You're searching for the last proposal you faxed to a potential client, and the frenzied hunt has made you borderline late for your appointment with her. It wouldn't be a problem--you can call to explain your tardiness--except that you've misplaced her cell phone number.
If this sounds like a typical day, you're like a lot of busy entrepreneurs. But who has time to find better ways of managing the day-to-day when you have a business to run? Well, finding better ways to do things might very well mean getting software to do them for you--whether you're managing client relationships, streamlining your finances or anything in between.
This year's "Entrepreneur's Complete Guide to Software" includes two charts of the latest products and Internet-based services to help you identify software that can perform the tasks--better and faster--that you'd rather not do. We cover 16 different categories, from accounting tools to utilities, plus--new this year--applications for handheld devices.
The past year has also seen the Internet expand its role. Software's march toward the Web has quickened, with more and more applications becoming available as downloadable online purchases. Often, those titles are discounted from their packaged versions. Plus, purchasing downloads makes shipping charges as archaic as Windows 3.1.
Purchasing downloads rather than boxed software may require that you sacrifice some frills like sound files or video tutorials--which slow transmission speed--but the immediate gratification, 24/7 access and savings may be well worth it. And, as long as you're properly registered, most online vendors will allow you to reinstall your downloads any time, so there's no fear of crashing and burning.
Or how about merely renting software? Application service providers (ASPs) allow businesses to avoid the whole purchase-and-install process completely by renting software over the Internet. All it takes is a monthly per-user fee. And this trend is anything but lukewarm. "Five years from now, if very large companies like IBM and AT&T continue to design strategic Internet solutions for this market, small businesses will access all their applications, content and expertise online," says Kneko Burney, director of e-business infrastructure and services for Cahners In-Stat Group.
But it's not all rosy. ASPs may be red-hot, but they're still new. Before signing anything, be sure to ask providers about service level agreements, which outline guarantees of "uptime" (available service) as well as refund policies for any revenue loss directly resulting from downtime. Check out our chart of ASPs for examples of the key applications--including those previously reserved for the big guys, like enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM)--that businesses like yours can now access online.
Whether you choose to rent or buy your software, finding the right match requires the same work. List what you'd like your software to accomplish, and ask users what features they need. Download trial versions, if available, to gauge real-world effectiveness. Aim for multifunctional programs, like accounting packages with invoice- and tax-preparation tools, and make sure they can grow with your business.
Above all, pay close attention to the service, maintenance, training and online tutorials that may or may not come with the software. The real costs of your applications lie here, not in their initial price tags.