The Top 10 Apps and Tools for Home Office Computing
A scenario for cloud apps for small business
There is an app for just about every business function. Having a home-based business and being a technology geek, I continually look for digital help that will make my work life more efficient and easier to manage. Here are some of the apps and work methods I have found most useful for day-to-day work, including some of the best free apps.
Good password security dictates you should use a different and complex password for each app and website you access online. The problem then becomes how do safely store a growing list of passwords, and be able to call them up easily?
LastPass, developed by LogMeIn, is brilliant in its simplicity. After creating an account, you can either enter all of your accounts and passwords into the software, or add them as you go when you log into different apps or sites on one of your devices. Once one of your accounts is entered, LastPass will give you the option to autofill your login info. It will even fill in your payment and shipping details for you from your LastPass profile.
You can also store digital records, such as insurance cards or WiFi passwords, or make other notes on each of your accounts.
Passwords should not be shared in a text. LastPass provides a way to share passwords or other account information with those you choose. It also has a built-in password generator that prevents hacking. Premium features have additional security and dark web monitoring, with alerts if your personal information is at risk.
I was kind of bummed to be notified the free version will no longer support multiple devices as of this month, but for only $3 per month for the premium version, I will be upgrading. LastPass is not only a secure way to keep all of my account information, it is a huge time saver.
How I use LastPass: I start each day by logging into LastPass, and log out at the end of the session, or simply log out of my computer. I now only have one password to remember for all of my accounts.
Life is a series of projects and events—most with deadlines. While most of my work follows a regular pattern, clients of my digital marketing company tend to have special projects, ranging from urgent to future ideas, and I needed a place to keep them organized, assign work to subcontractors, set and calendar deadlines. Asana has the best free version of project management software I have found, hands down.
The first thing you will notice is the ability to set up your dashboard depending on your personal style in how you have tracked projects in the past. The dashboard is clean and easy to understand. There are a multitude of API integrations and apps that connect up to Asana. I have connected Google Calendar, Gmail, Clockify and Slack so far.
How I use Asana: From Asana, I can create projects right from a client email, add deadlines to my integrated calendar, start Zoom meetings, time projects and handle phone calls. I also add projects from my volunteer efforts in environmental advocacy, and use the connection to my group’s Slack account. While I try to make myself available for clients via phone, I have asked them to only send me project requests by email. That way I am sure to account for all projects digitally through Asana, and have good records for billing.
Clockify is a simple time tracker to record work hours on a project-by-project basis. Items can be sorted in different ways, including by client. There is also a timesheet feature. The free forever version allows unlimited users.
How I use Clockify: Clients sometimes call me without an appointment and need to talk through an issue, idea or project. I use Clockify on my phone to basically start a timer when we start talking business, and hit the stop button when done. This information is linked to Asana, so I can create a project, and log the time already spent on the phone.
WeTransfer is an easy way to send your files around the world. Files up to 2Gb can be sent using the free version.
How I use WeTransfer: I use the free version of WeTransfer to share large graphic files, videos and audio files with clients or to submit for publishing. I recommend the paid version of WeTransfer to clients for better dashboard control when adding video transfer functionality to a website.
MailChimp, used for e-newsletters and email campaigns, has good integration with other platforms such as WordPress. There is a user-friendly dashboard, including a monkey that gives you a high-five for a job well done. The free plan allows up to 2,000 contacts on one mail list. You can also apply Customer Relationship Management (CRM) features to your list, add sign up forms, and set up automated emails, also known as drip campaigns.
Paid plans offer more templates, content, automation, testing and reporting features. A word of caution on paid plans: MailChimp changed its tiered fee structure from number of contacts to number of lists (they call audiences). It is a very reasonably priced platform ($14.99 month) if you have up to 100,000 contacts on 5 lists. But beyond that, it jumps up to $299 a month. Ouch!
How I use MailChimp: I use the software to design, code and send out an e-newsletter and emails using a graphic template for my business, and perform similar tasks for clients. However, I will be moving one client that has multiple lists to Constant Contact, to achieve the same outcome for half the cost.
Slack is a communication platform providing a variety of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) functions for groups. You can see who is online, chat and share messages, post documents, articles and links, and organize information into folders, called channels. Slack is a good repository for information a group collects, and to collaborate and discuss ideas. However, I would not categorize it as a productivity app, and it does not replace project management software.
