English business magnate and über entrepreneur Richard Branson predicted in December that 2014 would be “The Year of Entrepreneur.” The prediction melded nicely with an earlier assertion from Branson, and others, that in the not-so-distant future nearly half of the world’s work force will be working independently. The motivation of those to move beyond the perceived security of a well-paying corporate job is the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit.
Contributing to the burgeoning numbers of entrepreneurs is the relative ease with which independent spirits are able to start a business. Gone are the days of paying thousands of dollars to develop a web presence, set up methods of taking payment, or maintain proper accounting. The technology to do these things is now affordable and available to anyone who has made modest investments in personal computers, smartphones and tablets.
Branson himself, in his “Year of the Entrepreneur” blog post, said:
Technology is helping every business, large and small to move forwards, which will only increase in the coming year. Now, entrepreneurs can build companies at a fraction of the cost [than] in the past. All of the little things that used to add up to big headaches for new businesses, from accounting to website development, are now available to small businesses, giving them the same capabilities as large enterprises at a cost they can afford. Because of this, new entrepreneurs have more time to think about the bigger picture and work out how to grow their business, rather than fretting about every detail.
The choices in all this new technology are abundant. Some businesses need complex accounting software. Some only need a simple and affordable way to take a credit card payment. Others need ways to manage and store piles of legal documents easily, while smaller businesses just need a way to simply manage a calendar and contacts. Speed is of the essence in the new world of the entrepreneur, and some new technologies just provide a way to sign a document or send a text message quickly.
Here is a list of ten new apps that solve either complex or simple problems. Some are free, some cost a little bit of money, but all provide services that just a few years ago would have been much more expensive to put into place. Most anyone with a smartphone or laptop will know that Evernote, Dropbox, and Twitter fit into the “can’t-live-without” category. This list focuses on smaller, perhaps lesser-known apps that pack quite a punch in terms of cost savings and productivity.
Free - iOS & Android
Small business owners do a lot by themselves. Consequently, they must often be out of the office and on the go. That type of mobile lifestyle means that connectivity is essential. OpenSignal is an app whose creators have the stated goal of becoming ‘the global authority on wireless networks.”
The app allows users to view maps of cellphone signals in any location. It is free. Users “pay” for the service by allowing data from their phones to update OpenSignal’s maps. Once installed on a smartphone, the dashboard of the app provides a compass arrow pointing towards the towers of various cellphone providers. It’s a “community based” app, and users can also input locations of Wi-Fi networks, both public and private, for those who need a more stable connection to get real business done on a laptop or tablet.
OpenSignal’s website boasts that the app “knows” the locations of over one billion Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide. Not a bad little tool.
Free - iOS & Android
It is said that the email inbox is a poor tool for managing a to-do list or creating a workflow. Anyone who has tried to do it would probably agree. But for the entrepreneur whose livelihood relies on email communication, CloudMagic makes email a bit more functional.
The app is free and available to iPhone and Android users. CloudMagic connects to numerous services and provides a single place to manage all email accounts. Sounds like any other email service? Yes, except this highly customizable app allows a user to decide what other services to sync the information to. Need to clip an emailed bill into Evernote? It can all be done from within CloudMagic. No more switching between numerous apps — a cumbersome and tedious routine on any smart device. Need to find that bill later? Search for it in CloudMagic.
For the small-business owner who juggles a variety of apps and numerous sources of information, CloudMagic streamlines the process.
Free - iOS & Android
Fleksy is for anybody, not just business owners. But it’s amazing and it deserves a mention. Plus, it can save a ton of time and reduce a lot of frustration. The app is free, and it increases the size of the touch keyboard on smartphones.
Beyond that, it features enhanced predictive text software that relies on the motion of the input as much as it does the letters typed. With a little practice, users can send texts and compose emails without even looking at their phone.
That is a handy tool for the multitasker tired of constantly having to hit the delete key to fix simple mistakes. It’s worth a look.
$4.99 - iOS & Android
Running a business generates a lot of paper. Whether a business owner is averse to maintaining a file cabinet full of documents or just needs those documents available on the go, the PDF file is a useful thing. TinyScan is a $5 smartphone app that turns the phone’s camera into a mini scanner. Snap a picture of a document and turn it into a PDF file instantly.
The convenience is obvious. A day at a vendor or client’s location can generate a pile of paper documents. With TinyScan, the business owner can convert them all onsite and destroy the physical copies. That is more secure, and it’s a huge time saver.
