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14 min read

The best business tools for working smarter (not harder)

Starting a new business can feel a bit like an emotional seesaw. Focusing on one area can sometimes cause other ones to drop – because, in the early days, it’s usually only you who’s on the payroll.

It’s hard to cover multiple areas at once (to the degree you’d like to), so we’ve rounded up the best business tools that will enable efficiency and growth from the get-go.

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Website builders

Launching your website is an absolute business essential to get sorted as soon as possible. UK consumers will spend £106.46bn online in 2019. This will make up 22.3% of all retail spend, a proportion that will reach 27.9% in 2023. (Source: eMarketer’s UK eCommerce 2019 report)

Your website is your digital basecamp – it’s the place your marketing activity points back to, the platform that ranks in search results. It tells the world about your business – what you are, what you offer, where to find you, how to get in touch. It’s important to get right.

Thankfully, the website builder boom in recent years has led to the creation of a number of extremely reliable, secure and user-friendly platforms that can help you launch your website on a small budget and at lightning speed. You no longer have to enlist the skills of a website developer or spend hours figuring out domain hosting – simply set up an account and the builder will help you create a website that suits your style and business goals.

The best bit? You don’t need to touch one line of code (unless you want to!). Website builders such as Wix, SquareSpace and Shopify will help you secure a domain name, provide a vast library of templates to choose from, and offer a drag-and-drop approach to content and function population. Below, you’ll find some of the main things you’ll need to consider before building your website. 

TIP: Invest in quality photos/images for your website. Part of the money you save by using a DIY website builder could be spent on creating a business image suite that you can use on your website and social channels. While there are some decent royalty-free images out there, you run the risk of other businesses possessing them too. A quality library of images (branded and non-branded) including an eye-catching logo will be the gift that keeps on giving.

  • Pointing at a laptop screen
    What’s the main aim of your website?

    Make sure you make it as easy as possible for your customer to complete your goal e.g. buy a product, book an appointment.

  • Website wireframes
    Brand guidelines

    Ensure the template style and functionality reflects how you want your brand to come across. You might not have time to establish official brand guidelines yet, but keep consistency in mind at this early stage.

  • Boardroom
    Room for growth

    Does the builder have the features you need to expand with your business plans?

  • Two women looking at laptop
    Integration

    Ensure the website builder you select integrates well with any existing accounts you currently have (and wouldn’t want to change) e.g. Mailchimp.

  • Row of people on smartphones
    Responsive

    The majority of website builders will ensure that your website design adapts to the device it’s being viewed on. When you’re selecting a template, view its mobile version at the same time to ensure you’re happy with both presentations before populating with content

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

Imagine being able to communicate with each of your customers in a completely tailored way – and it’s all automated. This is just one of the features of a CRM system.

In a nutshell, CRM is designed to improve your interaction with both current and prospective clients. It collects and analyses customer data and automates marketing campaigns that are tailored to their preferences and interactions with your company. These systems are an extremely powerful tool in your sales and marketing kit – as they’ll streamline your sales pipeline and save you time liaising with and retaining your customers.

Here are some of the main CRM providers and a summary of their features: 

Provider

Highlights

Cost

Insightly

  • Easy navigation.
  • Good integration e.g. Microsoft Outlook/Office365, Xero, Google Apps/GSuite/Gmail, MailChimp, Slack.
  • Track sales and manage leads.
  • Automate routine tasks.
  • Create real-time business reports.
  • Good support including video tutorials.
  • Online access, mobile applications for both Android & iOS.
  • Business card scanner.
  • Affordable.

Per-user/month, billed annually:

  • 15-day free trial.
  • Plus: £23
  • Professional: £38
  • Enterprise: £77

Trial for free or request a demo. Free needs assessment included, plus small business usage tips.

 Zoho CRM

  • A popular choice for SMBs that want to get going with CRM quickly and affordably.
  • A web-based CRM system that is highly customisable.
  • A great solution for tight budgets, looking for helpful data.
  • Good scalability and integration with other software.
  • Responsive support team.
  • Recently introduced Zia – an AI sales assistant, offering insights on trends, conversions, etc.
  • Zoho MarketingHub also available, offering additional features such as website behaviour tracking, survey campaigns and a marketing planner.