How I use Slack: A volunteer advisory committee I am involved with uses it as a place to post articles, meeting recaps and other things of interest. A group member can choose to be notified by receiving an alert on their device, or just drop in periodically when they have time to catch up. One thing we learned quickly was to not let everyone in the group be a top administrator. People were creating massive channel folders and it was a mess. We organized all the data into renamed channels with only 3 administrators, and things are much easier to find. Also, I would not recommend Slack to post meeting notices. If people don’t check in, they don’t get the notice, so email is still best.
I didn’t take a deep dive on virtual meeting apps, since this has been written about in other articles. However, having used practically all major online meeting platforms, I find Zoom has the easiest user experience. In addition to the low learning curve for your meeting participants, the platform has good reliability and consistent recording quality. The free version allows unlimited time for one-on-one meetings, but is limited to 40 minutes when you connect more than one other person. Paid plans add more time, participants and features, and are priced competitively with other video meeting apps.
How I use Zoom: I schedule meetings from apps like Asana and Calendly directly to Zoom, host a weekly radio show using my Zoom Pro account, and emcee a monthly webinar on another group’s professional Zoom Video with a Webinar account.
QuickBooks is an industry standard in accounting software and is my top recommendation for businesses. My own business accounting, however, is fairly straightforward and QuickBooks is expensive. I use free, cloud-based software called Wave. Basically, Waveapps.com has created great, easy to use software that is expandable as your business grows. Even with fees for higher-end services, you will pay far less than Quickbooks.
How I use Wave: This feature-packed accounting software allows direct connection to my bank to capture transactions. I can create and send professional invoices and run reports like profit and loss statements. Wave also provides good data to provide my CPA for taxes. There are some advanced features, for a fee, that I am not using like recurring billing and automatic payments. I use my bank’s free bill pay service or online payment platforms to make payments, so these functions are not needed. Others might appreciate the advanced features though.
9. Free payment apps
Occasionally contractors complained because it could take up to 10 days for them to receive a paper check from my bank’s online bill pay service. With free payment apps like Venmo and Zelle connected to your bank account, you can make payments that are received within minutes. Both can only be used with U.S. bank accounts.
Venmo (owned by PayPal) operates like a digital wallet. While it is easy to send and receive money between individuals for free, there is a 3% fee for sending money using a credit card, and fees ranging from 1% to 5% for cashing checks. There is a Venmo credit card, and they are also creating a new business tier that operates like a digital storefront, with associated fees.
Zelle is a peer-to-peer (P2P) payment network that enables users to send money to anyone that also has a Zelle account for free. Zelle does not make any money right now. Instead, its participating banks generate revenue whenever a user pays a business in exchange for goods and services.
How I use payment apps: Originally, I used Zelle since it was founded by major banks. However, far more people are on Venmo, and the app connects to more financial institutions. When someone needs to be paid as soon as a job is completed, I use Venmo to pay them. When I want to purchase an item from a private seller, I use whichever payment app they prefer.
10. Microsoft 365
I resisted purchasing Microsoft Office 365 (now called Microsoft 365) for a long time. The Office software I have installed on my computer works just fine, and the license is good forever—or at least until Microsoft stops supporting it. While I hate getting dragged into an annual subscription scenario, two things happened to make me change my mind.
While traveling internationally I had a work problem come up and needed to access and edit files online. The other deciding factor is my husband is a DeX user and needs cloud-based software.
Available on high-end phones, Samsung DeX enables users to extend their device into a desktop-like experience by connecting a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. The name “DeX” is a contraction of “Desktop eXperience.”
Microsoft 365 is $100 per year for up to six people and includes 1Tb of online storage.
How I use Microsoft 365: Once a subscription was activated, we were able to access all of the Office features, just like installed software. This includes being able to continue working, even if there is no internet access. However, one must log in at least every 30 days to keep the subscription active.
Don’t feel compelled to use all functions an app has to offer. Sometimes you just need it to do one thing, like contain news clippings in a folder in Slack. I mentioned Calendly, which is a popular free app for appointment setting that I just started using, which you can check out here.
You will probably start to realize that we are all getting nudged more into cloud-based computing. Even though app fees are generally minimal, they add up, especially for a small business. There are many free options that work great. However, sometimes it’s worth bumping up to a paid plan if you can’t find a suitable free plan with the functions you need.