What? You don't have time to track all the latest developments in software? For an entrepreneur, researching changes in information technology often takes a remote back seat to the day-to-day tasks of running a business. And that's probably the way it should be. But believe us-it pays to take a hard look at the software your company is using.
In this year's "Entrepreneur's Complete Guide to Software," we've examined software products in 16 different categories. Some of these products won't change the way you do business. If antivirus and utilities software programs are doing their jobs, for example, you shouldn't even notice they're there. However, a number of these categories include software that has the potential to improve client relationships, streamline finances, replace expensive hardware or revamp your data-handling. In short, these products are designed either to give a nice push to your company's productivity or just to save you money; in some cases, you'll get the best of both worlds.
Small companies have to make the most of their resources, and sometimes that means people have to focus on areas in which they have little knowledge. From accounting to Web site design, software packages can eliminate the need for training or experience. The right software could be your company's best friend.
Exciting, isn't it? But before you rush off to buy a bundle of software, keep in mind that you have several factors to consider other than just the capabilities and costs of the software. Your selections should be based on your company's size, industry, internal organization, computing environment, technical expertise, and, of course, the ever-important user interface. Even a great product can end up being a nuisance if it's not intuitive to you as a user.
Where Do I Start?
First, re-evaluate your company's staple software. For each program, draw up a wish list of features or enhancements that would make using the package easier. Often, the solution may be as simple as an upgrade to the latest version available. If not, consider the options in our listing.
Second, take a good look at your business and pinpoint those activities that take more time than you'd like-the ones that make you mutter to yourself "There must be something out there that can do this quicker than I can." No doubt, there probably is. For that matter, think about those activities you never seem to have time to do. From tools for creating Web sites to time-billing software, new products could provide brilliant solutions to problems you haven't yet resolved. Make sure, though, that the solutions are worth the money and time you'll have to spend to implement them successfully.
Then it's time to try and buy. Check out the Web sites for the software companies we've listed on our software chart-often, they'll let you download demos that can help you better gauge how easy their products are to use. If a demo version isn't available, there's usually a detailed online tour that gives you a lot more information than a paper-based brochure. And before you buy the package outright, check with the software company to see if it's bundled with other software or equipment that you might be in the market to buy anyway.
Get ready to dive in-a host of products awaits you . . .
Good as Gold
To get something out of software, notes Lauren Leifer, president of Compdisk Inc., you usually have to put something in. But as Leifer knows, what usually needs putting in is time-a precious commodity for any entrepreneur.
When Leifer realized the employees at her media replication, product fulfillment and distribution company needed a better way to share client information, she definitely didn't want to suffer through a lengthy set-up process. She picked GoldMine as her contact-management software with that concern in mind. "We could jump right into it and use it the way it was," says Leifer.
At Compdisk, a $4 million Chicago company, Leifer has everyone from the production crew and the salesteam to the technical staff using GoldMine. "We use it for all our internal e-mail, and we use it to e-mail out," says Leifer. "It links our e-mail to whatever documentation we want." Through Gold-Mine, Compdisk organizes all its documentation for clients and vendors in the same file, maximizing the company's ability to share and link information.
By now, Leifer has successfully encouraged her partner company in Canada and several of her client companies to purchase GoldMine as well. Using the software's remote-synchronization features, Leifer and the companies she communicates with can share any information stored on the system.
Leifer seems assured that she made the right choice. And why shouldn't she? She's found that perfect balance between making the most of her software and making the most of her time.
Add It Up
For years, Grace Jordan relied on bookkeepers to manage the finances for her now-10-year-old firm, Sonic Image Ltd., a Carol Stream, Illinois, manufacturer's representative for a company that creates equipment to add audio to video products. When her most recent bookkeeper moved to another state, a client gave her some invaluable advice: "You should try MYOB Accounting."
Five years later, Jordan is delighted she listened to that advice. With the help of MYOB, the tasks that used to require a full-time employee now use up just a small fraction of Jordan's workday. "MYOB doesn't leave any blanks," says Jordan. "I fill in the amounts and it's done, it's down and it's printed."
