Every January, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showcases cutting-edge gadgets and technologies. For many years, the "smart home" has been at the forefront of the conference, a concept covering connected products that make your home more efficient. These include anything from a washing machine that can handle two loads simultaneously, to a refrigerator that reminds you when you're low on eggs. The underlying goal of these products is generally the same--to make your home life easier by freeing up time to focus on aspects you truly care about.

That's the smart home. So, what about the smart business?

How can you take this theme of creating a connected home for a simplified lifestyle and apply it to the business world? Luckily for you, there is no shortage of software and applications available that can help you streamline your business practices.

Below are five "smart" apps that can help you run your business more efficiently, which will lower costs and allow you to devote more time and energy on the bigger picture--without putting in any extra time in the office.

1. Gain smart visibility into the cash flow of your business with FreshBooks

Given the limited amount of time and resources available to small businesses, backend tasks like invoicing and accounts receivable often take a back seat to closing new deals and making customers happy. However, if you don't invoice, you don't get paid. Period.

Cloud-based app FreshBooks lets you send professional-looking invoices in seconds. It's easy to keep track of your outstanding invoices and resend invoices as needed. The app also allows you track time spent per project and tie expenses to a project or client. Plus, if you only invoice three clients per month and don't need some of the extra features, the service is completely free.

Keep in mind that even though FreshBooks makes invoicing as easy as possible, it's still up to you to contact customers in a timely manner, and stay on top of past-due accounts to avoid cash-flow problems.

2. Make payments smarter for customers with Square

One sure-fire way to increase sales is to make it as easy as possible to receive customer payment. If your business doesn't currently accept credit cards, there are plenty of new platforms out there to add plastic to your point of sale. One of the most popular solutions is Square. As long as you have a bank account, you can start accepting credit cards with this POS platform.

The Square Reader is a small plastic sensor that connects to an Apple iOS or Android device. Even food trucks, farmers' markets, and craft vendors can accept credit cards using Square.

Other similar POS options include Spark Pay, PayPal Here, and Intuit GoPayment.

3. Create a smarter online shopping experience for your customers with Shopify

There's a reason that Shopify is one of the newest tech companies to hit a billion-dollar valuation. It's because if you don't already have an online storefront, Shopify makes it very easy to build one. You can create an e-commerce website and mobile site, accept major credit cards, and add a vast range of apps to your online store to enhance the shopping experience for your customers. One of the most impressive aspects of Shopify is that it offers true 24/7 support, so you don't need to feel like you're on your own as you make the move online.

4. Get smart about your audience with Charlie

If you find yourself frequently researching people and companies before meetings and conference calls, a new app called Charlie can save you a lot of time. Charlie syncs with your calendar and preps you on whom you are meeting with. You'll essentially get a one-page cheat sheet with all the important details, so you not only know where your customers work and what they do, but also, if you have any interests in common, so you can make the most of adding a personal touch. Charlie can be a very effective sales tool, and an asset for building meaningful connections with your customers.

5. Implement a smarter marketing campaign with HubSpot

HubSpot caters to all of your digital marketing needs: website, blogging, SEO, social, email, lead generation, and contact management. For what you get, the software is affordable and easy for the small business to use.

If you love data, HubSpot provides more than enough data to evaluate your marketing efforts. The technology lets you see exactly where traffic is coming from, what your conversion rate is for that traffic, keyword ranking, and much more. It's also worth noting that HubSpot provides a wealth of free marketing resources on its website.

As a small business, you need to run a lean, mean organization. If you want to grow sales this year, don't plan on working more nights or weekends. Find the right tools to make your business work for you.

Published on: Feb 24, 2015