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Tech I love: A small businessman’s guide to productivity hacks

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Over the last 10 years, I have become obsessed with discovering and testing productivity tools and work-hacks. As I moved from the corporate/agency world to the private consultant paradigm, my hobby turned into a need and I have become a testing ground for geek-hack products. There are too many new techs to even evaluate. The irony of our technical renaissance is that too many choices for productivity has lead to even greater distraction. Rubbing up against my 50th year on the planet (ugh), I find myself yearning for the days of sticky notes and multicolored pens. But, alas, I am a technophile. So, hunting and pecking for cool new widgets has become a sport of sorts. Having tested out an uncountable number of extensions, gadgets, widgets, freeware, SaaS platforms and productivity suites, there are a number of them that have ‘stuck’ and are now part of my daily workflow. Here is an overview of a few of my favorites by category.

Email

Email remains statistically the most frustrating and time consuming communication platform for anyone over the age of 13. There are more email platforms and hacks in the market that can possibly be evaluated – and most are simply confusing and create more issues than they solve. But there are some that seem to be helping me. First off, it’s important to note that I am a Gmail user – and have been since the rollout in 2004 (I was one of those annoying beta-users). As a result, I receive roughly 200-400 emails a day, 90% of which is useless spam, content feeds, newsletter claptrap, promotional mumbo-jumbo, or social media updates. Gmail’s platform has evolved a great deal over the last 4-5 years and there are numerous ways that the native settings can make one’s life a great deal easier. One I like in particular is “filters” – which allows the user to identify and script the way certain types of emails are handled. I have countless filters set up on my Gmail interface – and now as a matter of habit, when I get an email that I need to emphasize (for deletion, categorization, flagging, etc.) I automatically create a filter for that email (and any future emails of the same type) to take on certain behaviors. The most popular of course being ‘delete’. This is a simple and effective inbox management tool that sends unwanted crap into the trash bin before I even see it. Also, this feature allows me to send certain emails into specific folders and allow better management of certain projects or conversations. Another add-on that I am finding useful is “Yesware” – a Gmail add-on program that tracks my outbound emails and lets me know when they have been read or opened. This is a great tool for my sales efforts. Knowing that someone has read or opened my emails allows me a far richer context for my follow up than sending a response into a black hole. Yesware tracks and keeps a tab on opened emails and also allows me to also schedule the time that I want to send out an email, so I can write a bunch of correspondences at 11pm and schedule them to be sent out at 8am when there is a greater likelihood of someone opening them (and also stave off any raised eyebrows from people who may want to know why I am working on emails at 2am). Like many of these platforms, Yesware is ‘freeware’ which basically means that you get it for ‘free’ but after a certain period of time or usage allotments, you have to purchase a license or subscribe. The Pro version of Yesware is 10 bucks a month. Seems to be an effective investment for me so far.

Accounting

Billing

As a sole practitioner, I don’t have the luxury of an accounting department, nor an accounts receivable or an accounts payable or any of these support people. So, I have found a number of excellent web and mobile-based solutions that have saved my life. For Invoicing, I use Freshbooks. Freshbooks is an excellent, subscription-based accounting platform that generates, distributes and tracks all of my client invoices. It is intuitive, reliable and professional and has served me well over the last few years. It works in the Cloud and is accessible from PC or mobile and has some nice features that I haven’t even taken advantage of yet, like expense tracking.

I like that I can very quickly and easily create and send out an invoice to a new or existing client, track the payment of the invoice and then also use the Freshbooks interface to get a sense of my overall billing and revenue for the month, quarter, year, etc. The invoicing templates are very professional and can be customized with your logo and brand assets if desired.

Expenses

Whenever I speak to fellow sales people (independent or corporate), filling out and submitting expense reports seems to be universally akin to getting a prostate exam. I am sure that I am not alone in admitting there are hundreds (thousands?) of lost dollars that I literally let go of simply because I did not want to deal with the hell of expense sheet creation. Then I started using Expensify. Touted as “Expense reports that don’t suck!”, Expensify is a great web-based platform that allows you to easily capture and record my expenses in real-time and categorize them by trip, account, client, etc., and export into a spreadsheet for distribution and approval. Like any of these tools, Expensify requires some behavior change- but one that is sensible and easy to adopt. You simply need to take a picture of your sales receipt via the mobile app – and allow the software to scan the contents. Later, when you log into Expensify via your computer, the scanned receipts are there waiting for some minor editing and tweaking. They then can be saved into specific expense reports based on your desired parameters. Once these expense reports are created, they can be exported into CSV, Excel or PDF formats to send to your respective finance person. Another cool thing is how Expensify has tailored its formats to comply with commonly used corporate accounting systems. In instances where there is no compatibility, I use another hack to fix this. (Ok, I’ll tell you. I used TaskRabbit to find a cheap excel guru to build a compatible scripted expense sheet that I loaded into Expensify’s custom export file folder. This sheet was compliant with my current client’s expense format and allowed me to auto-create an approved expense report. Wa la! ).

Notes, Reminders, To-Dos, Follow ups:

There are so many new “to-do” platforms on the market now its become overwhelming. Nifty tools like Wunderlist, Any.do, HabitRPG, Google Keep are just a few (and frankly ALL of them are quite good) so its really a matter of playing with a few and picking one that works for you. I happen to like Evernote.

I use it for a few reasons. Evernote is like a cloud-based message board that you can use for any type of “note” whether it be meeting notes, photo-snippets from the web (cool new glasses you want to buy, or a picture of a restaurant you want to remember, etc.), video clips, files and webpages. Among the features I like is its seamless integration across all devices. Also, Evernote as a company offers a great deal of neat productivity add-ons that connect and work with Evernote’s main suite. Over time my use of Evernote has made it easy for me to just keep building on its extensions. Evernote auto-syncs in real time so whatever I have posted there, I can access anywhere. It also offers cool tools like ‘Hello’, a mobile business card reader that is quite reliable which not only dumps the contact data into your iPhone contact library but also keeps a record of the card and the contact in your Evernote cloud profile. Evernote has created its own online marketplace where they offer a host of vertically relevant products (hardware, gear, software, tech) that fits into their brand promise of greater productivity and efficiency.

Conference Calls

If there is any area of communication (aside from customer service) that is in need of an overhaul, its conference calls. A hilarious and spot-on video that went viral a few months back expertly illustrates the ridiculous frustration associated with Conference Calls. So, it was with a weeping cry of relief that I started using UberConference earlier this year – and I will never go back. UberConference and its stalwart competitor, Speek are examples of shining new entries into the productivity space that are simply revolutionary. Using these tools has the unique experience of having ANYONE say, “I can’t believe we ever did this any other way!” UberConference is a digital conference calling platform that allows users to log in to the call – and get this – WITHOUT USING A PIN NUMBER. That’s right. NO PIN. This alone is like manna from heaven, but there is more. UberConference also has integrated screen-sharing capabilities – so get this – NO MORE WEBEX OR GOTOMEEETING. That’s right. Once you start using UberConference, you will be asking everyone to use it. It offers a mobile app that allows you to set up, schedule and join a conference, and the software alerts you via text when someone has entered your meeting and is waiting for you. You can set the preferences to allow people to start the conference without you – or wait until you arrive – and the scheduling feature sends out an invite to those who you want to speak to with a multi-compatible calendar reminder. Also, you can set your own stand-by music track. Pretty cool. I’ve been annoyingly giddy about this tool and have been telling everyone to get on it.

That’s it for now. This post represents about 25% of the hacks I use. There are countless others. Feel free to reach out to me directly and I’ll be happy to share more with you. @warrenzenna or warren@zennaconsulting.com

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