8 Great Online Tools for the Self-Employed

As everyone who has launched their own business knows, becoming self-employed can seem like a double-edged sword. You have all the benefits of being your own boss, choosing the direction your business takes, and selecting the team you work with.

However, as Benjamin Parker often told a young Spiderman, “with great power there must also come great responsibility.” After all, if things do not go as planned, you are the one who will have to bear the consequences. And even when things are running smoothly, you remain at the center of the entire enterprise, which can often mean juggling several obligations at once.

 

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Credit: pexels

 

Fortunately, the online market is already a step ahead, providing a wide range of handy business tools and must-have labor-saving solutions. The functionality of these tools covers everything from productivity tracking to accounts management, and can save you time and effort in all areas of your business.

Naturally, there are too many to list here, but these are a few favorites that every entrepreneur should check out.

 

1. Camcard

In the early weeks of your business, and even during the pre-launch phase, the chances are that you will pick up a lot of new contacts, particularly if you visit trade shows or other industry events. Yet keeping track of these connections can be tough, especially if you find yourself searching through a growing stack of business cards.

Camcard enables you to scan these cards, saving them to your phone, where you can sort, tag, and share them with ease. This means you never need to lose track of that promising supplier or prospective client.

The app also allows you to add notes and reminders to cards, receive news about the businesses your contacts work for, and even exchange e-cards with other users by filling in your profile via the app.

 

2. Hemingway

Creating high quality written content can be a challenge, and it is all too easy to fall foul of your own bad habits. The Hemingway App helps you to review your work, and offers suggestions for improving your style and tone. The app also has limited word processing functionality, and allows you to include basic formatting such as italicizing and emboldening text.

The app is simple to use, and provides a clear, color-coded key with explanations of each point, along with a dropdown displaying details such as your word count, and estimated reading time. The readability grade represents the lowest level of education required to understand your writing.

This tool can be particularly useful for fine-tuning your copy, particularly if you are repurposing written content for a new audience. But don’t be too alarmed if your work lights up like a corrective rainbow; writing is always subjective, and you should not sacrifice your brand’s voice just to improve your “score”. After all, according to the app, even Hemingway himself had room for improvement.

Credit: Hemingway App

 

3. Harvest

Hemingway himself kept a large chart on which he recorded his daily wordcount, to keep track of his productivity, or as he put it, “so as not to kid myself”. Perhaps if he were writing today, he might have used Pacemaker to save himself the trouble.

Of course, it is likely that you need to keep track of more than just your word count each day. Fortunately, there are some fantastic time-tracking resources, such as Harvest, which enable you to record not only your own productivity, but that of your entire team.

This facilitates invoicing, and allows you to learn more about how and when your team works best. Coupled with their companion app, Forecast, the data recorded with Harvest can also be used to improve your scheduling, and generate accurate estimates for project completion.

 

4. Receipt Bank

Keeping track of your finances is critical for any self-employed individual, especially if you have set up an ecommerce business, where you may have no direct contact with your customers. Unpaid invoices can soon take their toll, as can drawn-out payment disputes, particularly when you have a lot of data to comb through.

Receipt Bank cuts down on time-consuming data entry and invoice management, by automating receipt processing, sending reminders to clients with outstanding invoices, and even logging communications with clients and colleagues, for easy referencing, and improved dispute resolution.

Not only does this help you to boost trust and relationships with your customers, but it also enables you to more effectively keep track of payments, and monitor fluctuations in your business.

The service is also fully integrated with many leading accountancy packages, including Sage, QuickBooks, and Gusto.

 

5. Trello

When it comes to managing your time, and that of your team, not many business tools can beat Trello. This indispensable tool enables you to create individual “cards” for each project, and its objectives, set deadlines, and assign team members to specific cards.

Cards keep track of all changes, comments, and interactions, and team members can upload files, making them accessible to all members of the card to which the file is attached. Even if you are flying solo, Trello is a fantastic way to keep track of your objective, organize your projects, and keep track of your progress.

 

6. Exit Bee

This handy little CRO tool is a simple but effective means of boosting sales, and engaging intuitively with your audience. Exit Bee tracks the motion of a site visitor’s cursor, and detects when they are about to leave or close your website. The software then creates a tailored message, which is based on the user’s behavior.

For example, this could mean offering a discount on the specific product the visitor had been browsing. Similarly, if they appeared to have given up halfway through your lead capture form, you could provide a simplified version or suggest they create a login so they can save their progress. If the visitor has already made a purchase, it could even be a simple thank you, and an invitation to sign up to your mailing list.