Per-user/month:

  • Standard: £10
  • Professional: £16
  • Enterprise: £30
  • Ultimate: £85

Free package worth trialling out the features but paid plan will offer more for your money if you’re planning serious business growth.

HubSpot

  • HubSpot offers a completely free version of its CRM, making it a popular option amongst SMBs.
  • Basic features provided such as a clean, visual dashboard, company insights, deal tracking and pipeline management.
  • Sales, productivity and individual performance reports.
  • Includes tools that notify your salespeople the minute a prospect opens their email or visits your website.
  • Free meeting scheduling, live chat, email templates and click-to-call functionality.
  • Customisable and integrates with popular apps such as SalesForce and Shopify.
  • Add-on services for when your business grows e.g. Marketing Hub and Sales Hub.

FREE forever.

Unlimited users, data and up to 1,000,000 contacts with no time limit or expiration date. Whether you’re a team of 1 or 1,000. Full pricing details.

Starter, Professional & Enterprise pricing options per ‘Hub’ e.g. Marketing Hub, Sales Hub, Service Hub if you want extra features.

  • Starter: Starts at £42/month
  • Professional: Starts at £330/month
  • Enterprise: Starts at £990/month

SalesForce

  • Coined the world’s no.1 CRM platform for business of all sizes.
  • Massive range of features.
  • Great customer support.
  • Track sales journey, automate.
  • Single view of each customer.
  • One-click reports.
  • Good scalability.
  • Can be integrated with 3,000+ apps. Secure mobile app.
  • Sign up for a guided tour.

Per-user/month, billed annually:

  • Lightning Platform Starter: £20
  • Lightning Platform Plus: £80
  • Lightning Platform Unlimited: Request a Quote

SugarCRM

  • A low-cost solution for SMBs with a straightforward sales process.
  • Good scalability.
  • Mobile version.
  • Sales-force automation.
  • Marketing campaigns.
  • Customer support.
  • Collaboration.
  • Mobile CRM.
  • Social CRM and reporting.
  • Guides and webinars available.
  • Free trial and request a demo feature.

Per-user/month starting at:

  • Sugar Professional: £31 (‘meet the needs of fast-growing small businesses’)
  • Sugar Enterprise: £51
  • Sugar Serve: £62
  • Sugar Sell: £62
  • Sugar Market: £780

Pipedrive

  • Built for salespeople in scaling teams. Great for managing leads, tracking communication and automation.
  • Good integration with other software. Mobile app available.
  • Useful Support Centre including webinars and videos.

 

Per-user/month/billed annually:

  • 14-day free trial.
  • Essential: £12.50
  • Advanced: £24.90
  • Professional: £49.90
  • Enterprise: £99

Project management software

Investing in project management software will enable you/your team to manage and deliver project work more efficiently and effectively. Collaborate and meet project goals while keeping an eye on resource and cost. Functions include budgeting, time tracking and task distribution.

One of the biggest business benefits to this type of software is gaining a heads-up on when projects are looking like they’re going to overrun or go over budget. These initial indicators can help you address before they happen – mitigating risk for your business. Whether it’s adapting your project deliverables or early communication with a client on unexpected delays – it’ll help you run your business more efficiently and keep your customers happy.

The three main aspects of project management software are:

  • Planning (project timelines, scheduling completion dates, task assignment, forecasting, resource allocation)
  • Tracking (time, tasks, budgets, resource, analysis, reports)
  • Collaboration (document sharing, internal messaging)

There are a number of user-friendly platforms out there. Here are some of the most popular:

Provider

 

 

 

Highlights

Cost

Trello

  • Operates via boards, lists and cards.
  • Integrates with apps you’re already using (called ‘Power-ups’) e.g. Google Drive, Slack.

