Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. It’s important you know that my words are my own and that they pay for the opportunity to reach you, not to impact my opinions.
There are a zillion tools out there that help you build, promote, streamline and automate your business. In fact, some might say that with all the options out there, trying to figure out what the right tool or system for you and your business is, is pretty much a full-time job. And who has time for that? But, if you are a small business owner operating without automations and systems, now is the time to change that.
Systems and automation save you time so that you can focus on doing the work you love, instead of spending your whole life in the office.
Implementing tools and processes such as the ones outlined below means you save time. Time that can be used to work with MORE clients. And make MORE money. OR time that can be used to spend more time with friends and family, travelling and adventuring.
What you use your saved time doing is totally up to you, in the office or out, but my point is that having systems in place is something that no small business owner should do without.
The following is an overview of the tools, systems, automations, and processes I use to run my consulting business. There is a multitude of options available to you and the point of this piece of writing is not to sway you on any one tool or system in particular. Instead, it is meant to show you the possibility of that implementing these can do for your business and your life.
Because, what’s the point of having your own business if you don’t have a life?
So, here they are. My favourite tools, systems, automations, and processes that I use in my consulting business:
[For context, I work with clients to streamline and grow their small businesses both locally in Halifax AND across Canada and the States, so my work is not geographically limited to where I happen to live.]
Don’t just sell from the office – use WordPress to create a site.
WordPress is my go-to for building websites, blogs etc. My website was built on WordPress by the lovely Sarah Kay Design, so if you aren’t super technically inclined she’s a great contact for getting a website up and running; her branding partner Amber Clark from Clark Creative Studio is amazing as well. Sara Law of Four Ewes Design is another WordPress guru I work with and I also recommend checking her out, especially if you are a fellow Canadian.
The reason I recommend WordPress over other website builders like Squarespace or Weebly is its ability to scale. When you build a business, it is likely that at some point you will decide to amp up, scale, or expand. Your website will need to expand to and you are going to need custom features built into it. Down the road you may want:
- A dynamic homepage to improve the customer experience on your site,
- Tracking features so you can tell how people engage with your site and when they drop off, or
- Client portals and integrations with other tools and systems to help people engage with you and your site once you sign them as a client.
Sure, if you are a one-woman shop, setting up a quick and dirty site on Weebly is a great option. But if you intend to grow bigger and better as time goes on, then WordPress is the place to be.
Don’t spend all day at the desk, use Acuity Scheduling
Ok, can we talk about phone tag for a moment? Better yet, let’s talk about phone tag’s evil cousin, email tag.
How many emails does it take going back and forth before you can get a call scheduled? I swear that if everyone could have an automatic scheduler linked to their calendar, then we would have hours, days, weeks, months, and YEARS worth of time saved. I’m dead serious, guys. You NEED a scheduler attached to your calendar.
Can you tell I feel passionately about saving my time? This is because as a small business owner and one-woman shop, time is my currency.
Acuity Scheduling is my favourite tool for automating the one if great for streamlining your calendar scheduling with clients and prospective clients. It hooks up to your google calendar and let’s people choose a time that works for you AND them without all the back and forth scheduling emails that drive us all nuts. If the price point of Acuity is a touch too high, you can also consider the less robust but still good option, Calendly.
Know when you’re needed in the office with Google Calendar
Ok, so now that you know you need a scheduler and that my adored tool to recommend for this purpose is Acuity Scheduling, let’s talk about my love for Google Calendar. My calendar runs my life. My favourite thing to say when I am feeling in love with all things organization is, “if it’s not on the calendar it doesn’t exist.”
I’ve hooked up my Google Calendar to Acuity Scheduling which means that both prospects and current clients can book in for a call at their own convenience, choosing a time that 100% works for them AND me.
In addition to using my calendar to automatically book in calls, I also time block my calendar. This means certain days are used for certain activities such as batch working; my days are not a scattered free-for-all. For example, I only take calls on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Mondays and Thursdays are what I like to call my CEO days where I work on client projects or work on business development work for my own business growth. And Friday’s are my flex days which means sometimes I work and sometimes I don’t – it depends on the week and how much fun I feel like having (and how much work I need to finish before the weekend).
