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10 mostly free tools I use to run my virtual office

I work online. My clients are all over the world and my work is done via networked computers in virtual space. My life is online.

Sometimes I marvel at the materiality of other people’s work. A restauranteur has to transform food into a high-quality culinary masterpiece – each and every night, for each and every customer. A custom home builder has to fashion rough building materials into stylish, finished living spaces – over and over again, for each buyer.

My inability to fathom the materiality of their work is often mirrored in their inability to grasp the virtuality of mine.

I help people increase their visibility in online social networks, through development of thought leadership and cultivating real relationships with influencers. But first, people need to understand that social networks exist, that they are places that people go to interact and share information and that if you’re not there talking to your clients and prospects chances are someone else is.

Kind of makes you want to pick up a tool belt and make something, eh? Not me. I’m just not that good with my hands.

10-free-low-cost-tools

Virtual tools of the trade

Every few years I write an article about the tools I use online. I do this both to make an inventory of my own tools and, hopefully, to help others by sharing my experience.

Not all of these tools will work for you in your situation. But there might be one or two that make a big difference. Let me know in the comments any feedback.

Here are my tools of choice (in no specific order):

gmailGmail

Gmail is Google’s free and paid email service. I’ve been using Gmail for at least a decade. Formerly I was an Outlook user, probably for the better part of 20 years. I grew to hate Outlook, for too many reasons to list here, and jumped on Gmail as soon as I realized I could put Outlook behind me forever. (Confession: I still have an Office365 Outlook account or two lurking around.)

Lots of people dislike Gmail and I can understand why: the user interface can be challenging. But, for me, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

At the top of Gmail’s benefits is that it exists in the cloud. No more downloading copies of email to your home computer. This is not such a novelty now (even Outlook has a cloud version), but 5-10 years ago it was a huge advantage. My email is always available and searchable online, no matter where I am or what computer I am using.

And that brings up email sorting. I don’t sort my email into folders. Some people do, but this seems like a complete waste of time to me. If you want to retrieve an email, then just search Gmail. After all, it’s powered by the best search technology out there and it finds needles in haystacks all the time.

Email is still the foundational technology of online life. Gmail just works.

Cost: Free or $5/account/month

Benefits: Gmail is conveniently cloud-based, always accessible and I (almost) never have to use Microsoft Outlook.

google-calendarGoogle Calendar & Google Contacts

The allure of Outlook (back in the day) was the integration of an email manager with a calendar and contact manager.

I find that Google Calendar is an excellent replacement for Outlook’s integrated calendar. I can do everything I need to do when booking appointments, such as book recurring appointments and inviting others.

Google Calendar has a nice integration with Google Maps, so that the address of an appointment is easily mapped for my convenience. On my iPhone, I even get prompts to leave for appointments in advance of their start times based on the traffic and distance.

There are a variety of other calendar benefits that will be described below, mostly based on how easily Google’s cloud-based calendar integrates with other online tools and services.

When it comes to Google Contacts, I’m less enthusiastic. The Google Contact application is less than satisfactory in a variety of ways, but that is not as much of an issue for me because of some other tools I use, such as Nimble. Even LinkedIn is becoming more and more of a contact manager, allowing me to track when I connected with someone as well as keeping notes on what happens in my relationships.

Cost: Free

Benefits: I don’t have to use Outlook ever again and Google Calendar integrates easily with other tools.

nimbleNimble

Nimble is a social customer relationship management (CRM) system. I say “social” CRM because it integrates people’s social network identities together into one comprehensive identify profile. You can populate the contact records with the emails, phone numbers and street addresses you have, then Nimble supplements each person’s social accounts.

Nimble also has a simple capability to track leads and a sales pipeline. It’s not as sophisticated as some other cloud-based CRM systems, but it does the job for me.

Nimble fills a need for me that Outlook and other traditional CRMs don’t. It’s integration of the social networks where more and more of our communications take place is very powerful. People are no longer only reachable by email, phone and mail. We are on Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook. We are messaging each other through these services, as well as email. Nimble collects communications through all these channels and displays it in one unified inbox.

