<i>Entrepreneur</i>'s Complete Guide To Software

You need software--everybody does--but there's so much of it to pick from. Luckily we're here to help.
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the November 2000 issue of Entrepreneurs Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

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.

All In One

When Thomas Pfister helped expand MatchCode, a marketing and communications consulting firm he founded in late 1999, from its Philadelphia offices into Latin America and Europe in just four months, he knew his fledgling company needed to keep strict tabs on its financial growth.

For his 45-employee business, which had 1999 sales of $2 million, Pfister, 39, needed a scalable application that could integrate the profit-and-loss statements and other financial data from MatchCode's various international offices. Instead of buying each office a separate box of software, Pfister contracted with Host-Logic, an ASP in Boca Raton, Florida, to access its ERP package over the Internet.

"We didn't want to buy a whole IT infrastructure for each office," explains Pfister. Using online services, each of Matchcode's employees needs only an Internet connection to have access to HostLogic's server. That way, no matter where managers are, they're able to instantly isolate financial data by customer, department or country, or view an overall corporate report without having to deal with currency differences and e-mail attachments. For example, Pfister can easily spot whether one division is more profitable than another. "It helps us decide how best to spend our time," he says.

While HostLogic's small-business ERP package, SmartEnterprise, includes sales, distribution and CRM applications, MatchCode is currently using the financial-costing and asset-management module before expanding to the rest. HostLogic hosts and maintains the software on its servers and provides upgrades, consulting, support and training for all modules for a flat monthly fee of $495 per user. Says Pfister, "It's very cost efficient. We'd rather use the rest of the money to build our operations."

Think Quicken

Keith Holt is responsible for more than $28 million of other people's money. He is, after all, a reg-istered investment advisor. Once you find out that Holt, 39, runs a business with sales that hit $100,000 in 1999, you'd hardly expect to hear that he uses Quicken Deluxe 2000 to manage not only his own finances, but also his clients' hefty investment portfolios.

In 1995, when he quit his job at a brokerage firm to start Holt Investment Advisors in Fresno, California, Holt knew he needed a business-accounting tool and portfolio-management software. He certainly didn't expect one program to do both.

Holt had his short list of requirements. One was longevity: He wanted to use well-known applications he knew he could stick with "five or 10 years down the road," he says. Also, because he bills his clients based on the annualized return of their investment portfolios, he wanted the software to calculate the annual returns for accounts both individually and in groups.

But the cheapest industry software Holt could find cost thousands in start-up fees, plus hundreds in monthly support. Holt was frustrated. Then, on a hunch, he reread some literature that had come with his latest version of Quicken, the program he'd been using for his personal finances since 1992. Sure enough, his $39 Quicken software could perform a majority of the accounting and financial management tasks he required.

Holt has stuck to it ever since, upgrading versions for about $69 every year. Now, with a cable Internet connection at home, Holt can download stock prices for free from financial Web sites (including Quicken's own site) and draw up performance reports. "I've never had better or more convenient control over the portfolios I manage," he says. The financial advisor in him is also quick to add that smaller businesses could find great benefit in using the financial planning feature of Quicken to keep track of their lump-sum profit-sharing plans or even their 401(k)s.

Contact Sport

Jodie Gastel runs an executive assistant service called Virtual Attache in Victoria, British Columbia, and her daily tasks range from stuffing envelopes to setting up 401(k) plans. She credits Maximizer 5.0, a contact-management program from Multiactive, with helping her keep track of her clients' demands.

Gastel, 28, spent five years at the Greater Victoria Economic Development Commission assisting other people in starting their own businesses. Then, in 1997, ready to try entrepreneurship herself, she left to start her own virtual service for small and larger companies that couldn't afford or didn't have the room for full-time, in-person assistants. Maximizer, a program Gastel used at the commission, stayed with her.

Maximizer helps Gastel respond to her clients whenever necessary. "I need to be able to answer the question, 'What have you done for me lately?' " she says. For each client account, Gastel can access a single screen with icons for all her notes, scheduled tasks, appointments, an address book with all contacts related to that client, a customized database for those contacts and even a list of related documents like invoices, faxes and e-mails.

Gastel also has a 1-year-old at home, which makes it much more of a challenge to stay flexible yet precise about time spent at work. Maximizer makes it easy. "I just drag and drop a client's name to an hourglass icon, and it starts timing," she says. "I can literally record to the second the amount of time I spend on each project."

It's only appropriate that a person in virtual services bought her software over the Net. Gastel purchased Maximizer by downloading it from the Multiactive Web siteand received a 33 percent discount to boot. She needed the program immediately, and she got it. "With a 56K modem," she explains, "the download took about 2 hours--as I slept."

God Plan

When Bob Long decided to turn his 5-year-old company from a mortgage brokerage into a mortgage bank last year, he needed to show the New York State Bank Department a business plan that outlined his intended client services. But despite 16 years in the industry, Long says, the idea of writing a business plan was intimidating. "I didn't know where to start," he admits.

Therefore, Long, one of three partners who own the 20-employee Hanover Mortgage Corp. in Williston Park, New York, visited his local Staples. "I bought a great-looking box, but the business plan software itself was terribly unwieldy," Long says. "It didn't give me any ideas."

Determined to find a solution while avoiding the time and expense of hiring a consultant, Long went back to Staples and picked another box, a winner this time: Palo Alto Software's Business Plan Pro 3.0.

"Pro asked us questions like 'Who are your competitors?' and forced us to look at all the crevices of our business," says Long. With templates for dozens of business types, Business Plan Pro focused on Long's industry and led him from one step to the next, asking questions and providing explanations.

Long would recommend Business Plan Pro to all entrepreneurs who want to think about the direction of their businesses. "A good business plan lays out a condensed version of what you should be doing, whether it's for next week, the next month or the next year," he says. "And for entrepreneurs, who are often tempted to do too much, focus is everything."

On the Same Page

Small companies need flexibility. But for Catherine Titta, 36, president and owner of the 5-year-old Web design consulting firm ArborComm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, flexibility means coordinating a team of eight full-time employees and up to a dozen subcontractors, many of whom work from home or at client sites several days per week.

By last year, Titta says, planning became especially difficult with everyone so seldom in the office together: "We needed more than an Outlook-type program--something that people could access from their offices as well as their home PCs."

On a suggestion from a team of University of Michigan business students, Titta's company, which had sales of $400,000 in 1999, started using a Web-based calendar feature on vJungle.com, an applications services Web site that offers some small-business services (like its calendar) for free. "We'd tried several other sites, but they all took too long to load," Titta says. "By contrast, vJungle's calendar is the most straightforward and user-friendly."

Now all ArborComm's employees can simply log on to vJungle.com from wherever they are to view and add company or team-specific events as well as their own. Temporary workers can keep in touch with company schedules without compromising the security of ArborComm's own intranet files. With event reminders sent via e-mail, file-sharing capabilities and even an online chat feature, everyone in the company can be on the same page again.

Click here to view the latest Guide to Software.

Mie-Yun Lee, founder and editorial director of BuyerZone.com, is Entrepreneur's "Buyer Zone" columnist. Kaukab Jhumra and William Scales contributed to this article.

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