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Top Software Picks for 2010

Friend and client John Brasch asked if I’d put together a list of my favorite accounting, sales and advertising tools for his Brasch Fast Start class for entrepreneurs.

Given the nature of our services, we work with a lot of startup and small business entrepreneurs. It makes sense then to do this list as a blog post so that we can share some of our favorites and maybe learn from some of our clients as well. Here are some of our top picks. What are some of yours?

Accounting

Yes, there are a lot of new services out there like Freshbooks, Mint and Less Accounting, but we’ve stuck with good old Quickbooks Pro. Why? My wife, our accountant and a former CPA prefers it. She gets frustrated with the online accounting services because they were written to dumb down accounting for the masses and make lots of work flow assumptions that can sometimes be a little silly. That said, if you didn’t marry your accountant, take a look at the online version of Quickbooks Pro or one of the services above.

For the most part, all of them are a bargain and there is no software to install or update. We’re also hearing really good things about Working Point, a web-based service that includes invoicing, CRM functionality and more for only $10 per month.

Customer Relationship Management

If you are in business for any amount of time, you’ll probably very quickly outgrow managing your customer relationships in Outlook using contacts, the calendar and tasks. I know some people who try to do something similar using the filters in Gmail and Google docs. The plain truth is that these work, but only to a point.

Build an organization of any size and there comes a time when you need to be able to manage these relationship in a more sophisticated way in terms of territories, reporting, forecasting, email blasts, etc. Of course, the two biggest vendors out there are Salesforce.com and ACT.  They’re both fine products, but they both get darned expensive to scale across an organization. For our money, we really like VTigerCRM. It’s an open source solution that let’s us tinker under the hood to optimize for almost any business. And it doesn’t come with a bunch of per-seat or recurring fees that can put the price tag of out of reach for many small- to mid-sized businesses.

Basic modules include accounts, potentials, contacts, quote, sale orders and invoices. Additional modules are included for project and document management. There are even plugins to integrate with Microsoft Outlook, Office and Google Docs.

Project Management

Round up the old team at Nebraska Digital and you’ll get a lot of snickers that we’re even writing about this one.  It’s safe to say that when it comes to project management software, we’ve dated a lot of pretty girls and haven’t yet found the perfect one to take home. That said, I guess at least you could say we are, ahem, experienced?

The best of the bunch so far is still  Basecamp from the folks over at 37 Signals. It sets up in minutes and is super easy to use and aside from the $50 a month price tag, we like it quite a bit. It’s just that the programmers in us wish we could do a little more with it. Work with it long enough and I think you’ll feel the same way, but it does awfully well and you certainly could use it to manage most projects. Others we like include Wrike (an email based project manager) and Many Moon.  The latter is the latest pretty girl and we’re still dating. Will let you know how that goes in a separate blog post.

Web Analytics and Reporting

If you are running a web site without Google Analytics then you don’t know what you are missing. We include it as a standard service on all our new web sites now because it is simply indispensable. There is no better free source of information on how your web site is performing. It gives you the date to make good decisions about how to grow the web side of your business.

If you are looking for more sophisticated marketing data, or potential customers who look like your existing customers, a great resource is Quantcast.

Telephone and Virtual Office

Phones can get to be a big expense in a hurry if you don’t manage them well. In the early  days, we used RingCentral to add voice mail and a bunch of big company PBX type features for some of our clients.  We use standard telco lines at Nebraska Digital because they lets us use a local fax line and keep us in the phone book (well, actually it doesn’t, but that’s a whole other story.)

It’s busy enough here that there are days when we should probably add some additional business lines from Callcentric. They are the VOIP company that I used at home to lower our phone bill from $40 or so a month to less than $10. Think Vonage, but a better deal and with more options to creatively configure your service.  Business service starts at $8.95 for a local phone number with three incoming lines.

Incoming calls are free and you pay just 2 cents a minute for U.S. and many international calls. Toll free numbers are $3.95. There are cheaper services out there, but Callcentric’s tech support is well worth saving a buck or two.

One other great option for startups or people who live on their cell phones is Google Voice. It lets you get a single number that you can use to route calls to your cell phone, home, office or voicemail. The feature set is pretty sophisticated so that you can even choose which people get routed to your home phone after hours, which annoying relative goes straight to voice mail, etc. And for people who live on their cell phones, you can use Google Voice to bypass the cell companies and save a ton of money.

Email and Messaging

Like a lot of 40 somethings, I’m addicted to Outlook. Yes, I use Gmail and really like it, but for business stuff, I just can’t quite pull the plug on Microsoft. Email in the cloud is great, except when it isn’t. And as an IT  guy who works with tons of clients who use Gmail, I know that there will be a few times a year when Gmail is broken. The idea of not having my email archived locally scares the hell out of me … at this point in life, it is all that is left of my short-term memory.

The problem is that Outlook is way behind the times in a lot of respects. In fact, I was ready to give it up before I found Xobni. If you are a hardcore Outlook user, then this is the No. 1 best link you’ll find in this list. Xobni adds a ton of functionality that Steve Ballmer and Co. should have come up with years ago: Lightning fast searches, a quick way to find email attachments, stats on who you email the most, etc. Plus it integrates with Facebook, Linked In and other social media site.

Social Sites:

It’s my opinion that most businesses would benefit from setting up a Facebook account and most business owners would benefit from a LinkedIn profile. That said, please don’t add to to the flood of awful Facebook pages out there by putting one up without some idea of how you are going to update and add some sort of value to it. Ditter for Twitter … if you aren’t going to use it, let it go until can commit to it.

(We do social consulting, BTW, and can give you some ideas, but that’s too much ground for this ever-growing post.)

And if you are getting social, don’t forget about Deckerton. It’s a social-based referral site for businesses that is in beta and owned by Lincoln’s very own Lateef Johnson.

Miscellaneous:

Here’s a quick rundown of some of our other favorites in particular order:

  • Taking credit card payments: The edge goes to Paypal with its virtual terminal, instant settlement and the ease with which it can be added to an ecomm site. Google Payment/ Google Checkout is a great option tool without some of the monthly fees.
  • Remote access to your computer … hands down our favorite is LogMeIn. The free version might be all you’ll ever need, but the paid version ads remote printing and a bunch of other great stuff.
  • For remote meetings, we’ve experimented with Dim Dim and a bunch of the others, but our favorite is still gotomeeting.com. Hate the $50 a month price tag, but love the ease with which you can get a customer support session or demo started. The others are close, but ease of use is more important than price when it comes to taking care of clients.
  • GROW Nebraska: Not really software, but the best $150 or so that you can spend building your business. Great web site, people, seminars, directory, etc.
  • Secretary of state: Researching a potential name? Do a free search here before you fall in love with a name that might not be available. And talk to a smart lawyer before you get too far down the road.

John - John Rood founded Nebraska Digital in 2002 and started working with online marketing and web development in 1994. He's a decent copy writer, but has yet to come up with a pithy little statement to juice up his bio.

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