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Tools of the trade: Managing a digital business

Opinion

Tools of the trade: Managing a digital business

Successfully managing a digital business requires a complex mix of skills, experience, systems and processes. Digital agencies need to have a robust infrastructure that streamlines project delivery and the day-to-day, operational requirements of a business. These processes need to be flexible and adaptable enough to evolve as a business changes.

Every company has a slightly different way of doing things - so process aside, I’ve written this article to introduce you to a few tools of the trade that have helped Onespacemedia to streamline operations, collaboration and output.

 

Project management

Collaboration is a critical part of our project delivery. Centrally managing teams, to-do lists, milestones and deadlines, as well as assets, codebases and time tracking ensures that delivery is streamlined and the team benefits from both individual accountability and shared ownership.

Basecamp

I’ve used Basecamp by 37signals for more than eight years and have come to completely rely on it as a critical tool for our business. I personally rate everything that 37signals have put out so far - but Basecamp really is their crowning glory. Basecamp comes in two flavours: ‘classic’ mode and the current version which was released a couple of years ago. We still use the classic version as it has a time tracking feature that was removed in the current version.

Basecamp is essentially a collaborative project management tool that allows the user to set up internal or client projects and then invite people to collaborate on those projects. Framed in an intuitive user experience, each project is split into messages (discussion between team members), to-dos (categorised list items with completion check boxes, dates and responsibility allocation), calendar (project meetings, deadlines and milestones), writeboards (collaborative, version-controlled writing canvasses), time (granular time-tracking for the whole team) and files (docs, images, videos and any other type of digital asset).

The quality of the intuitive user experience aside, there are a tons of little features that elevate Basecamp above its competitors. These include project RSS feeds, email integration, connectivity with other applications through an API and the clever interaction between modular functionality.

Basecamp is woven tightly into the fabric of our organisation. I can’t advocate for it highly enough. With a free trial and pricing plans from $20 a month, it really is a no-brainer.

Trello

Basecamp is a feature-rich project management tool - but more useful for project communication and detail than an overview of all projects ongoing within an organisation. Trello fits in as a very simple and visual way to show the status of various projects from initial interactions, to writing proposals and finally launching a project.

Although you can use Trello in a number of ways, we use it as a project progression status board to provide a high-level overview of project status. Trello’s interface is based around a cascading card system where cards are added or assigned to lists. Our lists are set up as ‘RFP/initial contact’, ‘Introductory meeting’, ‘Proposal being written’, ‘Proposal sent’, ‘Proposal accepted’, ‘Research & Discovery’, ‘Design’, ‘Design sign off’, ‘Development’, ‘Bug fixes/ Amendments’, ‘Training, testing and QA’ and ‘Site/Campaign live’.

When we are approached by a client we create a new card with the client’s name. The card is placed into the appropriate list depending on what stage the project is at. The card itself has extra controls such as assigning members, due date, checklists, files, voting, alerts and communications preferences.

There is some crossover between Basecamp and Trello but I love Trello for it’s simplicity and horizontally scrolling UI. We are planning to put Trello up on a monitor in the office so that everyone can check the progress of projects at a glance. With free, gold and business class pricing models there is a package to suit everyone.

Collaboration

In many ways, for small businesses, Google has sounded the death knell for Microsoft Exchange and Office deployments - and the days of installed software in small commercial environments are well and truly numbered. Pushing modern browser capability to the absolute limit, cloud-based tools to aid collaboration are becoming the norm - and they’re getting better all of the time.

Google Apps for Business

Gmail led the way with a simple, web-based e-mail client to rival Hotmail and other popular services - but now the application has been integrated into a suite of services that companies can adopt for free. Combining domain management (i.e. appending services under your company web address), user management, e-mail, calendar, instant messaging, and shared documents including presentations, word documents and spreadsheets, Google Hosted Apps is heads and shoulders above the competition.

Google Apps is free for up to 10 users, and once we rolled it out, we never looked back. It works straight out of the box - and setting up new users or adding new services is a cinch. Google have clearly worked very hard to ensure that their suite works with a whole range of technologies such as being able to manage your e-mail through your preferred client, being able to open and save as Word, Excel and Powerpoint formats, as well as solid PDF support.

My favourite product in the suite has to be the combination of Google Docs and Google Drive. The first gives you a stripped down but feature-rich word processor with clever collaboration tools - such as comments and notifications. Drive gives you one place for all of your documents with 15GB of storage for starters and a whole range of intuitive and powerful sharing and privacy controls. A great standout feature is the split between documents you own and documents that are shared with you. I’m writing this post on Google Docs right now.

Once your organisation steps above 10 users, you’ll need to upgrade to the $5 per user per month plan - but the extra, dare I say, ‘enterprise’ level controls that come with the upgrade are easily worth it. For any SME looking to move into the cloud, this is by far the best place to start.

CRM

Customer/constituent/client relationship management is the term used to define the management of information relating to people and organisations. CRM is not a new concept and subsequently there are hundreds of different solutions available, most of which are defined by the type of sectors they serve. If we focus on more generic platforms rather than applications with sector-specific nuances you can count the best cloud CRM apps on your fingers.

Highrise

Highrise is another product in the 37signals suite and as a customer/client/constituent relationship management tool there are few equals - especially considering pricing starts at $20 a month for the basic account.

What I love about 37signals is that they used to be a creative agency - so their products seem to be well suited to agencies of the same nature. Highrise is an online application that manages contacts and allows the user to group them into companies. In a multi-user environment you can then add and assign tasks with dates and completion checks.

The application comes with basically everything you need to manage contacts - but my favourite feature is ‘deals’. This awesome module allows you to track deals, proposals and leads and attach them to an entity in the CRM. The deal can have a cash value as a fixed cost or as a cost per hour/day/month, and you can assign follow up tasks and give a deal one of three statuses: pending, won and lost.

