The Productive Online Business Toolbox: My Must-Have Tools
As many of you know, I’m a work at home mom who operates as a consultant, ad sales manager for Mashable, and soon-to-be startup founder all from one single Dell laptop which I use as a desktop. Having a home office is both a blessing and a curse; the ability not to commute makes my life easier and saves me about 3-4 hours per day. However, that also means I’m working from morning until night. While some would like to have a defined 9-5 schedule, I do not, and I actually thrive in this environment.
I don’t think that’d have been the case without the web-based toolbox and the PC apps that have saved my life more than once. Hopefully, they’ll do the same for you. Here’s a list of what I use that makes me productive, from time savers to the must have tools that rock my world.
I still talk to so many people who use Outlook. It’s a nice tool but it’s not as portable as Gmail, and I stick by it. Here are my tips for the best use of Gmail:
- Use Gmail as a one-stop destination. Currently, I use Gmail as the exclusive “destination” for 11 email accounts.
- Take advantage of labels. I have 50 labels, with the important ones having prominent color coding.
- Use keyboard shortcuts. Keyword shortcuts on Gmail are probably the one thing most overlooked, but it’s also a godsend. I often find myself hitting *u (mark unread) and automatically archiving them, especially if I’ve already read them or if they’re not actionable.
- Filter! You could simply opt out of Facebook messages and notifications about new followers on Quora. You could dedicate another email account to newsletters. Or you can just use your Gmail filters and automatically label and archive those emails. Therefore, at least they’re searchable to you when you need them.
- Use Gadgets: If you have an app that has a Gmail gadget that adds to (and doesn’t detract from) your work, add it to your sidebar. For me, this is task management web app Remember the Milk. I’ll go into RTM in the next section. Using this gadget, I can immediately mark tasks as completed and add new tasks without opening a new browser, making task management rock. I also have the Google Calendar gadget on my Gmail sidebar, so I have an easy way to access my upcoming meetings, appointments, and phone calls.
- Get notifications via Gmail Notifier: Google Notifier is a small app that tells me about new incoming email, much like Outlook does with its native app. Because I use the app with https, I have to install this patch too. I know desktop notifications now exist, but I guess the developers of that new feature didn’t realize a better tool that isn’t confined to Chrome has been around for 5 years now. In my opinion, this is the one to use.
I also pay for increased storage space. As you can see based on how many GBs I’m currently occupying, it’s worth it. But the only thing I’d ask for is for more support for those times when Gmail has their timeouts! (Gmail is free, but the storage space will cost more money.)
Remember the Milk
With Remember the Milk, I’m able to be on top of every single upcoming task wherever I go. RTM has gadgets (as seen above), applications for all mobile platforms, an API, and much more. I’m a paid member and it’s well worth it. You can also specify whether these tasks repeat, such as weekly. Once you complete the weekly task, it’s assigned for next week. I have billing reminders on the 1st of the month to repeat every month. I could set up business calls to repeat every fourth Wednesday of the month, ending on May 18th. I also have weekly reminders like the one to the right.
I get email reminders for every incoming task 30 minutes before it’s due and then the day it’s due. I also get an email every day at 12:00AM with the upcoming tasks for the day. With the popups from Gmail Notifier, if I’m in the middle of something, I get a reminder of my upcoming task. (RTM is free, but extra functionality such as mobile access costs $25/year.)
One of the most awesome apps and Gmail extension which I use via a Chrome extension is Rapportive. Rapportive is a social CRM, giving you important information about the person who is emailing you. If they’re connected via social networks, you get their picture, their location, and job titles, in addition to their Twitter feed and Facebook updates (if available) and links to their social profiles. I recently admitted during an interview that I had been emailing someone for 3 years, assuming she was a male, and until I installed Rapportive, I had no idea that she was female! It really helps.
The image below shows you an edited version of what you get from Rapportive (I removed some job titles and tweets so that it wouldn’t be so long). This is one of the best tools — hands down. Free.