I have multiple calendars on my Google Calendar. Two of them block time. *MadelaineCorke and *Personal are used to block off my calendar from Acuity Scheduling. This means if I have an appointment or event on either one of these calendars, Acuity Scheduling is not allowed to book anything else. These calendars manage my work and personal events and require my to be present in person or online.
The other two calendars are not used to block time. They are used for planning purposes. *MC is used for marking down potential plans and activities either for work or personally. Eventually, once they are confirmed, these get changed to either the *Madelaine Corke (my work calendar) or my *Personal calendar depending on the nature of the event. My final calendar is called *OOO which means I’m going to be away from my office for an extended period of time. For example, on any given day I go into Halifax to go to the gym, then take client calls from a co-working space, and then block the afternoon for networking coffee dates or work. Blocking off a day for OOO helps me easily identify what days are good for meeting with people in the city and also tells my husband that I’ll have the car. Ha!
The final thing I use my calendar for is automating reminder to my accountability groups and clients. I used a final calendar that also doesn’t block acuity from booking, since it’s really just an event trigger instead of an actual event where I need to be planful, awake, or online. I use a tool called Zapier, to notify my various clients on Slack with a reminder, check-in or update request, when specific calendar events start. More on this process below in my book-length description of how much I love Zapier.
Remember, “if it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t exist.”
Be easy to get in touch with wherever you are via Gmail.
Since we are on a roll talking about Google products, let’s continue with a fun overview of how Gmail can be used to streamline and save time. I have multiple email accounts, both personal and business, and I use Gmail for all of them. I forward my domain specific email to Gmail so that anything having to do with my business comes into one account. And I have a second account for anything personal.
I like using Gmail for all things email for several reasons:
- It’s easy to toggle back and forth between accounts.
- You can easily set Out of Office notifications.
- And it hooks up to your Google Drive (see below) and your Google Calendar (see above).
One of my favourite features of Gmail is the canned response lab which is great for creating email templates. If you are using Gmail but are not yet using the canned response function, you need to open your Gmail account right this minute and go set it up. This feature alone saves me valuable time every day in my business.
But the real reason why I love Gmail instead of accessing my mail from the GoDaddy account where my domain was purchased from, is that Gmail (and all things Google, in fact) can be used in combination with tools like Zapier to do all sorts of cool automations.
For example, there is an organization here in Halifax that works to respond to marine animals who are deceased or are stranded. It’s a pretty awesome organization and they operate with a large network of volunteers and a small team of 4 individuals. Here is their current situation, and my proposed solution follows in point form:
A Nova Scotian either calls in or fills out a form when they happen to find a deceased or stranded marine animal, and the core team receives an email or a phone call. At this point, they need to let the network of volunteers know that there is a standing or response to see who is available to participate. Currently, this is done by writing a manual email to specific people in the area in which the response is needed. From there it’s a back and forth in email or text or phone and the coordination efforts are huge. SO the team needs to figure out how to automate some of this process so that their coordination efforts are more efficient and take less time and energy from the core team, which is overextended.
My proposed solution is as follows:
- Form filled out by civilian or core team after receiving a phone call.
- Zapier triggers an action via Gmail, SMS, and Slack.
- Depending on the selected location of the response, the appropriate team is selected from a Gmail contact list or group and is emailed, texted, and Slacked automatically. The Call to Action in this notification prompts them to hop on the response channel in Slack to discuss and include a direct link to join the conversation.
- From there, all communications are automatically pointed to Slack where the coordinator can have all volunteer conversations in one place.
The reason why Gmail is so important here: this kind of auto-email couldn’t be triggered by the form, and Zapier couldn’t be used with another email provider.
Gmail for the win! The integrations aspect alone is enough to make me a Gmail user for life.
Another trick for email management, in general, is the fun and, for many, elusive practice of Inbox Zero. Inbox zero is a concept for inbox management that takes the stress of email management away and compartmentalizes emails so that you only see what you need to. Ie, you only see what emails require you to personally take an action.
