Lifesaver business apps

There is a huge range of apps available to help with running a company, but which ones will make a positive contribution to your business?

If you’re an owner-manager of a print business, allocating your time effectively can be tough. You can get pulled this way and that by HR issues, payroll and various other everyday distractions that can take you away from the bigger-picture stuff which is required to run a successful business. Thankfully, there’s a plethora of smartphone apps to help you with everything from getting suppliers paid on time to logging expenses and booking leave. Most of them don’t require a supercharged smartphone to access, and many have free versions for you to dip your toe in the water without financial risk.

But with an incredible amount to choose from, how do you cut through the waffle and choose apps which make a positive contribution to your business rather than a data-sapping – and possibly unsecure – waste of time?

For Jamie Marshall, director of Leeds-based IT consultancy firm Everon, identifying what you need to fix is a great place to start. “Identify what the problem is – what are you wasting the most amount of time on? Is it a particular task? Work backwards from there. Ask yourself what you would like to change, then find an app to address it. There are so many great ones out there, but if it doesn’t address a problem, then you probably won’t get staff buy-in.”

Matt Smith, commercial manager at the Centre of Excellence in Mobile and Emerging Technologies (CEMET) at the University of South Wales, says the appeal of mobile apps for owner-managers is clear. “For me, first thing I’d look at is take stock of daily and weekly activities and what you spend most time doing – is it travelling, calls, presentations or people management?”

The good thing about apps, reckons Smith, is that they’re usually developed to solve a practical issue. “Apps are often developed by people who’ve experienced a particular problem themselves,” he says.

Timekeeping and productivity
It turns out apps are actually a pretty good place to start identifying your own “time gremlins”. Everon’s Marshall advises Microsoft’s MyAnalytics as a good place to start your studies. “It analyses week to week how you work. It shows you who you’re interacting most with, and when you have busy periods. It can help you have a better work-life balance or do more effective planning ahead,” he says.

Nat Sharp, founder and chief executive of Tunbridge Wells-based marketing company Sharp Thinking, which offers marketing and brand consultancy to small businesses, and also works with clients in the print industry, is already making use of time management app Clockify. “It’s a handy app which allows you to track your time. This is great if you bill out hours and work across different clients. It also allows you to see how you are spending your time so you can resource plan in the future,” says Sharp.

A quick and easy way of integrating apps into your business is trying out a productivity app, like Trello, which has a free version. The app, developed by Australian firm Altassian, has already curried favour with plenty of printers and print-related businesses. It’s mainly used to work with in-house teams, but it’s also common to see some businesses give clients access to relevant Trello boards, so they can see how projects are progressing.

Louise Laurie, marketing manager for Crewe-based Cartridge People, is a big advocate of the platform, which works across mobile and desktop. “Since embedding Trello into the business, and in particular the marketing department, it has become much easier to manage and track a multitude of tasks all in one location,” she says. “Throughout the year, various daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly tasks arise, all of which can be detailed in Trello and assigned to different colleagues. This also makes it significantly easier to oversee these tasks and amend where necessary,” she continues. “The capacity to assign individual due dates to each task allows us to monitor which deadlines are fast approaching. This enables us to prioritise tasks accordingly.”

Colour coding is a feature that Laurie finds particularly useful, assigning different codes to activities like reporting, email, design, affiliates, social and branding. “What’s more, we found it incredibly useful to be able to assign multiple users to one common Trello board. This means that any changes made, by any member of the team, will see these changes immediately,” adds Laurie.

Trello is a popular platform, but alternatives like Monday and Microsoft’s own Teams platform are worthy alternatives. Everon’s Marshall predicts big things, particularly due to its integration with other widely used and handy Microsoft applications including Skype and Sharepoint. “It’s going to become a dominant app – a one-stop shop for internal collaboration and time management apps – it does exactly what Trello does. For printers in particular it could be good for sharing big artwork files around teams. It’s a product Microsoft is ploughing a lot of time and effort into.”

Communications and transfer
Any business owner, large or small, can vouch for the sheer amount of time emails eat. Apps which make communications more streamlined and effective are fast making emails look long in the tooth. Slack has found favour with many companies, allowing quick and easy communication from desktop and mobile. “Emails can be a black hole,” says CEMET’s Smith. “They’re silos where only certain individuals can have bits of knowledge. We use Slack internally for communications – you can have discussion on projects, arrange meetings, share articles and agendas, but it also has overlaps with apps like Microsoft Teams.”

WhatsApp is an app you probably already have, which you might not be using to its full potential for work “It can be a handy tool for work,” says Sharp. “I set up WhatsApp groups for particular projects. They are instant, easy for everyone to use and people can respond quickly, plus you know when someone has read the message. You can also send visuals and screengrabs of important messages. I often use these as a morning alert to flag up work that needs attention that particular day. You can also opt to use WhatsApp Business which allows you to upload your logo, set up a profile and be in contact with your customers.”

Big, high resolution documents image files are part and parcel of the print industry, and there’s a host of app-based ways of getting the right documents to and from clients and suppliers which are a far cry from the days of using ISDN to send data, or even collecting it manually. We Transfer and Dropbox are two notable platforms which work across app and desktop. “WeTransfer has now been around for over a decade and it’s extremely useful in the creative industry to send artwork, photography, logos and so forth – I use it to send large presentations to clients too. You also have the added bonus of knowing when someone has downloaded the files,” says Sharp.

Cloud-based document sharing and transfer also means that it’s easier than ever to keep track of the most up-to-date version of a document – indispensable when you’re about to start a print run – and also mean that team members are able to access materials on the road. Speaking of being on the road, customer relationship management (CRM) tools like Salesforce and SugarCRM have their own mobile apps which allow sales teams to effectively stay on top of leads.