I don’t care what people tell you about RSS dying — Google Reader is still pretty darn awesome. Whether or not you want to be part of tech elite who consumes RSS is your choice, but RSS is here to stay. I read my friends’ Facebook updates via RSS. It doesn’t include new photo uploads or any shared links via the Like button, but it’s pretty good at keeping me up to date on my friends’ whereabouts and news in their lives. I consume all of my other media via RSS, be it from the social media blogs, the tech blogs, the photographs I love seeing, the NYC-specific news, and whatever else I’m interested in. With millions of pages online that have RSS capabilities, using a tool like Google Reader to keep abreast of all the latest happenings is a smart thing to do. Plus, as Steve Rubel once illustrated, whether or not you read your Google Reader content on a regular basis, you definitely can use it as an awesome database. Free.
I don’t live in Google Docs. I still am pretty partial to Office (2010 is nice with a few acquired tastes) for my own work, but I think Google Docs is great for collaboration. I update a dozen files regularly, especially when I need to send them to team members. It’s much easier to use Google Docs than have to worry about updating a Word or Excel document, saving it locally, uploading it, and then making sure someone sees it. It’s especially cumbersome to do that when you have to update it daily. For that reason, Google Docs reigns supreme. Free.
If there is one tool I won’t be able to live without, I’d have to give this one to Dropbox. Dropbox is the most amazing tool ever. Why? I can access my critical files (proposals, invoices, insertion orders, client files, personal files, etc.) no matter where I am, just as long as I have the software installed locally. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how awesome this tool is. Last week, when I was on my plane en route to SXSW, I realized I needed to work on an IO for a client. Expecting Dropbox to only operate when I had an Internet connection, I powered up my laptop thinking I’d have to start from scratch. I was ecstatic to see that my Dropbox files were fully intact; they sync locally and the newest copy from whatever computer is then synchronized to the main Dropbox location. Seriously, this thing is the best tool since sliced bread. I strongly recommend Dropbox. (And yes, that’s my referral link.) (Free for up to 2GB, or get 50GB for $9.99/month or 100GB for $19.99/month.)
If you’re a PC, you’ll love Digsby. It’s a full fledged and free IM client which supports everything — including Facebook chat (making me look like a serious addict) — except Skype. In fact, I use Jabber for internal communications as Community Manager of Namecheap. It works and it works really well. It also has great IM logging, which is awesome because I log everything to a central Dropbox location. That way, when I go on Digsby from another computer, it accesses my logs seamlessly instead of logging different people’s conversations on different computers. That alone is a feature that I absolutely love. Free.
I don’t live on Skype, but I do occasionally interface with clients, both overseas and locally, who like Skype voice. For them, I think this is the tool to use. Skype isn’t perfect, and if you ask me, my biggest gripe is not having local logging, especially since it’s incredibly important to me to be able to reference something if need be, but it accomplishes video and voice chat over the Internet pretty well. Free for video/IM, but phone plans cost money.
I have to hand it to my former boss at Lifehacker, Gina Trapani, for turning me onto LastPass. Before LastPass, I’ll be honest, I had a few passwords that I recycled time and time again. Thanks to the Gawker password breach of December 2010, I’ve had to go into a few hundred accounts and make some changes, and LastPass helps me keep track of it all. LastPass seamlessly integrates into all major browsers and is compatible with all OSes. All passwords and sites are encrypted, and you can log onto sites with one click. LastPass also has mobile apps and so much more. You can unlock premium features for $1/month, which is totally worth it and I have a 2-year license at this time.
My major public Twitter and Facebook online activity is handled through no other application but HootSuite (aff). It’s a great application to handle multiple accounts. You can schedule tweets, view stats, and so much more all from the browser and mobile applications when you aren’t able to get on their website. I pay for my account, and I recommend that if you need the features it affords you, you should do the same. (The $5.99/month plan is probably all you need.)
Performable is a nifty tool that gives you data about various activities others perform online. It’s essentially a goals funnel with reporting detail. I get a daily email with changes in behavior, and I notice how changes I make (ever so slightly) can impact user behavior on my site. Performable isn’t the cheapest solution out there, but it’s a darn good offering and they’re working on cheaper plans for small businesses.
You’ve got Performable for goals, and you may have Google Analytics. But I happen to really like Mint (no, not the financial tool, but I happen to like that too). It shows you a nice dashboard of traffic to your site, broken down by bar graphs and by lists showing your recent traffic. For example, the screenshot below shows that someone is very curious to find out about a blog post of mine where I talked about comments. Or something. I really don’t know. As I write this, they’ve been at it for about an hour.
