Business Tools don’t need to be expensive…
Business tools don’t come cheap, especially if you look to the industry leading software packages and services for your photography business. If you’re prepared to do some digging you’ll find some great business tools to improve your productivity and support your business that are available for free.
This article introduces you to the free business tools I’ve used (and in some cases still use) within my own company.
SugarCRM (Community Edition) — Open source CRM business tool
SugarCRM is an open source, enterprise class CRM (Customer Relationship Manager) solution. It’s extremely powerful and if you’re currently using spreadsheets to keep track of enquiries and an address book to hold your contact’s details, you’d likely benefit from CRM.
I wasn’t convinced at first but SugarCRM practically runs my business for me. I use it for…
- Keeping contact details of clients, leads and prospects
- Tracking workflow from initial enquiry to delivering finished images
- Recording emails and logging telephone conversations
- Sending email marketing campaigns
- Tracking marketing performance
…and a whole lot more besides.
What I like about SugarCRM…
- It’s Web based so can be accessed through a mobile device
- Lots of plugin modules available through the SugarExchange repository
- Easy to configure and customise to suit your business workflow
- Charts to show your sales flow, where the money is in the business and your most effective lead sources
What I don’t like about SugarCRM…
- It has a steep learning curve with a lot of new terminology to learn
Where to get SugarCRM…
SugarCRM Community Edition is available for download here: https://www.sugarcrm.com/download
There are several premium flavours but as to the time of writing, the Community Edition is Open Source (and has been for several years)
Alternatively, some Web hosts may offer this as part of their quick install feature. (I know HostGator does so it’s worth checking with your hosting provider to see if they do too)
GNUCash — Free accounting software
GNUCash is an accounting package of a similar vein to Sage although not nearly as powerful I’m sure.
Prior to using GNUCash I had everything in a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet worked well but getting the data out was a real pain; I never had the figures my business coach was asking for and wasted so many hours manipulating the data to get them I had no time for the photography.
Switching to GNUCash changed that. It’s easy to configure and data entry is very quick and painless. The real power is the ability to run reports and (provided I keep on top of the data) I have the latest numbers at my fingertips.
What I like about GNUCash…
- Very simple to set up — my accounts are laid out exactly the same ashops the HMRC tax return so filing every year is super simple
- I can very easily see which aspects of the business are profitable and which are under performing
- Track inflow, outflow and expenses per job
What I don’t like about GNUCash…
- The UK could be more intuitive but maybe that’s my lack of accountancy knowledge rather than a fault with the tool
Where the get GNUCash…
GNUCash can be downloaded for Mac, Windows and Linux from their website, here:
WordPress is very likely te world’s most used Content Management System (CMS). It originally started out as a blogging platform and has evolved into so much more. It’s very simple to set up and if you can use a word processor like Microsoft Word, you can use WordPress.
All my sites are based on WordPress, including this one. Through the application of themes and pluninsured it’s possible to create wildly different looking websites even though about 95% of the underlying code is identical.
What I like about WordPress…
- Quick to set up
- Easy to learn
- Lots of free plugin and themes to customise the user’s experience
- Good for SEO — Google loves it
What I don’t like about WordPress…
Where to get WordPress…
Option 1: Self-hosted website
Download the code from http://wordpress.org and install it on your hosting package
Many popular host providers include WordPress in their quick install packages so you could be up and running in next to no time.
Option 2: Create a free WordPress.com website
If you don’t have a hosting package you could create a free WordPress site on http://wordpress.com. Your choice of theme and plugins isn’t so great with this option but you’ll find most of what you need to get started.
WooCommerce — eCommerce for WordPress
It’s quick to install and easy to set up. The out of the box solution allows you to take payments via PayPal and/or BACS and there are numerous payment gateways you can install if you’d like to take credit cards (eg Stripe).
The shop on this site is powered by WooCommerce: http://theLightMatters.com/shop
What I like about WooCommerce…
- Fully customisable look and feel
- Sell physical and downloadable products
- Very easy to use
What I don’t like about WooCommerce…
- Bulk import is could be better and much easier if one uses the (premium) WP All Import plugin.
