My Core Business Tools (and How to Find Yours)

My Core Business Tools (and How to Find Yours)

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

I recently made the case for having and using fewer apps (phone apps, computer apps, web apps—all of the tools, resources, and platforms we are bombarded with as business owners).  So today I want to talk about which apps I’ve chosen to invest in and why.

Every business should have a few core apps that are used to run the majority of their systems.  The fewer there are, the leaner and simpler your business will run.  Fewer overhead costs, fewer passwords to remember, and less brainpower needed for your day-to-day tasks.

My Core Business Tools | SimplifiedBusinessSystems.com

So without further ado, let’s dive into the core apps I use:

 

Dubsado

Without a doubt, this is my absolute core app for my business.  If you are any sort of coach, designer, or other service provider, this may be a great fit for you!  If you’re a Maker, it might not be. Dubsado houses my forms, questionnaires, proposals, contracts, invoices, client portal, process checklists, and even my bookkeeping. Once upon a time, I had separate tools for most of these tasks, and I don’t miss that one bit.

 

ConvertKit

If you’re in business online, you need an email list—it’s non-negotiable.  I won’t wax poetic about the importance of email marketing in this post, but suffice it to say it’s so important that your email marketing platform is automatically a core app.  For my business, I chose ConvertKit.  It provides a lot of flexibility for the type of business I have, and it’s automation and segmentation features are top-notch.  If you are a product-based business, super budget-conscious, or for some other reasons feel the need for “pretty” emails, then I would recommend MailChimp.  If you are a blogger or content creator, ConvertKit is absolutely worth the investment.

 

CoSchedule

This is another wonderful multi-tasking tool and if you’re a content creator, add this one to your toolbox.  CoSchedule serves as both an editorial calendar (for all types of media, not just WordPress) and a social media scheduler.  I love that it does the heavy lifting of deciding when to post to my channels–it’s like having a social media manager, without having to hire a social media manager.

 

G Suite (formerly Google Apps for Work)

I waffled on including this in my core, but it really does belong here.  Your business email is important.  If you’re still using businessname@gmail.com or your email is part of your hosting account, I urge you to invest in the $5/month for this email solution.  The former is simply unprofessional (and yes, your potential clients notice) and the latter puts you at unnecessary risk of being unreachable if your site goes down (and that’s particularly important if you’re on shared hosting).   This is an inexpensive fix that will save you a lot of headache down the road.  Not to mention, the features of G Suite allow for amazing automation that will make managing your inbox a breeze.  P.S. You can use these coupon codes for 20% your first year – MA4WAVA4L9QX9GT (for the G Suite Basic Plan) or W7XPREGEFUAKG7L (for the G Suite Business Plan).

 

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Okay, so those are my absolute core apps.  If I was weathering a financial storm that sent me to bare bones, these are the ones I would absolutely find a way to keep paying for.  The next set of apps are my “nice to have”.

 

Acuity Scheduling

Okay, so this one is almost a bridge to my core apps.  I would fight to keep it, but ultimately, there is a free option that I could move down to if needed.  If you offer appointments of any kind, Acuity Scheduling is like a personal assistant that doesn’t need to take sick days.  If you book any sort of session with me, you’ll see it in action.  It helps you find a time, collects the information I need to make your session a breeze, and if necessary, takes your payment.  And it even sends reminders to both of us (and that’s drastically reduced the number of no-shows I was dealing with).

 

Zoom Meetings

Again, there’s a free version of this that may work for some people. Zoom integrates beautifully with Acuity Scheduling so each appointment is booked with a meeting link.  Audio-only, video, or screen-sharing calls are all supported and you can record the session with a click.  It even offers webinars as an add-on so you can hold workshops without setting up yet another tool.

 

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And now for the free apps that simply make my life easier:

 

Google Drive

This is included in G Suite, or with your free Gmail account if I didn’t sell you on upgrading.  If anything you do involves sharing any sort of file with your clients, this is a simple solution.  Not to mention, storing client files in the cloud protects you from inevitable computer crashes and allows you to work on the fly.  Of course, there are options like DropBox, OneDrive, and many others—but for simplicity’s sake, you probably already have this, so use it.  I consider it part of my G Suite core but thought it deserved it’s own mention, same goes for the next app.

 

Google Calendar

I’ve talked before about the importance of using a digital calendar.  Again, it’s free and already included with accounts you surely have.  I have mine synced with Dubsado and Acuity and I’d be lost without it.  The reminder feature has been a great addition and I use it frequently.

