My last company was old school when it came to technology. We had an e-newsletter instead of a blog; we had accounting software that we bought in a box; and we used an old voice mail system that hung on the wall in our server room.
That business was acquired in 2008, after which a friend of mine suggested I read Timothy Ferriss' book, The Four Hour Work Week, to figure out what to do next. Tim's book inspired me to build my next business into something that I could operate while travelling. If you haven't read it, the main premise of the book is to use automation and technology to set up a business that allows you the time and mobility to see the world. It's a thought-provoking read.
To field test Ferriss' idea, we've been travelling as a family for the last 12 months in France, Spain, England, Wales, and the west coast of the United States–and all the while I've been running my start-up remotely.
I've been experimenting with a variety of business applications that reside "in the cloud"–geek talk for software you access from the Internet instead of your computer's hard drive. Here are a few of the applications I've found handy so far:
I set up a North American phone number but I do a lot of my business while living in Europe. The beauty of Vonage is that you simply plug the little box they give you into your Internet connection and your customers never know where you are because they dial the same number as you move around.
2. Google Docs
My marketing manager lives in another city, so whenever we need to work on a joint project, we upload files to Google Docs. I love not having to e-mail big files back and forth, and since the files are located online, you never have the problem of simultaneously editing the same document and losing track of which version is the latest.
3. Survey Monkey
Survey Monkey makes it easy to get feedback from customers. You simply create a questionnaire using their templates, and then send out the request to complete the survey via e-mail or a social media platform like Facebook.
I keep all of our customer records in salesforce.com. I work a lot in Europe, but my staff are in North America, so salesforce.com allows us to share one customer database across the Atlantic.
5. JP Morgan Chase Orbital Virtual Terminal
We bill our customers for our software on a monthly basis. It's the same amount each month and, instead of manually inputting the customer's credit card number, our finance person inputs the customer's payment into the Chase Orbital Virtual Terminal online. Chase then bills their card each month without us having to initiate.
WebEx is a meeting platform where you can share what you see on your desktop with someone else who has a computer connected to the Internet. It allows me to demo our software without getting on a plane.
I use aWeber to send marketing messages to my list of subscribers. I like it because it is simple. I have figured out how to send an e-mail to a portion of my database and how to automatically send blog updates to my readers. Easy peasy.
What am I missing?
I'm what marketers refer to as a "technology laggard" so I'm sure you've discovered more tools than I have. What are your favorite online applications for running your business?