It starts out like a dream. You launch your business and just as you hoped, there is healthy demand. Things are great!
But then you start to realize that the little problems are turning into big ones, and you're feeling overwhelmed. Your books are a mess. Every time you think you're about to catch up, a new crisis pops up. But you don't want to stop growing -- that will kill your momentum, right?
This is the exact scenario for many businesses just before they fail. It's a sad story, documented in many entrepreneurship books. Nothing is more depressing than watching your promising business fail because it collapses under the weight of its own growth. Fortunately, this is preventable.
I started my first business about 15 years ago and can comfortably say that while the basic process for setting up a business to handle growth hasn't changed much in that time, the tools have changed IMMENSELY. For a small investment, these tools will help you set up your business for sustainable success. Here are five tools you can utilize from day one to keep up with growth.
1. Hosted Email Services: Set up your company's email, calendar and contacts to synchronize with fellow employees.
This once required having a Microsoft Exchange Server and the services of an IT professional, costing at least $1,500 upfront plus ongoing service expenses. Today, Microsoft Exchange Online and Google Apps offer this same functionality for $4/month per user and $5/month per user respectively. These services easily scale with your business and provide you with business organizational tools that big companies have relied on for years.
2. Digital File Sharing: Create an inexpensive "virtual server."
Most established businesses have a company server where people can easily share documents with coworkers. If you don't want to spend the money on a server, you can utilize file sharing services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Skydrive or iDriveSync and use them like a server. With these services, you can create simple, shared digital file folders that are automatically backed up and available everywhere. Best of all, they typically cost $5 to $10/month per user for 30 to 150 GB of data.
3. Virtual PBX: Establish a separate business phone number without getting a new phone.
When I started my first business, I bought an expensive cell phone to use as my business line. In 1999, this was a fairly creative idea that had the added benefit of justifying the cell phone bill. Today, everyone has a cell phone, so having to carry a second one (and its service contract) is pretty unappealing. A better option is to sign up for a virtual PBX service. Despite the jargon-heavy name, virtual PBX services are simple, inexpensive and extremely useful. When you sign up for the service, the service provider gives you an account with a dedicated phone number that you can forward to any phone that you like. It's very similar to Google Voice, except it's designed for business. PBX services offer features like multiple extensions, corporate voicemail, and auto attendant, and typically start at $10/month. One word of caution: virtual PBX services are not required to allow you to port your number to another service or carrier if you terminate your contract. Make sure to pick a provider that will allow you to port your number out.
4. Cloud-Based Project Management: Minimize mistakes and increase efficiency by organizing your tasks and goals for you and your team.
Today, many cloud-based project management systems are affordable, simple and designed to integrate with the email and calendars you already use. Even when you're doing all of the work yourself, it is a good idea to start using a project management system. You'll benefit in two ways. First, you'll begin familiarizing yourself with how these systems work and set up your business processes to integrate smoothly with the system. This will minimize the growing pains of putting one of these systems in place after your employees are already set in their ways. Second, you'll create a record of the work you're doing, so you and your employees can see the history of your business. Many of these services offer limited free accounts or free trials to get started, and the paid levels start between $12 and $25/month.
5. Password Management Service: Organize and secure access to your online tools.
All of the online tools you'll use for your business require a login. It's not uncommon for a business to have 50+ logins, each with their own URL, username and password. In order to keep up and stay secure, use a password management service. These services will allow you to easily save login information for all your online services in their encrypted password vaults. The features vary, but most companies offer browser and smartphone tools, free personal accounts and enterprise-level packages that provide options designed for a business environment. Enterprise accounts cost as little as $2/month/user.
I wish I'd had access to these tools when I started out and now I use them regularly. I hope you also find them useful in the struggle to ensure that your success doesn't become your own worst enemy.