 

Trello or Asana

Confession, I have both of these still, but there’s really no reason for you to have both.  If you are a list person, go with Asana, if you’re more visual, Trello is probably the right tool for you.  Or maybe you don’t need either one, and that’s cool, too.  Right now, I primarily use Asana with my main retainer client because it was the best for their business model and their team was familiar with it.  Personally, Trello eventually grew on me and it seems to be easier for my husband to use since it’s more visual.  It’s my catch-all for ideas, login info, and bookmarks.  It is one of the few areas that contains both business and personal, but it handles it beautifully and replaced a handful of apps.  Note: if you are only using it for business, you’ll find similar features in Dubsado.  I’ve been using Trello since before Dubsado added task boards and just haven’t made time to transfer my data over.

 

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Final Thoughts

There are a handful of other apps and tools I use, but these are what’s in my basic toolbox and what I would recommend any new business owner invest time, money and energy into.  If you’re missing any of these basic functions, I urge you to consider your options and cover these bases. At the very least you need:

  • A CRM (customer relationship manager)
  • A bookkeeping/invoicing system
  • An email marketing platform
  • An email service provider
  • A calendar and a project manager (but can be analog if you’re a solopreneur)

Anything beyond these is completely dependent on the type of business you’re running.  A photographer will need something different than an apparel designer or other product maker.  A content creator’s toolbox will look different than a graphic designer’s.

What core apps do you find invaluable in your business? I’d love to hear!

If you’re looking for a customized recommendation for tools that fit your business and personality, I would love to have you book a Business Systems Strategy Session!

The Case for Fewer Apps

The Case for Fewer Apps

If you’re like me, your social media feeds are filled with tutorials and sponsored ads for various apps, tools, and platforms that say they’ll help you streamline your business and double your revenue.  Seriously, google “project management” or “Asana” once and those lovely algorithms will have you seeing tools like this everywhere you go.  Dive into any entrepreneur community and you’ll see discussions galore about which ones are better, and people shoving affiliate links each other.  Don’t get me wrong, they do it with the best of intentions, but for an overwhelmed entrepreneur, this simply isn’t helpful.

And worse, some of us are prone to going to the shiny object syndrome of new tools.  We want to try them all and spend so much time setting new ones up, learning their features, and transferring our data—that’s time we really ought to be working in or on our business. “Free Trials” have made this even worse because the only thing we have to give up is time and brain power (and for some reason, we subconsciously value those less than money).

So let me make the case for fewer apps. 

Note: In this case, I’m going to use “app” to refer to everything from apps on your mobile phone, to apps on your laptop or desktop, to web apps.  It’s a broad paintbrush for all of those tools and platforms we might be using in our business.

The Case for Fewer Apps | SimplifiedBusinessSystems.com

The more apps you have, the more time you spend looking at apps.  And unless you’re an app developer, that’s probably not the most productive thing for your business.

“There’s an app for that”

Just because there is an app for that, doesn’t mean you should download it.  Do you really need an app for that?  Do you already have an app that can do that?  I found myself looking at task/reminder apps the other day, but I already have Trello, Evernote, and Gmail which can effectively do just that thing.  I also at one point had an app for dutch oven cook times.  Seriously, a printed version tossed in the camping cookbook worked just as well (and was still available when my phone died).

Also, just because it’s a free app doesn’t mean you need to use it.  Just sayin’.

 

Having too many apps is counterproductive to using them to streamline.

Having more apps than necessary complicates your business systems.  More moving pieces means more things likely to break.  It also means more for you to remember.  I’m sure you’ve been there.  Did I write that down in Evernote or make a card in Trello?  Maybe it’s in the client notes on Dubsado.  Or maybe the pad of sticky notes I spilled coffee on yesterday. Ugh.

 

It costs money.

Ah, I could go on for ages about why having fewer overhead costs is good for your business, and maybe someday soon I’ll write a post dedicated to running a lean business.  Most of the good apps, to get the features we want, cost money.  Most of them aren’t that expensive, but those little monthly subscriptions add up fast.  And those annual ones are easy to forget about when you’re factoring your costs. Really evaluate an app before you shell out money for it.  Is the free version good enough?  Is there a cheaper alternative?  Is there a direct revenue benefit with this purchase?

Good areas to drop money on a good app are where your money is managed, or you can avoid hiring someone.  That means paying for a good CRM to manage your invoices, a good bookkeeping app, and a reliable social media scheduler.  These may vary depending on your particular business and skills, but I find these three + an email marketing platform are the core apps that every online business needs.

 

Final Thoughts

Take a look at what apps you’re paying for.  Be sure to look for those forgotten annual payments.  And then look at all of the apps on your phone.  How many do you use on a daily basis?  How many on weekly basis?  Anything not in those two groups could probably be discarded.  Freeing up valuable resources in your business starts with reducing the amount of tools you rely on and make sure you’re squeezing every drop out of the ones you keep.

