Team project management on the web

20130223Being able to track and complete projects is the life blood of any organization. There are myriads of ways of doing this, and the key is simply to find the one that works for you. Over the past year I’ve run across a number of solutions that are cropping up on the web to help small business owners, and many of them look really neat. If you’ve been looking for a way to keep on top of projects, you may want to check out:

  • Asana — Free for 30 users, Asana, promises to help your team work together faster, focused, and efficient. Collaboration, mobile integration, and versatility are built in at every level.
  • TeamworkPM — Task management, milestone tracking, messages, and file management are all part of TeamworkPM’s approach to teamwork and project management. A 30-day free trial, a simplified free plan, plus other plans starting at $12/month.
  • SmartSheet — Tracking projects in spreadsheets is commonplace, but SmartSheet takes this approach to a whole other level. Simple, smart, trusted, and flexible, apparently SmartSheet was even used to plan the Super Bowl, and has plans starting at $15.95/mo.

There are others out there too (like WorkEtc and Huddle), but while I’m on the topic of getting more organized, you may be interested to listen to a podcast episode by a friend of mine, Dallon Christensen, on “Eight Tech Tools for Getting Things Done” — he lists tools he’s experimented with over the last couple years, and what he’s found each is good for.

We’d love to hear of other tools you’ve found helpful, or if one of the above makes a big difference in the life blood of your business — just drop us a line!

10 Apps I Use

Smartphones and tablets are like the Swiss Army knives of the modern age — there’s so many things they can do. But once you get past the novelty of the corkscrew and tweezers, how can they actually change your day-to-day work habits for the better? Herewith, a list of 10 apps I use to help me get done, what needs getting done:

  • Siri — So, I just recently upgraded to an iPhone 4S: the “S” standing for “Siri”, Apple’s new virtual assistant that works on voice commands. While CEO Tim Cook says there’s still plenty of surprises in store for what Siri will be able to do, one of the biggest helps to me is that I can tell her to remind me to complete a task at a certain time or once I get to a certain location (e.g., the office), and an alert will go off, keeping me right on track.
  • Adobe Ideas — I first got this for my iPad back when it was free, but even though it’s $9.99, I still think I’d buy it today. It’s basically a sketch pad, and I use it when I just have to layout something visually that’s in my head, or when I’m trying to illustrate something for a client (sometimes while plugged into a TV or projector). One of the nice features that takes it a step above a regular sketch pad, is that you can create “layers” — think of layers as transparency overlays that you can toggle on or off. This comes in handy when evaluating different options, or “building” up segments of an illustration.
  • WSJ — It’s neat to read the news, but not so neat to have all those papers piling up everyday. The WSJ app is free, but a $260 digital subscription is required for full access. I’ve gotta applaud the WSJ for being one of the few, if not only, mainstream newspapers able to pull off subscription pricing for digital content, and it is quality. A free option that’s also good is the app from USA Today.
  • Ignition — Now at $129.99, I bought it when it was $39.99, saving a pretty penny. But for remote access to your computer, it’s still a deal. This one comes from the folks at LogMeIn, and allows me to securely bring up my office desktop from my iPad while I’m on travel, saving me the hassle of carrying around a laptop. Working from the iPad is not as heavy duty as a laptop, so I wouldn’t say it’s a replacement. But if your needs are simply checking up on certain things and doing some light computing, it does the job aplomb, especially if you pair the iPad with a portable bluetooth keyboard.
  • PowerOne — What would an accountant be without a calculator? (I know I wouldn’t make it very far.) :) There’s literally scores of calculator apps out there — the reason I like this one is that it comes with a lot of financial calculation templates, like cash flows, breakevens, and auto leases. You can even design your own templates or download ones others have created. And I also like the fact that it displays a tape, so you can see your calculation history (but that’s just the accountant in me). $4.99
  • Evernote — A free app, I’ve found Evernote immensely usefuly for keeping the scatter of ideas in my head in some semblence of order. You can create any number of note cards; store text, photos, webpage clippings, sound files, PDF documents, and more; search, tag, and/or organize in notebooks; and have it synchronize your notes across all your devices. So if I have a thought on the go, I can type it into my iPhone, then have that thought ready for me when I sit down at my desktop. Nice.
  • Tweetbot — Twitter has their own app, but I like Tweetbot better. The icon just looks cooler. But truthfully, it also has better functionality: you can swipe Tweets to the right to follow conversation threads, and it’s real easy to learn about other users, follow their tweets and accounts, search, and more. That, and it’s very quick. $2.99
  • Note Taker HD/Notability — One of the main things I was looking for when I purchased my iPad, was the promise of an endless notepad. I use a stylus from Boxwave, and can write directly on the screen, save customer notes in different files, and even export them to PDF for later reference. Note Taker HD was an early pioneer in this space and has had a steady stream of updates, currently priced at $13.99. And I’ve also started playing with Notability at $0.99, which has the ability to record audio while you’re taking notes — a really neat functionality.
  • Dropbox — Getting and retrieving files on and off your mobile device is not like a laptop or desktop, since it’s running a special type of operating system. Fortunately, cloud-based file storage solutions make this basically a cinch, and Dropbox is one of the main ones. A free account gets you 2 GB’s off the bat, expandable to 18 GB’s if you refer other users. And once you download the app, you can simply browse the files saved to your Dropbox folder, just like you’re used to on your computer.
  • Google Maps — Google Maps is no stranger to most of us, it’s just awesomer in mobile form, and handier when you’re on the go. Easily lookup businesses, see what’s around you, and get turn by turn directions. And most areas now have the ability to toggle on traffic conditions, so you can see whether it makes sense to take the highway or the backroads (or just wait an hour).