This is an excellent way to secure a few more conversions, while also gaining valuable insights into your customers’ behavior. As you learn what causes people to leave, and more importantly, what convinces them to stay, you can refine your approach, and boost the effectiveness of your website as a whole.

 

7. IFTTT

Once you’ve collected a few helpful tools, you may begin to find that managing all of these apps becomes a challenge in itself. If This Then That offer a platform via which you can get the most out of your apps, by activating “Applets”.

With over 1 billion Applets across more than 500 services, IFTTT allows you to customize your experience, saving you time, and making sure you stay up to date with the topics that matter most to your business. It’s a great small business tool that can be used across a range of departments and teams.

Credit: IFTTT

Of course, there are countless other tools available to help you streamline and automate many of your business obligations. Don’t be afraid to try out new things, and discover what works best for you.

The real value of these tools is that they provide you with more freedom to focus your attention on specific areas of your business, without getting caught up in trivial tasks. For example there may be areas that you do not wish to automate, or aspects of your business that you feel require more personal attention.

 

8. Shopify

One of the joys of being self-employed is that you are your own boss. Being your own boss means running your own business, and for many in the digital world, that business takes the form of an ecommerce store. But setting one up can be tricky. That’s where Shopify comes in.

 

This is not just a tool, but a platform that allows your to build your own online business. It lets you manage the design, look after the difficult issue of taxes, and control the payment and distribution of your goods. It comes with a variety of tools and gadgets, a whole host of helpful training guides, an active blog with useful tidbits, and has the option three different price plans.

 

The real benefit of using this is in the simplicity it brings to you; some of you may be experts in website building and wish to create your own online store. However, for those not versed in the language of code, this tool makes the process of setting up, running and advancing your online business a lot easier than you might think.

 

Whatever you decide, the key to growing your brand lies in embracing the options available, and being ready to change your approach in order to maximize your potential. No one knows your business and its needs better than you, and with the right combination of tools in your inventory, you can ensure your venture achieves the success it deserves.

 

Victoria Greene: Brand Marketing Consultant

I’m an ecommerce marketer by trade and enjoy nothing more than helping self-employed entrepreneurs to meet new business goals. I spend my time dreaming up effective content strategies and I love being instrumental in the success of brands of all shapes and sizes.

So you want to be a consultant

What is your concept of what a consultant does? They consult with businesses, but what is it that they offer that the business can’t handle itself? Generally they have a specialty that the business lacks, or a specialty that is in short supply.

The specialty is often called the consultant’s “niche.” Can you identify your niche? It is important that you be able to describe this niche to the prospective client so that they are clear about what you have to offer.

Specialties include business services for the self-employed. One such company offers “a suite of services for the self-employed” that consists of:

  • Use of our Comprehensive Business Management Software
  • Up to $10 Million in Liability Insurance
  • Contract Review and Administration Services
  • Automated Invoicing and Payroll
  • Expense Compliance Review and Processing
  • Payroll Tax Administration

The list gives you some sense of the areas in which business services for the self-employed would compete. You need not offer all in this list, but the more the better.Another specialty is business strategy planning. Despite the widely held belief that a written strategic plan is vital for business success many companies, if they even write a plan, only give it lip service. A recent survey shows that:

  • 60% of organizations don’t link strategy to budgeting
  • 75% of organizations don’t link employee incentives to strategy
  • 86% of business owners and managers spend less than one hour per month discussing strategy
  • 95% of the typical workforce doesn’t understand their organization’s strategy.

Business strategy planning must include implementation of the plan to be effective. On Strategy defines implementation:“Implementation is the process that turns strategies and plans into actions in order to accomplish strategic objectives and goals. Implementing your strategic plan is as important, or even more important, than your strategy.”

Entrepreneur Magazine defines the difference between a good consultant and a bad one:“… what separates a good consultant from a bad consultant is a passion and drive for excellence. And–oh yes–a good consultant should be knowledgeable about the subject he or she is consulting in. That does make a difference.”

There are some questions that we need to ask ourselves before entering the field:

  • Am I sufficiently qualified to add value to my clients?
  • Am I organized enough to handle multiple clients?
  • Do I have the necessary certifications and licenses?
  • Am I comfortable selling my services?

Good luck!

Consulting Services for Small Business

When an entrepreneur is starting a business he or she is faced with the requirement of several functions in which they might not be experts. They may know, for example, all there is to know about wholesale distribution but have no idea how to build a website.

Since most companies are started with very limited funds, many entrepreneurs are reluctant to set money aside to pay for consulting services to fill in their knowledge gaps. For example, many create a website from the many templates available. Some are even free.

