The best software tools for your small business

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business software confusing road sign

No need to be confused about business software, just follow these recommendations

We all get bombarded with the latest business software and apps that supposedly will make our life easier.

There’s a new bookkeeping, productivity, marketing, CRM, workflow management, project management, event management, communication, note taking, SEO, inventory management, social media management, or doodling software application that promises to transform our lives as business owners every week.

It’s impossible to keep track and it’s impossible to know which of these amazing apps actually will improve our lives and which are simply going to make us pull out our hair.

I have been losing hair over small business IT and software in particular since the mid eighties, and you should see how little hair I have left.

We’re all beta-testers these days

To make the situation worse, 90% of the business software we’re bombarded with isn’t actually finished yet. In these days of “Lean start ups” and venture capitalism, the pressure to get new software out into the market to start earning back some cash, is ever increasing. Where in the eighties and nineties, the big software developers would go through various versions of pre-release software, tested by engineers and selected enthusiast users in “Beta-test” mode, these days we’ve all become “Beta- testers”. Software that only barely holds together and hasn’t proved itself in  real life yet, is let loose on us unsuspecting small business owners, leading to endless frustration.

So what I’m going to give you here is a bunch of my favourite business software apps that have stood the test of time and that simply work. They may not always be the latest and the cutest, but they work (generally).

There will be a lot I’m missing and I have no doubt that many who read this will take issue with some of the ones I mention. I’d love to hear, and I won’t take it personal if you believe my list is not worth the screen it’s written on… Feel free to comment, below.

CRM (Customer Relationship Management)

First of all, I need to mention that I am not going to nominate a CRM tool, for the reason that CRM is such a minefield that I wouldn’t know which one to pick. There’s the big behemoths, like SalesForce and Sugar CRM and Microsft Dynamics, but they’re much too big for most small businesses and cost a fortune. The old sledgehammer to crack a nut syndrome. And on the next level down there are literally hundreds: Insightly, Nudge, Contactually and Zoho (I do have a soft spot for ZOHO, they’ve been around since the year dot and they’ve always had an innovative business model), just to name a couple, I wouldn’t know where to start… What you need to do is try a couple and ask for referrals from others who use a CRM…. Sorry that one is too hard. Update… Hubspot has developed further in the past few years and are now offering a highly functional CRM system that is available for free at quite high levels of functionality for small business (see also below under Marketing automation systems). Hubspot does get quite expensive when you’re going into the whole suite of tools, but if you want a really solid CRM for nix it’s hard to beat.

Email marketing

Mailchimp is the gold standard, sure there’s Constant Contact and  Awebber and a bunch of others, but Mailchimp just works beautifully, it does what you need it to do, easily, and it’s one of the few responsible and well managed small software companies out there. (the only gripe is that it gets quite expensive as soon as you get over 5000 subscribers, I find)


Yoast... Hands down, safe, good, solid, good value. What else can I say?

Popup forms on your website

Sumo. I’ve tried a number of them, and Sumo is just great, and really clever. I’ve seen nothing that comes close

Marketing Automation Systems (MAS)

If you’re not sure what MAS is, go and find out. But it’s like email marketing on steroids. I use Active Campaign and have done for a number of years after testing and discarding (with great frustration and gnashing of teeth) various other ones. Active Campaign is significantly cheaper than competitors like InfusionSoft, Ontraport and Hubspot.. Active Campaign is easier to use, is pretty well just as good as those others for 90% of small businesses, and if you really must be able to do more than AC will allow you to do (in event management especially) than go to Hubspot… it’s the Gold Standard for small business systems (and it costs about 4 times as much as AC)

Bookkeeping and accounting

It’s a toss up for me between Xero and QuickBooks Online, there’s a case to be made for both of them and I wouldn’t know how to choose between them. QuickBooks Online does have the ability to do inventory management and track time for which Xero is not useful, and QuickBooks online accounting is about half the price of Xero, so that’s certainly worth looking into. Xero integrates with a lot of other software and I think it beats QuickBooks on that front at this stage of the game though. Both programs work really well and are all over the older style programs such as MYOB. Update, these days I really only recommend XERO for small business owners.