What apps can you not live without?  Are there any that you feel you should be using better?  Which apps were quick deletes? I’d love to know.

One Simple Tool to Combat Overwhelm

One Simple Tool to Combat Overwhelm

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

After many rounds of burnout, I’ve learned a couple of things.  Mostly, I’ve gotten really familiar with the symptoms leading up to it.  Today we’re going to talk about one in particular: overwhelm.

Overwhelm isn’t pretty, and we experience it so often in the early stages of our businesses that we become somewhat numb to it.  By the time we’re nearing burnout, it goes to crazy lengths to get noticed.

Maybe this sounds familiar to you: It’s Thursday morning and you know you have a ton of deadlines on Friday, no clue where the rest of the week went, and you feel like you’ve accomplished nothing.  Your to-do list (that’s mostly in your head still) feels like a Hydra, with a couple more tasks being tacked on each time you check one off.  Figuring out what to work on feels almost as impossible as getting it all done.  And as your chest starts to feel tight with anxiety, every form of distraction is suddenly vying for your attention.

You, my friend, are deep in overwhelm.  I’m more than familiar with it myself.  And after going round after round with it, I’ve landed on one thing that helps give immediate relief.

A simple notebook.

One Simple Tool to Combat Overwhelm | Simplified Business Systems

A little anti-climatic, right?  But that’s kind of the point.  When you’re so deep in the weeds that you feel like you’re never getting out, a complicated system is certainly not going to help.  You need something simple and effective to get you moving in the right direction again.  So, friend, I give you the simple notebook.

Whatever you have on hand will work.  Don’t feel like you need a new Leutchurn or Moleskine.  In fact, a fancy notebook will hurt the process if you’re any type of perfectionist like me.  Just a small notebook you can easily carry around.

Open it up to the first page and just start spilling all of the tasks you need to do.  Don’t filter, categorize, or prioritize—just write.

[Don’t worry, I’ll wait patiently for you right here while you do this.]

Got it all out?  Great.  Don’t worry if you missed something.  The moment you remember it, jot it down.  That’s one reason I said a small notebook that you can carry with you.  Keep it in your pocket, purse, whatever and add things as soon as you can after thinking of them.

Don’t you feel better already?  No?  Still feel that soul-crushing overwhelm and wondering why on earth you managed to fill three pages front and back with shit you need to do?

Either way, we’re going to move on.  Scan that list and see if there’s anything you wrote down that you really just don’t need to devote your energy to.  Found something?  Good, cross that off and don’t bother thinking about it again.

See some things on there you can delegate to someone else?  Good, write them an email, shoot them a text, whatever you need to do and then write DLG next to those tasks. Don’t take too long giving any more instruction than necessary on these.  Just delegate it right off of your plate and call it good.  Don’t worry, we’ll come back and follow up on these if necessary.

Now, look down the list again and find some quick wins.  Need to make or cancel an appointment?  Do it now.  Need to order dog food? Get that done real quick.  We’re looking for things that can be done in under 2 minutes, preferably without moving from where you’re sitting. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes and get as many of these knocked out as possible.  And for the love of everything, don’t let yourself get distracted by your inbox, Facebook, or anything else like that.

[Don’t worry, I’ll wait patiently again.  Task, check, task, check, task, check.]

I bet that was a third of your list, wasn’t it?  Feeling any better yet?

One Simple Tool to Combat Overwhelm | Simplified Business Systems

Next up, we’re looking for things that you need to be in a specific place to do, which means you obviously aren’t going to do them right now.  If it’s something that has a specific date/time, go ahead and put it on your digital calendar, remember to set a reminder or two for it.  For anything else, flip about halfway back through your book, and mark the page somehow.  Fold the corner, add a sticky flag, or stick a paperclip there.  Right “Errands” across the top of the page.  Copy over any tasks from your main list that are appropriate here.  Take the bike to the shop for a new tire.  Grab face wash at Target.

Flip to the next page and label it @HOME and one more page and label it @WORK.  Copy appropriate tasks over from the main list.  And yes, this applies even if you work from home.  Household tasks in one place and work-related in another.  Again, don’t filter, don’t prioritize.  Just copy them over.

Okay, I hope that by this point, you’re feeling at least a little bit better.  Your brain should be calming down some since you aren’t relying on it to remember every little thing.  You got some quick wins in and crossed a lot of little tasks off already.  And now the bulk of the tasks are getting sorted into smaller lists, which should feel more manageable.

