If you run a small green business, it’s now easier than ever to stay on task and in contact with clients and customers, thanks to the great variety of free online productivity tools. From the comfort of your favorite chair (or wherever you happen to find yourself) you can take payments, do product or marketing research, share information or collaborate, promote your business, and manage your to-do list.
We’re worlds away from the days of needing filing cabinets, fax machines, wall calendars, printers, and an office phone system to run a small business. We can manage our appointments or shipments or deadlines with a free cloud-based calendar, send phone calls to whichever number we choose, and can even sign documents electronically. That’s a great advantage for the small green business owner who wants to keep a small resource footprint.
Communication: You need to stay in touch with your customers, your employees, your suppliers, and any future clients, and thanks to a couple of free communications services, we don’t have to spend an arm and a leg on our business calls.
- Google Voice: Part of Google’s extensive online tools, Voice gives you a unique phone number that can be forwarded to another phone at any time (your cell, your home number, etc.) or set to take a voicemail. Your outgoing message can be customized as usual, or left with Google’s default message. When a caller leaves a message with Voice, you get an email (or an SMS message) with a link to listen to it, as well as a text transcript of the call (the transcripts aren’t 100% accurate). Your contacts can be sorted by groups, and each group can have a different setting for forwarding and a custom outgoing message, so managing your incoming calls just became that much easier. You can also embed a Google Voice widget onto your website so that visitors can call you with just one click, and you can even host a conference call with your account.
- Skype: Whether you prefer audio calls, text chats, or video calls, Skype has you covered. While technically not an online service (you need to download the free software), it’s one of the handiest ways to stay in touch with business partners, customers, or suppliers. Skype chat and Skype-to-Skype calls (and video calls) are free, and credit for calls to non-Skype numbers can be purchased cheaply with PayPal or another credit/debit card. Group chats can also be managed with Skype (also free), and used for collaboration or sharing.
- Gmail + Gchat: For managing multiple email accounts, Gmail is the way to go. Set it up to send and receive as any of your different accounts (i.e. firstname.lastname@example.org can be sent as Joseph@TechnicolorDreamcoat.com if you have that email account), and use the service’s extensive label and folder options and filtering to keep all of your correspondence organized. Along with Gmail, you’ll have access to the IM service Gchat, which will let you instant message your contacts that use Gmail or AIM to communicate. IM is a fast way to contact people (Gmail lets you see when they are online, so you know whether to message them or email them), plus, with the video plugin, you can make and receive video calls right within Gmail.
Scheduling: A well run business is usually a business that has a clear and efficient scheduling system. Who’s working when? When did you order those parts? What time was that appointment I made with the inspector? It goes so much more smoothly when all of the answers are in one place.
- Google Calendar: Google’s Calendar will manage multiple schedules and enable sharing of calendars, so you can see your kid’s soccer schedule and your tradeshow dates, plus your employee work schedule, all at once. You can share your calendars with others to help collaboration efforts and keep everyone on task, and they can be synced to iCal, Outlook, or your smart phone, so you always have access to your appointments.
- TimeBridge: Let the world know about your availability for meetings, phone calls, or events with this web service. Send out one email to a group of people with up to 5 times that work for you, and let them respond with the time that works best for all of you, or share your availability on sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, or your blog. TimeBridge integrates with Outlook, iCal, Google Calendar, or your iPhone, so your appointments are synced with your main calendar.
- Tungle.me: Get your own Tungle.me page and easily schedule meetings, invite others to schedule with you and propose multiple times that work for you, so you don’t have to play email tag to dial in a meeting time.
Documentation: Having easy access to the information you need, when you need it, makes for quicker decisions and a more efficient business. Organized and easily searched files, your own personal library of information, will take a lot of stress off of a perpetually disorganized person, and finding an easy process for this is important, so that it actually gets organized, not put off until tomorrow.