In typical 37signals style Highrise works really well with email. You can send, BCC, or forward e-mails to Highrise and they'll automatically be attached to the right person’s page. There is also a clever Basecamp integration where you can turn a won deal into a Basecamp project. Nice!

Accounting

Let’s face it - to most creatives, apart from getting paid anything to with accounting is pretty dull. I remember using Sage back in the day and that piece of installable frankenware was enough to induce physical pain. Luckily, the Internet gave us an answer and a whole host of accounting applications were launched. Here’s a quick round-up of my favourites.

Freshbooks

With a super simple user interface and a policy to avoid unnecessary financial jargon Freshbooks is a perfect cloud accounting option for freelancers and small businesses. The application is lightweight and it does the simple things very well. A lot of thought has gone into the process design and by virtue you can be productive very quickly. Features include easy invoice management with an option to receive payments via popular gateways, client and supplier management, import/export, receipts, reports, document management, time tracking and user controls.

I should point out that we don’t use Freshbooks anymore - however, when our agency was a lot smaller it was perfect for invoicing and payments. The customer service was excellent and I especially liked the report feature where I could generate a score against similar types of companies on metrics such as quarterly income, time to get paid, number of invoices sent, and more. It didn’t really provide me with any useful information but it was a nice vanity play.

The reason we chose Freshbooks was because we could import our time tracking data directly from Basecamp projects. This was a massive time saver for us when creating invoices and they’ve added all sorts of integration with other applications now. From what I can see on their website they’ve got a decent API for third party devs too.

With free accounts with limited functions and customers, to the ‘seedling’ account at $19.95/month, right up to the mighty oak at $39.95, Freshbooks is one of the best investments a freelancer or small business can make.

Xero

Xero is basically a Quickbooks or Sage replacement but in the cloud. It’s an intuitive but feature rich accounting package that provides all of the controls necessary to manage the day-to-day financial operations of a business. Even though the company was founded in 2006 they don’t have a massive profile and the Xero home page still only boasts 200,000 customers.

If you’ve ever used accounting software, it’s pretty mind numbing by nature - and with no offence to Xero, I doubt they are going to win any major UX awards. A lot of this I think boils down to the fact that the company is trying to attract accounting and financial customers as opposed to Freshbook’s mass-market approach.

Xero does everything that Freshbooks can do and a whole lot more. I particularly like the Dashboard view where I can look at bank accounts, money due in, money due out and expense claims. By connecting the application to our online bank accounts we can get a real-time picture of the state of the business as well as easily reconcile incomings and outgoings.

The primary navigation from left to right includes Dashboard, Accounts (including sales, purchases, payroll, expense claims and fixed assets), Reports (budget manager, aged payables, aged receivables, balance sheet, p&l, VAT return), Contacts and Settings. The UI is fixed width and uses neutral colours with a blue accent. Everything is neatly split up into individual widgets and the design is functional and accessible.

What I like about Xero is that different team members get what they need from it without being distracted by irrelevant content or functionality. As a business owner, I log in everyday to see the current state of play or run periodic reports. My bookkeeper issues invoices, adds contacts and reconciles payments. My accountant runs reports for planning and submitting statutory accounts.

Accounting software is never going to light up my world but of the SaaS offerings that I’ve used, Freshbooks and Xero are by far the best.

Human resources

KinHR

Aside from the fact that I hate the term ‘Human Resources’, managing people and information relating to people is a crucial part of any business. Our headcount has grown substantially in the last 12 months and the old systems of shared calendars, folders and bits of papers to manage holidays and contracts just weren’t cutting the mustard. I turned to the Internet and found all kinds of expensive, enterprise level HR systems with far too many features and the most boring looking UIs I have ever seen. My colleague came across a website submission on Awwwards for the marketing site for KinHR.

KinHR is basically an ultra simple way to manage employee data and files, salaries and pay rises, time-off and other features such as onboarding new employees. All types of staff, whether part-time, full-time or contract can be managed through the system and it works best if everyone in the organisation has an account. From the account screen logged-in users can upload their own information including contact details and files such as photo ID or tax documents, request holidays, complete tasks, see their team or line management and more. The system allows you to specify when employees work and what their holiday allocation is which is a real time-saver.

The user interface was the first thing that drew me to KinHR - it is well thought out, looks great and is enjoyable to use. With an affordable and ultra simple pricing scheme ($5 per user per month) and a free trial KinHR is worth a lot more than they charge.

Support

Zendesk

Zendesk sells itself as ‘beautifully simple customer service software’ and to be fair it does exactly what is says on the tin. Zendesk works to serve three distinct types of users: the customer, the agent and the manager.

Zendesk serves the customer by providing a knowledge base, community, and customer portal all in one place. Users can log in and submit requests, send e-mails to a specific support e-mail and interact socially. For a customer support agent it delivers one of the best, if not the best, ticketing systems I have ever used. It has a great mobile experience to boot.

For managers, Zendesk delivers detailed analytics on everything from agent performance to customer satisfaction. It provides support managers or business owners with everything they need to measure and evolve company support infrastructure.

We don’t use all of Zendesk’s features but what I love about it is the rapid set-up process. It literally took five minutes before our clients could interact with the online support portal and send support requests to a specific support email address.

Round-up

Well there you have it - a suite of eight applications that we use to store and manage information, collaborate, manage tasks, finances, people and provide a better experience for our team and customers. As a business owner the most important factors are that our application suite is flexible, scalable, cost-effective and connectable. As bandwidth and browser technology improve I’m sure that cloud applications will eventually replace desktop software and if the innovation on show today is anything to go by, the future is looking good.

I’m interested to see what other businesses are using so let us know in the comments below.

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