How to Run a Business Without an Office – 2020 Small Business Guide

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By: Laurie Ersch | VP of Customer Success |

Earth Class Mail

Published May 15, 2020

In the time of COVID-19, small businesses all over the world are getting a crash course in how to operate remotely. Companies that already used a distributed workforce are patting themselves on the back for their foresight. And both existing and new business owners are asking themselves: do I really need an office to run my small business?

Many small (and large) businesses do very well without an office — and not just because a pandemic forced them to. Plenty of successful companies made the choice to go 100% remote long before it became a necessity. 

Of course,  there are many small businesses that simply cannot provide their core services without an office. Hair salons, car repair providers, and many other small businesses must interact with their customers or clients in person. This guide will focus on small business owners whose business model allows them to make a shift to remote work. 

For teams who may still be adapting to running remote, this article will guide you through everything you need to know to run a successful small business without an office. 

Benefits of running a business without an office

Of course, not every business can or should operate remotely, but if you’re still on the fence about whether your small business could do it, consider these statistics:

  • Prior to COVID-19 remote work was already on the rise. The percentage of employees who spent at least 40% of their time working remotely increased from 46% in 2012 to 55% in 2016 and has been on the rise since. Companies that don’t respond to the changing landscape will lose access to the most talented employees as the expectation for remote work options increases. 
  • Office space is expensive. The average cost of office space in New York City is more than $100 per square foot, and even in less expensive markets like Atlanta, it’s $50 per square foot. 
  • Employees want the flexibility of remote work. According to Gallup, 54% of office employees say they would leave their current jobs for the option to work remotely. 

Best practices for running a business without an office

Running a business with a distributed team requires careful planning as well as investment in tools and resources that will allow you and your employees to communicate effectively and manage all traditional in-person activities through cloud-based services. 

Each small business will have its own particular needs and challenges. This guide covers best practices that apply to all small businesses: 

  • Ensuring all team members have suitable workspaces
  • Protecting company data
  • Getting a virtual business address
  • Investing in communication tools
  • Using an effective project management tool
  • Finding meeting space, if necessary
  • Providing remote work training to employees

Create an effective remote workspace

Not having an office doesn’t mean you don’t have a workspace. Remote work consultants recommend creating a workspace that is free from distractions and used exclusively for work. 

But not everyone has a separate space that can be designated for work. If you (or your employees) don’t, that’s okay. Having a designated space is useful, but you can be productive at your kitchen table as long as you have the technology you need and are physically comfortable in your workspace. If you need two (or three) computer monitors to be effective, make sure you have those. If you can’t focus on your tasks because your back is killing you from sitting in an uncomfortable chair, you’re going to lose valuable time. 

Make sure your employees have remote workspaces that allow them to work effectively. Ask them what they need to be more productive — a more comfortable chair, a standing desk, multiple monitors?

Companies like GroWrk can help you outfit your team with useful workspaces. GroWrk provides ergonomic home workstations for distributed teams on a monthly subscription model, so you don’t have to spend capital to get everyone standing desks.  

Secure your business data with a VPN or VDI

Cybersecurity is a growing concern among both small and large businesses. Investing in a solution to protect your company’s data is critical, whether you’re operating in an office or remotely. You and your employees will likely use public Wi-Fi networks (at a coffee shop, in an airport), which can be easily hacked. 

You have a number of options to protect your data, from simple and inexpensive to more complex and quite costly. 

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

A VPN allows users to send communications across public networks (like that Wi-Fi at the local coffee shop) as if they were using a private network in a physical office. VPN services are inexpensive, ranging from a few bucks a month to around $15 a month, and there are a lot of options. 

Not sure where to start? Check out these VPN recommendations from TechRadar

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)

A VDI provides each user with their own virtual desktop, all of which are connected to a centralized server managed by the administrator. VDI provides security along with a shared user interface so that everyone in the organization has access to the same tools and applications. Significantly more complex than a VPN, a VDI can cost thousands depending on how many employees you have.

User rating site G2 ranks Virtualbox as its top VDI service for small businesses, but you should discuss a VDI purchase with an IT professional first. 

Get a virtual business address

Not having a physical office doesn’t mean you can’t have a business address. In fact, you need a business address to provide credibility to customers and to avoid the privacy risk of using your personal address for business communications.

Plus, any business that registers with their Secretary of State’s office needs a business address. You may be able to use your home address for that purpose, but if you do, be warned that it’s on a public document that can be easily accessed online. 

The benefits of a virtual business address

If you don’t have a physical office, your options for getting a business address are (1) renting a PO box, (2) asking to share an address with a local business, or (3) buying a virtual address.

For small businesses, a virtual business address provides the best mix of flexibility and security. 