Per-user/month, billed annually:

  • Free to use basic version
  • Business package: £7.74

Basecamp

  • Great flexibility.
  • Grow all you want – the cost stays the same.
  • Great for expanding business/project work.
  • No minimum contract with Basecamp.
  • Cancel at any time without penalty. If pre-paid for a year and cancel, they refund un-used months.

No per-user fees:

  • 30-day free trial
  • Basecamp Business: £76.71 all-inclusive  

 

Atlassian

  • Best known for Confluence – its team collaboration tool and Jira.
  • The number one software tool for planning and tracking the development and release of software projects.

Free trial available.

Offer a number of products. Calculator available to tailor your price.

For example, a standard Confluence plan without apps for 10 users for a year is £77.49 excluding VAT.

Asana

  • Organise, track and manage your work.
  • Clean, user-friendly interface.
  • Great intro video on homepage.
  • New automation feature released, which you can trial for free.

Free trial available.

Per-user/month, billed annually:

  • Premium package: £9.49 

 

Accounting software

Park the paper and manage your business finances with accounting software. Not only will it give you a clearer overview of your financial status but it will also make it easier when preparing and submitting your tax return.

Some of the main features:

  • Sending invoices (save time automating recurring ones and overdue reminders, transform quotes into invoices quickly)
  • Payroll
  • Managing income
  • Organising expenses
  • Financial reports
  • Tax calculation and submission

Make sure to look for software that offers features that are helpful to your industry, for example, service-providers might find a time tracking function useful, while manufacturers might find an inventory-tracking function worthwhile.

We’ve highlighted some of the most popular accounting software for small businesses below.

  • Xero logo
    Xero

    Well known brand, software tailored for small businesses.

  • Quickbooks logo
    Quickbooks

    Easy-to-read dashboards, prices tailored to small businesses.

  • Sage logo
    Sage

    One of the best-known online software providers.

  • Zoho books
    Zoho Books

    Inexpensive starter package, with many add ons.

  • FreeAgent
    FreeAgent

    Aimed at startups, micro-businesses and freelancers.

  • Clearbooks
    Clear Books

    Has a free micro-package for very basic accounting.

  • Simplifi
    Simplifi

    Aimed at micro-businesses and freelancers.

Social media marketing

There are some great tools out there to make your social media marketing quicker and more effective. Please note there are thousands of social media tools available-! It’s a matter of taking a look and seeing which fits best with your business. Here are some to begin looking at…

Scheduling tools are extremely useful as they allow you to manage your social media channels in one place. You no longer have to login to your separate accounts and create and publish posts at the exact time you want them to go out. Allocate a time/day of the week/month to create and schedule your posts, then leave the tool to take care of the rest.

It’s best practice to regularly check your channels regardless of a scheduling tool being in place. Sometimes scheduling can cause issues such as an insensitive post going out after an unexpected news event, an incorrect image might have been mistakenly scheduled, etc. These tools still require input and management but take the daily slog out of social media activity.

ProviderHighlightsCost

Hootsuite

  • Manage all your social media channels in onc place with this well-known management tool.
  • Collaborate across team members including an approval process.
  • View your comments and mentions across channels. 

Per-month, billed annually:

  • 30-day free trial available
  • Professional (1 user): £25 
  • Team (3 users): £99
  • Business (5 users): £520 

Buffer

  • Beginning its life as a scheduling tool for Twitter, it now supports all the major social platforms including Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest.
  • You can even reply to posts from inside Buffer and add team members.

Per-month, billed annually:

  • 14-day free trial available
  • Pro (1 user): $15
  • Premium (2 users): $65
  • Business (6 users): $99

Missinglettr

  • If your website has a blog section, use this tool to grow it on social media.
  • This tool will scrape your blog post content and creating engaging social media campaigns for you.

Per-month:

  • 14-day free trial available
  • Blogger (1 user): $15
  • Business (unlimited): $47

Buzzsumo

  • Great for content planning and discovering influencers in your market.
  • Refine the content you publish and market with this handy research tool.
  • Analyse what content performs best for any topic or competitor.
  • Research keywords and trending topics amongst your audience.

