefers a similar app called Box, which he uses to collaborate on documents with both staff and clients, preferring its more comprehensive permissions system and admin dashboard. Despite the prolific use of this app in his business, he finds himself using Dropbox as well, primarily because of its presence as a cross-app function in a number of different programs.
“I prefer Box, and I wish it had that degree of capability, because I use it to collaborate with all of the people that I work with within the creation of documents on behalf of my clients, and also to collaborate with my clients,” he says.
Hagerty cites a recent breach of Dropbox’s security in which any password could be used to access any account as the reason for choosing to use Box instead.
“That sort of thing never happens on Box – it’s part of their way of going to market. They target enterprise accounts, and I have an enterprise-level account with Box,” he continues. “If we’re doing a transaction, those documents will end up in what we call a deal room that we set up on Box that allows investors to go in and view documents that are part of the transaction process. I would never use Dropbox for that because its security levels aren’t high enough.”
Both Hagerty and BBS’s Hart note that these apps haven’t solved collaboration difficulties so much as provided a way to make them slightly simpler.
“I’m creating workflows around it rather than systems,” says Hagerty. “Rather than saving a document to my desktop or server, I save it to my Box account for the simple reason that as soon as I do that, it instantly alerts anyone who’s sharing that box that an update has been done or that that document has been put into that folder.”
The app then instantly notifies him as soon as the file’s collaborators view it, write a comment or update it.
“It’s a live workflow between people who could be all over the world, and quite often in my business they are.”
While it’s certainly useful to be able to share and work simultaneously on documents, what apps like Evernote and Box can’t do is help to manage the larger task at hand of project management.
In businesses that require the cooperation of more than just two or three people, it can be a tall order to efficiently track and manage each deadline that contributes to the completion of the greater project.
This is where apps like Basecamp and Insight (formerly known as Encamp) become particularly useful. They effectively present managers with a micro-managed collaborative diary, that allows for the mapping and micro-management of multiple deadlines on an ongoing timeline.
Not all the best small business apps are focused on collaboration. While it may seem like a curse to be constantly connected to your business’s digital infrastructure from wherever you are, it’s a major boon for some. With the popularisation of mobile devices, programs like TeamViewer and LogMeIn have evolved to make this kind of functionality more feasible for small businesses.
Todd Charge works as an IT project manager for a hospital but moonlights as the IT manager for his wife’s hair salon, Raw Hair Creations. The business uses a specialized point of sale (POS) system for hairdressers, that lets them process transactions, create and manage appointments, and market to customers via SMS and email. Charge uses a remote access software called LogMeIn Pro on his iPad to access and manage the business software remotely.
“I never have to go there anymore,” he says. “It’s my wife’s business, so I don’t work in it directly. But she doesn’t have to go there as much anymore, either. When she’s doing payroll, if she wants to check out rostering hours, we just do it all from home on the iPad.”
Aside from managing appointments and rosters, the software enables Charge to act as remote technical support in case of any urgent POS problems that might arise.
“If I get a phone call from one of the staff who has someone at the point of sale, and they’re having some problems putting them through, then I can connect in and help put that through in real-time.”
While connectivity is certainly one of the greatest appeals of having a smartphone or tablet PC, it’s difficult to ignore the simple value of having a touch screen computer in your coat pocket or briefcase.
Aside from document sharing apps, Be Business’s Hagerty uses his iPad to communicate ideas to clients, by sketching out flow charts and graphs with two applications created by software company Omni.
“Omni is pretty famous for making those sorts of desktop applications, but the ones that were on the iPad, I find, because you get to work with your hands, are quicker and more tactile,” says Hagerty.
He uses OmniGraffle, which allows the user to quickly assemble detailed flow charts that can be scaled to display in other documents without pixellating. He also uses OmniGraphSketcher, a similar app that allows the user to draw charts and plot graphs using numerical data. Despite the appeal these apps hold for him, Hagerty is quick to point out that they aren’t game-changing additions to his business.
“They’re not necessarily an end-to-end solution, they’re just something you can do as part of your workflow,” he says. “I’ve found they’ve actually been a really good addition to my workflow, and they’ve saved me time.”