With a virtual address, you can access your mail online from home or while you’re away. 

Using either a PO box or a shared address means you have to travel to that location to pick up your mail. That requirement automatically removes some of the flexibility you gained by choosing to run a small business without having a physical office. And picking up mail from either a PO box or a shared address simply isn’t possible if you’re out of town. 

You may have an employee that can manage the process, but that requires additional legwork — perhaps getting them the PO box key or introducing them to the owner of the local address you’re using. If you receive an important piece of mail that needs immediate attention, they have to scan it and email it to you. And what if they’re out of town?

A virtual address provides the flexibility to read and act on your mail from your computer or mobile device from anywhere in the world. 

Some virtual address services also integrate with programs like Bill.com or with file-sharing services like Dropbox so you can easily and efficiently collaborate with team members or pay an invoice. They may allow you to automatically deposit checks that you receive in the mail. All of these options reinforce the flexibility and efficiency you’re creating with a remote business. 

Perhaps most importantly, using a virtual address service that follows security and privacy best practices will keep your mail safe and secure. Sharing an address with a local business opens you up to security breaches since you don’t know who might have access to the mail, and while a PO box is secure, you (or your employees) have plenty of opportunities to lose a piece of paper between getting it out of the box and taking action on it. 

Invest in remote work communication tools

Communication is important in any business, but it’s especially critical for distributed teams. Without the opportunity for the casual discussions that take place in an office, employees need lots of opportunities to connect with each other. 

Beyond connecting peer to peer, the right communication tool can help ensure that senior leadership is communicating with the team at large. In fact, a Harvard Business Review study showed that employee engagement improves when senior leadership continually communicates their strategy. 

So especially when your team is working remotely, it’s essential that you have the right tools in place to communicate with your team. 

In particular, we recommend you have the following tools: video conferencing for virtual meetings, messaging tools like Slack for quick soundbites, and collaboration tools like Google Drive for easy version control. These tools will ensure you stay on top of communication.

Check out this blog post for more ideas on how to communicate with your remote team.

Choose a project management tool for remote work 

Whether you’re in the office or at home, project management can make or break your team’s productivity. Effective project management tools orient the whole team to the most important tasks and milestones and include collaboration features so that you can be sure everyone’s on the same page.

With plenty of options on the market, choosing the right platform for your team comes down to which features will help keep you and your team on track and what your preference is for user interface. For instance, some project management systems (Trello and Asana are two of the most popular) include a feature that acts almost like a giant bulletin board task list. For people who respond best to visual information, that feature might be a non-negotiable. 

One feature that’s especially useful for distributed teams is reporting. Detailed reporting of tasks and the time spent on them can help managers and employees stay in tune with each other’s efforts and expectations when they’re not in the office together. Tools like Asana and Monday.com can quickly create visually impactful reports that tell the full story of a team member’s productivity. Everyone on the team can see it, so there’s transparency about each person’s responsibilities and progress, without the need for lengthy in-person meetings. 

Train employees on remote work

Remote work doesn’t necessarily come naturally to everyone. Some employees may have spent their entire career in an office before coming to work for you. Help your team understand your expectations as well as how to use the tools that you’ve provided. 

  • Define the workday. One of the perks of working remotely is the flexibility to work when you want to, but if you need your teams to be available at certain times, make that clear. 
  • Set video guidelines. If you don’t want to see anyone in their pajamas on a video call, make sure that’s clear. Showing up in your pajamas to the office is an obvious no, but understanding guidelines when working from home can be less clear.
  • Provide opportunities for connections that aren’t task-based. Hold regular virtual coffee chats or happy hours where employees can talk not only about what they’re working on but also how their week is going, what’s happening with their kids — the kinds of things they would chat about by the coffee maker or while they walk into the office together. 
  • Give training on tools. Many remote work tools are simple to use, but not everyone will have used them before. Provide training or access to training on using the features and functions that are important to your organization. 
  • Set communication guidelines. Let employees know what types of communications are appropriate for a slack message and what should be handled in an email or a phone call. 

Conclusion 

Running a remote small business that’s just as successful as its office-based equivalents is completely possible with the right preparation and tools. Set appropriate expectations, prioritize communication, and maximize opportunities for flexibility and online collaboration. 

If you’re looking for a virtual address service that’s committed to helping you succeed, sign up for Earth Class Mail today.

6 Solutions to Make Your Business More Efficient and Effective

Every time you turn around, there’s a new productivity app doing the rounds as the number one thing you need to revolutionize your business. And we’ll be honest, there are lots of great ones out there. 

But how do you know if a particular app or program is the right thing for your business? 