A rather blasÃ© approach to accounting for someone who's never even taken a bookkeeping course. In fact, Jordan, who spent almost 40 years working in advertising before moving on to the audio industry, didn't even need training to figure out how to customize the MYOB software to her needs. The product's features allow her to do such accounting tasks as billing clients, tracking sales, doing year-end taxes and paying bills without much hassle at all. "The computer does the thinking for me," she notes. "Now I can get on with doing what makes me money."
It seems Jordan is doing just that: Her company's sales are now at approximately $6 million, and showing no signs of slowing down. "For the record," Jordan adds, "I've got a lot to learn-and I'm enjoying every minute of it."
It's a Print
When Cliff Carle heard his friend's hilarious homemade answering machine message back in 1983, he decided to one-up him and create a funny message of his own. The competition that ensued ended only when Carle and his friend decided to turn their messaging fun into a collection-and to start a company to publish it. CCC Publications was born in Chatsworth, California, when it printed its first book: No Hang-Ups: Funny Answering Machine Messages.
No Hang-Ups met with nationwide popularity, and Carle and his partners decided to expand the company. CCC now publishes 30 titles a year, mostly humor books.
For covers and interiors to the books CCC publishes, Carle works closely with graphic designers. And the key to those relationships is flexibility-which Print Shop Pro, Broderbund's desktop publishing software, affords him in spades.
"I need to be able to make instant changes-larger images, smaller images, different colors, take something out, put it back in," Carle says. Print Shop Pro gives him the speed to make his changes in a flash, but not at the expense of advanced imaging capabilities. "The easy-to-use gradient tool lets me create images that seem three-dimensional."
Print Shop Pro can print right to film format, so Carle doesn't have to fuss with a complicated process. The former stand-up comedian would rather be finding the next book to make people laugh.
Automation for the Business
Mike Buzzie is all about automation: "If I have to do something twice, I want the computer to do it." As president and founder of Northern Com-puters Ltd., a computer hardware store in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Buzzie knows computers like the back of his hand-and he knows what he wants from them.
After 10 years of kindly doling out morsels of advice to those who sought his technical expertise, Buzzie decided to open his own computer hardware store in 1993. He tried a number of products to manage his data, but none met his expectations for power and ease of use. Finally, he discovered Corel's Paradox.
"I found I could get up and moving on it very quickly," he says. "I can bring up a form, go to the next, and do a look-up without having to write any code." The user-friendly interface was crucial for the product that would be the backbone of Buzzie's company. "The database is probably our number-one tool," he says. "It's crucial for the day-to-day operations of our business."
Northern Computers has used Paradox throughout the firm's expansion over the past few years. Now heading up a team of 15, Buzzie attributes his success to two main factors: an exclusive focus on computer hardware and an exhaustive attention to customer service.
He plans to continue using Paradox. "I can grow with Paradox," he says. "Whatever I want to do on a higher level, I'm able to do." And given what Buzzie expects from his software, that's no small feat.
With This Site . . .
Mike Budowski and his wife, Susan, run a Web-based company that dreams are made of. OurBeginning.com, an Orlando, Florida, firm that sells wedding stationery, took the Budowskis only seven weeks to launch and is looking at projected sales of $7 million in its first year.
Mike has no qualms about giving due credit to the product that facilitated the site's quick development. "Net-Object's Fusion has tremendous power," he says. OurBeginning.com's development team selected Fusion after evaluating the the company's projected timeline. "Fusion integrated extremely well with Lotus Domino-giving us both scalability and performance."
Every one of OurBeginning.com's several hundred pages was generated with Fusion, which includes e-commerce enabling as part of its features. "The site speaks for itself," Mike asserts. "It's high-end e-commerce. We were either going to do it right or not at all."
It certainly seems they're doing it right. The friendly interface, which allows users to preview stationery options, is constantly expanding. By year-end, OurBeginning.com even plans to offer its site in several languages. The Budowskis will continue to rely on Fusion as their business grows. This is, after all, only the beginning.