- Google Docs: Again, we can look to Google for a powerful free document service. You can create or upload multiple types of files, from documents to presentations and spreadsheets, and they are all searchable, editable, and shareable, with quick access from the Gmail dashboard. A basic drawing application will make short work of some basic image creation and editing. The spreadsheet functions are excellent for managing contact information, and with plenty of built-in templates, you’ll probably find something there that works for you. You can use a “Contact Us” template to make an embeddable widget for any site, and have the contact information go directly to your spreadsheet.
- Evernote: “Remember everything. Capture anything. Access anywhere.” That’s what Evernote’s home page says, and it pretty much sums it up. It’s an amazing capture and organizing tool, and Evernote has quite a few features that are not only handy, but kind of magical, such as the optical character recognition that can read and search the text from a picture of a whiteboard. Evernote is also a download, not strictly online, but the beauty is that the data is synced online – so no matter which computer you are using, you have access to the latest copy of your files, from receipts to recipes to contact lists and research folders. The web clipper feature makes it easy to grab something and file it in a jiffy, and tagging and organizing by notebook builds an easily searchable library.
- DropBox: Easily store files and folders where you can access them from any computer you are using, with another cloud service, DropBox. If you need to continue working on something at another location, simply save it in the DropBox folder on your computer, and it gets synced automatically with your account, so you’ll see it when you fire up your laptop or home computer. DropBox is also an easy way to share files with coworkers, customers, employees, shareable via email. A basic free account gets you 2 gigabytes of storage, and more space is available with an upgrade.
- Shoeboxed: Need help just getting started organizing your paperwork? You could start by sending in your receipts and business cards using pre-paid envelopes to Shoeboxed, and they will scan, data enter using OCR, and organize all of them for you. Then, you can stay organized by scanning any current receipts or cards with your phone or scanner and keep your paper trail clean.
Tasks and To-do List Management: Running a business requires juggling multiple task and project lists, some of which have sub-lists to them, and staying on top of all of them requires some sort of system so nothing falls through the cracks. If you want to track your items online, you’ve got some good options here:
- ToDoist: A fast, easy to learn and use online task manager that integrates with iGoogle, Gmail, Netvibes, and Launchy (Windows) or your Mac Dashboard, Todoist can help you operate more efficiently, and can be accessed via mobile as well.
- TeuxDeux: This very simple to-do list with the creatively spelled name is a straight-forward, no frills, extremely easy to read application, perfect for the minimalist small green business owner.
- Toodledo: Toodledo is accessible on your mobile phone, your email, your calendar, via your RSS reader, IM, or directly in your web browser. This comprehensive to-do list even lets you print up a foldable booklet for your pocket if you need a hard copy.
- Remember the Milk: Collaboration, geolocation, appointment reminders via email, SMS, or IM, and the options to make lists and notes make this application one of the most feature-rich.
- Text document + DropBox: Open a text document and make your to-do list, then save it to your DropBox folder for a very basic and simple task manager, accessible anywhere your DropBox folder is.
Research and Education: Small business owners looking to get ahead spend some time each day catching up on the news in their industry, and keep a close eye on competitors, suppliers, and potential clients. RSS feeds and email alerts are excellent for this, and having a place to bookmark articles to read later keeps you on task.
- Google Reader: An RSS reader should be easy to manage and use, and Reader is a great example of this. Feed your favorite blogs, websites, and news alerts RSS feeds to Reader, sort them by folders, and quickly get all the news you need to read in one place. Set up Google news blog alerts for keywords in your industry, for your business and personal names, and for any other topic you want to stay up on, and scan them in Reader each day. Or just search with keywords within Reader to find the articles you’re looking for.
- Feedly: This RSS reader works with Reader, but adds some extra features and has a great user interface. If you’re already using Reader, Feedly is a stylish way to read and share content, and it integrates with Twitter, Friendfeed, Delicious, Digg and YouTube.
- Delicious: The popular social bookmarking service can be a rich source of information for small business owners by searching for articles by tag, popularity, or date, and is a great way to keep track of helpful resources around the web. Share your favorite lists of web pages with business associates or clients easily, or see what other business owners or consultants are bookmarking.