We’re always on the hunt for tools that will help our customers achieve their goals, so we’ve put together a list of six of our favorite companies creating innovative solutions for every type of business. 

Invoiced: Solution that helps businesses get paid faster

Watching the money roll in sounds great, but what about those long invoice-to-cash cycles and all that manual data entry? 

Invoiced is a cutting-edge financial platform that helps businesses get paid faster, stop wasting time on collections, and provide a better payment experience for customers — three things that every business wants. 

Invoiced has thousands of customers in 92 countries and nearly $50 billion in receivables processed, so you can be confident these guys know what they’re doing. In fact, they’re pioneers in the field of accounts receivable automation and the #1 rated A/R automation platform on G2 Crowd.  

As an added benefit, the Invoiced platform integrates with Earth Class Mail so that customers with Checkstream-enabled accounts can digitize and automatically apply physical checks. That means you can save countless hours of manual processing and skip all those data entry errors.  

Stripe Atlas: Software solution for new startups 

You’ve got the team, the big idea, and the motivation. But how exactly do you structure a company, especially one that will (hopefully) grow?

Stripe Atlas is a powerful, safe, and easy-to-use platform for forming a company. Their primary mission is to help entrepreneurs launch their startups — from anywhere in the world. They use a best-in-class legal structure that’s built for scale, and entrepreneurs don’t have to handle all the legal complexity and fees that normally accompany incorporating a company. 

E-commerce companies that use Stripe Atlas get access to powerful financial tools that provide functionality and flexibility to their users. 

And anyone who uses Stripe Atlas gets access to the Stripe Atlas Community, which provides personalized help and learning opportunities — as well as discounts from Stripe partners, like Amazon Web Services and DigitalOcean. 

Filevine: Case management solution for law firms

Managing a law firm is a complex process, to say the least. Too many firms rely on outdated programs that make remote working and collaboration difficult and tedious. 

Filevine provides case, matter, investigation, and project management software to over 15,000 legal professionals who manage millions of matters everyday. They provide security and reliability since they’re built on AWS, the cloud network trusted by both Netflix and the Department of Justice (which feels like it’s really covering all the bases). 

Filevine also gives users flexibility so that they can customize their software to automate workflows, create deadline chains, use automated document generation, and generally get more done wherever they are. 

Justice HQ: Solution for consumer advocate attorneys

The resources that accompany a BigLaw job are invaluable, but what if you want to step out on your own? Where do you find mentorship and camaraderie? Not to mention office space?

Justice HQ is a membership of elite consumer advocate attorneys,and they’re not afraid to be upfront about one very important fact: not everyone gets in. Attorneys who make the cut get access to the Justice HQ platform, which includes plenty of tech-based solutions for the modern trial attorney. 

Members-only networking and education events (both in-person and online) provide opportunities for referral and collaboration. The platform integrates with preferred vendors in the legal industry (who often provide discounts to members), including Earth Class Mail. 

Plus, members can use Justice HQ’s modern workspaces, with private offices and conference rooms wired to host remote depositions and meetings, as well as discounts with preferred vendors in the legal industry. 

GroWrk: Ergonomic solutions for remote work

Going remote is a time-saving and money-saving option for lots of companies — even when it’s not required by social distancing. But how do you make sure that all your employees have access to an office setup that works for them? 

GroWrk helps companies provide the best remote work experience for their distributed teams. They equip employees with premium ergonomic home workstations and remote services — everything from desks and chairs to dual monitor mounts and standing desk converters. They even provide one-on-one remote assessments with a certified ergonomist. 

 All GroWrk’s products are available through an innovative monthly subscription model, with free delivery and scheduled pickups. 

Relay: Banking solution for growing companies

Passing the company credit card back and forth is only slightly annoying when there are just two or three of you. Once you start to build a team, that banking method gets a bit more challenging. 

Relay is built for entrepreneurs to make their small business banking easy. With Relay’s platform, team members can collaborate with each other, manage payments, and issue corporate cards — all from their bank.

Relay is available on the web, iOS, and Android. Plus, it has thoughtful integrations to the solutions you know and love (like Transferwise, QuickBooks Online, and Xero). Signing up takes less than 10 minutes, and there are no monthly fees or minimum balances. 

And of course, what’s the solution for people that work remotely or have giant piles of unread mail on their desks? It’s Earth Class Mail. We’re working to bring postal mail into the 21st century. Join us there.

5 Foundational Tips for Remote Startups

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Founders and entrepreneurs leading a remote company face a unique set of challenges when it comes to employee engagement, business operations, and team communication. You’re creating company culture virtually, without the luxury of in-person management. With your team’s increased mobility it becomes more important to centralize and standardize your business practices and keep everyone in sync. 

