How to run a business with 12 tools or less
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with a variety of clients in different industries. My projects have ranged from digital and print design, to copywriting and consulting, and I’ve explored many resources along the way. I’ve found that using too many apps can be distracting, and this can lead to a negative impact on my productivity. That’s why I’m always leaning out my workflow, and the most effective tools quickly become essentials in my business.
They range from administrative tools for running your company, to functional tools and resources that assist in doing the work. Many are relevant outside of the creative industry, so regardless of what you do for a living, they may give your workflow a boost.
Toggl is a time-tracking desktop app I use for tracking time spent on everything from client work to my own administrative functions. The very act of tracking my time helps me make better use of my day and improve each phase of my client projects. The year I began using Toggl, I earned 10% more income than I had projected, just by tracking. 💪
I give them bonus points for having a free basic plan.
My business email is hosted by Google. It’s great because it functions just like my personal Gmail account. It’s nice to have that sense of continuity and collaborate with my clients and colleagues on documents using Google Drive.
Dropbox is a desktop and mobile app for sharing and storing files. You can send clients a download link for large files rather than taking up space in their inbox. I use it to create organized folders with project assets for my team and clients to access.
You could arguably use Google Drive for storage instead of Dropbox, so perhaps this is one you can do without. Personally, I find Dropbox to be way more convenient, so for me it’s worth the annual fees for extra storage.
Slack is a desktop and mobile app for communicating with teams. You can create “channels” for different topics and separate team members, so your conversations stay organized and relevant. Slack can help you avoid ridiculously long email threads, and create inbox sanity. They offer free and paid versions depending on the size of your team and needs.
If you work with big teams or have many iterations on your projects, consider using Trello for keeping track of changes and to-do lists.
I recommend MailChimp for creating newsletters and managing mailing lists. It’s user-friendly, so you don’t need a designer, developer or techie friend to create something that looks professional. It’s free for a limited number of subscribers.
This one really goes without say if you do any design or marketing. In addition to Acrobat, the top three programs I use are:
i) Photoshop for editing photos, creating simple animations and video, and previously, for designing websites.
ii) Illustrator for designing vector-based graphics such as logos, illustrations and infographics.
iii) InDesign for creating multi-page or multi-media documents such as publications, annual reports and books.
Sketch is another one for designers — I use it for all websites and apps I work on. Before Sketch became widely known, most designers were using Photoshop or Illustrator. Sketch was made for this type of work and that’s why it quickly became a leading software in the design industry. The only downside is that it’s exclusively for Mac operating systems.
If you don’t want to pay for Adobe Creative Cloud, Sketch is a more affordable option. If you already have Adobe Creative Cloud and don’t want to pay for another design program, or if you’re not a Mac user, check out Adobe XD and Muse.
InVision is a great workflow tool for app and web design. Use it to create interactive prototypes, explore ideas and leave notes for your team.
8. Stock image websites
This is more of a resource than a tool. I like to work with photographers whenever I can, but if it’s not possible due to timing or budget constraints, it’s important to know where to find quality stock images. Check out iStock, Adobe Stock, and Masterfile. Some are subscription-based while others charge a flat fee per image. You can also check out Unsplash and Pexels for free stock images.
When you use stock images in your projects be sure to read your vendor’s licensing agreement.
9. Font management software
If you’re a designer I recommend getting a font management program such as Right Font, FontExplorerX or TypeKit. The important thing is that you have the ability to turn off fonts you’re not actively using rather than scrolling through thousands of fonts and increasing your software load time. I’m currently using Right Font, but all of them have their pros and cons. Some are free, while others have a flat fee or are subscription-based. Fortunately, there are plenty of options to choose from, so have a look and see what works for you.
When you use fonts on your projects be sure to read your vendor’s licensing agreement.
i) Word for copywriting, editing and/or proofreading client projects.
ii) PowerPoint instead of InDesign when I work on presentations and pitch decks that my clients must be able to edit on their own.
iii) Excel for charts or financials.
You could use Google Docs, Slides or Sheets for all of this, so perhaps it’s also one that you’ll skip. I agree it’s redundant if you use Gmail, but I still like using Office 365 as well.
Skype: I’ll mention Skype here since it’s owned by Microsoft. I use Skype for video chat and screen share with clients, especially if they’re abroad. I can share my screen to present work and do quick demonstrations or training.
👌 ️Pro tip: You can set up your Skype account to show your name and phone number when you make calls directly to landlines and mobile phones (as opposed to Skype-to-Skype calls). This looks more professional and your clients will know that it’s you calling.
This is a password management tool. The idea is you have one password that you remember (i.e. your LastPass password), and you use it to log into your account and access all of your other logins, passwords and any other confidential information you wish to store. One of the features I like most is that it generates secure passwords for you and automatically adds it to your vault so you never have to think about it again. 🙌
When you’re managing multiple client accounts, and your own personal and professional accounts, this can add up to an astronomical number of passwords. It’s tempting to reuse passwords, write them on a Post-it note, or use very simple passwords that you think you’ll remember. These are all bad ideas. Take it from the person who used to reset at least one password every day — use LastPass. What an absolute lifesaver.
👌 ️Pro tip: Install the LastPass browser extension and access your vault more easily.
If you don’t want to use LastPass, another option is 1Password.
Ride sharing apps have made a huge difference in my professional and personal life. Before we had these options in Toronto I was 15 minutes early or late to everything. Now I take Uber or Lyft to business meetings, and I know exactly what time I’ll reach my destination.
👌 ️Pro tip: If you use Uber or Lyft for business and need receipts for your taxes, don’t waste your time downloading them one by one. Check out Ride Receipts. It’s a free app that my friend and colleague, Meet, and I created for auto-downloading your receipts.
What about social media?
As crazy as it sounds, social media didn’t make it onto my list. Most of my business comes from word of mouth, referrals and long-term client partnerships, so for many years I was reluctant to get my business on social media. These days, I use it to share the latest projects that aren’t yet on the website, and give some more insight or context to the work.
I know many people would argue that Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are essential business tools. I agree — they often are. I’ve seen online retailers, start-ups and small businesses turn into massive success stories thanks to social media. Some of these businesses don’t even have (or need) a website! So I recognize that social media can be indispensable tools, along with complementary post-scheduling services such as Buffer and Hootsuite.
🏆 Closing thoughts
I would say that LastPass solved the biggest pain point for me, and Toggl had the most surprising impact. I put this list together because I’m passionate about helping individuals and companies succeed, whether I’m solving a business problem for them, or simply sharing a tip that will help them live and work better.
Keep in mind that I’m always updating my process. New tools pop up, old ones become obsolete, and the smart ones evolve to stay relevant.
If there are any tools that have made a huge impact on your business, please share in the comments below.