Where the company website is concerned I feel that the use of existing templates is a false economy. The website functions as an online calling card and needs to put your best foot forward. The amount of time required for the entrepreneur to become proficient enough to develop a quality website takes time away from tending to functions relating to product knowledge, operations and management.

Websites, to be noticed, must go through the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) process. This again is a very specialized function that is often beyond the capability of the business owner.

There are functions which may be grouped under the heading Entrepreneurship Knowledge Services that will present the company at its best. In addition to the website and SEO examples these can include Business Strategy Planning and Business Valuation Services.

My recent experience is that the cost of business services for the self-employed is going down. This is simply my experience, and yours can be vastly different, but I got a substantial amount of website design for about $4,000 and SEO for about $2,000.

Your reaction may be that adding $6,000 to your startup expenses is prohibitive, but by farming this out the entrepreneur should find a quicker path to profitability.

John B. Vinturella, Ph.D. has almost 40 years’ experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site jbv.com and its associated blog. John is co-author of “Raising Entrepreneurial Capital, now in its second edition. He recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business,” available on Amazon.

Mining Market Data

With a heightened awareness of opportunity, ideas can often be generated by market research. The National Women’s Business Center (NWBC) defines market research as “a systematic, objective collection and analysis of data about your target market, competition, and/or environment with the goal being increased understanding. Through the market research process, you can take data–a variety of related or non-related facts–and create useful information to guide your business decisions.

For example, in recent years data has indicated the shift of the U.S. to a service economy and away from manufacturing. Service industry growth is good news for prospective entrepreneurs. Service businesses are relatively easy to start, and economies of scale are not generally sufficient to give larger companies a significant competitive edge.

For an indication of the products and services that people will need in the near future, we can look at projections of those industries which are expected to produce the most new jobs in upcoming years. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that eating and drinking places will create the most new jobs in the early 21st century, followed by health care, construction, and personnel and supply services.

More specific ideas are often suggested in the business and entrepreneurship literature. Food and recreation opportunities could include family entertainment centers, tea salons, and brewpubs. Services you might offer could include children’s learning centers, unique travel experiences and specialized staffing agencies.

Other useful sources of ideas include the business section of the local newspaper and the local business weekly. Broad trends can be tracked merely by being a reasonably well-informed observer of the popular culture.

Are opportunity listings useful? Some believe that it is already too late to enter a business by the time it is publicly acknowledged to be an opportunity. Many suggest that it is better to wait for the “first movers” to clarify exactly what services consumers want, and then to enter with a more focused product.

We also have the choice of moving into “hot” new businesses, or developing better approaches to well-established industries. While leading edge ventures are generally more exciting, more fortunes have probably been made with well run versions of fairly common businesses.

Scan the current literature for opportunities that fit your strengths and interests. Describe a specific business that would take advantage of one of these opportunities. Identify how your strengths and expertise would contribute to the success of such a business. Visualize yourself as the owner/manager, and project how you would get the venture off the ground.

For example, a coffee shop fits within the fastest growing industry, eating and drinking places, though in competition with national franchises. Is it in competition only with other coffeehouses, or with other casual dining or snack-food places?

Many services are highly localized. Is national data useful to consideration of a neighborhood coffee shop? Can we acquire meaningful data on just our market area, the northeast corner of a metropolitan area, serving 18% of its population? This would almost certainly require gathering primary data, that is data that we gather or commission specifically for this purpose, rather than secondary or published data.

The NWBC stresses that information gained through marketing research isn’t just “nice to know.” It is solid information that can guide your most important strategic business decisions.

How to Write an Irresistible Business Proposal

1. Find out about your potential partner by talking to them, reading their mission statement and researching them – as well as learning how they make decisions. This will reveal the “buttons” that you’ll need to press as you describe the benefits of the partnership (i.e. more profits, something new to offer their clients, giving their business a new edge on competition, etc.).

2. Make an offer they can’t refuse. Again, this will also take some research, but within reason, you should bend over backwards to accommodate your potential partner and make it as profitable for them as possible. Remember that the clients you acquire from a joint venture will purchase from you again and again – and it’s usually the “back end profit” after the JV where the real money gets made…

3. Make it as easy as possible for them to say “yes”. People in general are obnoxiously lazy. Many of proposals have been rejected simply because they either seem too complicated – or it sounds like too much work, regardless of how lucrative they are. Simplify your proposal, and if necessary, take on the majority of the workload – remember that you’re sitting on a goldmine!

4. Show them the money. Don’t be vague when it comes to potential earnings. Logically explain to your prospect how much they could reasonably earn from the partnership. It is very important that you do not simply make an “educated guess” – base your predictions entirely on your current marketing stats, sales conversion rates and other real data. This is likely the most overlooked – yet crucial – part of any given JV proposal.