Thankfully, there are many options to choose from when it comes to affordable cloud-based tools that make it easier for your remote team to collaborate, as well as a wealth of information from companies that have paved the way. If you are about to launch a remote company or are looking for ways to improve an existing business operating remotely now, we’ve got a few core practices that will keep you organized and your team optimized. 

1. Don’t underestimate (virtual) face time

We’ve written about the importance of remote communication before, but it’s worth mentioning again. A simple way to strengthen rapport with your team is to replace conference calls with video conferences. It’s a great way to connect with colleagues who would prefer to put a face to a name while easing the barrier of remote communication and helps create clarity on tasks and projects . Start with free, easy to use tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, or even Slack Calls.

2. Use the cloud

Storing data in the cloud allows you to access and analyze important information quickly, enabling you to make informed decisions more readily. Instead of creating an Excel spreadsheet that can’t be shared in real-time, leverage cloud-based apps until you need a more robust tool, like a cloud-based Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution. Avoid the trap of investing in software that your employees might not need by testing a free or inexpensive tool and by being strategic about how the tools you’ve put in place interact with one another. 

3. Put yourself in your client’s shoes

Running a remote company has its benefits, as well as its trade offs when it comes to your client base. I recently spoke with a customer who was turning down clients that were only able to send payment via mail (paper-based billing and paying by check are more prevalent than you might think). Since this client relocated from the US to Europe, receiving and processing payments from abroad was taking too long, checks were occasionally lost in transit, and the company was at risk of not making payroll. A digital mail solution, also sometimes called a virtual mailbox, gives you access to important correspondence, such as postal mail, documents, and checks, all via an online platform. You’ll have continuity in your mailing address even if you want to travel the world or set up shop in another state. Some solutions, like Earth Class Mail, even offer remote check depositing solutions, which allow you to keep clients whose billing practices might not be as automated as your own.

4. Start with data

And don’t stop. Without a doubt, centralizing customer and prospect data is a must when starting a remote company. Even if you’re a solopreneur, or work on a small team, begin with something as simple as Google Sheets, a live document that’s accessible from anywhere. As you add employees, give them access and review the data that you require them to enter. At a minimum, start tracking your business prospects and customers. Collect relevant contact details and lead source information, the product of interest or the product purchased, as well as other data – such as the time it took to close the deal or the reason why you lost the deal – to inform future decisions. When the time comes that you have too many data points to manage, move to an affordable cloud-based CRM to centralize customer and prospect data. 

5. Standardize processes

As you add employees to your team, be sure to communicate and train each employee on the tools you have in place and your expectations on how the team should use them to collaborate. Otherwise, you could end up with disparate data and inefficient processes. Create an on-boarding document or new hire training so that you minimize the time spent bringing new employees up to speed. And, don’t think of standardization as infringing on your employee’s autonomy. You’re building consistency among your remote workers the way it might more organically be built if you all were working in the same physical location. 

Remember, if you’re just getting started, use free cloud-based tools to build out your core business processes and make it a practice to have all your information living in a central repository. If you and your employees have conquered your business workflows with free cloud-based tools and feel like you’ve outgrown them, then it’s time to begin looking for a more specialized solution. 

6 Communication Best Practices for Your Remote Team

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By: Gwen Murray | VP of Marketing | Earth Class Mail

Published April 15, 2020

If you lead a remote team or manage some of the 4 million remote employees in the U.S., you’ve already noticed the heightened importance of communication. After all, remote teams forgo more immediate opportunities for collaboration, important nonverbal cues, and a shared office environment.

In fact, employee engagement drops the more time that employees spend “off-site.” And since worker engagement is critical for collaboration, companies should take extra care to keep remote workers in the loop. Here are six ways to mitigate some of the challenges posed by remote communication.  

1. Utilize the right tools 

Communication platforms can’t replace doing the work to foster a culture of open dialogue and collaboration. But without the right tools for staying in touch, chances are that important updates and notifications will fall through the cracks, especially when your office is virtual.

In addition to email, some of the most commonly used team communication tools are Slack, Skype and Google Hangouts Meet. Depending on your specific business needs and practices, tools that might also be helpful include Twist, Zoom, and UberConference. When selecting technology, focus less on bells and whistles and more on finding a platform that matches your team’s needs. Like: do you need built-in file sharing?  Or if your team is in different time zones, do you want options for synchronous or asynchronous communication? 

2. Centralize shared information

Avoid paper trails, especially for important information like government documents. Misplacing paper files is a sure proof way to cause headaches and lengthen project completion times. Shameless plug: if you receive high mail volumes or if you have boxes of old files preventing your organization from going paperless, let us transform your files into searchable, actionable PDFs.