Social CRM is the way of the future and Nimble is a great way to start.

Cost: $15/month

Benefits: Nimble offers me robust and easy monitoring of key contacts in my networks.

calendlyCalendly

One of the inefficiencies I was noticing in my work was all the time I was spending setting up meetings with people. You know the way that works. You start with an email saying you’d like to have a meeting and you suggest some dates and times. Then the person you’re trying to meet with responds with another set of dates, since none of yours work with their schedule. You pick a date that works for you and finally you have a mutually convenient meeting date and time. All of this takes a few emails back and forth to set up, but these emails could take minutes to days to be exchanged. Meanwhile, your calendar may have changed.

Calendly fixes this problem. It is integrated with my Gmail Calendar so it knows when I am free and when I am busy, without showing outsiders any of the details of my calendar. I can set dates and times when I am available for meetings and blackout dates when I will be travelling or otherwise unavailable. I can even set different kinds of meetings, based on type or duration (eg., a quick 15-minute catch-up call versus a one-hour coaching session).

When I want to set a meeting with someone, I just email them the link to my calendar and they book a convenient slot. Sure, I could hire an assistant to book appointments for me, but that seems so old-fashioned.

Cost: $10/month

Benefit: Easier and faster appointment scheduling.

boxBox

I store all my work and client files securely in the cloud using Box.

Like many similar cloud-based file storage applications, Box installs on my computer and looks like a folder on my hard drive. However, the contents of my Box folder are synchronized with the Box server and then synchronized with every other computer that I use. I have Box running on my desktop computer, my notebook and on other devices that I use occasionally.

No matter what device I am working on, I get access to all my client files, all my work in progress, everything.

I used to use Dropbox for this, but I read some articles about its security and was concerned so I switched to Box. (Dropbox may have resolved some of these issues, but it’s too late now for me. I’m using Box and happy with it.)

There are other tools out there that do similar things. I’ve used Cubby a bit, Dropbox as mentioned, and iCloud for personal files, but I really like Box for its transparency and ease of use.

Cost: Free (up to 5 Gb storage)

Benefits: Always have offsite back up of business critical files, always have access to client files remotely.

lastpassLastpass

I have hundreds of passwords for online tools, websites, software, etc. There is no way I could remember all of these passwords, especially if they are strong passwords.

Lastpass is a password manager that stores passwords securely, as well as making it easy to login and logout of sites. Lastpass relies on an application that you install on your computer and access with a master password. It is important to make your master password very strong.

[More information on strong passwords]

Lastpass offers browser extensions for all major browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Safari) and these little tools help Lastpass recognize when you need to login to a site. When you go to a login page, Lastpass recognizes the site and prepopulates the login and password field. All you have to do is click the login button.

In this day and age of security concerns online, you need to have a password manager because the options are just unacceptable. You can’t use the same password for all your sites and you can’t use easy to remember and decipher passwords – they’re just not secure enough.

There are lots of password managers on the market – 1Password and Dashlane both seem to have some nice features. If Lastpass is not for you, find one that works the way you like and use it.

Cost: Free, plus $12/year for mobile access to Lastpass.

Benefits: Manages many passwords while allowing you to maintain strong passwords.

wordpressWordPress

WordPress is my web publishing platform of choice and has been for years. It is freely available, open source software that can be customized to perform a wide range of website functions.

What I love most about WordPress is the availability of many professional designs that can be customized for use in a wide range of situations. Sites like Themeforest offer a marketplace of WordPress themes, each with a live demo version.

WordPress is one of the easiest and most powerful tools for maintaining a personal or professional website or blog. There is a large global userbase so there are lots of skilled developers that can support you.

If you need specialized functionality on your site, WordPress offers a wide range of plugins that can do custom tasks. Say you want to add simple online shopping functions, increase security, or set up complex, customized forms, there is a plugin to do that on WordPress – some paid and many free of charge. Vaultpress is a paid plugin that allows you to maintain a site backup, for instance.

From a search engine optimization (SEO) perspective, WordPress is very well-designed out of the box, but the Yoast SEO plugin adds additional functionality.