Per-month:

  • 7-day free trial available
  • Pro: $99
  • Plus: $179
  • Large: $299
  • Enterprise: $499

Bit.ly

  • Takes long URLs and shortens them into trackable links.
  • View how many people have clicked on your link.

Per month:

  • Free
  • Basic (allows you to create branded links): $29 

Biteable

  • Create engaging, creative and informative short videos to share on social media.

Per-month, billed annually:

  • Free trial available.
  • Starter: $9.50
  • Pro: $24.50
  • Unlimited: $49

Business mobiles

If you/your team are regularly out-in-the-field or have frequent communication with clients, it’s worth considering investing in business mobiles. Flexible and remote working can be better catered for by owning portable devices that can complete business tasks on-the-go.

Working from the same devices and software ensures consistency, helping streamline activity and collaboration such as calendar scheduling and group calls. There are lots of providers and contractors out there. Just make sure you do your research and let them compete on price for your business.

Email marketing

If used correctly, email marketing can be one of the most effective channels for promoting your business. Most importantly, it’s an inexpensive way to upsell to existing customers, convert leads and store data. There are a number of user-friendly email marketing platforms out there that allow you to manage your data lists, create call-to-action emails, personalise emails, create email design templates, send campaigns and track them. You can also automate them, so you can crack on with other areas of your business.

Some of the most popular platforms include:

ProviderHighlightsCost

Mailchimp

  • Free to use plans available.
  • Paid ‘plans that grow with you’.
  • Easy to use including readymade templates and drag and drop builder. 
  • Integrates well with website builders and social media channels. 

Per-month plans:

  • Basic: £0
  • Essentials: £9.99
  • Standard: £14.99
  • Premium: £299

Drip

  • Good integration with Ecommerce CRM data to personalise and automate marketing emails.
  • More than just email: Multi-channel touchpoints.
  • Clear-cut revenue analytics.
  • Additional integration e.g. add or remove leads to Facebook Custom Audiences based on automation action triggers, sync with your Magento store, use Shopify store customer data to personalise your multi-channel strategies at scale.
  • Drip REST API available to unleash even more ECRM if you/your coding friends want to ‘explore what’s possible’.
  • Comprehensive ‘Learn’ section including an intro course, guides and user manual.

Per month plans:

  • 14-day free trial.
  • Starts from £36.72 – then subject to number of contacts in your account. 

Dotdigital (formerly Dotmailer)

  • More than just email: SMS, push notifications, social and more.
  • Create, test and send data-driven automated campaigns.
  • Good integration options including Shopify, Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Magento, as well as key business systems such as Ecommerce platforms and CRMs.
  • Real-time, rich insights.
  • Dedicated onboarding services for seamless migration.
  • Global 24/5 support from expert technicians.

Per month plans:

  • 14-day free trial.
  • Packages: Accelerate, Amplify and Custom. Must request pricing packages directly via website submission form

Constant Contact

  • Well established (running for over 20 years).
  • Easy editing via drag and drop ability.
  • Segmented and automated emails including greeting new subscribers, click triggers and automatically resending emails to non-openers.
  • Easy upload of contacts.
  • Real-time results tracking.
  • Mobile app.
  • Learning resources.

Per month plans:

  • Basic: starts from £15
  • Plus: starts from £30

(the first month of plan free, then subject to number of contacts in your account)

Many CRM marketing branches such as Zoho MarketingHub, HubSpot Marketing Hub, SalesForce Marketing Cloud and ActiveCampaign also offer an emailing function with automation – going that step further and allowing you to send personalised campaigns based on client profile data and site interactions.

Electric Point of Sale (EPOS)

If your business relies on face-to-face sales, then an EPOS system is extremely helpful. For example, if you’re a café owner, having one central, easily accessible hub screen will not only process card payments and store transactional data, but it can also encourage additional sales there and then. Some of the best systems available will report on sales, track inventory, encourage customer care and aid staff management.

Here are a few examples:

 

ProviderHighlightsCost

Nobly

  • Simple to use (iPad POS System helps serve your customers faster with less mistakes).
  • Easy to learn (great for staff training).
  • Convenient (automatic sales, inventory and end of day reports).
  • Reliable (offline option if your WiFi’s down).
  • Affordable (installation free to set up).