If there’s anything else left on your main list right now, consider where it should go.  Some people might benefit from a fourth list called @PERSONAL.  One of my most used is @JOSH – this is where I put things I want to talk to my husband about.  It helps with the “I know was going to tell you about something, but I can’t remember what it was!” moments. I have those often.  I also have one called @IDEAS where I store things that I would like to do, but simply aren’t priorities right now.  Book recommendations, business ideas, etc go here so they aren’t taking up daily mental space or clogging up the actual priorities.

Just don’t overcomplicate your lists.  I don’t feel like I can overstate the importance of keeping this simple.  You want as few lists as possible and they should be defined enough that you never wonder which list something belongs on.

One Simple Tool to Combat Overwhelm | Simplified Business Systems

Now that we’re through the initial setup phase, let’s talk about actually using this system to keep overwhelm at bay.

1. Add things to it daily.

Multiple times a day, even.  Seriously, don’t rely on your brain.  If it has a date/time, it goes on your digital calendar, everything else goes straight to your list.  If you’re in a hurry, tack it on to your list at the front (I call it @INBOX).  If you have a second, add it to the appropriate segmented list.

 

2. Review it daily.

As part of your morning routine, go through the @INBOX list the same way we did earlier.  Mark off things that should never have made the list, delegate what you can, take care of the quick wins, and move anything else to its appropriate list.  This is a good time to follow up on anything previously delegated, too.  Mark it off if it doesn’t need any further follow-up.

 

3. Do the things.

Each day, pick 2-3 things off your segments and get them done.  If it’s something that’s a bigger project and you need to break it down, start a new list on the next page called @PROJECTNAME and break it down.  My formula for what to pick is deadlines first, other priorities second, emergent tasks last.

 

4. Check back in.

If you practice these habits every day, it will help keep away the overwhelm.  If you feel it creeping back in, start back at the beginning with brain dumping everything and sorting it again.

 

And that’s it, that’s my simple solution for combatting overwhelm.  It’s as simple as a notebook and some daily habits.  Even without the daily habits, brain-dumping and sorting can bring immediate relief from overwhelm.  But the daily habits will help you break the vicious cycle you may be finding yourself in.

Note: This method can be created using a digital tool like Evernote or Trello, but it’s often more effective in the analog form.  Calendars are the only thing I strongly recommend be done digitally because setting automated reminders takes an immediate weight off of your brain.

Related Read:  Zen To Done (ZTD): The Simple Productivity System by Leo Babauta (or go more in-depth with his ebook here)


Is Hustle Killing You? Do These 3 Things Instead.

Is Hustle Killing You? Do These 3 Things Instead.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

For the past few years, one word has taken over the entrepreneurship world: Hustle.

Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly believe that you have to “do the work.” What I don’t believe is that you need to spend every waking moment of every day working on your business in order to succeed. So many gurus out there push that narrative: “Work hard for five years and you’ll be able to take it easy for the rest of your life.” Well, maybe I don’t want to miss out on these next five years! (Seriously, I don’t, my kids are at an amazing stage of life and I want to be present for this.).

Which brings me to my next point: women have a tougher time with this than men. I think it’s because we’re a little more prone to layering ourselves with guilt. Add that to the entrepreneur’s issue of not being able to shut work off and you have a recipe for disaster. The mental load easily becomes too much and we find ourselves in drowning in overwhelm and headed for burnout.

So what’s a person to do when they want to grow their business, but not blindly give over the next few years of their life to the Hustle-gods? Three simple things:

Simplify.

One of my favorite writers in the Minimalism space is Joshua Fields Millburn, and he once wrote: “The easiest way to organize your stuff is to get rid of most of it.” And this theory applies not just to the physical items lying around our homes, but to the tasks and commitments filling our days. The very first step to battling overwhelm is removing anything that isn’t necessary, helping us reach our goals, or bringing us joy. Simply put: fewer commitments means less stress.

Action Step: Brain-dump all of your commitments and to-dos on a piece of paper. Don’t sort or filter, just write down anything and everything that you can think of. Appointments, clubs, meetings, things you need to schedule, kids’ activities, housework, calling your grandmother, following up with that client, paying that bill…if it pops into your head, big, small, or “oh crap, I meant to do that last month!” — write it down. Now find a couple colored pens or highlighters and mark them into these categories:

• Must be done by me

• Must be done by someone

• Brings me joy

• Really doesn’t need to be done at all

Go down this list and mark the must by me’s first, then back down the list and mark the second category, and then the third, and then the fourth. Don’t overthink it. If most of your list ends up marked in that first category, you may have control issues and need to reevaluate why you think those items must be done by you. (This was me the first time I did this, and I’m still a work in progress.)

