Our guide to essential software for small businesses

We’re true believers in the power of going paperless - taking advantage of digital tools to make business easier, quicker, and even a bit more fun. So here’s a list of some of the ones we like most.

These can be useful for any business with access to the web, whether you’re a digital creative agency or a traditional whiskey distillery. For small businesses and startups, smart use of time-saving tools can provide a real leg up, especially in your early stages.

We’ve listed some of the bigger players here, but if you keep an eye on software communities like Product Hunt and Indie Hackers, you’ll find the latest tools as they’re released. As well as that, we’ve added some advice at the end on how to find the best industry-specific software for your small business.

Operations

Back-office stuff doesn’t mean filing cabinets full of forms anymore. These digital tools are simple to use, nicely designed, and save you loads of time.

Accounting

While there’s no replacement for an expert accountant (yet!) there’s some really useful software you can use to make your everyday bookkeeping a breeze, for a relatively low cost.

Xero - a super popular all-in-one accounting software, Xero sorts out your payroll, expenses, invoicing, tax returns and more, alongside some neat project tracking tools. You can give your accountant access, too.

Freeagent - similar to Xero, this one’s aimed specifically at smaller businesses, with many of the same features and some nice dashboards to see your progress.

Crunch - a combination of accountancy software and accountants-for-hire, a subscription to Crunch might be a little more expensive but covers the vast majority of your accountancy needs.

Pair these with small business banking apps like Coconut (which is made for sole traders and the self-employed) and Starling (for limited companies) and you’re pretty much sorted for money matters.

Customer Support

You won’t have much of a business if you don’t keep your customers happy. Don’t leave your support to an email inbox - things can get messy very quickly. Instead, a CRM (customer relationship management) system helps you understand who your customers are, what they want, and how you’re serving them.

Zendesk - 'support, sales and customer engagement software’, Zendesk is pretty simple to set up for something so comprehensive.

Freshdesk is the biggest competitor to Zendesk, and is said to be a little simpler and easier to use, with a free option so you can see if it works for you.

LetterBase is a small and simple customer support messenger. It sits in the corner of your website and lets customers send messages to you directly.  

UserReport - surveys and feedback widgets that plug simply into your website, so customers can tell you what they think. There’s a free version and it’s easy to set up. Alternatively, you can make really simple feedback forms with Typeform.

If you’re on a budget, you can make your own CRM using Airtable, the free spreadsheet / database app. Have a look at Airtable templates to save having to build one yourself.

And you’re a small creative agency, you might consider using Dubsado or Service Provider Pro, which let you build ‘client portals’ - really useful for maintaining collaborative relationships while keeping things professional.

Staff holiday planning

Timetastic - what else? The best tool for tracking employee annual leave - no spreadsheets or forms needed. You can request & approve holidays in a click, and see where everyone is at a glance with personal holiday calendars.

Communication

Email

Email is undergoing a bit of a renaissance at the moment. The big players have stagnated a little, offering little in terms of innovation. So here’s a few services that rethink the inbox. They’re all paid services too, which means they’re not funded by selling your personal data to advertisers.

Fastmail - distraction-free and minimally-designed. Speedy, as the name suggests.

Hey - this clever app organises your inbox by importance, helping you prioritise what matters and clear out the fluff. Built by the people that made Basecamp.

Superhuman - invite-only, this one comes with a lot of hype. It’s fast, minimal, and intelligent, but some say it’s not worth the high cost.

Protonmail - a privacy-first service based in Switzerland; fully encrypted with top-notch security.

Video calls

For when a phone call is a bit impersonal, video calls are a nice way to connect when you’re working remotely. Remember to light yourself properly and keep your pets in another room.

Zoom - quickly becoming the default option for businesses across the world, Zoom certainly does what it promises with minimal fuss. There are some privacy concerns, however.

Google Meet - free and easy to use. Not to be confused with Google Hangouts (its previous name) or Google Duo (2-person video calling designed for personal use).

Whereby - Nicely designed and made for teams, this one’s got custom branding and a bunch of useful features for the smaller business.

Instant messaging

For when an email is too formal and you need a faster way to talk, workplace instant messaging is the way to go. Just remember to turn your notifications off when you’re off work, or the conversations will never end.

Slack - the gold standard when it comes to workplace chat apps. Discussions are divided into channels (chat rooms, basically) for team talk, and you can send private messages too. If you’ve never moved past Skype or email, it can be a game changer.

Discord - originally designed for the gaming community, this chat app is perfectly usable in a business setting. Although it doesn’t integrate with your favourite work apps, it is free and easy to use, which can be ideal for startups and small businesses.

Twist - a bit like Slack, but with more focus on productive collaboration, including more structured communication, rather than just an endless chat window. If you keep losing track of discussions in your other chat apps, Twist will help you find them.

Productivity

Project Management

These tools cover both personal productivity and project management for teams. For when you need to move on from Post-It Notes.

Trello - organise your projects into visual boards, move things around, and label what needs to be done in sequential order. Add in team collaboration and you’ve got a great way for everyone to keep on track. Free to use, with a paid version containing extra features.

Basecamp - a project management tool for teams; ideal for small businesses. Focuses on simple collaboration, with task lists, document sharing, forums for projects, and automated check-ins.

Harvest - this is a simple time tracker for teams that helps everyone stay focused. While you don’t want to get caught up in paranoia productivity, it’s really useful for keeping track of the time you spend on certain projects to stop things getting out of control and making sure overtime is logged.

Systems and automation

While this software is great to have, it's even better when it all works together.

Zapier - connects hundreds of business apps together for automated functions. An example: you receive a customer query in Zendesk, and Zapier would add it as a task to Trello for you to log and automatically send the support team a message in their Slack channel. It's super flexible and can save you loads of time.

IFTTT - basically Zapier, but for personal use. It connects all your 'internet of things' connected home devices, allowing you to keep useful data on your house and home, and make your lights turn off when you leave the house for example. These days, it has more and more business applications.

Airtable - another mention, but it's really versatile for organising things. It’s a bit like Microsoft Excel, but designed to be used much more creatively. We use it for putting together ideas for the Timetastic blog; you'll be able to come up with your own creative ideas.


Finally, there’s a huge variety of software out there made specifically for certain industries. With a bit of smart research, you might find something that’ll totally transform your business.

For example, the legal profession has an abundance of tools for case management, legislation research, and record organisation.

So for your own industry, no matter how niche you are, there’ll probably be something out there for you. Try searching for “best [industry] software [current year]” and you’re sure to find some hidden gems.