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Knowledge is power, and the Information Age is upon us. If you're in the process of launching or expanding your own business, the time has probably come to update your computer's business software.
It's tough keeping up with the information demands of a fast-growing venture without the proper tools to help. There are bills to be paid, customers to track, projections to generate, and proposals to write. How can one entrepreneur keep these tasks, and many more, under control? With a little help from your software "friends."
Today, technology enables even the smallest of companies to compete with the big corporations. The best way to stay on top of your customer lists, inventory reports, tax records, and overall financial situation is by putting your computer to work. Before rushing out and buying every business software program you can find, however, you need to know what kinds of programs exist, what they do, and how to select the ones that are ideal for you. You also need to know a bit about the best-selling programs currently available in the industry.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Buy
So you've decided your business needs one or more of the software program types described in our sidebar. Before heading over to your local software store, take the time to figure out exactly what it is you need your computer to do. What are you planning to use your computer for? What kinds of business challenges do you need its help in solving? What can it do to save you time and make your workday more productive?
Once you've come up with satisfying answers to these important questions, ask yourself one or two more. Are you planning to use your computer for business only, or must it double for personal use? If you or your family members will be using it for personal purposes, will this generate additional software needs? Also, are you planning on taking part in the World Wide Web anytime soon? If so, you will want to purchase the newest, most advanced software programs that you can afford.
Questions to Ask the Salesperson Before You Buy
With your software needs clearly in mind, venture out for some price and feature comparisons. Before laying down cash for any program, be sure to ask your salesperson the following five questions:
1. Is the software specially designed to serve the needs of small-business users? Many of the popular business applications on the market today are designed for use by Fortune 500 companies with deluxe in-house support teams and significant expertise, not for entrepreneurs lacking such resources. Therefore, you should seek out software that avoids technical jargon, operates intuitively, and is designed to fill the needs of smaller ventures as well as larger ones.
2. Will the program be relatively easy to learn and use? Many software programs now regularly come with on-screen tutorials, elaborate printed and on-screen documentation, CD-ROM training courses and the like. They also typically offer some combination of no-charge technical phone support for a limited time, advanced documentation by fax or Internet, and/or a money-back guarantee. If the program you're considering does not include such features, perhaps it's not as great a value as it may seem.
3. Does the software include ready-to-use templates or on-screen examples of common business reports and forms? Predesigned templates are most desirable, because they allow a new user to jump right in and start creating professionally formatted documents right away. Although better than nothing at all, on-screen examples are not nearly as useful. Programs which contain neither should be avoided.
4. Will the software still be useful as your business grows? Although technological advancements keep coming every day, it is best to select a software program that can serve your needs both today and in years to come. Shy away from programs so simplistic that they are ideal for your current needs, yet inadequate for your growing needs as your customer base and business expand.
5. Will the software be able to run on your computer? Last, but clearly not least, make sure your current computer is powerful enough to effectively run the program you're considering. This is especially of concern if you purchased your computer more than 18 months ago and haven't since expanded its memory and other capabilities. Most software programs clearly state their minimum system requirements on the box. If you're at all uncertain, the salesperson should be able to tell you whether the software you've selected is compatible with your hardware.
The Most Bang for Your Buck
What follows are descriptions of, according to Egghead Inc., some of the best-selling software programs on the market today, broken down into the categories of accounting, database, spreadsheet and word processing programs. If you find that you need more than one type of software, however, there's one more thing you need to know. Although most software programs can be purchased individually, they are also commonly sold as part of integrated packages called "bundles" or "suites." These packages typically combine accounting, database, spreadsheet and word processing programs into an all-in-one application. This means you can get four or more software programs in a bundle costing just slightly more than two software programs purchased individually. Today's most popular software bundles include Lotus SmartSuite, Microsoft Office and Corel WordPerfect Suite 7.
Note: Each of the following summaries refers to a specific software application for a specific operating system. DOS, Windows, Windows 95 and Macintosh versions of the same software titles offer different capabilities, options, system requirements and pricing; sometimes an application has no direct equivalent available for another operating system. Your local software store can provide more information on which applications are available for each operating system.
The Big 4
The most common software applications loaded onto entrepreneurs' computers are accounting, database management, spreadsheet and word processing programs.
Accounting programs, in a nutshell, take care of a business's bookkeeping, payroll, purchasing, inventory and check-writing tasks.
Database programs help to keep track of current and prospective customers, generate invoices, prepare expense reports, create mailing labels, maintain personnel records, and store a variety of information for easy reference.
Spreadsheet programs enable effective financial planning, expense tracking, forecasting and budgeting. They allow for advanced organization and computation of numerical and statistical information as well as ready preparation of charts and graphs.
Word processing programs ensure the creation of professional-looking documents in all shapes and sizes. Many now come with full Internet connectivity and contain state-of-the-art spelling checkers, grammar checkers and thesauri.
M.Y.O.B. Accounting With Payroll,
Macintosh Version 6.0
(Windows versions also available)
Overview: M.Y.O.B. (Mind Your Own Business) from BestWare integrates general ledger, checkbook, sales, purchasing, inventory, card file and payroll functions into a single, versatile program. Version 6.0 combines a bookkeeping and full-service accounting program, eliminating most "accountant-speak." All forms can be completely customized. Checks and transactions can be saved as recurring entries--a real time-saver. The documentation and online help features are top-notch. Contains strong payroll, sales, inventory and contact-management capabilities. Previous accounting knowledge not required. Offers more than 100 predesigned business templates for reports. Includes a 30-minute video on getting started, extensive online instructions, and CD-ROM multimedia help.