Whether it’s Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive, teams need to choose a cloud storage solution and stick with it. A common barrier to knowledge access happens when some people are storing files in Google Drive, some people are storing documents on Dropbox, and everyone is searching through both to find what they need. Instead, centralize information in one location. This way work won’t be further disrupted if someone is out sick or leaves the company. 

3. Use a project management tool

Managers are often concerned about how their remote reports are progressing. After all, not being able to stop by someone’s desk for a quick update adds a layer of difficulty for project management. Luckily, there are tried and true tools for tracking progress and promoting accountability when face time is not an option. Some popular options to check out include Trello, and Asana.  Also, some project management platforms like Hibox include chat features so be sure to evaluate how these work with, or might even take the place of, existing communication tools. You don’t want to distract your team with too many communication methods.

4. Set clear and achievable goals

Don’t rely on on-screen deadlines and project tracking to replace more traditional team management. Hassan Osman, a virtual teams expert, says that if companies want remote teams to communicate more effectively, they need to first set clear and digestible goals that every cross-functional team agrees to and understands. Paired with frequent check-ins and updates that reach all team members, your team will be up to speed and you’ll have the space to allow for adjustments and corrections from the beginning.

5. Keep your team in the know

Along those same lines, leaders shouldn’t forget to keep remote staff up to date on company developments. Your remote team needs to know what the company mission and goals are and how their role fits into the bigger picture. This can be a huge factor when it comes to employee engagement. If you fail to keep employees notified about the broader vision, you might be giving them the impression that they are not important, even when the opposite is true.

Video conferencing is a great way to get to ensure everyone understands how they contribute. Don’t underestimate the power of video conferencing and non-verbal cues. Another great tool for replicating the collaboration that can come from spontaneous brainstorming around a whiteboard is Miro.

6. Maintain a balance 

Having the correct technology for syncing up online is just as important as the underlying norms of your remote team. Guard against the tendency of overlooking remote employees because they’re out of sight. Conversely, avoid cutting into too much of your employees’ time with emails, phone calls, and messages that can be viewed as micromanaging or distrust. And, if the team dynamic feels off, jump on a video call and get to the bottom of it. 

Four Questions for Improving Your Paper Efficiency

All businesses are challenged with managing huge influxes of paper bound information, the majority of which is inbound mail. In response, businesses of all sizes increasingly use technology and outsourcing to modernize and improve the efficiency of managing this paper.  Paper management can cost employees valuable hours, especially when they’re assigned the task of opening, sorting, and acting on important mail. This can be particularly hard for entrepreneurs, who are already strapped for valuable resources.

It may be helpful to think about the time your business spends on administrative tasks, such as mail management or manual scanning. Re-evaluating your current approach (or lack thereof) for handling postal mail could help you realign your business’ true objectives. We’ve listed four primary questions that may help in that process.

  1. What is the volume of mail you receive?  In 2018 alone, the United States Postal Service delivered more than 146 billion pieces of mail.  For organizations that receive high volumes of mail, have multiple offices receiving mail, or deal with busy seasonal trends, you may benefit from a digital mailroom. If so, make sure the firm you choose for outsourcing your mail has the infrastructure and history of processing documents quickly and reliably. Ask how long the business has been in operation, what technologies are used to complete the job, and how they plan for business continuity in the event of a disruption.

  2. What actions can I take on my mail? If mail is sorted in house, think how long it takes for necessary actions to be taken on those mail items. If it’s taking longer than needed for important documents to be read, bills to be paid, or checks to be deposited, these questions may help in finding a better solution.
    • How long does it take to open and deliver important documents?
    • How long does it take to deposit checks?
    • What are the available options for organizing information?
    • Can I easily share important information with coworkers?
    • Can I easily find the information I need on paper?
    • Am I able to extract relevant data systematically or consistently?
    • Am I able to take action seamlessly?

  3. What network and physical security measures do you take? Your mail and paper documents are vitally important for your business. If you’re going to outsource the handling of those important papers, make sure you can trust the business tasked with your mail management. Ensure they have reliable certifications, and ask about cybersecurity measures and privacy policies in place to keep your data safe and secure. It may actually be more secure than keeping important papers in your own offices.

  4. How quickly can I access my information? One of the major benefits of using a digital mailroom is accessing information quickly and in a more useful format. If you’re manually scanning your own documents, ask how long it’s taking to see the digital contents from the moment you start your workflow. Searchability and accessibility are key benefits of digitizing mail and storing in a cloud-based environment.

When deciding whether to outsource your mail management, assess how it will impact your team, existing processes, and other workflows. As the world continues to evolve, it is important for businesses to evolve as well. Outsourcing and digitization help streamline efficiencies, eliminate manual-intensive processes, and enable businesses to focus on what they do best.