- To Read: When you come across something you know you’ll want to read, but don’t have the time right then, click the To Read bookmarklet and have it sent to you via email. Set up a filter which sends these emails directly to a [To Read] folder, and you won’t end up cluttering your inbox with your research.
- Read It Later: Working on the same concept of saving pages to read at an appropriate time, Read It Later is available on the web, iPhone, Blackberry, Android, or in your browser, and lets you read articles even when you’re offline. Use the bookmarklet for a quick way to send your list to Read It Later.
- Instapaper: “A simple tool to save web pages for reading later.” Another great way to manage the articles you want to read when you’re ready, Instapaper is iPhone and iPad friendly, and works via a bookmarklet in your browser.
Business Website and Promotion: So you don’t have tons of cash to hire someone to build you a website, but you need a presence on the web? Whether you use their domain or one that you own, a number of free, easy to use web services will let you build a home for your small green business on the internet.
- Posterous: One of the easiest ways to post just about anything (text, pictures, music, videos), Posterous works with your own domain name if you have one, and you can post to your site on the web or via email or smartphone. A handy bookmarklet makes it simple to repost information you’ve found elsewhere, with an automatic link back to the original piece, and Posterous makes it easy to share your content via a number of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
- Tumblr: Very similar to Posterous, but with their own unique features, Tumblr is one of the easiest ways to begin blogging. Choose a username, a name for your site, and a theme, and you’ll be up and running in minutes.
- Blogger: Blogger is one of the earliest platforms available for blogging, and it’s easy to use and completely free. A large support community and user base makes Blogger one of the most popular places to start a site.
- WordPress: Another well-established blogging platform, WordPress can be used to power a fully functional website that doesn’t look like a blog. WordPress has tons of extra features developed by its users, and when you’re ready to make the jump to a custom domain, is widely available as a quick install from most web hosting companies.
- Slideshare: If you create presentations that you’d like to promote, Slideshare lets you upload and share them easily. Publicize your presentations, documents, even videos, or discover a lot of free resources in other people’s presentations.
- Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, other social networking sites: Claim your business usernames in these networks if you can, and fill out your profiles completely, even if you don’t know how to use them yet. Link to them on your website, and start watching how others use them to engage clients and customers.
- Picnik: A great free online image editor, perfect for when you just need to crop or resize and compress a graphic or image, launchable from a browser extension. Picnik can easily grab an image or entire web page, or upload them from your computer.
- PayPal: PayPal is one of the largest payment providers, and can be used to send and receive funds quickly and securely.
- InspirePay: Request a specific amount with a secure web link, or use an open denomination ‘donation-style’ box on your site. Fast, secure, and simple.
- EchoSign: With support for many languages, secure encryption, and compliancy with all legal standards, EchoSign makes getting a signature (or giving one) quick and easy.
- Mint: Though built more for personal finance, Mint’s financial tracking features could work well for the small business owner as well. Create a one-stop dashboard for all of your banking and credit accounts and set up budgets and spending logs for your operation.
Environmental Responsibility: As a green business owner, it’s also important to monitor your company’s environmental impact, and there are some free online tools and resources that can help you with that as well.
- Water footprint: Knowing the amount of water that we use every day in our personal life is a key to wise water use, and knowing the water footprint of our business will help us to conserve this precious resource.
- Green web hosting: If you want your small business website to be a ‘carbon neutral’ one, you’d do well to consider a web host powered by renewable energy. With a number of options available, you’re sure to find something that fits your needs.
- Business energy assessment: Many municipalities offer energy (and water) efficiency audits for businesses, allowing you to find ways to use less and save money at the same time.
- Alternative energy: Consider contacting One Block Off the Grid (1BOG) to see if community solar would work for your business, and your local power company to see what renewable energy options are available to you.
- Recycled and Paperless options: If you can’t go truly paperless, choose an office paper made out of 100% recycled content and only print what you have to. Reverse the pages and send them back through a second time.
Main Image Credit: Serge Melki