6 PDF Expert
$9.99 - iOS
PDF Expert takes the convenience of TinyScan to the next level. While the $5 dollar app provides a way to scan and store PDF documents, it offers little in the way of editing capabilities. For $10, PDF Expert, by Readdle, offers full editing functionality for those documents while on the go. The Readdle app is a powerful tool for the iPad (currently only available on the Apple App Store) for editing documents while sitting in a client’s conference room.
It syncs seamlessly with iCloud storage and supports Dropbox as well; perfect for a the small-business person who doesn’t want to tote a stack of documents but also needs the capability to edit things on the fly. For the price the convenience can’t be beat. It also works on the iPhone for last-minute edits. Some users may find the phone screen a bit small for such jobs, though.
$30 - iOS, Android, Blackberry
For the entrepreneur who has a few employees and is constantly signing off on expense reports or work proposals, SignEasy may be the perfect tool. It covers some of the same ground as the other PDF tools already mentioned, but it is a purpose-built app designed solely to make electronic signatures a snap.
The basic version is free. The premium version is available through an in-app purchase. At $30 per year, it is a cheap way for anyone who needs to sign numerous documents throughout the day and doesn’t want to be tethered to a fax machine or desk. SignEasy Premium syncs with Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, and others. The app imports documents from email too. At $30, it may be a bit of luxury item, but $5 buys one the capability to sign ten documents.
Not super cheap for a one-trick pony, but well worth it for the serial signer. It is available for Android, iOS, and anyone still using a Blackberry.
$19.99 (+$5 for iOS) - OSX
The go-to platforms for many people launching their own business are Apple’s iOS and OS X operating systems. As loyal as Apple fans are, many get frustrated with some of the company’s native apps. Veterans of Apple’s calendar manager, iCal, know it can be downright frustrating to use. It also requires the separate app, Reminders, to maintain to-do lists.
Fantastical by Flexibits is an app designed to make using iCal and Reminders a bit less maddening. The app costs $20 to install on a Mac and proclaims itself to be “the calendar app you'll actually enjoy using.” Ouch, Apple.
Fantastical allows the user to type, in plain English, things like, “I have an appointment with Bill at two on Wednesday.” The technology translates that and sets appointments in iCal and can set a reminder as well. Integration with the native Contacts means others can be emailed invitations to events. The person who needs to add it the iPhone will have to plunk down another five bucks. That’s $25 to make a few frustrating apps a little easier to use. Not a bad choice for someone with a busy calendar.
Free - iOS, Android, Kobo, Web
All right, not everyone uses Apple products. Those who do may have noticed that Apple’s Web browser, Safari, now sports a “Reading List” which is basically a place to store temporary bookmarks for articles or web pages that need to be read later.
Pocket is an extension of that idea. Part Reading List, part Evernote, Pocket provides a place to put anything. Webpages, emails, links or articles can all be stored in Pocket. It works with over 500 different apps. The New York Times referred to it as the “DVR for the web.”
It’s not for everyone, but it’s free, so why not? It is best for the entrepreneur who stays plenty busy but is easily distracted.
Fees - iOS & Android
Many of the apps listed, so far, can put a dent in the business account. But businesses need ways to bring in money too. Credit cards and electronic transactions are now the norm for conducting business. That’s convenient for the customer, but in the past was expensive for businesses. Credit card machines and phone lines used to cut into the bottom line. The services associated with those machines also took a healthy chunk from the profit for their troubles.
Today, entrepreneurs that need an easy way to accept payments have plenty of choices.
The leader in the United States is Square. The app works on iPads, iPhones and Android devices. The app is free, as is the card-reading “dongle” that fits into the device’s headphone jack (Square will send users the dongle in the mail). The service extracts 2.75 percent per transaction and has no other administrative fees.
That’s a fair chunk of potential profits but it is far less expensive than options from the past.
It should be noted that there are services in Europe doing the same thing for a smaller percentage, and some even accept payments via text message. That’s healthy competition on the horizon for Square.
$25/Month - iOS, Android, Web
Once up and running, a new business needs money management software. Huge, expensive desktop-based programs, though, are a thing of the past. That is good for entrepreneurs, many of whom prefer to keep things simple and nimble.
There are tons of options in this realm but one of the best is FreeAgent out of the U.K. FreeAgent is free for a month-long trial period and then costs $25 dollars a month for unlimited clients and invoices. The simplicity of the cost structure is one of its best features. Many find it preferable to the complicated, tiered plans of other options. FreeAgent also offers full accounting functionality and provides real time profit and loss statements — something many of its competitors don’t provide.
All of the information is beautifully presented on any mobile device. For the price, it really is tough to beat. And, like all the other apps listed here, it represents a real savings over old ways of setting up and conducting business. It is one of many items helping pave the way for today’s entrepreneurs.