Of course, there’s plenty more, but hopefully the above has given you at least a few ideas on new ways you can use your mobile device. Even accounting software companies are starting to catch on, giving you ways to create and send invoices, view your financials, pay bills, run payroll, pull up customer information, and more. It really has only just begun!

Save our inboxes! :)

E-mail has been with us for over a decade now, but truth be told, we still struggle to use it right, and unfortunately cause each other a lot of pain in the process. This reality caused TED Curator Chris Anderson to assemble, with the help of like-minded contributors, a list of “10 Rules to Reverse the E-mail Spiral”, which he calls the “E-mail Charter”. It includes such items as:

  • #3 Celebrate Clarity — For example, be sure your e-mail subject is descriptive, not just auto-pasted from an unrelated e-mail thread. Use crisp, muddle-free sentences. And if the e-mail is longer than five sentences, be sure the basic reason for writing is provided up top (not buried down below).

  • #5 Slash Surplus CC’s — “Reply All” shouldn’t be your default reaction: remember, that quick trigger finger will have drastic consequences for many others’ e-mail inboxes. Sometimes a “Reply All” is warranted, but a quick self-check will be so much appreciated by non-recipients.

  • #8 Give These Gifts: EOM and NNTR — If an entire message can effectively be communicated in the subject line, go ahead and type an “EOM” at the end. It lets the person know that’s the “end of the message”, so they don’t have to go through the extra effort of opening the e-mail, only to find it empty, and then wonder if there should have been something more. NNTR is short for “no need to respond” — you could even type this out if you wanted, but basically it saves the recipient the psychological debate of whether or what to write back. Whew! :)

More of these gems can be found right on EmailCharter.org, and a great background explanation can be found in a recent Washington Post opinion penned by Chris. As we all start to adopt these habits, we really can help make the world a better place in small way, day by day. :)

Evernote, and how I use it

Evernote is a great free, cross-platform application to capture inspiration, organize your ideas, and store content for future reference.

Inspiration can come at any time, and if you’re like me, it tends to come in bits, and generally not when I’m ready to work on it. Evernote has given me a place to store these sparks of imagination, so that they’re ready and waiting when I’m prepared to move on an idea. Basically, Evernote is a cloud-hosted set of notes you can create from your web browser, smartphone, desktop, iPad, and more, and which automatically synchronizes between all of these locations. So if I’m at home eating breakfast reading the paper on my iPad, and inspiration strikes me, I can jot down my thoughts. And then when I’m waiting at the doctor’s office, and think of ways to flesh out the idea more, I can use my phone to make some edits. Then when I’m back in the office, and ready to finalize everything, I can pull up my notes on my desktop computer, and they’re already there, waiting for me.

I also find that ideas show up in my head in no particular. That’s okay, because Evernote has the ability to quickly search all your notes instantly, combined with the ability to “tag” notes with any labels you create. Between these two functions, you can pretty much find anything quickly. That isn’t to say I haven’t developed at least a basic filing system–as I’ve continued to use Evernote, I’ve come up with four basic folders (which Evernote calls “notebooks”):

  • Active Projects–contains notes for things I’m working on right now,
  • Future Projects–a place I can accumulate thoughts for something later on,
  • Completed Projects–where I archive notes from ideas that are done (partly to feel good they’re done, and partly in case I want to refer to tidbits later on that didn’t make it into the original implementation)
  • Trunk–where I stow stuff I think might come in handy someday, but has no immediate use

My “Trunk” notebook is actually how many people use Evernote exclusively–a place to store all those tidbits you really like, and later regret not having jotted down. Evernote can store all types of data: camera phone photos, PDF documents, web pages, audio notes, and more. You can use your camera phone to snap photos of receipts, and it will automatically recognize the text and make it searchable. You can snap photos of wine bottle labels or receipes for later reference. You can store HTML or PDF purchase confirmations. The list is endless, making Evernote flexible for so many different uses.