I could go on for days about letting go of commitments and activities that we’re told we should do, but don’t really benefit us. Long story, short — pay attention to clubs, committees, and outside activities and really evaluate if there is a true, personal benefit to being a part of them. If it’s just one more damn thing on your calendar, bow out. There’s no shame or guilt necessary. Just let it go.

 

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Automate.

Once you’ve lightened your plate, it’s time to see where we can add some shortcuts. There are certainly things on those first two “must” lists that can be either automated or delegated. Automation is your best fricking friend when you want to both grow your business AND live your life. There are things that simply need to be done, but no reason you have to be the one doing them. Look to automate repetitive, simple tasks like paying your bills or following up with clients. Automate decision making by implementing routines (I’ll deep dive into that another day). And then delegate anything that’s reasonable to your spouse, your kids, or your team.

Action Step: Pick some simple tools to help you automate anything you can. Listed below are a few of my favorites.

• Digital Calendar — yes, I love paper planners, but the digital calendar has the power to send me reminders, and that’s important.

Bullet Journal — or any small notebook you can take with you everywhere. Or use an app like Trello or Google Keep. This is for brain-dumping. If you write it down, you automatically reduce your mental load because your brain knows it’s filed away safely.

Dubsado — for all of that client follow-up. Workflows are the magic pixie dust of client on-boarding.

Acuity Scheduling — for automating scheduling meetings.  The “are you available ____ or ____?”  back and forth is a total waste of time!

Zapier — for automating business tasks you didn’t know you could automate.

 

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Prioritize.

You’ve whittled away that massive list you started with and put what you can on auto-pilot. Now you’re faced with actually doing the work that’s left. This is where I used to get majorly stuck.

“Great, I know what I need to do, but where the hell do I start?!”

First, you start with understanding what’s urgent versus what’s important. Sometimes a task is both. Sometimes you find you spent a whole day working on urgent while important fell through the cracks. Realizing that is a great way to feel like a very busy day was a very wasted day. It’s a pretty shitty way to feel. We don’t want that.

I’m not going to wax poetic about time-blocking. Honestly, I hate when people tout that as the answer. I’m a nomad with five kids and I’m a freelancer + business owner. The mix of travel, homeschooling, client work, and trying to work on my own damn business is enough to drive anyone crazy, and no two weeks look the same — ever. This is why prioritization is so important.

Action Step: Break down your goals and commitments side-by-side over a timeline. Your own business and personal goals can be looked at over a bigger period of time, while client projects tend to have a shorter lifespan. Don’t get too wrapped up in the long-term though if you’re just getting started. You don’t have time for that. But make sure that those longer-goals are represented on your weekly and daily to-do lists so they don’t get buried beneath the urgent.

Take a look at what’s left on your list from the first action step. What items relate to helping you achieve those longer-term goals? Don’t be surprised if it seems like hardly anything on that list does. If you’re in the thick of overwhelm and burnout, it’s likely because you are blinded by urgent, small tasks and you aren’t making time for the tasks that help you get off that hamster wheel. (Yes, I’ve been here.) If those goals are under-represented on your list, take a moment to add some items that you need to do for those.

Now break out that list into what needs to be done this month, this week, and today. Be mindful to keep those tasks related to your big goals front and center. They are your priorities. Tasks related to those get done FIRST each day. Next comes the tasks that pay your bills; this is probably your client work or major content creation. And then the bottom of the list is any admin-type tasks that you didn’t manage automate or delegate. This hierarchy keeps you from getting bogged down by the urgent tasks that pop up (let’s face it, that’s almost always client work, and it can wait until we’ve tackled the tasks related to our long-term goals each day).

My absolute favorite tool for this sort of planning is the Momentum Planner pages from ProductiveFlourishing.com. I use their Monthly, Weekly, and Daily pages and their Individual Project Planner and Action Item Catcher–both are offered in paid and FREE versions. The game-changer for me was the emergent tasks spot on the bottom of the daily page. Those used to plague me, but now they have a safe place to reside so they don’t add to the mental load, but are clearly separated from the important tasks of the day.

 

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Final Thoughts

Systems are the key to having your cake and eating it, too. You absolutely can build a business without sacrificing 3–5 years of your life. And you can do it without going insane. Systems aren’t just apps or programs. They are routines, habits, and boundaries you set for yourself and your work. Everyone’s systems look a little bit different, but I guarantee you that the secret sauce of every successful entrepreneur isn’t hustle, it’s systems. Hustle only gets you so far before you max out your own capacity. Growth comes when you simplify, automate, and prioritize.

This post by Dani Schnakenberg originally appeared on Medium.com.

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