“Soaring ridges, exposed traverses and precipitous drops. Fast and light over technical terrain.”
That’s a description of the UK’s most extreme footrace series, Skyline Scotland [pictured]. It also sums up exactly how I visualise those first few bewildering weeks of going it alone as a small business or entrepreneur. In those early days, the work itself is the straightforward, ‘easy’ bit. The scary bit is the onslaught of stuff that comes with it: getting to grips with the realities of life-after-IT-support; doing your own tax and bookkeeping; office admin and more. It’s all those hidden costs and unexpected roadblocks that make life in business feel like a high-adrenaline mountaintop adventure, where every false summit conceals a new peak to scale.
Fast and light: those words ran through my head like a mantra in the early days of self-employment. In the context of Skyline Scotland, fast and light means carrying only the best and lightest kit; choosing the right fuel; sighting ahead at speed to forge a route over unknown terrain that is ever changing.
In business, the challenge is not so very different. To move forward at speed over terrain that’s unfamiliar, you need to keep the destination in sight and make good choices, fast. That includes picking the very best, ‘lightest’, ‘leanest’ tools to help you on your journey, and every good choice feels like a small victory. Here’s my pick of the five lean, mean, small-business-friendly solutions that have proved invaluable to me on my journey so far:
1: Creative Commons: for free images
If you need quality free content that you can legally use, remix, edit and share without paying an arm and a leg for the privilege, then you need Creative Commons. I use it to source images for use in print and online, but if you’re after video, music or other media for business use, chances are you’ll find it here. Most content creators will expect no more than a polite credit in return for your use of their material.
2: iZettle: for card payments
A godsend if you need to take card payments on the go. For a one-off fee of £29 (a discounted rate, apparently, but discounts like this appear to come online often) you can buy an iZettle card reader that connects via Bluetooth to your phone and works with chip & pin, swipe and contactless cards. Manage inventory and run reports via an app downloaded to your phone – it’s as simple as that. You’ll pay a flat transaction fee of 2.5% for every card payment you take, but for flexibility and ease of use, for me it’s a no-brainer. If you don’t like iZettle, I hear that SumUp do something similar although I’ve never tried it.
3: Sipgate: for telephony
If you want your own business landline but you don’t have the budget, Sipgate Basic is a free (if slightly faffy) fix. In non-techy speak, Sipgate lets you assign a unique local landline number to your smartphone, that will work for incoming and outgoing calls. It uses VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) so you’ll need a reliable internet connection in order to use it. You’ll also need to download a separate app to your smartphone, but the Sipgate website has plenty of guidance on which to choose and how to do it. There doesn’t seem to be a catch: if you persevere through the initial set-up, it really does do what it says on the tin.
4: Toggl: for time management
For time tracking and productivity, Toggl is my new best friend. It’s a free timesheet app that works across your laptop and your smartphone, to help you keep tabs on where you’re using (and where you’re losing) your time. Of course there are lots of apps out there to do this; I won’t claim I’ve tried them all. But I will say that once I tested Toggl I felt no need to waste any more of my (tracked) time looking any further. It’s user friendly and fab.
5: Xero: for your finances
For cloud-based accounting and bookkeeping on the go, Xero is a super-smart tool that integrates with pretty much any sales platform that you’re already using online. It looks after your expenses, your bank reconciliations, your invoices, your cashflow, your year-end accounts … the works. It also has a super little mobile app that helps you keep on top of all that finance stuff without putting itoff until the end of the month (or next month … or the month after). It’s not free – after an initial trial period it starts at £10 month – but it’s worth it.
I’m always on the lookout for affordable, quality solutions that will help me and my clients. If you’ve got other productivity hacks that every small business should know about, I’d love to hear about them!