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21

7 Virtual Collaboration Tools I Use Daily

Collaboration, outsourcing, and virtual workforces perhaps started out as trendy, but by now, they’re here to stay. As companies look for ways to work more efficiently and cut overhead costs, they transition away from the traditional business model and embrace the idea of a remote workforce. This past year, 53 million workers identified as a part of the gig economy.

Low overhead is one of the competitive advantages of small businesses. Each new technology that allows these businesses to stay lean, getting work done without taking on additional employees, is a major benefit.

Today I would like to share seven of the tools that I use every day, without fail. Some you may have used, some may be new to you. Most are free, some I pay for. (I would pay for the free ones, but they don’t ask me to).

Dropbox

These guys are one of the giants in online file storage and sharing. It’s simply a high powered FTP site, but the interface and workflow is great. I use a desktop application from Dropbox that allows me to drag files to the application, which automatically stores the content online. I can share folders with anyone, and when they upload files they appear on my desktop. I can even set up public folders, that way anyone can send large files without clogging up email.

Basecamp

This is an online project management tool that allows you to set up projects with collaborators and customers. From there, you can manage all manner of communication, file and document sharing, and chat. I use this with the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network as a form of intranet.

Gmail

It’s very possible that you have a personal Gmail account; after all, they hold 20 percent of the global email market. But their business email offerings are not to be ignored. It’s just a big, fat, free email service, but I love the way it works and takes advantage of being fully online. You can run your own domain through Gmail (I use it to send, as I don’t have to worry about my local ISP quirks when I travel). Plus, it’s easy to create multiple profiles for all your various rolls in life.

Slack

Slack is a cloud-based instant messaging system that makes collaboration amongst distributed teams a total breeze. There are direct messaging features, plus the option to create channels for specific topics or projects—a place where the team can share messages, tools, and files. I love that they have thoughtful features that come in handy with a team that’s working from afar, like an icon to notify you if a particular colleague is outside of business hours in their current time zone.

Asana

Asana is a project management tool that makes it easy for teams to track projects, manage deadlines, measure progress, and stay in touch. You can create teams on the dashboard and assign them to specific long-term projects within the platform. Then, for each team, you create projects and subtasks and assign them to specific colleagues with due dates attached. Basically, it’s a hub that helps you keep everyone on the same page, and because it’s easy to track how things are progressing, it allows team leaders to step in when there’s a tiny hiccup before it becomes a major issue.

Loom

Distributed teams need a great way to share ideas and information quickly and clearly. Sometimes an email just won’t cut it—there’s either too much to say, or it won’t come across as clearly as if you could show what you’re talking about. Enter Loom. The tool allows you to record screens and video, which means it’s now easy to do things like walk your virtual workers through a new process for assigned tasks. And beyond using it for your team, you can create 1:1 videos for prospects a customers, which is a great way to build trust and give people the personalized experience they want from your business!

Google Calendar

Another Google tool, I know, but I like setting up calendars and sharing them with collaborators. I can also set these calendars up to produce RSS feeds, so I can publish them in cool ways to websites and have anyone I give access to produce content for those sites. Finally, the calendar seamlessly syncs with desktop and phone calendars, meaning I never miss an appointment or call.

I know there are lots of great tools out there to do everything I’ve mentioned above. Take the time to research your options, and settle on the one that works best with your team’s style of doing things. But whatever you do, don’t try to manage a distributed team without the proper tools to keep you working at your highest possible level.

8 By-products Offer Some Seriously Overlooked Opportunities

According to this entry in Wikipedia – A by-product is a secondary or incidental product deriving from a manufacturing process, a chemical reaction or a biochemical pathway, and is not the primary product or service being produced. A by-product can be useful and marketable, or it can be considered waste.

by-product marketingWhile the practice of creating products from a primary product’s waste (lanolin – from the cleaning of wool) is commonplace in manufacturing environments, I think there are some great opportunities for innovation through by-products lounging around in every business.

The key is to simply start leveraging everything you’re good at doing – even if it’s seemingly unrelated to your core business.

For example, if you’ve gotten very good at online marketing and social media use, why not set-up a series of workshops and teach your clients how to do the same? There are countless examples of businesses creating successful marketing or management systems and then turning them into products for their industry.

