Starting a business used to require a lot of time and effort. All the paperwork needed to be filled out manually and submitted via snail mail. If you were lucky, you could go down to some clerk’s office and submit the forms in person, but you knew it would be weeks before anyone looked at it. You cringed at the thought of your papers sitting in a wire basket on the end of someone’s desk, waiting to be processed.
Fast forward to 2015, and the landscape has completely changed: getting your business up and running takes days, not weeks, and you don’t need a brick-and-mortar location or a receptionist to give your micro business the look and feel of a large corporation. The Internet, and particularly cloud-based platforms, has made entrepreneurship simple for anyone with an idea, some decent skills and the drive to make it happen.
When I started Infographic World, I did it in my boxers (literally). I set up the infrastructure virtually and built my first team with solid contractors across the U.S. Had I done this the traditional way, it would have taken years to shape the workforce that I currently employ. All of our staff members are now full-time IGW employees, and the Internet helped me land some of the best designers and leaders in the industry — and build systems crucial to our success in three key areas.
When you’re running a startup, funds are limited (to say the least), but there’s always a boatload of work. Being able to hire help at an affordable rate is golden. It’s a luxury that web-based platforms have afforded entrepreneurs, and one that is in high demand.
When I was the sole employee, it was difficult to keep up with administrative tasks as the company grew. I eventually hired a virtual assistant to manage these jobs while I focused on business development. The assistant took over several recurring tasks including:
- Documenting policies and procedures. These would later become the operating/governing documents for designers and managers.
- Project follow-up. The assistant would follow up with clients after the completion of a project to ensure satisfaction and capture referrals.
- Billing and invoicing. This included invoicing clients at the completion of each milestone as well as following up on unpaid accounts.
- Email management. The assistant responds to general inquiries within 24 hours and separate and sorts emails by order of importance.
Finding the right person for the job makes all the difference in the world. I found our VA on Elance, and it took several tries to get someone who was a great fit. There were dozens of applicants, and all of them had relevant backgrounds. I was able to narrow down the search by speaking only with individuals who had legitimate references. This helped me quickly identify the applicants who would add the most value to the company. With the help of our VA, I gained valuable time and focused on development and growth.
When spreadsheets won’t cut it, project management platforms dominate. They’re easy to use, fairly inexpensive and effective in connecting team members from around the world. If you’re thinking of switching from spreadsheets to a PM system, remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Some of the spreadsheets that you currently employ can be imported and used as a reference for historical information. Also, play around with the system first so that you can decide how your information should be organized. Some people like to just upload documents and tag them, while others utilize several different functions to create a program tailored to their needs.
We use Basecamp as a PM tool, and it’s efficient for our needs. The main features that we utilize include:
- Document storage. This enables us to store all documents related to a single project in one designated area.
- Project communication. Designers, project managers and clients all use the platform to communicate ideas and share information about the project.
- Task manager. We specifically use the task lists to assign work to various staff members.
- Project calendar. We use this tool to schedule events related to client projects like reporting and milestone check-ups.
Aside from Basecamp, there are tons of other project management platforms to explore. Many of them offer a free trial period and an affordable starter plan for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Payments and Invoicing
Whether you prefer PayPal over Square, or any other online platform, there’s no denying that the Internet has totally changed the game when it comes to collecting payments. Starting out, we used PayPal for invoicing and payments. It was easy to use and offered some much-needed features for small businesses. As we grew, it became apparent that we needed something more robust for the financial side of the business, so we turned to QuickBooks. We primarily used this for:
- Employee invoicing and payments. This is a great platform for keeping up with employee payments.
- Vendor, customer and employee tracking. This was important to review regularly as the company grew, and a cloud-based platform offered more features and was more user-friendly than traditional software programs.
- Financial reporting. We were able to quickly review profit and loss statements and run revenue by client reports to see what our largest clients contributed towards revenue.
- Business taxes. This was important, as we needed to be compliant in the beginning but hiring an accountant was not an option. With the tax center in QuickBooks, we’re able to stay on top of what is owed and are reminded to send out quarterly payments on time.
Cloud-based accounting and invoicing programs are a godsend for startups as they offer a simple alternative to hiring an accountant. In fact, most startups could get away with a cloud-based accounting platform for at least the first few months of operation. If you’re working with a handful of staff members, have an annual revenue of less than $500K and very basic business expenses, this is the best option to start with. You can always hire a professional as the business grows.
The basics of starting and operating a business have not changed, but the process has become faster and much more efficient. We can only imagine what the future will bring with the addition of new technology and other cloud-based platforms. If you haven’t made the decision to get your business up and running, there’s no better time to do it than now.