Where to get WooCommerce…
From your WordPress site’s dashboard, navigate to Plugins | Add new plugin and enter WooCommerce in the search field. Download and install as with any other plugin, taking care to ensure your database and files are backed-up first of course
Alternatively, download the plugin from there website: https://woocommerce.com
ProjectLibre (Community Edition) — Project Planning Business Tool
As most shoots are lightweight and follow a well defined sequence of tasks, they don’t generally require a tool of this calibre. I use it mainly for working on the business rather than working in it. ProjectLibre is the perfect tool for business planning, working towards my goals and planning marketing campaigns.
What I like about ProjectLibre…
- Very easy to use, especially if you’re au fait with MSProject
What I don’t like about ProjectLibre…
Where to get ProjectLibre…
ProjectLibre Community Edition is available for Mac, Windows and Linux and can be downloaded from they SourceForge repository, here:
Inkscape — Vector drawing tool
InkScape is a fully featured vector drawing package and extremely powerful. Most of the graphics and diagrams on theLightMatters.com were made using InkScape. It’s simple to use and with a huge number of tutorials available, someone, somewhere will have answered every question you might have or demonstrated every technique you may need.
I use it for block diagrams, info diagrams, web graphics, blog images, logo design, greeting card design, t-shirt design — the list is almost endless.
What I like about InkScape…
- Works very well with my Wacom tablet
- Create and edit SVG vector images and export them to PNG files
- Much more cost effective solution than Adobe Illustrator
What I don’t like about InkScape…
- Not very much, it does exactly what I need, quickly and efficiently
Where to get InkScape…
InkScape is available for Mac and Windows through their website, here:
MailChimp — Email marketing business tool
MailChimp is an email marketing and list management solution. Whilst it’s a commercial product, it is (at the time of writing) free to use for a list of fewer than 2,000 email addresses and up to 12,000 emails per month. As a photographer, if you want to get into email marketing — and you should be! — MailChimp is a great solution.
Use the tool to create email signup forms to embed in your website as an easy way to start building your list. MailChimp handles the entire opt-in/unsubscribe process for you leaving you free of concentrate on creating content (campaigns) to send to your list. The tool also has tracks opens and clicks so you can see what works and equally important, what doesn’t.
What I like about MailChimp…
- Very easy to create an account
- Create templates to give a consistent look and feel to your campaign emails
- Track opens and clicks
- Mobile app
- Integrates well with WordPress
What I don’t like about MailChimp…
Where to get MailChimp…
MailChimp is an online tool. Create an account on their website, here:
Despite using MS Word since the late ’80s, back in the days when it was a DOS program, I’m now using Google Docs more and more. As someone who’s always on the move and constantly switching between my MacBook, iPhone, iPad and Android tablet it works out to be a better all round solution. The mobile apps work really well and the browser based solution for the MacBook is significantly faster to load than Word or Excel.
What I like about Google Docs…
- Fast load time
- Available on the move
- Cross platform compatibility
- MS Office replacement
What I don’t like about Google Docs…
- Not as feature packed as Word
- Table editing on a mobile device is unwieldy
Where to get Google Docs…
Google Docs is available from the following link. You’ll need a Gmail account to access it
In a word, Google Calendars are awesome. I’ve no idea how I managed to run a business and a family before I started using them. As with Google Docs, Calendars is a web-based tool that integrates seamlessly with iCal on the MacBook, my iPad and iPhone calendar and of course my Android tablet (I don’t use Windows but if you do, let me know how well they’re supported on that platform).
The true power comes in the ability to create multiple calendars. On all my devices I have a business calendar, a personal calendar a calendar for my wife and another for each of my two children. Their schedules appear on my devices so as enquiries come in I can instantly see if I’m available.
What I like about Google Calendars…
- Cloud-based calendar solution
- View and sync multiple calendars
- Subscribe to SugarCRM calendar to see client meetings and shoots arranged within the CRM (no need to copy and paste data!)
- Cross platform integration
- Searchable with Siri to quickly find appointments
What I don’t like about Google Calendars…
Nothing — it does exactly what a calendar application should.
Where to get Google Calendars…
Log into your Gmail account and add Google calendars or click through this link
These are a few of the business tools I’ve been using (and in many cases still do) over the years and definitely worth looking into to see if they’ll fit your own business needs.
Hope you find them useful and if you have anything else to add to this list, please let me know