Last year, my partners and I started, Advantary, our executive consulting firm. Since we are geographically dispersed (San Francisco, Irvine, Seattle, Ann Arbor, Boston, Hong Kong), we needed to take advantage of software services on the Web to keep us communicating and organized. Today, there are hundreds of apps and services that companies can use to manage their information and processes — way too many. How to decide? We hope our list of best web tools — those that survived the cut for us — will help you save time as you organize your business.
Best Web Tools
Any list of best web tools must begin with email. For us, the choice of email system was pretty simple — Gmail. It’s flexible, robust and there are tons of plug-ins that you can add to make it even better. One that I especially like is Grammarly. It’s much more than a spell-checker and it has made me a better writer. Clear writing is an indication of clear thinking and all of us can use some improvement in our writing skills.
Shared Documents: G Suite
The Google G Suite is our choice for collaboratively creating and editing word processing, spreadsheet, and basic slide presentations. It’s affordable for SMBs and gives you the ability to share documents outside your core team or company with the appropriate control levels. Of the modules in G-Suite, I think the weakest is probably Google Slides. So once we have the basics done, we often move them into Microsoft PowerPoint for the design and finishing touches.
Video Conferencing: Zoom
Perhaps the most important tool of all for our disperse team is the video conference. We have daily partner calls and video conferencing has really helped us maintain our direction and momentum. Initially, we used Google Hangouts but soon found the connection reliability to be spotty. We settled on Zoom as our video conferencing tool and it’s been a reliable resource. Zoom has a free level of service for 1-on-1 video calls of unlimited length or 1-on-many for up to 40 minutes per call. We immediately exceeded that limitation, so we decided the $15 a month fee was well worth it. We then added additional lines to handle more calls that we need with our clients.
We are not alone in choosing Slack as our chat solution. It’s super easy to set up and use and gives you the ability to set up different workspaces for different groups of people. We also use Slack workspaces to chat with our clients. One drawback of Slack is that it’s easy to get lost in a sea of chats, and while it has a search function, it’s not a replacement for a repository of information that people in your company will need in the future. As a chat tool, Slack is superb, but you should think about knowledge capture as a separate category.
Knowledge Capture: Confluence
As your company grows, you will create valuable standards and practices that other employees can use to accomplish their work. You need a place to keep all this information organized and shared, and we chose Atlassian’s Confluence as the right tool for the job. We not only keep documents and best practices there, we also use it to keep the minutes from our daily team video conference calls on Zoom. Confluence has a strong template feature that makes this a breeze. You can think of Confluence as a great wiki for the entire organization.
Oh boy! The world of CRM tools is a noisy, crowded, confusing one. There are dozens of CRM tools and they all use the same language in their marketing materials. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is, of course, Salesforce.com and it has a learning curve and price tag to go along with its stature (and enormous new headquarters in San Francisco that dwarfs all the other buildings). It was massive overkill for our needs, so it did not make our best web tools list.
After a bit of research, we discovered HubSpot. It has just the right amount of power and flexibility for an SMB and their free tier of service is more than adequate for a smaller company. What we like most about HubSpot is the easy visibility into the deal pipeline and the integration with Gmail that captures all the written correspondence with our prospects and clients. One feature we wish they had was a direct integration with LinkedIn. Right now we have to go through a multistep process to get our LinkedIn contacts into HubSpot.
Contact Outreach: LinkedIn
For us, one clear winner in this category is LinkedIn. We have been able to establish great contacts here and several have resulted in client engagements. Yes, there has been some level of spam-like messaging, and the messaging system itself is rather crude and unorganized. But, once we make contact with someone, we encourage the conversation to move to email and that has worked well. We have recently started our blog, and posting articles about these blogs on LinkedIn has generated new interest in our business. We have found that sharing useful information on LinkedIn is appreciated.
Project Management: Pivotal Tracker
As you might expect from a consulting firm of equal partners, we all have lots to say about what should go on our website. It’s easy to lose a lot of great ideas if you try to keep them in Slack or in a shared word processing document. There’s no ownership, schedule, or record of changes made. This is where a tool such as Pivotal Tracker can be quite useful. Pivotal is designed with software development projects in mind, but it’s easy to use it as a project management system for website changes. One of the companies I helped build was Vignette — the 800-pound gorilla of content management. But a tool like that is ridiculously overpowered for our SMB needs. Pivotal Tracker is enough to keep us on track, and you can use it for a lot more than website changes.
Putting It All Together
I truly wish there was one suite of tools from one company that you could use for all the aspects of communication and management for your SMB. It would even be great if you could single-sign-in to all the different tools. But that’s a dream that will never come true because the needs of SMBs can differ so greatly. As a smaller consultancy with partners in many locations, we have identified the best web tools for us. Specifically, we rely on these eight: Gmail, G-Suite, Zoom, Slack, Confluence, HubSpot, LinkedIn and Pivotal Tracker.
What’s working well for your business? Please share below!