The basic version of Evernote is free, and gives you plenty of freedom. If you really like it, or want even more advanced features, there’s a $5/month subscription available too. Either way, I recommend you check it out if there’s just too many things running around in your head to keep track of–as Evernote‘s motto says: it helps you to “Remember Everything”.

Business Applications for the iPad

I recently purchased an iPad for personal use, but have been experimenting with ways it can be used for business as well. Below are a few apps that I’ve found particularly handy.

  • LogMeIn ($29.99)–Like its desktop counterpart, the LogMeIn iPad app allows me to bring up my work computer from wherever I have an Internet connection. I wouldn’t call it a laptop replacement, but for those situations where you’d like to travel light but still have casual access, it does the job aplomb. And when push comes to shove, I can pair the iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard to do some heavier computing (e.g., I use an Apple keyboard with full sized keys, but which is very small and packs easily).

  • Note Taker HD ($4.99)–After looking into a number of note-taking apps, I found this one by far was the best designed. Part of the reason is that it contains a writing area at the bottom of the screen, reminiscent of the old Palm Pilots. This makes it much easier to
    effectively take notes, because: a) it prevents the iPad from accidentally thinking your palm resting on the screen is input, and b) it lets you write in a larger area, and then have your handwriting reduced to normal size on the page. You can use your finger to write, but I found a stylus made by Boxwave much easier (and better than the one from Pogo).

  • PowerOne Financial Calculator ($6.99)–There are some free calculator apps available out there, but this one is more geared to the business user. It has a tape-like history of the numbers input, it can perform time value of money calculations, and it comes with 30+ template forms for common analyses (such as mortgage calculations, retirement savings projections, break-even points, etc.). You can even design your own template forms. I believe this app is also available on other platforms, such as the Blackberry and Palm, but the extra screen space of the iPad makes it particularly helpful.

For now, the iPad is part novelty, but in time, I think we’ll find that it, or something like it, will be ubiquitous to the conduct of business.

Google Apps and the Future of Computing

Google Apps is a glimpse of where we’re headed, and is providing functionality to many businesses even today.

First, the glimpse of where we’re headed: application hosting. We’ve all grown accustomed to the model of desktop PC’s being networked together. This means hardware has to be maintained and upgraded, operating systems have to be installed and updated, applications must be deployed and kept up-to-date, and the network secured, defended, and backed up. For the small business owner, this typically falls either to them, to a designated staff member, to an IT guy who comes in as-needed, or some combination of the three. Now I enjoy learning (and writing) about technology stuff. But I don’t derive as much joy from reading network installation instructions for tax software, or keeping tabs on applications updates, or testing RAID setups. If the technology infrastructure would “just work” on its own, it would be great.

Though the full realization of this model is still a little down the road for most of us, it is starting to surface in many places. Many new startups, and existing organizations, are adopting the “cloud hosted” concept of doing things. And many of them are turning to the suite of services called Google Apps. For $50 per user per year, you get access-anywhere e-mail with 25 GB of storage, shared calendaring, shared document and spreadsheet authoring, an intranet, and a couple other bells and whistles. The document and spreadsheet authoring are not as sophisticated as full Microsoft Office, but most folks generally use only 5% of Office’s feature set anyways. Google Calendar is often found much easier than Outlook, and with the proper permissions, you or your office can access it from anywhere (including cell phones). And even if you don’t roll out all the applications, simply having your e-mail hosted and spam filtered by Google might very well be worth your $50 per user per year. Google is not the only one participating in this space. There’s 37signals, Hyperoffice, and others.

So I would encourage you to consider whether a hosted system might be a good fit for you, and if not, to keep your eye on developments for a future time when it might be.

Digital pens make note retrieval easier

Taking your notes electronically, can avoid the necessity of transcribing them later. I usually have a pad and pen out at meetings and the like, so I can scratch down key facts, conclusions reached, and/or future action points. Once I figured out that it would be handy to reference these scratches as a way of bringing myself back up to speed on an issue, I began scanning my notes onto my computer.

