Running any kind of small business is a monumental challenge, but software can help – help your team to communicate, help keep your finances in order, help protect your important data, and much more. If you're not using the right tools, you're missing out.
Here we present five of the very best applications that small businesses can make use of. Each one gives you an impressive level of functionality, a top-class interface, and cross-platform support (so they'll work on multiple devices), and they can all make a genuine difference to day-to-day operations – whether you're a team of two or 20.
Of course there are so many aspects to running a business, and so many types of business out there, that we're just scratching the surface of the apps you can pick from. Whatever your circumstances, though, you should find something useful here.
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Believe the hype, or at least part of it – Slack may not have killed off email just yet, and it can turn into a time sink if you're not disciplined in how it's deployed, but it's also fair to say that this communications platform has helped transform the way that a lot of small business teams keep in touch.
Like all the best software tools, the basic idea is very simple: real-time messaging in web browsers, mobile apps, and desktop clients. Team members can chat one to one, or in groups, or in channels based around topics (sales, finances, products and so on).
What Slack does well though is bring that simple idea to life very intuitively, with a slick and responsive interface, and a host of integrations, plug-ins and shortcuts to keep the conversation flowing. All the functions you think you might need, from file transfers to video calling, are right there for you.
You don't get much out of Slack for free – with 5GB of total storage, 10,000 recent, searchable conversations and no group calling – but it gives you a feel for the app, and should be fine for smaller teams. At the highest pricing tier, you get round-the-clock support and a guaranteed support response time of four hours, as well as unlimited message archives.
G Suite is Google's pack of web apps, designed especially for business users: Gmail, Hangouts, Google Drive (and the Docs, Sheets and Slides apps), plus extras such as calendars and contact management. If you use these apps for your personal stuff, then you'll know just how useful they can be.
Google's been developing these tools for many years now, and whether you're working on the web or on mobile, you'll find them rock-solid in terms of reliability, and a breeze to get around in terms of usability. Whether you need to put together a presentation, or share a folder of huge files with team members, or have a five-way video call, G Suite can handle it.
Also impressive is the way all of these various apps integrate with each other. You can pluck files from Google Drive to use as email attachments in Gmail, for example, or see at a glance which of your Google Contacts are coming to an event in Google Calendar, and so on. Again, Google has had a long time to get all this right, and it shows.
From a team management perspective, admins can organize staff, data and devices from a central console – everything is simple to pick up and understand, and the whole suite of tools can grow as your business does.
Got both a team and multiple projects to manage? Asana helps you work out who should be doing what at any given moment, maximizing the chances of everything coming together on deadline (though you do need a certain amount of talent and hard work from your staff as well, of course).
As with the other software tools in this list, it's not just the features that Asana has that make it special – it's the way those features are wrapped up in an elegant and accessible interface that's easy to navigate around and works across mobile apps and the web without missing a beat.
We also like the way Asana integrates very well with more than a hundred other products and services. All the big names are included – Dropbox, Slack, Gmail, Salesforce and so on – and this means Asana is flexible enough to fit right into whatever workflow you've got set up at the moment (or want to try in the future).
Whether you're mapping out the steps in a project, assigning duties and responsibilities, checking on the current status of a plan or trying to get a 'big picture' look at exactly what's happening at any given moment, Asana makes the process much more straightforward than you might expect.
Dropbox was perfecting file syncing across the cloud and multiple devices long before Google, Apple and Microsoft got their respective acts together, and it's this syncing functionality that remains at the core of what Dropbox does, even as it has added a few extra strings to its bow.
If you need to do anything at all with files, then Dropbox is just about the best way to do it – share large files over the web, get at your office documents from home, give certain team members access to a certain folder, stream video from a computer to a web browser, collaborate on the same file with a lot of people… the list goes on.
The simple and efficient clients that Dropbox has for just about every platform and device out there certainly help, as does the recently revamped (and rather beautifully designed) web interface. If you need to password-protect folders, or set expiry dates for the files and folders you share, then Dropbox can do all of that too.
Its Paper app for collaborating on documents is worth a look too, even if it's not quite up to the standard set by G Suite – you'll find it's clean, simple to use, and lets multiple people get together on a document without any fuss at all.
You'll find no shortage of finance applications out there with small businesses firmly in their sights, and there are plenty of excellent ones besides Xero – but we've chosen this product for its overall comprehensiveness, mix of accessibility and advanced features, and the smart way in which it works. On the downside, it's one of the more expensive options.
What Xero does best is switch between the complex and the simple effortlessly – so you can (for example) set up an automated report showing exactly where all your spending has gone this year, broken down by category; or you can just bring up a bar chart of how much money is coming in each month. Or both.
The app is also very customizable, giving you the opportunity to bring up the features and statistics that you need, and hide the ones you don't. We wouldn't recommend it for the smallest and simplest businesses, because it's too sophisticated and expensive for that, but as your business grows and grows, Xero will be able to keep pace.
Plus, as you would expect for something at this price, it's packed with extras beyond the basics of just checking on your incomings and outgoings. Xero is able to automatically pull in bank feeds, work in multiple currencies, allow different users into your account with different levels of access (so your accountant can file your tax returns for you), and much more besides.