A business dashboard has been defined by some experts as “a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.”
Business dashboards usually consist of a screen showing you tables and/or graphs pointing out key indicators about your business. You can check your dashboard several times a day, once a day, once a week -- however frequently you need to manage your business.
Dashboards can be as big-picture or as detailed as you need -- ranging from showing you the financial health of the business as a whole, all the way down to detailed slices of an individual activity or department.
In this article I’d like to share four low-cost dashboards available for small businesses, some of which you may already be using (even if you don’t realize it):
Accounting software dashboards
One of the beauties of accounting software today is that most packages come equipped with the ability to run reports. Increasingly they come with built-in dashboard views, to allow business owners and managers to manage the business easily.
QuickBooks, which is used by millions of small businesses, has a simple dashboard view, which you can see here.
Other accounting/ERP packages, such as NetSuite, have extensive dashboard views. For instance, you can tour the NetSuite dashboard views here.
MyBizHomepage.com is a free Web-based application that includes a dashboard that works together with your QuickBooks data, called MyBizDashboard.
Once you import your QuickBooks data, it will display key parts of the data critical to the business owner on your screen when you log in. For instance, MyBizDashboard also displays the age of outstanding Accounts Payables and Accounts Receivables, two metrics crucial to the health of your business.
“Seeing” this information laid out prominently on your screen is designed to help prevent receivables from going unpaid too long or getting behind in paying your bills.
MyBizHomepage also provides email alerts to notify you if payables or receivables have gone past a predetermined age, and for other key metrics. It has a private messaging feature built right in so that you can discuss any of the metrics with others on your team. A new version of MyBizHomepage was recently rolled out with expanded features such as RSS feeds.
SaaS administration screens
The explosive growth of online business applications -- software-as-a-service (SaaS) -- has given business owners access to a range of “mini-dashboards.” What I mean is that most SaaS applications have some kind of administration panel. Those admin panels or screens often are filled with important data, including tables and graphs.
Each of these administration screens is in effect a dashboard. Chances are you are already using several of these dashboards.
Administration panels are chock full of goodies that can help you understand some slice of your business better and manage it with foresight. For instance, Google provides extensive information in its Google AdSense admin screens to help you see the status of your AdSense earnings. Google Analytics provides multiple dashboard views of website traffic data, based on your role (executive, marketing, technical, etc.)
The downside to these administration panels is that they are scattered across the Web, and it’s hard to compare data from different applications.
That leads me to my fourth type of “dashboard” -- the Web’s free start pages.
One way to organize data from multiple SaaS administration screens so you can access it in one place is to use one of the free consumer start pages: iGoogle, Netvibes, Pageflakes -- to name a few.
I have cobbled together a rudimentary dashboard to run portions of my business, using Netvibes. In this example, I have used Netvibes to manage intelligence culled from some of the many online applications I use, via embedding widgets into a Netvibes page:
The free start pages let you build a “master dashboard” that’s admittedly limited. They won’t support much customization. But for a cheap (i.e., free) solution that you can put together in a couple of hours without technical help, they allow you to organize your access to important information in SaaS applications and at least let you look at some of the information from one screen.
Aside from these four inexpensive solutions, you can also purchase dashboard applications and port your business data into them, or you can hire a software programmer to create one specifically for your business.
Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.