For the record, all blog posts have a word “comment” on the page, because that’s how people engage with me after the post, so this query isn’t very helpful. I guess that’s why they’re still at it. ($30/domain one time cost.)
As much as I love sending personal messages to every single message sent on the ‘net, I like to save time, and current Lifehacker editor in chief Adam Pash’s Texter is oh-so-awesome. Texter is a text expander of sorts; instead of writing a lengthy reply to something asked repeatedly of you, you can use Texter instead. The Mac equivalent is TextExpander, I hear, and my colleagues who were introduced to it say that it’s fantastic. For example, I have a few phone numbers stored in Texter; instead of worrying about both my free conference number AND my PIN number, I can type “freeconf” and it will be immediately output to screen. I can shorten anything from Los Angeles, CA (which is actually “la2″) and use Texter to file DMCA reports to submit copyright violations to the appropriate web host. I use it for many other purposes, but you get the idea. It’s a great app and it’s free.
A lot of people ask me what service I use to back up my computer. Until 2008 or so, my app of choice was Carbonite. Then I learned that Carbonite didn’t have USB drive support, and it wasn’t compatible with Linux servers (I actually own a physical Fedora 14 build, so this is important to me. To this date, Carbonite doesn’t support Linux). And most recently, strong contender Mozy introduced new pricing. I’ve never been a fan of Mozy for its tiered services, so after I realized Carbonite’s shortcomings, I jumped to CrashPlan. I’m so glad I did.
I have the unlimited Family Plan, which is a super affordable flat rate for up to 10 computers. And I have 3.5 TB (yes, terabytes) of data stored to my CrashPlan server across my family’s various machines. The cool thing about CrashPlan is its “unsupported” headless client feature, which lets you back up remote Linux servers, like your web host (restrictions may apply under the family plan, though, so please check!). I have personal files saved to CrashPlan plus my Linux box, of course. (Various plans, all paid after a free trial.)
If you want to invoice clients, you want to use FreshBooks. It’s a beautifully-formatted system that lets you send invoices at any time. You can also automate your invoices and designate the month or day you are billing for. For example, I bill some clients for the previous month, so I specify ::month-1:: in the template and it automatically emails it to the client on the first of the month for the previous month’s work. It’s simple. Plus, FreshBooks boasts some amazing support and a really great team. I actually think of these guys as a mini Zappos. They’re fun, passionate, and they throw good parties at SXSW — I guess when you have 2,000,000 customers, you have reason to celebrate! (Free trial, then paid plans.)
For Macs, there’s Quicksilver. For PC, there’s Launchy. Launchy is a bit difficult to explain, but if you want to avoid using your mouse, you’ll want Launchy. Upon installing the app, you can run it any time by pressing ALT + SPACEBAR. It opens something like what you see on the right hand image. Then, type what you’re looking to open, such as an application or file. It can open those for you, perform calculations (you can type 3+5 and it will display the output), and so much more. It’s such a simple and lightweight app that saves so much time. I actually never (and I mean never) use my start button on my computer simply because Launchy is my start button. Free.
If you’ve ever wanted to do a search for files on your hard drive, you could go to Windows search. Better yet, download Everything and you’ll find the files you’re looking for in seconds, even on a computer with thousands of files (and more than 1TB!). I can’t live without this app at all, and David Carpenter, the developer, can confirm that fact for you as well after the dozens of emails I sent him these past few months about how it wasn’t syncing properly with Dropbox. Thankfully, David fixed it in his latest alpha version. Free.
Clonezilla is hardly meant to be used regularly, but I throw it in the productivity pile because it saves a ton of time. Clonezilla is a tool that clones your hard drive. Basically, if you get a brand new computer or install an OS for the first time, your computer is as good as new, right? Well, this is when you want to use Clonezilla. The next time my computer has problems or is slow or there’s some configuration issue that pulls at me and I realize I have to reformat, I just load up Clonezilla and restore that fresh new copy of Windows, complete with all my files and configurations. This is a tool not necessarily intended for the non-tech savvy (I actually back up through my local Linux server) — but if you have the resources to back your files up, do it. Clonezilla is a godsend. Free.