5. Be personal. A “canned” or impersonal proposal likely won’t even make it more than ten seconds before getting tossed in the garbage. Relate to your prospect and emphasize their values by validating their interests, goals and passions. Also, if you want to really make an impact, send your proposal as a hard copy via FedEx. Email is simply too easy to ignore, erase or forget about.

6. Add a real sense of urgency. You want to subtly hint to your potential partner that you won’t wait long to hear back from them – which is true, because if they say “no you’ll have to find someone else anyway. Word this in such a way that it compels them to action either way – but don’t be overbearing, deceptive or unrealistic.

7. Build rapport with your prospect. You must understand that the majority of business people – especially those that are very successful – would much rather work with someone that they know, like and trust than a complete stranger. In fact, it’s crucial that you do this before you even send them a proposal…

We Are All Self Employed

Q: I am not yet ready to be self-employed, but wish to be in the near future. What can I do in my current job to prepare?

We are all self-employed; even as employees of a firm, we are still primarily personal career managers. Still, some of us are, or will become, entrepreneurs.

The U.S. Small Business Administration has developed a Checklist for Going into Business (http://www.sba.gov/content/use-our-starting-assessment-tool) that leads the prospective entrepreneur through a skills inventory that includes supervisory and/or managerial experience, business education, knowledge about the specific business of interest, and willingness to acquire the missing necessary skills. A commitment to filling any knowledge or experience gap is a very positive indicator of success.

Personal characteristics required, according to the SBA, include leadership, decisiveness, and competitiveness. Important factors in personal style include will power, and self-discipline, comfort with the planning process, and with working with others. Can you objectively rate yourself in these dimensions?

Peter F. Drucker, author of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, says that anybody from any organization can learn how to be an entrepreneur, that it is “systematic work.” But there is a difference between learning how to be, and succeeding as an entrepreneur. “When a person earns a degree in physics, he becomes a physicist,” says Morton Kamien, a professor of entrepreneurship at Northwestern University. “But if you were to earn a degree in entrepreneurship, that wouldn’t make you an entrepreneur.”

Why we are all self-employed

The reasons commonly given for people going into business for themselves are: freedom from a work routine; being your own boss; doing what you want when you want; boredom with the current job; financial desires, and; a perceived opportunity. Which of these might be sufficient to get you to take the risk?

How are you doing as a personal career manager? Trends toward downsizing and outsourcing will almost certainly lead to smaller companies utilizing networks of specialists. Fortune magazine suggests that “Almost everyone, up through the highest ranks of professionals, will feel increased pressure to specialize, or at least to package himself or herself as a marketable portfolio of skills.”

Xerox has published an article titled “12 Tips for Personal Career Growth.” The subtitle is illustrative of the challenges faced. “Personal growth is a journey that’s never complete. It’s easily sidelined by the day’s urgent tasks, yet it’s essential for long-term job satisfaction and advancement. Our tips include techniques and tactics that encourage personal growth and help keep it a priority.”

How marketable is your portfolio of skills? Many think they have several years’ experience, when what they really have is one year’s experience several times. Are you continuing to learn, and keeping up with developments in your field? The best approach to preparing for an entrepreneurial career is often to find some aspect of your field in which you can become expert. jbv.com is Dr. Vinturella’s management consulting site with tutorials on a wide range of topics in entrepreneurship, internet marketing and personal finance. jbv.com/library is an extensive set of links to anything an entrepreneur and market researcher might need. jbv.com/8steps discusses John’s latest book on business startup.

8 Steps to Starting a Business

About 8 Steps Can entrepreneurship be taught? Many of the skills of successful entrepreneurs can be taught, and sensitivity to business opportunity can be sharpened. A thorough and orderly approach to business planning allows us to assess whether an opportunity exists, and to chart the best way to take maximum advantage of that opportunity.

From there, a hardy individual can decide, with a little less uncertainty, whether or not to pursue that opportunity. A feature of this book is that it is centered on the business plan. After some basic concepts are treated, and an opportunity is selected, its evaluation and refinement are treated in the context of the appropriate section of the business plan. It has been my experience that this approach gives a structure to the planning process that makes it less intimidating, and more effective.

Case studies are integral to achieving our objectives. After some market research we discuss (often through minicases) the concepts applicable to some stage of the entrepreneurial process; the full cases then "drive home" these concepts by demonstrating them in action. One of these case studies threads its way through the entire text, describing the consequences of decisions made at various stages of a business on its later fortunes over a period of 20 years; not coincidentally, I was intimately involved in those decisions. I hope these cases help your entrepreneurial development as much as they have mine.

management consulting, small business, start a business, entrepreneur