Well, it turns out I can save myself even the time of scanning, by using a “digital pen”. Digital pens have a small camera near the pen’s tip, and are used with special paper (which can be purchased, or printed from compatible printers). As you take notes, the pen stores your scratches in its memory, which can then be transferred to your computer via a docking station. Voila–no need to scan after the fact, no need to type up memos, and no need to file away paper.

And depending on what model you use, the audio of your meeting can be stored too, and even synchronized (allowing you to jump to the parts of your conversation where your notes went bad). And there’s character recognition possibilities (allowing you to perform a search on your notes, rather than flip pages). And an ability to automate form capture (allowing standard forms to be filled out by hand, and then imported into the computer).

Two main digital pens out there are the Livescribe Pulse and Adapx Capturx (both around $250). The Livescribe comes with audio recording capabilities, while Capturx has tighter integration with OneNote (Microsoft’s free-form note taking software). From what I’ve heard, the Livescribe community is stronger, but the Capturx has a share of dedicated users in certain industries.

So if you’re a note-taker looking to streamline into a “less-paper” environment, digital pens may just be the way to go!

Automate Typing with Text Substitution

You can speed up your typing by automating recurring text blocks. If you stop to think about it, much of our writing in any given day follows patterns which repeat. We might have a certain closer we like for e-mails, return addresses for envelopes, boilerplate legal language, descriptions for invoicing, stock paragraphs for client letters, etc. Some of this can be captured in templates, but sometimes they aren’t flexible enough, or it’s not worth creating an company-wide template for a simple text block.

A text substitution application allows you to store these text blocks, and then trigger them automatically as you type. You trigger them by typing a “hotstring”, which is replaced by your preset text. For example, I could define a hotstring of “agss”, to be replaced by “Sincerely, (four blank lines) Adrian G. Simmons, CPA”. Now whenever I get to the end of a letter, I just type “agss”, and presto, a proper letter closing magically appears. If you stop and think about your standard work process, I’m sure you could identify a multitude of different ways to automate your text, and make things more snappy in the process.

Now for the applications that will help you do this. A free option is Texter. It ceased development a couple years ago, but still has plenty of functionality for someone looking to take advantage of this concept. A pay option, at $50, is ActiveWords. It also has the added functionality of being able to launch applications, open documents, and open websites, all with a few keystrokes. For additional options, you can perform a web search for “text substitution” or “text replacement”.

So you still have to be creative while typing, but you might as well automate those repetitive parts to leave more time for other things.

iPhone Apps for Businesses

The iPhone has been finding its way into the business community with applications that handle a variety of day-to-day functions. Some were featured in a recent WSJ article, including the following:

Other iPhone apps are designed to help you complete routine functions. Invoice Makers, available for 99 cents, allows you to email logo-ed invoices to clients with product and service descriptions and totaled prices, including taxes and shipping costs. Accept Credit Cards., which is free but requires a MerchantWarehouse.com Inc. account, runs credit-card transactions, emails receipts and generates reports. ClockIn, $1.99, tracks work shifts, billable hours and time spent with clients, while DayTracker, $1.99, and TraveLog Mileage Tracker, $2.99, let you track billable vehicle mileage for business and tax purposes.

Additional discussion and comments can be found at the WSJ article.

Less hassle CD storage

Using a disc selector to store your application CD’s can save a lot of hassle and shelf space. Nowadays folks are using the computer more and more, and we can accumulate an awful lot of application CD’s over time. At first, I would just stick the application boxes on the shelf with the installation CD’s and manuals inside. But that took up a lot of space. Then, I went to using disc sleeves in three-ring binders, combined with full sheet sleeves for the license paperwork. But that got very cumbersome and messy. So just recently, I started using a disc selector to store my application CD’s, and I like it a lot better.

A disc selector can be thought of like a juke box: the CD’s are stored upright side-by-side, and there’s a sliding tab which allows you to extract the desired disc, be it #24 or #67. Combine this with a disc index, and you can easily access that installation CD without having to fumble through piles or boxes. You’ll also want to keep track of your license codes, which you can simply type into a text document and toss the paper. The ones with special “genuine license” stickers (like for operating systems) you might keep in a file folder somewhere, but in most other cases your receipt can be used as proof of purchase (which can be stored as a scanned image). Here’s a couple of examples over at Sleeve City priced at $17 and $33, so not an expensive solution either.

Technology is really just about finding ways of doing things easier, and I hope the above tip helps take some of the complication out of managing your applications.