To learn more about our solutions, please contact: [email protected] or 210-802-5211.

3 Tips for Startups to Achieve Financial Success

Guest post by Courteney Reed, Financial Industry Analyst at Credit Card Insider

Successfully growing a business is no small feat. It takes a great team, determination, and often a decent helping of luck. With so many things to contemplate, it is often hard to find a place to start seriously investing in your startup’s growth. Here are three suggestions:  

Separate your business and personal finances

As a business owner, you need to apply for an employer identification number (EIN) via the IRS website. This allows your business to build a credit profile and maintain a record of business transactions. Until you file your business as a separate legal entity, you could be held personally liable for all financial activities.

The sooner you establish your credit profile the sooner your business begins to build credit. Opening a business credit card and using it responsibly can help you track your expenses and profits, build your credit scores, and simplify tax filings. Conversely, mixing business and personal expenses on a personal credit card can quickly eat up your credit limit, causing a drop in credit scores and making it harder to apply for personal credit, such as car loans or mortgages.  

Consider these advantages of using a business credit card:

  • Separation of business and personal expenses
  • Higher credit limits than personal cards
  • Rewards like cash back, miles, points, and warranties
  • Potential to increase business credit scores for better business loan terms and high-tier business credit card rewards
  • Better cash flow management, allowing 20-30 days to pay business costs without interest

Finance To Fit Your Needs

Successful businesses often use outside funding to plan ahead for their business needs. Here are three tried and true options worth considering:

Small Business Loans

Small business loans provide access to capital before revenue streams begin flowing. Plus, by successfully managing a business loan, you’re increasing the potential of securing bigger business financing when it’s time to expand your company. Finding the right business loan may take time but you’ll have working capital you need to get off the ground.

Venture Capital Funding

Financing investors provide funding to startup companies that are believed to have long-term growth potential. This type of funding usually comes from wealthy investors, investment banks, and other investment companies, and ownership of a business is divided between the investors and the proprietors of the business. There are different platforms that provide a database of different investors looking to invest in new companies or promising business ideas, making it easier to find investors interested in your market niche.

Alternative Lenders

Alternative business funding is capital offered to small business owners by “non-bank” providers. Alternative lenders are particularly attractive to small business owners who don’t have an established business credit profile. 

Most lenders have their applications available online, making the approval a quick process. Their interest rates are typically higher, but if you need money in a timely manner, alternative lending might be the way to go. Typically lenders extend loan repayments from 6 months to a year, but depending on the type of loan you choose, you may not have to pay the money back until you actually draw from the provided funds.  

Leverage Software to Increase Efficiency and Reduce Costs

After getting approved for more financing, you’ll need to stay on top of all the financial details. The right software can help streamline multiple tasks and increase your team’s performance and overall efficiency. Here are three tools for keeping your finances in order:  

Effortless HR

Payroll management is often a burdensome task, especially as your business grows in manpower. Effortless HR is an HR tool that enables employees to self-manage their payroll preferences, time off, and access any other necessary information without the assistance of an HR employee.

Quickbooks for Finances

Quickbooks is simple to use and helps you keep track of all basic business transactions. Plus, they regularly roll out updates to their online platform for flexible financial management.

Dropbox

A cloud storage solution is a must-have for organizing and sharing important files. Depending on your specific needs, Dropbox contains tools that benefit secure record keeping and flexible collaboration.

Conclusion

The path to growing a successful business is not a concrete one. However, these three tips can begin to increase your financial literacy and day to day expense management in a simpler and more productive way. Seriously considering these recommendations will give your business a better chance of success and expansion in the future.

Automation Tools For Your Small Business

By Zachary Rimlinger Updated on August 9, 2018

The rapid pace at which both business and technology are developing means that there are a variety of tools for doing away with mundane tasks in order to focus on more integral work. Oftentimes, and especially for small companies, your business can lean on this kind of technology to keep operating costs low. 

Not only do automation tools eliminate repetitive work and enable you to keep a lean team, but incorporating such technology can also help you take care of your existing staff. For those team members who crave opportunities to engage in more challenging or soul-satisfying tasks, automation frees time from their schedules to do just that. There are few better methods with which to improve employee morale and job satisfaction, which will always circle back around to help your business thrive and evolve.

Here’s a quick list of six free or low-cost automation technologies that can help automate workflows for a range of your business operations.