You can practice Inbox Zero in a multitude of ways. Here’s how I do it:
- I check my email 3 times a day ONLY. I don’t need any more distractions than I already have, thank you very much, so I limit the number of times I check email each day. I’m a much more focused human when I don’t get pinged every 3 minutes from a new newsletter come in.
- Speaking of newsletters, I unsubscribe to as many things as possible. If I don’t open it and read it regularly, it’s time to go. I also use a program called unroll.me to hide hundreds of newsletters and promos that were previously coming into my inbox as hundreds of teeny tiny distractions. Now, apparently unroll.me doesn’t actually unsubscribe you from the email list you opted in to at some point, but for now, as long as I don’t have to see the email, or more importantly, feel the distraction of the email, it’s all good. Hide it, man!
- If I have so many emails in my inbox that I have to scroll down, it’s too many. I like to have at most, 10 emails max in my inbox at one time.
- The ONLY reason there should be an email in my inbox is if it has an ACTION associated with it. If my contractor needs a response or an invoice has to be paid, it needs to sit in my inbox staring me down until I deal with it.
- On that note, if, during my scheduled email checking time an action requires 5 minutes or less to complete, I just have to buckle down and get it over with, even if it’s boring and tedious.
- Once an action is completed on that email, I archive it. Sometimes Labels or Tags to sort things but because the search feature in Gmail is reasonably robust, I tend to ignore labels and just archive all the things.
Remember, if you have to scroll down in your inbox, it needs some attention.
For those of you who are likely going to read this post and feel the organizational urge to get some things sorted out, I highly recommend checking out Zapier for it’s many many MANY Gmail Zaps. Just be prepared to have your mind blown.
Forget the cabinet, organize your files with Google Drive.
You’re probably not surprised at this point that I use Google Drive. Ha!
Literally, my whole business runs on Google drive. It stores my files, including spreadsheets (Google Sheets), documents (Google Docs) and presentations (Google Slides). Because everything lives on the Google Drive version of the cloud, it makes switching from device to device super easy. I know I’m not the only one who uses their laptop, desktop, and iPhone all for business purposes, all in the same day LOL.
Sharing files with your contractors, collaborators or clients is also super easy to do when using the link sharing feature. The easy sharing and live file storage also means that you can have your whole team working in the same document at once without the risk of creating multiple versions. Live editing! Day made, right?
As an added bonus, if you’re clumsy like I am, and spill water all over your laptop, you are never at risk of losing any documents or important information because it’s all on your Google Drive (aka the cloud) on not on your hard drive. You can choose to synchronize your google drive with your hard drive (similar to how Dropbox works!) but I don’t find this necessary for my particular needs.
Bonus points for simple set up: all you need to get access to Google Drive is a Gmail account!
In addition to awesome sharing, storage safety, and sweet editing features, Google Drive actually plays quite the part in my service delivery process for my clients.
For example, when I work with a business owner it’s very likely that we will go through a strategy session, which is basically a two-hour brain dump and brainstorming session about all things business. We come up with concepts and strategies for business growth and make plans for what kinds of systems, tools, automations, and processes they need.
The deliverable for this session is a PDF slide deck that summarizes (visually!) the plans discussed on the call, and I also provide a Google Sheet which has various tools and resources they can use to implement the plan. All of these deliverables are stored in a private client folder on Google Drive.
Since many of my strategy session clients end up working with me again in the future, having all of their files in one spot is super handy when it’s time for the next project to get started.
I used to use Dropbox and I’m dead serious that between the multitude of duplicate documents during collaboration efforts, and annoying issues with outdated versions of Microsoft word, I was not a happy camper. Since switching over 100% to Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and Drive, I’ve been a happy girl.
Time is money and time is also energy. If you find yourself in situations like wasting half a morning trying to sort of a software versioning issue, or trying to figure out why your Dropbox has 9 versions of the same document, it’s time to make a change.
Leave the office in good hands when let Zapier automate your processes.
Ahhh finally. The tool I’ve been raving about throughout this post. This is probably one of the most exciting and FREE tools out there. In fact, this particular tool is so amazing that I have serious inventors’ envy and wish I’d thought of it myself.