Epos Now

  • Official satisfaction online rating of 9/10.
  • Easy to use – train your staff in 15 minutes.
  • Accessed from anywhere to monitor and report in real-time.
  • Great integration with other applications such as payment systems, online ordering platforms, CRM and accounting systems.
  • 30-day free trial.
  • Free demo available.
  • Complete systems for only £1,199 or £47 per month.
  • Hardware store.
  • Request a quote via website form submission.

Revel Systems Retail

  • iPad-based POS system – portable.
  • Inventory management.
  • Employee scheduling.
  • Stock room management.
  • Insights App helps you access operations from anywhere.
  • Real-time analytics.
  • Good integration with business systems including CRM, accounting software and Ecommerce platforms.
  • Great payment flexibility e.g splitting a bill evenly, by item or manually input the total amount, open a bar tab without a held card and keep House Accounts for regular customers.
  • Free demo available.
  • Hardware for a complete iPad POS system.
  • Software as low as £74.16 per month per terminal.
  • Processing – flat fee (request a quote).
  • Installation and on-boarding starting at £486.18.

Every plan includes unlimited users, secure cloud backup and more.

Merchant accounts

Streamline your payment process by creating a merchant account. This allows you/your business to accept debit and credit card payments in person, over the phone and online. This is very different from a business account – you can’t accept payments without a merchant account as it’s a key part to the transaction process between your business, the purchaser and their bank. It’s a holding/current account that lets you process card payments, but it’s your choice as to where the money ends up afterwards e.g. a business or personal account. There are two big benefits to setting up a merchant account:

  • You can accept card payments. Most people pay by card nowadays – even for things as small as their morning coffee.
  • Your business will be protected from fraud, as this is detected and dealt with as payments are processed through your merchant account.

The most appropriate merchant account for small businesses are aggregate merchant accounts such as PayPal, Payzone and Paymentsense, as they have no set-up or monthly fees. You’re only charged when you make a sale. ISO merchant accounts such as American Express, MasterCard and Visa might offer flexible contracts with various perks, but they have qualifying thresholds, which can range from £80,000 to £800,000.

Finance

Boost your business with financial investment. Two small words but in reality, only possible with a lot of time and effort. While you’ll technically be ‘working harder’ during this process (researching, networking, pitching) it’s a smart move if you’re looking to give your startup business as much opportunity as possible to succeed.

Some examples of financing your business:

  • Grants (cash-based awards)
  • Loans (borrowing from an organisation)
  • Reward-based crowdfunding (rewarding pledges)
  • Equity crowdfunding (early investment = shares in your company)
  • Angel investors (think Dragons’ Den)
  • Venture capital (type of private equity, funded by firms or funds)
  • Bootstrapping (founder uses personal finances to set up)
  • Alternate funding

Use Informi’s Funder Finder tool to connect to a lender in minutes

Coworking

There’s something about heading into a positive work environment that shifts you into business mode. Tapping away on your laptop in your dressing gown at home isn’t going to inspire energy or enthusiasm while you launch your new business.

Vibrant and professional coworking spaces are becoming increasingly popular, offering new businesses a professional space to work, meet clients and socialise with colleagues and other companies. Culture is so important to get right from a branding and morale perspective. While prices vary based on location, there are some reasonably priced venues available.

Here are a few examples of coworking spaces in cities around the country… 

WeWork, London 
Price: From £400 a month for a hot desk
Benefits include: 24/7 building access, micro-roasted coffee, craft beer on draft, IT support and bike parking. 
Union Street, Sheffield 
Price: From £45 a month for one day a week
Benefits include: Event space, a roof garden, professional kitchen and pop-up cafe.
The Assembly, Manchester 
Price: Desks at £180 a month 
Benefits include: Dog-friendly, free sweets, free meeting rooms.
Campus North, Newcastle upon Tyne 
Price: Free hotdesking, coworking from £180 per month 
Benefits include: A great reputation as an incubator for tech startups.
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