One Stop Shop  

Zapier is workflow automation king. Amongst a variety of uses, it can help you automate the receiving of data, file management, and all sorts of notifications by integrating with your preferred apps. For example, if an email hits your work inbox, Zapier can send a backup to your Google Drive, or Dropbox and can alert you on Trello, Slack, or another project management app. Or if you’re in the e-commerce business and use an email service like MailChimp, you can set up a “Zap” to automatically add new customers as contacts in an email list. Browse these 222 Zap ideas and you’ll quickly see how Zapier can optimize some of your existing workflows.

Scheduling

Calendly removes all the back-and-forth of setting up meetings by automating the scheduling process. Calendly makes invitees aware of your availability and lets them choose their desired time slot. Calendly also syncs with apps such as Slack, MailChimp, and Stripe, so be sure to check out uses that would be beneficial to your specific business. Whether its scheduling prospect calls or one-on-one meetings with your team members, including a link to your Calendly in your emails or email footer will save you many unnecessary exchanges.

Online HR Services

Onboarding new employees and fulfilling payroll can be tedious are time-consuming processes, to say the least. Social security numbers, addresses, direct deposit accounts, taxes—there is the ever-present danger of human error that comes with manual entry. But with Gusto, simply invite employees to sign up after setting up your company’s policies. More than helping you fulfill payroll, Gusto is a low-cost solution for centralizing and managing HR function such as approving time off, enrolling in company benefits, sending monthly check-in surveys to your team, and even generating reports that can give you an overview of your business.  

Email Management

It’s called SaneBox for a reason: this automation tool organizes your email stream to preserve a little more of your sanity. SaneBox analyzes your mailbox and email history to identify unimportant emails, which are then filtered into a single folder for later review, keeping your inbox focused on the urgent and important. You also receive a daily SaneBox Digest to bulk-process unimportant emails in less time. 

Customer Support

Support service requests can be mind-numbingly repetitive. Luckily for your support staff, there is Workfusion Chatbots. Through artificial intelligence, Chatbots takes over repeat inquiries from your support personnel and engages with the customer in human-sounding conversation. Workfusion guarantees a 50% reduction in manual service effort, making Chatbot a powerful complement to customer service staff.

Social Media Marketing

Let’s say you also want to share curated content that would add real value to your followers’ lives.  DrumUp has you covered with the latest in social media optimization. Rather than spend your time scouring the web, Facebook, or Twitter feeds for articles to keep your audience engaged, DrumUp’s algorithm automates it for you across a wealth of social media platforms. You cut down the time it takes to manage your presence by up to 90% while barely making a dent in your budget.

Conclusion

The benefits of office automation software for your business are manifold. For starters, the use of automation increases your staff’s dexterity with tech tools, potentially reducing the onboarding time with software and applications you adopt as you grow your business. If you can get your employees plugged into new software sooner, they’ll be more receptive and more adept the next time.

If you’re ready to take the next step, read these tips for successfully pinpointing what areas of your business are ripe for automation and how to get your team to play along.  

Connecting Tools for Efficiency: 3 Things You Need to Do Now

Guest post by Tara Witterholt, Chief of Staff at Elevation Solutions.  

Email, chats, video conferences, document sharing, CRMs, phone bridges—we have no shortage of tools to power our businesses. We have unlimited options for tracking work, collaborating on documents, and managing our workload. The difficulty starts when all these items are kept in disparate places, usually the place most convenient for the person who started the communications, document, or activity. The risk is people giving up on broken systems, starting yet another system for tracking or collaborating, and the time-sucking cycle repeating all over.

Our management and technology consulting firm is engaged regularly to implement software that solves productivity problems. It’s our bread and butter. However, we prefer to come in before you implement the next great productivity tool. We work to understand operational pain points and the humans around the table before we move into the cloud.

Below are some key steps you can take to figure out what productivity tools you actually need and how to maximize the ones you keep. 

1. Inventory all the tools you’re using now, including anything used for document creation and storage, workflow and project management, scheduling and invoicing, etc. Then, get real… 

Organizations large and small are lured in by tools that look fun, shiny and new. They promise to increase our productivity, make us more effective, do our laundry, and cook us dinner. And they rarely deliver. You need to examine the tools you are using and ask yourself if they’re solving the problem that drove you to adoption.

I once had a client ask me to implement a productivity tool that had a Google Drive connector, a calendar (separate from their Outlook or Google calendar), and a task assignment feature. It could be branded to their company, shared easily with their teams, and adopted at a low cost. They were beaming at the possibility of having more time for strategic work. 

They wanted to tackle the fact that projects weren’t getting done on time and they didn’t have visibility into what work people were doing. It turns out they didn’t have standard expectations for project delivery and relatively few consequences when deadlines came and went with no results. The cloud-based solution had rave reviews, but it didn’t solve their root problem: accountability. In the end, I helped them create a better system of accountability rather than throwing new software at the problem. This included agreements on deadlines, progress updates, and what happens when people don’t get their work done. The executives were happy with the increased insight and their teams were more willing to communicate progress with the new, clearer expectations.  