The tools above are the ones I use regularly, but I also love the tools below which are used as-needed.
- Clutterpad: Many of you know what Basecamp is, and I like it but I don’t think it has the best pricing structure for small businesses. Clutterpad aims to make collaboration easier with project management and so much more. It’s a beautifully designed app which I use for those teammates and clients who need a little more structure outside standard email. (Free and paid plans are available.)
- RescueTime: Want to know if you’ve been productive? RescueTime, which I covered in 2007 for Lifehacker, is a little app that is running on your computer in the background (you wouldn’t know it’s even there) but gives you graphs of how productive you’ve been, showing you which websites and applications you’ve been frequenting and giving you a score from -2 to 2 on whether it was a productive or distracting use of your time. Want to find out how much time you were working on that spreadsheet? Want to find out how many minutes you’ve spent on Facebook? RescueTime to the rescue! (Free and paid plans are available.)
- Free Conference: If you’ve ever needed to get on a call with 30 or so people or needed to call someone overseas and couldn’t make that outgoing call, Free Conference is the tool for you. I get a dial in number and PIN and provide it to those who need to speak to me, and we do all of our phone meetings on this number. It’s free — unless you want a premium 1-800 number instead. And after every call, you get a summary of how many minutes participants have spent on the call. (You’ll probably use the free plan; paid plans are also available.)
- Notepad2: Notepad2 is like Windows Notepad but with more features. You get line numbers, color coded text, and so much more. (Free.)
- Irfanview: If you do any editing of images, Irfanview is a lightweight application that crops and edits screenshots and photos. The only annoying thing about it is that it has a roadkill icon, but otherwise, it’s a great tool that I’ve been using for years. (Free for personal use.)
- Snarl: If you’re familiar with Growl on the Mac, you’d be happy to know that Snarl on the PC does the same thing. It’s a notifier that lets you know when it’s 3pm, if your laptop is unplugged, the amount of space on your recently inserted USB stick, your internet connectivity, and a lot more. It’s got a nice suite of features out of the box with more options supported as well. (Free.)
- VLC Media Player: I find that the best video player is VLC, which is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It has a good deal of codecs so you don’t have to find something compatible for your video to play. Just install VLC and it will likely play with no issues. (Free.)
- FlashFXP: My favorite FTP client is FlashFXP, a really lightweight and super customizable FTP client for Windows. It also lets you transfer from FTP server to FTP server, in a process known as “FXP”, which helps me move data over from one of my websites to another web host. I really like this feature. The best part? Once you buy the license, you get free lifetime upgrades. (Free trial, then you buy it. It’s worth it!)
- WinRAR: My favorite unzipping tool is WinRAR, which lets you do so much in such a small package. (Free trial, and then you buy it. It’s also worth it!)
I’ll give a very small honorable mention to Evernote, but I’m a premium user who just can’t figure out how best to use this software. I use it to save web pages on an infrequent basis. I just wish their PDF engine was better since my ideal implementation would be to save PDFs in a searchable environment. I also wish I could save files separately instead of in one batch.
I mentioned in the introduction that I use my Dell computer for just about everything. It’s an old Dell XPS M1710 (17″) laptop which has been really good to me. If anything, I’d want more screen real estate, but that’s something I’ll address when I buy a new computer in the future. I travel with a Dell Latitude E6410 laptop, and that’s a great and super fast machine which is perfect for those times away from home. I build my desktops, and I currently have two: one for Linux (and tweaking websites), and one media center PC which I run my Spotify account on. I love Spotify. I also love RealVNC and SecureCRT to connect to my remote computers. No, I do not have that many separate monitors and keyboards (just one, really), but I do have an old-school KVM switch.
I don’t have an iPad yet, but with my new soon-to-be-announced startup, it will be a necessity. In the meantime, I have a Samsung Epic 4G which is laden with productivity apps (and no games… unless you count Angry Birds and Meganoid). I also have an iPod touch for music. Not apps. Not really, anyway. Coupled with my UE 700 headphones (which are miles better than my old Shures), I’m a happy gadget camper. I travel with the Kensington Portable Power Outlet (aff) to make sure I can keep as much juice as possible with me. This thing rocks.
So there you have it: my web based productivity toolbox. But what’s in yours? The comments are all yours.