Beyond Evernote for Entrepreneurs: Essential Digital Structure for the Self Employed
November 11-16, 2015 is Global Entrepreneur week [#GEW2015] and in honor of the event, Evernote produced a series of blog posts, podcasts, and interviews with an array of entrepreneurs on their website.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the entrepreneurs featured. Below is the 20 minute podcast where Evernote asked me about the challenges I see businesses face in my work, what does “paperless” mean in a practical sense, my take on modern entrepreneurship, and my favorite Evernote feature.
Evernote Podcast Replay:
One of the questions they asked that I’m expanding upon here is: What else [beyond Evernote] is in an entrepreneurial toolkit?
There is a core suite of software services that make up the digital infrastructure from which I run my business. And, I made purposeful selections for each of them. New technology solutions pop up [seemingly] every day. Although I watch the trends and familiarize myself with what is out there, the suite of tools I detail below are stable - I don’t jump ship just because there is a hot new product that appears to solve some issue presented by my current solution. Collectively, these tools make up the eco-system that is the operational foundation of Harmon Enterprises.
I’ve bolded the core business function that each of my choices provides me. Certainly there are alternative options to each and you may select differently for your needs. But, for those of you who have similar “key factors” to me, may find value in hearing the logic behind my choices.
Key factors influencing my choices:
- I’m a knowledge worker who runs a professional service based business.
- I need to be able to work from anywhere which means I need access to any materials that enable me to run my business effectively from wherever I am.
- I’m an independent entrepreneur. I work with contractors who come and go as part of my team, but for the most part, I am my business.
- Budget and time constraints are always an important criteria in my decision making
All these factors impact the technology infrastructure I have chosen. And, the choices I’ve made are deliberate, and also essential, to the successful operations and viability of my business. However, each bolded area is an area of modern business that I think entrepreneurs need a business system for managing. So, whether or not you agree with my choice, creating a process for managing the bolded items is a valid exercise for your business.
With that, following is the Harmon Enterprises blueprint for my digital business infrastructure [at the time of publishing this post]. Note that I have provided links to each solution - if the provider gives me a referral link, I’ve used that, but any spiff I might get from you signing up is not the reason for their inclusion in this post - it is because these are the tools that I use to run my business.
In order to be an efficient mobile business, I have to have access to the internet. Although free wi-fi is available at nearly every coffee shop and corner in America, reliable access to the internet is essential to my work productivity and 50% of the time, the free wi-fi experience is too slow, down, or not reliable enough for me to count on.
Modern independent entrepreneurs need to take access to the internet into their own hands. As such, I have a mobile mifi device which provides me internet access for $50/month. I chose Verizon [even though they aren’t my cell phone provider]. The device provides me reliable internet access for multiple devices whenever I need it. Now I don’t have to trust Starbucks to have their shared internet at a speed that works for me.
In addition, I have invested in the fastest internet access available at my home residence. This is not an area where I skimp. Fast internet makes all the difference in working in a cloud based business system, and in communicating with clients via video conferencing…something I do often.
Why I chose Verizon as my mobile wi-fi hotspot provider:
- They have the most extensive national network. I travel, and I want my internet to work wherever I am. I have the best opportunity for that with Verizon.
- They are competitive in their pricing
MacBook Air & iPhone
I’ve chosen Apple for my devices. And, I love them. This is the hardware foundation of my business and in this area [as in my internet access choices], I don’t skimp. I buy the top of the line computer available at the time of purchase. I get AppleCare. I buy the accessories I need. I budget to upgrade my phone every 2 years and my computer every 3 years. Outdated hardware can hinder the benefit of ever evolving software so having contemporary devices is an essential part of my work world. For my computer, I buy the MacBook Air. For my phone, I’m currently on the iPhone 6 plus [I had concerns about it being too big, but it’s not - I love it].
Why I chose Apple products:
- I love the aesthetic of the devices
- I have access to Apple stores where I live which gives me access to in person support if I need it
- I have access to training offered at Apple stores [when I switched from PC to Mac, I went to a class per day for 2 weeks straight to understand all that the OS and Apple software offered]
- I like the closed environment which for the most part just simply works without constant updates and maintenance required on my part
- MacBook Air: It is lightweight and very easy to travel with and as you’ll see in the details that follow, my data all lives in the cloud so no need for super large hard drive space. What the MacBook air offers exceeds my needs. And, it fits in my purse.
My entire business existence is focused on having my office with me wherever I go. This means I scan any paper that comes into my world. The scanner I have chosen is the Evernote ScanSnap, and it is wonderful.
Why I chose the Evernote ScanSnap as my scanner:
- Its air tight integration with Evernote
- Its small size which fits neatly on my desk
CORE SOFTWARE AND SERVICES
Evernote is the cornerstone software of my life productivity and my trusted external brain. My entire business and blog are about explaining why and about helping others to achieve the level of effectiveness with Evernote that I experience on a daily basis [please explore my site for the details on how I specifically use it].
At a high level, Evernote is my digital desk. I use it not only as a digital reference and storage space that holds items such as receipts, important documents, and thoughts, but also as my project management software [client management, travel management, marketing management], and to manage processes [lead management, expense and receipt management, etc]. And, key to my productivity, I use Evernote as my task manager, having deployed a GTD management system in Evernote.
Why I chose Evernote:
- It is cloud based
- It is flexible and adaptable
- It works on any mainstream device regardless of the operating system [I’m Mac now, but who knows if I will aways be…probably, but, you never know]
- Its superior ability to capture and centralize information of any kind
- Its superior ability for me to find and retrieve whatever I’m looking for at lightning speed
- Its price
- Its business model. I like their simple and clear 3 laws of data protection and the fact that productivity software is their core business vs. an extension of their core product.
