The small business hustle—tips and free tools

After a wealth of corporate experience then a sharp transition into running her own business, Alex Brooks shares her small business tips and how you can make it happen without straining a muscle.

13 MINUTE READ

There’s a cult of entrepreneurship that says scaling a startup into a big, massive business is more worthy than solopreneurs running a small, creative business harnessing free tools and cheap technology.

But there’s a great lifestyle on offer running a small business or side hustle. There’s no pressure around capital raising or 60-hour week burnouts common in startups. What’s more, savvy small business owners can say sayonara to the bureaucracy and red tape that can often hold back innovative ideas and launch a small business which replaces their salary in a few short months, possibly even weeks.

I started my first business in the years before smartphones were even a thing. I had a baby and three months pay from an unexpected redundancy that slapped me in the face faster than I could ask, “how will I pay for childcare now?”. I didn’t have time to write a business plan. I had to make money. Fast.

Small business is about cash flow, not the fax machine

Back in the olden days, accounts departments “lost’ invoices from small suppliers like me. The fastest way to get an invoice paid was to clog up fax lines by repeatedly sending faxes to remind clients to cough up, preferably before my next childcare bill was due.

Naturally, my first business investment was a fax machine.

That fax machine taught me everything I needed to know about cash flow and running a profitable business. Sometimes it shrieked long and loud as I hustled to turn unpaid invoices into cash in the bank.

Most small businesses fail because they run out of money and don’t understand the difference between cash flow and profit. Being your own boss doesn’t mean you can treat the money in your business bank account like a salary from an employer. What’s more, you have to constantly refine your business proposition, investigate new tools and dream up ways to improve revenue or lower costs.

TIP 1

Liberating your life and your business

The Tracksuit Economy author Emma Heuston says home-based businesses can be more agile than big corporates or startups, as they don’t have to lease premises or employ staff. This means you can find a niche opportunity to jump on and pivot to new business opportunities faster than bigger companies who’ve made promises to investors or a board.

Heuston also points out that self-employed business owners who don’t have to commute can save 90 minutes a day, which adds up to 15 days in a working year – the equivalent of three weeks holiday.

“In the case of those who care for young children or elderly parents, working from home allows you to manage the push and pull of daily life better,” Heuston says.

TIP 2

Don’t listen to traditional business wisdom – find your own

Traditional business wisdom spouts endless doom statistics and nags prospective small business owners to plan things like financials, value proposition and marketing.

But is all that planning really necessary?

Snowsbest.com founder Rachael Oakes-Ash runs a successful ski and snowboard website which allows her to travel around the globe chasing news, videos and exclusive competitions for snow-obsessed types.

“I never did a business plan and never had a purpose other than to go skiing, get better at skiing and be paid while doing it. My job and lifestyle were one,” she says.

“Now the purpose has shifted from skiing to business. I’ve had to expand from being just a writer to becoming a videographer, blogger, photographer, producer, sales agent and more. In a fast-changing media landscape, I’ve had to continually adapt.”

Oakes-Ash’s readership and revenue has doubled in the last 12 months, and she relies on a part-time staff member and freelancers.

“I also rely on plenty of different cloud-based technology and tools to run my business. I like to start out with free tools to see if they really deliver value to the business before committing to paying regular monthly fees,” she says.

TIP 3

Build out your small biz technology stack

Unsurprisingly (and thankfully!), today everything from invoicing to branding and even schmoozing clients is done with software and tech tools rather than screeching old fax machines.

Solopreneurs should identify small business tools are worth paying for and investing time to learn so they get over that ‘I-can’t-be-bothered’ chasm that prevents efficient adoption and value creation.

Online tools—the ones that add up to your small biz stack—have the power to liberate your time and money to develop your craft or take your business to the next level.

So which technology and tools are worth it in small business?

These days, solopreneurs can power up their business with these affordable tools to create that all-important “point of difference” to keep clients coming back.

But when it comes to small business tools, what’s what and what’s actually worth it? Here are some options that include free trials:

Productivity small business tools

For cloud-based file sharing: Try Box, Dropbox or Google Drive and Gdocs. Google Drive makes easy to search for documents by title if your filing and folder system is sloppy.

For team-based chat to stop endless emails cluttering up your life: Try Slack, Google Hangouts, Whatsapp or Skype.

For task-led project management and job tracking: Try Trello, Airtable, Wrike or Evernote. You usually need to experiment to find what works for you and your crew.

For video chat meetings (pro-tip: this makes scheduling and organizing meetings far better than commuting for face-to-face ones): Try Zoom, Whatsapp or GoTo Meetings.

Accounting, payment and invoicing small business tools

For accounts and payments: A PayPal account is a must-have for anyone wanting to accept global payments (not just buy nice things online!)—you can send and receive invoices easily and transfer money to other accounts. You can also explore TransferWise, which offers a competitive exchange rate compared to the bigger players in the payments field. Most banks and payment services do take a percentage of each transaction, so read the terms carefully.

For making tax time easy: It’s hard to find good free tools. Some freelancers swear by Wave but it’s too basic for most businesses. Others go straight to the expensive tools like Xero or MYOB which scale as their business gets bigger. The paid accounting tools also have two-factor authentication. Also, search your local tax office for apps and free tools. Some people keep their expense receipts as photos only in their smartphone and save them all at tax time.

Marketing small business tools

For easy email marketing: Half the globe swears by Mailchimp (though watch out for their automated account suspensions if you appear to violate best email practice). There are plenty of email management tools that help with list-building, personalization and landing page creation. Try SendInBlue, AWeber, ConstantContact or Drip. Most are only free for a certain period of time or a small number of email subscribers, so check the terms and conditions.

For swish proposal documents that make you look like a design genius: Qwilr helps you make proposals, sassy quotes and beautiful reports with a free account. Upgrading to a paid account can enable e-signatures and sign-offs, so you can get that extra bit of legal protection when people commission your work.

For social media marketing: Most small businesses will have a free presence on the big platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram or Pinterest. It’s best to choose one or two platforms and do those well than spread yourself too thin. The real trick is to not get sucked in spending all your time on social media. That’s when free scheduling tools like Hootsuite, MeetEdgar, Buffer, SocialPilot or SocialOomph are worth trialling. Most are only free up to a certain point, so check the pricing and offer carefully.

For easy video production: There are loads of free IOS and Android apps to make Instagram videos, but if you want to make simple marketing vids for YouTube or a website, it’s a bit trickier. Try Lightworks or Blender, but be prepared to read the how-to guides as video editing is not always simple.

For easy websites and search engine discoverability: Your own basic web presence is a must, and there are free website creation options like Weebly, Wix and Sitebuilder. WordPress, Squarespace and other website builders cost a smidge more, but offer flexibility and potentially better discoverability in search engines. Google’s free tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console are also must-haves.

Highlights and history lessons

So, getting back to fax machines …

As my first business investment, it opened up the path for me to do run my business. While none of us are purchasing ubiquitated machines that take up half our living rooms nowadays, we’re still making similar decisions about the kinds of tools we invest in to help our business run smoother.

The tools we choose to grow our sales, marketing, or even just our small business stack, will help our businesses remain supported as we grow.

If you’re strapping in to start a small business, remember, just like the overwhelming popularity of the fax machine, what’s sweetly successful today can never rest on its laurels—there’s constant pressure to evolve, improve and optimize.

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