It's your typical day at the office. Like every other day, it started at 7:00 a.m. When you sat down with that first cup of coffee, you were hoping to get to work on some meaty stuff-strategic planning, ideas for that big project, a thorough review of your staffing needs for next quarter--the kind of long-term thinking that helps your business grow. But you'd barely gotten started when... it started. Urgent phone calls from clients. Personnel crises. Last-minute meetings. Stacks of documents, checks and other paperwork that need your approval or signature. Suddenly, it's 7:00 p.m., and all you've done is put out fires. Want tomorrow to be different? Then read on for 25 easy ways to simplify your business so you'll have time for what really matters. Put these ideas to work, and before you know it, you'll be finishing up that strategic plan... and maybe even have time left over for a life.
Streamlining your business technology can make life less of a headache for everyone. Entrepreneurs often "don't realize they can make things easier," says Kevin McElligott, founder of iTech Developers, a Nevada City, California, technology consulting firm and hosting provider. Here are a few ideas to get your technology in tip-top shape:
1. Serve it up. A server can act as a digital filing cabinet for your growing piles of documentation. Compared to daisy chaining several PCs, "Servers give you a lot more reliability and improve your business," says Mike Beltrano, supervisor of product management for servers at CDW Corp., a Vernon Hills, Illinois, server company. Another bonus: By keeping important documents on a central server, it's easier to back up all your important documents daily.
2. Phone it in. Are you wasting time running between voice mail on your cell and office phones? VoIP systems offer a great deal of personalization and features for a rock-bottom price. In fact, VoIP can be up to 40 percent cheaper than a traditional small-office phone system, and it offers useful features for any small business. Voice mails, for example, can be handled just like attachments--clicked, dragged, dropped and passed along. "Voice mail is becoming e-mail that can be forwarded where you want it," says Henry Kaestner, CEO of Bandwidth.com, a Cary, North Carolina, firm that provides VoIP services to companies. These systems are fairly new, but they're getting more popular and more reliable every day.
3. Take it online. If you've taken the leap of setting up an accounting package to handle your bills, take the extra step of automating the process. See if your accounting software can automatically generate invoices as well as e-mail reminders for late payments. "The system will literally tell me when it's time to call," says McElligott, whose automated billing process alerts him after each late notice has been e-mailed to a customer, and it automatically suspends the client's hosting services as of the third notice. Likewise, your accounting software (and your bank) can handle electronic transfers so you never have to worry about a late electric bill.
4. Hit the web. Your website is a potential client's main access point to your business. Don't worry as much about fancy graphics as making sure visitors can get the information they need. An online FAQ list can cut down on the time clients spend calling with basic questions and prevent a frustrated client from going elsewhere. You don't have to be a techno-whiz to set up a good website. Many web hosting companies can provide reliable websites for relatively little money, and many provide tools to help even technophobes set up online purchasing and billing.
Money might not be the root of all evil, but it is the cause of many headaches for business owners. Here are five tips for managing your money better:
5. Bank on it. "One of the assets business owners have is their cash," says Manny Calzon, vice president and finance manager for the central district of Merrill Lynch in Tampa, Florida. But many entrepreneurs don't understand how much they're paying in service charges to their banks every month. Request a bank analysis statement that breaks down the generic service charges found in your monthly statement. "You can make an educated decision as to whether you need [all the services you're] being charged for," Calzon says, "and if not, [ask the banker to] streamline and reduce costs associated with this account." You can then reinvest the savings in ways that take the business to the next level.
6. File taxes electronically. Companies with $10 million or more in total assets that file 250 or more returns a year are now required to file their 2006 taxes electronically. "Small businesses are going to be scrambling," says Bradford Hall, managing director of Hall & Company CPAs in Irvine, California. "They're going to [need] an automated payroll service that files electronically for them." So get a head start now to make life easier later on.
7. Pay now, not later. Can you pay smaller bills in advance? If you have a monthly bill for $15 but opt to pay $90 for six months of service, you'll save $1.95 in stamps and you won't incur late fees. Best of all, you're not wasting time paying bills.
8. Upgrade your accounting systems. "A business that's projecting $10 million-plus [in sales] should be on a sophisticated system," Hall says. Software packages such as BusinessWorks, Enterprise, Great Plains (which was recently acquired by Microsoft) and MAS 90 offer increased sophistication for a growing company and will make life much easier come tax time or, heaven forbid, an audit.
9. Make your (bench) mark. It's common for growing companies to do business without understanding how they stack up against similar companies in their industry. Most likely, your accountant has industry profit and overhead statistics at the ready--data you can keep on file for future strategy sessions without having to do your own legwork. Says Hall, "Businesses aren't taking advantage of it."
10. Obey the urge to merge. You might pay slightly more, but renewing all your insurance policies on the same date with the same agent lets you sit down once a year to review insurance for the entire business instead of having different renewals pop up three or four times a year. You'll save time, and your insurance agent "will do better with the full picture," says Scott Simmonds, owner of Insurance Consultants of Maine, a Saco, Maine, company that helps small-business owners navigate their insurance plans. Check out Simmonds' site or InsuranceBuzzer for tips on 40 types of insurance.
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.