If you’re good at hiring super stars, good at lead conversion, good at technology, good at creating buzz, you probably have an opportunity to turn that skill into a by-product.

Some may think, “sure, I could create all these by-products, but wouldn’t that just divert my focus from our core products and services?” Maybe, but you may also find something that should be your core product. Jason Fried, co-founder of 37 Signals, tells a story about how his web design firm needed a project management tool so they created one for their own use. Clients liked it so much they started offering the tool to others and before they knew what hit them, they had created Basecamp and altered the direction of their business forever.

Another great reason to start mining your business for by-products is that it’s a great way to up your expert status. Even if your by-product doesn’t ever offer long-term revenue and profit possibilities, there’s a good chance you can leverage it to get more exposure. By taking a leadership role in teaching your clients or an entire industry how to do something well, you’ll open up opportunities for media exposure, industry event speaking, access to suppliers, and in all likelihood, the ability to charge more than your competitors for your core offerings.

This notion is so powerful it should be part of your marketing plan and Marketing HourglassTM

12 Your Backpack just got a lot bigger

BackpackI’m a big fan of most of what comes out of 37signals. (I’ve posted about many of their offerings over the years.)

One of their tools, Backpack, just got a whole lot more useful for the small business.

Backpack is a tool that allows you to keep track of what you’re doing online, calendars, to-do lists, reminders, files, even pages organized around something you are working on. The problem was that until recently this was a single user tool. Great for keeping your stuff together, but not so easy to share.

Backpack now comes in a multi-user version that really makes this tool more like an on-demand Intranet for small business. You can create as many users as you like and each user can have their own calendars, effectively creating an online shareable calendaring system. The newsroom feature is a like an activity dashboard that also keeps group messaging tidy.

There is a lot of crossover from Basecamp in terms of functionality, writeboards, lists and the such, but while Basecamp is more about project management and shared collaboration from outside, permission based, resources, I think Backpack is really more company focused. I can see small companies organizing it much like a knowledge base to house company documents, processes and manuals.

I really think it’s killer when combined with Basecamp. If you use multiple offerings from 37signals, one tip I would suggest is to get an OpenID and use it to log in to your accounts and then you will have the ability to jump back and forth to all of your accounts from a simple dashboard interface.

Here’s a nice side by side comparison of the 37signals offerings.

21 Automation, the small business marketer's friend

Marketing AutomationFrom a business standpoint, a lot of small business have some pretty distinct advantages over much larger organizations.

Not always, but in some cases, they can be more flexible, offer personalized options, provide faster/better service, and involve senior experienced level people in implementation.

From a marketing standpoint, I do see small organizations get out sizzled from the sheer wake of bodies and moving parts that a larger organization can throw at a sales pipeline.

This is a place where technology, and the automation it can afford, can come to the rescue.

Technology exists all around us today that allows any small business or one woman band to create robust, multi-part, segmented and personalized campaigns that rival those of the fully staffed marketing departments.

Lots of CRM software makers talk a about automation, but for most small businesses it’s just overkill. The key is to find the right suite of tools that allow you to create the engine to automate contacts, sales follow-up, tasks, email, marketing materials distribution, orders, upsells, referrals and campaigns. It’s about marketing automation, not customer relationship management.

When you take the time to design your lead generation, nurturing, and conversion processes like the big guys, and then hook the system together with the right moving parts, you can compete with any size organization.

And now for some tools to check out!

  • SwiftPage – email lead tracking and scoring that helps identify hot prospects
  • Infusion Software – the best all in one solution for contacts, sales, orders and email marketing
  • Vtrenz – automation for direct marketers
  • Get Friday – outsourcing that is automated
  • Wufoo – creates forms of all type on the fly
  • GotVMail – automates phone messaging, extensions and message deliverability
  • Jott – lets you post to Google Calender, post to blogs, Twitter and send email to yourself or groups from a phone.
  • TripIt – forward air, hotel and car reservations to an email address and get an online trip page with local info and maps added
  • TextExpander – automatically insert any amount of text into an email or document with a phrase – great for commonly written email responses
  • Basecamp and Backpack – automate collaboration with teams, vendors and partners
  • Create Space – on demand CD and DVD publishing and fulfillment
  • Amazing Mail – send pre-designed post cards to 1 or 100 contacts in 24 hours

What are some of your favorite marketing automation tools?