- Its open API philosophy which has yielded thousands of convenient integrations with 3rd party softwares - many of which play detailed roles in my daily productivity.
Freshbooks makes invoicing and collection of payment easy, all while making me look highly professional. It also allows me to easily track the time I spend on specific clients and projects and get reimbursed for client expenses simply and easily. Because being paid is exceptionally important to me, yet generating invoices is not a task I enjoy, I am grateful to have this tool which is user friendly and effective at getting the job done.
Why I chose Freshbooks:
- It is cloud based
- It is very user friendly
- It supports a highly professional look and experience to my customers
- It makes it easy for me to get paid
- It makes it easy for me to track my time and show clients how much time I spent on their work [I often bill clients for a pre-paid block of time and Freshbooks allows me to run a report showing how much time has been spent on a client project and share that with the client].
Beyond search, many of Google’s products and services are part of my essential suite of business services. The ones I rely on most are:
Google Apps: This is the business grade version of gmail which manages my company email, contacts, calendar, and some digital storage [my digital storage happens either in Evernote or Google Drive, depending on the workflow].
Why I chose Google Apps:
- It is cloud based
- I hated the space constraints of Outlook that I was constantly running up across at the time I was making this decision
- Their pricing
- Ease of use
- Compatibility with the other Google products I use
Google Chrome: My preferred web browser.
Why I choose Google Chrome:
- Evernote Web Clipper offers the most functionality in Chrome vs other browsers [which it still functions wonderfully in]
- Compatibility with other Google tools
- Official integrations/compatibility with many of the other tools I use
Google Hangouts on Air: A more robust version of the standard Google Hangouts, Google Hangouts on Air gives me the ability to video conference with clients, share screens, and record the session for further review. And, it is free.
My website and social strategy is critical to the success of my business, which makes my website platform and web hosting companies key considerations in my business structure. Although I am more fluent in WordPress than the average Joe, WordPress is not my core competency, and my time is better spent creating content and servicing clients than it is updating themes, installing and updating plugins, and tweaking my site.
SquareSpace has been a huge relief and productivity boost for me in terms of my website strategy. I love that I can self maintain my site, and it simply works. SquareSpace handles all updates and keeps the site cutting edge in terms of performance and styling. I sacrifice some of the flexibility that WordPress offers, but I am fine with it based on the headaches it relieves me of. I highly recommend SquareSpace for independent entrepreneurs and small businesses that need to outsource their website design and maintenance.
Why I chose SquareSpace:
- Their website templates are all very attractive [they say “beautiful”]
- Their themes are responsive. This was a key factor for me. I wanted a site that renders well on mobile phones and tablets.
- Hosting, design, and updates are all centralized with one reasonable fee
- It is very easy to maintain
- They have an effective and attractive commerce product - I can sell product through their platform
Taking digital and credit card payments is a huge help to my cash flow and my preferred way to be paid. I would love to have better consolidation of services in this area but have found that I have needed to sign up for three payment providers in order to cover all the ways that people want to pay me in my work-from-anywhere business.
Why I choose PayPal:
- There is an option in Freshbooks where I can pay a flat $0.50 when a client pays me via there PayPal account to my PayPal account [regardless of the invoiced amount]. This saves me a lot on fees when dealing with a client willing to pay me via their PayPal account.
Why I chose Square:
Prior to PayPal and my Bank offering card readers for me to accept payments, Square offered a card reader that I plug into my iPhone which allowed me to take credit cards from customers in person. Because I speak and often sell physical books and consulting services at those speaking events, having the card reader is key to collecting payment on-site and providing an immediate receipt to the purchaser. Square does a great job of solving this.
The fees when Square first launched were superior to the other payment gateways. As time has marched on, all the options tend to be comparable in fees so this is less of a factor today.
Why I chose Stripe:
- SquareSpace commerce accepts Stripe payments and I wanted to be able to sell and collect payments on my site, so I set up a Stripe account.
Every small business needs some kind of accounting software. At the time I set up my business, Freshbooks didn’t offer accounting tracking beyond their invoicing solution. I know their offerings have evolved, but I’m now engrained in a different solution. I use iBank which is a Mac only accounting software. It’s just ok.
This is the one area where I am least satisfied in my business system, but I’ve invested enough process development and history in this app that it would be more painful for me to switch than it is to use. But, I can’t say I would highly recommend it. The software is slow [my biggest complaint - I’m in the software every single day and I get the rainbow swirl beach ball every single time I switch between banking accounts]. I also find its bank sync features unreliable and their auto-entry rule process unintuitive. I’ve been a user for several years now and it doesn’t feel like the software has improved/evolved much in that time which is disappointing.
However, I won’t be switching software until I find a solution that does all that led me to iBank in the first place [after researching QuickBooks, Quickbooks online, Zero, Freshbooks, Microsoft Money, Mint, Xero, Zoho, etc]. And, I have yet to find an excellent replacement, which is what it will take for me to jump ship. I keep looking. In the meantime, I’ve made iBank work for me.
If I was starting fresh today from ground zero, I’d likely take another look at Freshbooks expanded features and also QuickBooks online, which I assume has improved its feature set since I first looked at it several years ago.
So there you have it - a road map to Harmon Enterprises essential business infrastructure. There are other software applications and services that are key to my business, but they are either more flexible in my need for them [i.e. I'm willing to swap them out for a better solution if one appears], or are more niche to my particular business. My goal with this post was to present the core areas that I find most essential to the modern entrepreneur's business toolkit [the bold items] and express why I chose the solution I have in each category. If you have any questions about my rationale or something you think I’ve left out, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.