The gist of Zapier is that it connects tools and systems to each other so that you don’t have to fiddle around transferring information to and from your business systems manually.
There are countless combinations of tools you can use to create Zaps in your business, but right now, this one is my favourite. I run group accountability sessions bi-monthly. Every other week, small groups of 5 women get together on Zoom to talk about business and life, and at the end of each session, they commit to getting 5-10 tasks or assignments done by the time our next session rolls around. As part of holding each person accountable, I needed to find a way to check in with them and prompt them to think about what they’re working on to make sure they are making progress.
SO, here is how Zapier rocks my world:
First, I create a recurring event in my Google Calendar that acts like a trigger for my group or client being prompted for a status update on their tasks. Each time the event starts in my calendar, Zapier picks up on it, and then sends an automated message to the private slack channel for each of my groups, with a prompt to provide a status update as well as a link to check out the list of items they asked to be held accountable for.
Now, this might sound like a small thing, BUT it used to take me up to 15 minutes every time I wanted to check in with my groups. Over the course of the week, I’m saving myself 45 minutes by having Zapier automate the check-in process. It’s glorious and I love it.
Now go check out Zapier stat so you can see all the neat combination possibilities out there!
No need to pop your head ’round an office door when you’ve got Slack.
Slack is an amazing team communication tool that I use to stay in contact with both my contractors as well as my clients!
As part of my onboarding process, clients get invited into Slack, get automatically invited to a private group channel OR a private 1-1 client channel, as well as the three social channels I host, where all my clients can interact with each other on their own time. The three social channels are for discussions around building teams, initiating co-working sessions, and hosting gif parties. Because everyone loves a good gif party!
As with many of the apps above, Slack has an app so you can access it on your desktop as well as your laptop. It integrates with Zapier so you can streamline all things having to do with onboarding new clients.
Slack is a great alternative to email because it promotes short quick conversations instead of long drawn out email back-and-forths.
In my work with my clients, I always recommend slack as the tool for consultants running a team or coaches building any kind of group program or community, or basically any business owner who needs a great communication tool. It’s super effective for team engagement and is definitely a core part of my business.
Remove nose from grindstone with automated documents and actions in 17Hats.
Ahhh. 17Hats. I’ve been using 17Hats for three years now and it runs the prospect engagement side of my business. This means that BEFORE someone is a client, I use 17Hats to engage with them with the end goal if signing them as a client.
This program captures leads via the contact form on my website. When people fill out the contact form, 17Hats automatically sends them an email thanking them for reaching out and invites them to book a phone call so we can chat more about their business.
Once I do my phone call, I can send my prospective clients a proposal for working together, a contract, and finally, an invoice.
17Hats saves all my email templates, contract templates, and proposal templates so the whole process is streamlined and super easy.
One of my favourite parts about this program is that you can set up payment plans on your invoices, so that clients get auto-reminders each month to pay you for your ongoing services. I call this feature my automated bookkeeper! It’s super handy.
Once prospects accept a proposal, sign a contract, and pay the first invoice for our work together, I then send them a templated email that I use for onboarding! My onboarding process then brings them into Slack, gets them access to any documents or sheets I’ve created for them, and invites them to book our first session working together.
This tool combination is what I use to run my consulting business. There are other programs, like the email marketing service ConvertKit, that are great when you want to grow into serious list building efforts, create a movement, or really amp things up in terms of lead generation. If you are just getting started, the list above is my recommendation of the basics to begin working independently of your office.
Whether you want to streamline your processes or leave the office to work remotely, these eight tools will get you started.
If you feel both inspired and terrified of making a leap to the online business management side of things, don’t worry. It’s totally normal. There are a million and one options to choose from and all sorts of people giving their two cents.
Just know this. If you have a business that is running you instead of the other way around, it’s time to start considering what you can do, what tools you can use, what automations you can set up, and what processes you can put in place, to swing things around.
Like I said above, what’s the point of having your own business if you don’t have a life?
Did I miss your favourite tool or automation? Got a Zap we should all know about? Tell us in the comments below!