Cost: WordPress is open source software that is available free of charge through many Internet Service Providers. For instance, WordPress sites can be hosted at GoDaddy for about $10-15 per month. WordPress.com is a hosted version of WordPress offers by Automattic at prices starting at $0.

Benefits: A world-class web publishing platform for merely the cost of hosting it.

bufferBuffer

Easily my favourite tool, Buffer is one of the tools that I used daily to do my job. I help clients manage their online social platforms and curate content for sharing within their networks. Buffer allows me to manage multiple social accounts and the sharing of content to those accounts.
What makes Buffer so special is the way you schedule future update via Buffer. You can schedule any share for a specific date and time, or you can create a queue for each social account and then just drop new content into the queue. This is Buffer’s killer app.

I describe it like an automated pitching machine, the kind you’d find in a practice batting cage facility. You load it up with balls and turn it on and the machine fires the balls at you at set intervals. You can adjust the timing of the interval, but all you need to do is keep the machine loaded.

Same idea with Buffer – load it up with awesome content you want to share and away it goes. You can program Buffer to share to your Twitter feed 5 times a day, say every 3 hours, and you can program it to share to LinkedIn and Facebook once a day. Convenient extensions for all browsers allow you to curate and queue up sharing while you are reading content online.

Buffer can also help you manage the discovery of great content to share, but its key functionality is in the distribution of shared content.

Cost: Buffer offers free accounts with full functionality (but limited capacity for queuing up shares), but there is also an affordable “Awesome Account” at $10/month that should handle most of your needs. I use the business accounts which start at $50/month and enable you to manage large numbers of accounts.

Benefit: Convenient and powerful tool for sharing content consistently to your social platform.

freshbooksFreshbooks

Freshbooks is the best invoicing tool I have every used. I love the interface and some of the features. While any accountant will tell you it’s not the best accounting platform, any entrepreneur will tell you it makes time tracking and invoicing so much easier.

What make Freshbooks so compelling to me us the ability to create and deliver an invoice via email. Clients receive a notification of an invoice and log into the Freshbooks site to print it and process it. I can set monthly reminders for invoices that are not paid and Freshbooks will send an auto-reminder email to the client. If you want to accept online payment for your invoices, Freshbooks can easily enable Paypal or Freshbooks’ own in-house payment processing.

There is also excellent time-tracking functionality for projects that require hourly tracking and billing. I can program different services at variable hourly rates, depending on who is doing the work. And the reporting is detailed and extensive.

Freshbooks may have some formal accounting shortcomings, but I am not aware of a better tool for an individual or small company to set up and have a robust billing system in place in minutes, and one that may serve their needs for months or years to come.

Cost: $30/month for unlimited client accounts.

Benefit: Reduces time required to issue and track invoices, plus it’s a pleasure to use.

slackSlack

Slack is a popular collaboration platform for virtual teams to work together. At first glance, it seems like no big deal – but there is something valuable in its simplicity.

In many ways, Slack is an instant messaging application with some enhancements. I use it to work collaboratively with my own team, as well as with some of my clients. We can have quick exchanges, back and forth, in running conversations that are archived. We can easily share documents we are working on. And it has a cool mobile app so that I can always answer a question, clarify an instruction or address an issue in real time.

Slack also supports a growing number of  third-party applications that can be used to enhance its functionality, for instance, if you want to have an integrated project manager. Slack is like digital mesh that ties us together into teams, yet remains porous and open enough to easily accommodate new team members, new clients, and new ways of using it.

Cost: Free

Benefit: Quick and easy to set up. Great tool for working with remote teams.

 


 

I would love to hear more about your favourite applications and how you’ve customized your own technology stack for working virtually. Please share your feedback in the comments below.

 

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3 Responses to 10 mostly free tools I use to run my virtual office

  1. Bonnie Porter November 2, 2016 at 2:16 pm #

    What a great list, Jay! Thanks for including Buffer to run your office! :)

    • Jay Palter November 2, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

      Buffer is one of my favourite tools to use, Bonnie. I couldn’t do what I do without it. Thank YOU (as a Buffer representative) for this awesome tool.

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