2. Agree as a team what you will use for project management, internal and client-facing communications, and document creation and storage, then get rid of everything else.

And stick to it! No going rogue. Agree that you won’t suggest a new or replacement tool until you all have had a chance to talk about these key things: who will use it, what the benefits are, and what problem you are trying to solve.

We recently did this with our project management tools. We had 3 different ways to track projects and what we used differed by the client. At a strategy session (in the mountains, because, hey, it’s Colorado) we committed to using Trello to track progress on our implementation projects. We can assign tasks and provide access to internal and external users. Clients can see exactly what work is happening in real-time, as well as where we need their input.  Now, when we have questions about status and progress, we have one source of truth. It’s been a game-changer.

3. When you figure out which tools to keep, make sure they talk to each other.

Just like you encourage your team to collaborate, ensure your productivity tools are talking to each other! Our team has recently implemented an email connector that works with our Salesforce instance. We can set up meetings easily by sending suggested appointment times from our Google calendar, and the recipient can choose what works for them. We have also connected our project management tool to Google Drive, Slack, and our billing and project time-tracking software. When needed, our productivity tools enter information automatically into Salesforce. No more searching and wondering—it’s all in one place.

The above suggestions take time to work through. You have to get the team together, ask tough questions, and find out what people are really using and how it’s working, including what’s most effective for your clients. But rest assured, the amount of time you will get back when you finish these steps is worth it. And if you do decide to try something new, we can help you implement what you truly need with style!

— 

Tara Witterholt is Chief of Staff with Elevation Solutions, a rapidly growing management and IT consulting firm with clients and employees in every time zone. With over 15 years of project management experience, Tara works tirelessly to streamline processes and help people focus and be productive. She lives in Denver, Colorado, has a college-aged daughter, a cyclist husband and a very lazy but adorable cat. 

Check out their Business Impact Story to learn how Elevation Solutions leverages Earth Class Mail to streamline their back office.  

Is Your Data Secure? A Cybersecurity Checklist for Accounting Firms

By Zachary Rimlinger on June 20, 2018 

As data moves from client to firm and vice versa, it needs to be protected in transit and on the devices being used to access it, whether it’s your employee’s laptop or smartphone. In addition, your firm’s employees may need to receive and access that data digitally. While sharing documents via the cloud can make it easier and faster for everyone involved, it does add an additional layer of risk in exposing client data.  Also, a frequently forgotten channel of communication that needs to be protected is mail. As a conduit for important documents, it also requires a unique set of security practices.

Protecting client data is an ongoing challenge especially due to the varied ways your clients wish to provide documentation and access to their data. Considering all of this, here’s a checklist to get you started on ensuring client data is safe and secure, no matter how it’s being shared or accessed.

  1. Conduct an annual cybersecurity audit and assessment.  Preferably, this should be done by an outside firm and done annually. Expect the firm to review things such as password policy, privacy policy, agreements with vendors and contractors, data backup, and disaster recovery plans and network security. 
  2. Review every phase of your business processes, whether it’s client onboarding or a standard service such as filing taxes on behalf of your clients.  Review which employees are involved in the various stages and ensure that you have security guidelines in place at every step. You’ll want to ask:
    • Has each employee been required to review and agree to your company’s policies for accessing and sharing company data?
    • If employees are aware of your BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy? (And if your BYOD policy is comprehensive.)
    • Does your IT require that passwords are changed regularly? 
  3. Review the security policies of any cloud-based apps or premise-based solutions your firm is using to ensure that:
    • Vendors and providers are PCI compliant
    • Each cloud-based provider you are using ensures business continuity whether there is an outage or disaster
  4. Protect data on premise. A network firewall should be installed, updated and tested annually. Firewalls prevent unauthorized users from accessing your network by filtering incoming and outgoing traffic and data based on a set of rules. They also provide an additional layer of security that can make it more challenging for hackers to make a malicious attack on your network.
  5. Mail can be at risk of a physical breach of your mailbox or run the risk of getting misplaced or damaged in your office. Once you’ve set up cloud security, consider moving your mail and important documents into the cloud as quickly as possible. When choosing document management providers, be sure to dig into their security policies. 

A final tip: if you’re still unsure of where to start, or want additional information, search for a reputable cybersecurity auditing firm in your local area. Ask for a list of customer references you can call to find out what their experience was with that firm or look for customer reviews or ratings on their Facebook page. This allows you to get more familiar with the different approaches that you can take to protect your business and client data. Three things to ask for are quotes and approaches around: cybersecurity audit, updated plan, and annual support.