Minimum Mac System Requirements: 5 MB of RAM, MacOS System 7.0 or later, 68020 processor or higher, hard drive with 9 MB of free space, optional CD-ROM drive (required to use CD-ROM multimedia help).
Suggested Retail Price: $89.95/$139.95 with payroll.
Peachtree Accounting for Windows,
(Macintosh versions also available)
Overview: Provides instant access to charts and graphs. Targeted to small and medium-sized businesses, it includes general ledger, accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll, check-printing, inventory, job/project tracking and account-reconciliation capabilities. Version 3.5 includes invoicing, payroll and report modules. A unique multimedia set-up routine makes start-up easy. Screens resemble typical business forms. Enables instant forecasting, and analysis of cash flow, payables and aging information. Powerful accounting features with an easy-to-use graphical interface. Avoids complex accounting terminology. Supports weekly, biweekly, semi-monthly and monthly payrolls. Free user-support forums on CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online.
Minimum IBM Compatible System Requirements: 4 MB of RAM, DOS 3.3 running Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, 386 or higher processor, hard drive with 18 MB free space, mouse.
Suggested Retail Price: $99.
Claris FileMaker Pro, Macintosh Version 3.0
(Windows versions also available)
Overview: Designed for single and workgroup users without access to extensive support or advanced database programming expertise. Database files can have as many layouts as desired. New layouts and fields can be added whenever needed, without manually reconstructing the database, which makes keeping track of important business information a snap. Includes 40 ready-made, customizable templates which can be used for invoicing, lead tracking, contact management, mailing labels, time sheets, expense reports, and time and service billing. Creates appealing input screens, reports, labels, and mail-merge letters easily. Contains an on-screen tutorial. Can also be used as a storage and search engine for creating Web pages for the World Wide Web.
Minimum Mac System Requirements: 4 MB of RAM (8 MB required for Power Macintosh), Mac System 7.0 or later (System 7.1 or later recommended), CD-ROM drive or hard disk drive, optional AppleTalk, IPX/SPX, or TCP/IP Networking for multi-user file sharing.
Suggested Retail Price: $199.
Lotus Approach 96 for Windows 95
(Macintosh versions no longer in development)
Overview: Approach 96 is optimized for the Windows 95 operating system and takes full advantage of its 32-bit multi-task capabilities, and is designed to let new users become productive quickly. With more than 50 predesigned database templates for organizing information, it enables you to track, manage and analyze business information. Performs sophisticated data analysis and presents the results in dramatic-looking charts with impressive graphics. Contains advanced grouping and sorting options. Identifies the highest or lowest values in the database or in a set of records, for such uses as identifying your company's top ten best-selling products. Creates custom envelopes for large mailings with the help of a built-in assistant. Team computing capabilities enable multiple users to share information. Includes an online product "tour" to help with start-up.
Minimum IBM Compatible System Requirements: 8 MB of RAM, Windows 95 or Windows NT 3.51, 386 or higher processor, hard drive with 15 MB of free space, a VGA or higher resolution monitor, mouse.
Suggested Retail Price: $129.
Lotus 1-2-3 Release 5 for Windows
(Macintosh versions no longer in development)
Overview: The world's most popular spreadsheet program (17 million users worldwide). Release 5 for Windows is designed to be the easiest and most powerful spreadsheet for personal and workgroup use. Contains 12 spreadsheet templates to guide new users in preparing common business documents. Built-in formulas, formatting and other key components help get the job done fast. Allows users to directly enter and edit information in a cell, eliminating the need to use the control panel at the top of the screen for editing. Allows an unlimited number of fonts within a worksheet. Fully integrated mapping tool allows users to display worksheet data on a domestic or global map. Multiple currency formats. Also reads and writes Microsoft Excel, ASCII text, Paradox, dBase and shared Lotus Notes files.
Minimum IBM Compatible System Requirements: 4 MB of RAM, DOS 3.3 or higher running Microsoft Windows 3.1 or 3.11, 386 or higher processor, hard drive with 11 MB of free space.
Suggested Retail Price: $495.
Microsoft Excel for Windows 95
(Macintosh versions also available)
Overview: Performs up to 50 percent faster on average than earlier versions for recalculations, charting, file opening, as well as cutting, copying and pasting. Contains a variety of spreadsheet templates for financial planning, expense tracking, and other needs. The user-friendly "Answer Wizard" allows you to type in a question in your own words, then provides the information you need. Flexible analysis tools provide quick averages, counts, minimums and maximums. Advanced data mapping analyzes and displays geographically based data. AutoCorrect automatically corrects typos and misspellings as you type. Imports data easily from other spreadsheet programs. Includes unlimited, free product support.
Minimum IBM Compatible System Requirements: 6 MB of RAM, Windows 95 operating system or Micorsoft Windows NT Workstation version 3.1 or later, 386 or higher processor (486 recommended), hard drive with 18 MB of free space, one 3.5 inch high-density disk drive, VGA or higher resolution video adapter, mouse or compatible device.
Suggested Retail Price: $339.