Contributing writer John Brandon shared some of his favorites of the latest tech innovations for business. Digital pens have been around for years, but many are for general note taking and tend to be confusing. You never know what you can click on and how your notes will be transferred to the computer. Adapx Capturx Forms for Excel includes an Anoto digital pen and software to focus just on forms. You can fill out a form with the pen, and only the data for that form is captured—such as name, checkboxes for medical conditions, or a social security number. That more limited approach may be the innovation required to make digital pen technology work for more businesses.
When you send an e-mail there’s no common database that holds every message for all parties to revisit. A free beta service, GrexIt.com works with Google Apps (such as Gmail for Business) to capture all e-mails and store them. There’s a browser extension that works behind the scenes, or you can just add the firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail to your discussions from any computer. The idea is that, when you use GrexIt, you can then go back to the repository and view an archive of all e-mail discussions. You can also set rules to capture all e-mails for your business domain e-mail related to a topic, such as “business plan” or “accounting” and then view only those archived e-mails in a group.
One of the great challenges of owning a business is understanding the economic climate; few of us have the time to study the markets every day. The free Wall St. Scanner app for iPhone uses proprietary algorithms to scan social networks, corporate sites, and the stock markets to report on economic trends. You can check stock prices, read headlines, and check the economic mood and buzz. What I liked best is a simple chart that showed me the stock trend for today and the forecast for the next day.
Social dashboards like HootSuite have one major disadvantage for business owners: they do not run within Facebook itself. PostPlanner provides one core function, but it is the most important one in social media. You can create a schedule of planned posts. So, for example, if you run a yogurt shop, instead of sitting down every day to type in specials and update customers, you can take an hour on Monday and plan your posts for the week and schedule them. The service them posts at those set times. It makes you more active in social media but you can focus on other things during the week. If you use PostPlanner with your personal profile page, it’s free and for a business page it’s about $5 per month.
Before you leave on your next business trip, sign up for some Turly Tags. The idea is simple: the tags use a private code and do not display your full name and address. The company has versions that tie onto your bag or that you can apply as a sticker. If you lose your bag—or laptop, or smartphone—the finder can tap in the code at TurlyTag.com and send you a note. You can then arrange terms for the finder to send your bag. What I like about Turly Tag is the anonymity. Criminals who find bags would never return your belongings anyway, so you might as well protect your identity when you travel. Prices range from about $5 per month for 14 tags up to $12 per month for 96 tags.
Sites like DropBox.com have changed how some businesses operate. Companies can keep all of their documentation and marketing lit online and access the files from smartphones, laptops, and home computers. Soonr is a new competitor that offers a few innovations, the main one being a more workgroup oriented feature set. For example, you can create projects and assign team members to tasks, then configure alerts where everyone gets a text when a document is updated. The service costs $10 per month for 25GB and three team members or about $30 for 100GB and five employees.
There are plenty of social media dashboards around, but ConnectedHQ ($10 per month) focuses mostly on contacts management. Fortunately, it is all automated: the service pulls in contacts form your e-mail, LinkedIn.com, Twitter, and Facebook. Then, when you click on a contact, you’ll see more than just a name and phone number. You can scan through their work history, see recent postings, and even view recent e-mail exchanges. You can also view job titles, say, only those who are senior directors of another company or who work in your same industry.
Anything that is plug-n-play and makes my job easier is an innovation. Too many hardware gadgets require a complex software install or hardtop-find driver before they work. This Dymo LabelMaker ($60) plugs into a free USB port on your Mac or PC. The software is housed on the device itself and appears automatically on your screen. So, your job is to just do the label design and print. The app uses fonts on your computer and you can add your own logo, but you don’t have to use Microsoft Word and the labels are already pre-sized to work correctly. Works with 6mm, 9mm, or 12mm labels.
Several companies make cloud-enabled storage devices, including Pogoplug and Drobo, that make your files available from anywhere. For small companies, you may already have a USB drive but no way to access the data over the Internet. The Addonics NAS 3.0 is a $65 adapter that connects to your existing drive using a USB cable. There’s also an Ethernet port to connect the adapter to your router. The included WebDav server software may be harder to configure than, say, Mozy. Yet, for those on a budget, it means easy access when you go mobile for the day.
Here’s a tech innovation for the modern office: an exercise bike that tracks your “watts” instead of just your heart rate. The watts measurement shows how hard you are working out and provides constant feedback. The idea is that, for cyclists, tracking watts is a better way to measure (and then repeat) a workout. The Wattbike, which costs about $3,000, has magnetic brakes, an on-board computer for seeing distance and watt level, and easy seat adjustments for any size rider.