There is no doubt cloud-based apps help you grow your business successfully and let you provide a better overall experience for your customers.
But as you grow, a tipping point emerges that can make you feel like you are working for your apps — moving data and repeating data entry — instead of having them work for you.
Most independent and home-based businesses now use at least five cloud-based apps, including email, marketing, project management software, online calendars, invoicing and book-keeping, and cloud-based storage services.
This is great when you are starting up: Each cloud app will help you to organize your business operations without having to invest in licensed software.
They often have additional cool tools and an engaging interface that makes you want to use them to connect with your customers and build your online or home-based business.
But as you start to take on more customers, your initial productivity gains start to evaporate as you spend more and more time moving data between the various apps you use in your business.
Here’s how to win back that productivity and free yourself up to keep growing without increasing your back-end resourcing.
1. Map Your Workflow
Before you can scale your business, take on new hires, outsource to virtual assistants or connect your apps in the cloud, you need to know how you do what you do.
Map what you currently do, not what the perfect system would look like. It’s best to do this the next time you carry out the process, so you are documenting what really happens.
Too often, you may forget some crucial time-sucking task that you have been doing almost robotically each time.
Once you have mapped your workflow, look for where you duplicate your time and effort. These are the sorts of tasks you should be addressing first.
Mapping workflows will also help you before you take on new hires or outsource to virtual assistants. Using your workflow map, you can more clearly articulate exactly what you want done.
2. Backup to Google Drive or Dropbox
Backing up is the sort of productivity benefit you don’t notice until things go wrong. But you can also use your backup as your business filing system so that you can easily access any previous work.
A good backup system also prevents you from re-inventing the wheel. You can create templates for your next project work from similar client work you have done in the past.
Set up a Google Drive or Dropbox account and create a folder for backups. Check if the business apps you use can automatically save a copy of your files to your cloud storage folder for you. You can often indicate the backup folder where a copy of all your data should be stored.
3. Color-Code Time & Use Calendars to Visualize Data
The old adage says you need to work on your business, not in it. But as each working week unfolds, it is easy to get caught up in the minutiae of your day-to-day rather than stay strategic about what exactly you spend your time on.
Plan out your week in rough blocks of time, and color-code this onto an online calendar so you can create an infographic of how you spread your time out.
There are two ways to do this; it may be helpful to do both at first while you get a grip on your time management. First, you can track how you plan to spend your time.
Once you have blocked time for each major task of the week in its’ own color (client work, office admin, pitches and proposals, product and service development, finances, etc), you may realize you skew towards allocating more time on product development (which is fun and future-thinking) rather than the actual client work that is paying your bills.
The second way to do this is to spend a week tracking what you actually spend your time on. Twice a day, try and update your online calendar to record what you spent the last 4 or 5 hours doing.
At the end of the week, have a look at your color-coded calendar to see if the colors are representational of how your time should be spent. If you have an over-representation of the color you used for office admin or finances, for example, you need to focus on improving your productivity, stat!
4. Link and Sync Your Apps
Did you know you can get your apps to connect and share data in the cloud without having to re-enter all the information from one app to another?
I know businesses that have spent an hour a week re-entering their data between just two of the apps they use. So you can quickly free up quite a bit of weekly admin time just from using integration tools that connect your data between your business apps.
With each online app that you use, look for a menu selection that gives you access to integrations.
Some of these are simply called “integrations” (that’s easy!), others have a branded name (The Evernote app has a section of their online site called “The Trunk,” for example), others call them app stores, add-ons or the ecosystem.
Here you should be able to find a catalog of integration tools and third-party apps that let you connect this app to others that you may use.
The ones listed in your business apps’ catalog usually come with a privacy guarantee. Make sure you use an integration service that confirms they are not collecting or using your data.
For example, for us at CloudWork, we don’t store or read any data. We code app integrators that simply move data from one app to another without having to read or store the information while in transit. Most third-party integration providers will provide a similar privacy guarantee.
5. Automate Your Tasks
With the above four steps, you should have created some great productivity savings. Now it is time to look at automating some of the more basic tasks you do each week in your business.
Have another look at your workflow map and ask yourself which tasks get started because they are triggered by the previous stage. Can you automate it? Are there process stages where someone has to take a bulk action on all incidents in the past week or other time period? Can you automate that?
You can automate things like always adding new contact information from one app to all the others. Automating these sorts of tasks lets you keep your contact and customer information in sync no matter which app you are using — a great time saver.
You can also automate your backups so that a copy of all your newly created files or attachments in your business apps are added to your backup folder.
Getting started with automating your work is the biggest ongoing productivity gain you can make. Over time, you will adjust your whole mindset to be more focused on managing processes and eliminating duplicative and repetitive work.
What hacks are you using to make your business more productive? Share them in the comments.