When I started my micro business over 20 years ago the number of tools aimed specifically at people like me was precisely zero. General office tools that all businesses used no matter their size were a one size fits all approach, which clearly wasn’t the case. Today according to national statistics 5.5 million (96%) businesses are micro-businesses – employing 0-9 people. Micro- businesses accounted for 33% of employment and 22% of turnover.
As the freelance and micro business community has grown, the number of tools developed specifically for businesses likes yours and mine has expanded. We now have a toolset that is diverse and touches on every business process.
Some of the most interesting ones I have come across include Multiply which aims to help you manage your income to avoid any nasty surprises. Personal banking with Monese and Coconut. Specialist insurance from Dinghy. Accounting with Albert and Invoicely. Business management with Bonsai. And create legal documents with Shake.
All these services are a reaction to the shift to self-employment and micro business ownership that has taken place over the last decade. I wanted to get an insight into which tools micro-businesses are using today and why they are so indispensable.
“I love Plutio. For me, this is the perfect way to schedule tasks, track time and plan ahead very quickly and cost-effectively. It has invoicing features too – though I don’t personally use those. As a freelancer, your time is your income. And when I first set out, I was managing mine with Post-It notes and calendars. It was inefficient and impacting my productivity. Since starting to use Plutio, I’ve become significantly more productive and better at forecasting the time things will take me. In turn, that has meant I’ve been able to take more work on and feel confident when proposing for new business that the time estimates I have based my fees on are likely to be accurate. Game-changing.”
“To increase our twitter following with genuine, engaged members of our target audience, we use the tactical following tool Tweetfull. It follows people of interest to you on your behalf and it only takes a few minutes to set up. The idea is that a percentage of everyone you follow on Twitter will follow you back so Tweetfull finds the followers of your competitors or key influencers, follows them and then after a few days unfollows them to ensure your ratio of followers to following isn’t unbalanced.”
“As a freelance PR and writer, I get short-notice commissions or enquiries where I have to send over NDAs and contracts on the same day and CamScanner lets me do this. You put the paper documents on the table scan them with the iPhone and crop them and send them over – fantastic. When I changed bank accounts, I could email back documentation that their people could only fax or send. I have used it for years without trouble. This app saves me hours each month. More than that, it is a life-saver for a microbusiness and it’s free.”
“A ‘pocket bookkeeper’ app called Albert I found after a Sunday of Microsoft Word crashing on me as I tried to create my own invoices has been a godsend. It’s very easy to use and I can send invoices on the go from my iPhone. It shows you if an invoice has been received and when it has been read so you know if your clients have seen it or not. I also use it to record all of my expenses which is really handy because I now don’t need to keep 100’s of paper receipts.”
“Accurately quantifying your time so that you can bill clients appropriately is crucial – bill for too little, and you undersell your work, but bill for too much and you dilute the value for your client. To combat this, Hourstack is an invaluable tool. The app lets you allocate work for various projects, and then run timers to track how long you spend working. Time notifications ensure you stay on track whilst working on projects and tasks turn red when you’ve spent more than your allocated amount of time. Reporting also lets you see how much time has been spent on projects across days, weeks, months and custom time periods. I’m an advocate for agile working, meaning that my staff often work remotely and with hours outside the typical 9-5. So, Hourstack’s breakdown of each staff members’ tasks is essential. It also helps me align our working hours with our overall client strategies.”
“One tool that I’ve been using for the past two years is Xero, an accounting software that not only has saved me a lot of time, but has also ensured no invoices slip through unpaid. When I first started my business, it was all about Excel spreadsheet for expenses, invoices, projects, you name it. But of course, all the information had to be entered manually, which led to mistakes. I can now reconcile my accounts with one click and also set-up reminders when invoices become late for payment.”
“I recently moved to London from Canada and I knew from the get-go I wanted to sign up for a co-working space, but I quickly realised the prices for places like WeWork were just too expensive for me to justify. I recently discovered AndCo, a co-working platform that transforms restaurants and cafés into hot-desking spaces during the day – which is a great alternative. As a Virtual Assistant & Women’s Transformational Coach, I can work from anywhere but working from home every day can get lonely, not only does AndCo give a quiet, convenient place to work, but also the chance to explore new parts of the city and meet other freelancers!”
“Organisation is critical to the success of small businesses, as with limited resources things can quickly spiral out of hand with opportunities left to go cold or operational disasters occurring. At AEROPOWDER, we have found that keeping track of tasks and communicating effectively between team members has been made far more manageable using software such as Trello. With a simple but powerful interface, our team members can stay on top of their own priorities, as well as understand how other aspects of the business are progressing. Another really great feature is that we revisit archived tasks at the end of the week to allow us to reflect on recent progress and ensure that our immediate objectives are still on the right path. Without Trello, we are sure that things would be infinitely more hectic than they already are!”
“The tool I never leave the house without is my ‘Black n Red’ Book and my Rotring 800+. These are old Dyson hang-ups from when I was a senior engineer in new product innovation. I use it for everything from idea generation with clients to hand calculations of our next VAT bill. It is record of when I meet people and what the next actions are. It keeps me on top of my to-do’s and is useful when drafting my next patent. The book is hard backed so you catch me sketching on my lap of the train or on a side table for those 4am ideas that get you out of bed. The Rotring 800+ is a special kind of pencil, it’s sleek retractable nib is 0.5mm ideal for something technical with 2b lead it gives me that sketch feel. I’m passionate about not using disposables, so it’s great to only use the lead and not have to throw away the whole pen or even a cartridge.”
“As a podcast producer the tool which makes the most difference is Zencastr.com. If two people could not be in the same location, and I had no access to a studio, I first had to rely on recording the output of a phone call. Then I relied upon Skype which became a nightmare as people had to friend each other and sometimes it would cause glitches which resulted in more editing. With the arrival of Zencastr things couldn’t be simpler. All you need to do is create a session and throw out a link to all you want on the call. They click that link and join. You can have a chat with them via VOiP but by using Google Chrome, Zencastr actually records each person locally so it sounds like you are all in the same room. At the end of the call each parties audio loads up centrally, and backs up on Dropbox, and then it’s free to edit.”
And my best tool? I’m with Adam. Good old pen and paper is my best tool. At the moment this is a Filofax Notepad which has removable pages and Hi-TEC C Coleto pen from Pilot.