Workflow management

This is another area where it’s hard to keep up. I recommend two programs only, because I know they work and can be applied to many different businesses. One of them is Workflow Max, and the other is Acello . Acello is the pick for consultants and customer service management and Workflow Max is the bees knees in my experience for Builders and such like, where the business creates estimates for material, labour and other costs and wants to be able to compare the actual cost of a project against the budgets for each of the components. Update: In 2022 I would seriously look at ASANA and at Harvest. If you are in specific industries such as in building there are a few others to look at, for plumbers and electricians for example I would compare Simpro with Fergus and for small to medium builders I think Buildxact is hard to beat, 

Service and mobile workforce management

GeoOp. If you have a workforce that spends it’s day on the road travelling from job to job, fixing washing machines or unblocking toilets, GeoOp is going to allow you to keep your finger on the pulse. Again, there are others but GeoOp is solid and reliable and it does what it promises.

Project Management

In the old days we had Microsoft Project and that was it. These days you could find a hundred different options with looking too hard. Several of my clients use Asana It is quite brilliant, easy to use and it seems everyone just loves using it… very accessible.

Productivity tools

Many people love Evernote, others swear by Trello, I am hooked on MSOneNote. It’s wonderful. There’s not much software of which I can truly says it has changed my life, but MSOneNote has. I have been able to become entirely paperless and significantly more efficient. And the best part of it MSOnenote is that it’s actually entirely free. It is part of the MSOffice 365 suite and that’s not free  (but surprisingly god value to be honest) but you can use MSOneNote for free even if you don’t have a MSOffice 365 subscription. I use it on my computer, my laptop, my phone and tablet seamlessly. I tryuly think it’s one of the most useful things Microsoft has ever done for me. But if you really hate Microsoft, have a look at little known Google Keep…very cute too.

Social Media management

Buffer… No contest… super easy to use, effective and good value… I’m hooked on it.

So there.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about my omissions and errors of judgement.

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Business owners frequently ask 7 Big Questions about how to Build a Beautiful Business and Life.

The first of these  Big Questions is: How do I grow my business?

To answer that question I have identified the 11 most important strategies to create Business Growth.

The third of those strategies is Grow your business with Innovation. This is one of a number of articles on this site that explain how Innovation and Growth hang together, in some depth.

6 comments on “The best software tools for your small business

  1. Thanks Roland, that’s very helpful. AC certainly sounds interesting but I bawk (spelling?) at the task of transferring all my emails from another server who I have no issues with. What does AC give that say Mailchimp doesn’t? Do you need both?

    Please can you talk about the necessity of https sometime. It seems google is going to flash warnings on the websites that don’t have the s.

    • Hi Madeleine, AC is a m,arketing automation system, where mailchimp is purely an email management system (be it a very good one)…so in AC you can respond interactively to actions that the recipients take…for example, you probably receive my weekly one minute business tips… I can set up AC in such a way that if you’ve opened a particular email or a few of them that you get start receiving specific emails, because it’s clear from the fact that you’ve opened a bunch of emails that you’re more engaged…. you are more interested in what I have to say than others, so I can start talking to you differently… it allows automated conversations, to some extent… It’s a big field, and you wouldn’t use Mailchimp and something like AC concurrently.
      Hope that helps

  2. I wonder why Google Keep is still so little known? I agree it is a “cute” app because it’s simple to use and doesn’t have a lot of the bells and whistles that MSOneNote and the others have. Perhaps with the inclusion of Keep in G Suite now, more business people might start using it. The one feature where Keep does excel compared to OneNote is its OCR reader. It produces text with far fewer errors than OneNote, and that’s what keeps me using it.

    • Hi David,
      Yes Keep is a really nice simple clean app. I use MSOneNote as well, but I use Keep for a lot of my recipes for example, easy to use and get around in, nice user interface… Thanks for the tip about OCR in Keep… i’ll try that out

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