Most business owners would quite happily spend far less time on their accounts – and there’s a host of incredibly clever, mobile-friendly book-keeping applications to take away the pain. “In my experience of working with SMEs, almost all of them will benefit from working with accounting software,” adds CEMET’s Smith. “A lot of our clients use Xero, but most of the larger ones use Quickbooks.”

“We use Xero ourselves for online accounting,” says Marshall. “We use it ourselves, and use a plug-in called Receipt Bank – rather than an in-house accountant, we just email it to scan and send it on.”

Apps like Expensify, which like many mobile apps work alongside desktop equivalents, also eliminate dog-eared receipts and photocopies from the expenses process, using a smart scan process with a smart phone’s camera.

“There are lots of apps out there that use data and automation to enhance the day-to-day job of an accountant, whether they’re self-employed or working for a large firm,” says Kirstin Gillon, technical manager at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). “As different apps focus on different aspects of the job – be it data analysis or reporting – users who do due diligence and consider their individual business needs will be in a much stronger position.

“It’s also important to consider the app’s wider ecosystem, and the other apps or add-ons that plug into it, as this could open it up to all kinds of other functionality that would improve the app’s usefulness and value for money. However, despite the obvious perks of using accounting software, cloud-based apps do come with certain risks. Security is one of those, so businesses should think about checking the cyber practices and security credentials of prospective vendors.”

While accountancy apps are certainly helpful, rumours of the accountant’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and they still provide a vital service. “The important role of the chartered accountant should also not be underestimated,” says Gillon. “Technology may streamline tasks like book-keeping, but you will always need skilled people to make decisions and provide valuable insights.”

Security and practicality
Whenever a transfer of data takes place, it means that you’re potentially opening up your business to hackers’ or other security breaches. Damon Rand, founder and chief executive of Newport-based cyber security company Wolfberry, reckons that when it comes to business applications, Apple has the upper hand over equivalent Android devices. “From a safety point of view, Apple have it down pat. There are very few issues on IoS. You can’t get on the App Store without HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, used for secure internet connections). It’s a hermetically sealed environment. It gets a lot more difficult on Android – it’s a bit hippy-ish and open source,” he says.

There are checks to make before adopting apps for business use. “Check your apps have two-factor authentication,” advises Everon’s Marshall. “Apps can create an open door to all data. Look for single sign-on – Office 365 logins, for example, which have all the security factors of Office 365 are applied, which has two-factor authentication by default. And if the app does store data, check the servers need to be EU-based.”

If you are allowing staff to utilise business apps on their personal phones, you need to have some agreements in place first. You also need to make sure that the apps are remotely wipeable if the phones or tablets that are being used go missing. “With staff roll-out and adoption, you need to have a good ‘bring your own device’ policy – staff tend to have a personal device, which has company data on it. It needs to be managed and secure to have work data and apps on it,” says Marshall. “If someone loses their phone – like leaving it on a train or it get stolen on a night out – you’re responsible for the data.”

There are also other practical steps you should take to ensure that your business apps aren’t an open door to cyber criminals. “With accounting or banking software – or indeed anything – never use public wi-fi, as you never know who else is watching,” advises Wolfberry’s Rand. “You should always keep your device up to date, and never defer updates,” he adds.

Switching off
Apps are there to make life easier and when used correctly, they can help you achieve a better work-life balance. But there’s a flip-side to having work plugged into your phone or tablet – it can easily make you too available.

Simon Biltcliffe, founder and chief executive of Bicester-based Webmart, is an avid app user, using applications to send voice and video messages to the team, read emails, engage with customers and much more. However, he’s also wary of the way they can seep into your personal time and has found a very simple answer to the problem. “I have digital detox on a Friday,” he says.

“I have a Nokia, which is the only phone I have – I use my iPhone for data only. On a Friday, I leave it and I just use the Nokia. If anyone needs me they can use that. In the pub you don’t have to look at it, you’re not always ‘on’. It’s the antimatter to the app culture we live in. It has a four or five-day charge without having to worry about your battery. To me, that helps keeps sanity – the always-on mentality is a bit of a concern.”


1 Trello
Get your team on the same page with this project management and productivity app which is free, but also has a paid-for Gold and Business Class variants with extra functionality. Trello allows you to look at workloads and project statuses, improving accountability and productivity across teams.
Alternatives: Asana, Basecamp, Microsoft Teams

2 RescueTime
This time-tracker, which comes in a free version, works across desktop and mobile to find out what you spend your time doing and how you can use it more effectively. Premium versions will allow access to features like team-level productivity trends.
Alternative: Microsoft MyAnalytics

3 Slack
Slack is fast eliminating long email chains – it’s a messaging service which is fast, easy to use and intuitive. It can also be integrated with common business applications such as Google Drive, Office 365 and much more. You can try it for free, but there are also various other tiered pricing options which give you functionality like group voice and video calls and enterprise-grade security.
Alternatives: Skype for Business, Stride Shortcuts (App store only)

4 Shortcuts
If you find yourself spending a lot of time doing repetitive tasks on your phone, Shortcuts can slash time by allowing you to simply build macros for frequent activities at the touch of a button.
Alternative: Omniswipe

5 Quickbooks
Aimed squarely at the small to medium-sized business market, Quickbooks funnels time-consuming activities like payroll, invoices and expenses into one easy-to-use platform that works on mobile and desktop, from £5 a month. It’s also HMRC recognised and has integration with over 700 different add-ons.
Alternatives: Xero, Sage One