When the decision was made to expand the business and create the Mesuva Web Development identity, we recognised that we could use a lot of online technology to help things run smoothly. In the past the business was simply run from a personal email address and by doing invoicing and record keeping by hand. One of the goals we set was to be able to work effectively from a few laptops anywhere in the world with a reliable internet connection. We also felt that the management of the business should be not tied to any particular computer.
In this blog post are some details of the technological solutions to business management tasks that we have set up. If you run a business or are setting one up, you will hopefully find some of the things we have set up useful or thought-provoking.
Our email system
Emails are the top priority item to get right when running a computer related business. In our case at least, I would say that 90% of the communication we do is through email and email attachments.
With an email system, it is important to make sure you can view your up-to-date email on a variety of machines/devices and not just one main computer. For this, we view our email account using IMAP. Simply put, IMAP leaves your emails on the server and conveniently marks them as ‘read’ when you view them. For example, I use an iPod to view my emails when I am on the go. With IMAP, if I view an email on my iPod and then later jump onto my main computer, this email appears as well, but in the already read status. It also means that the emails are backed up because there are then multiple copies.
Those that have used a web based email such as Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, etc, will know how handy it is to be able to view your email from any machine that is connected to the web. What many people don’t realise though is that you can normally view your business/home email accounts via a web interface as well.
Our current mail host has a web based email facility set up already, providing two different systems. Although these systems do the job, the systems are,well, clunky.They lack the user friendliness of a well designed system such as Gmail. Luckily, it is possible to set up asystem of your choice on your own website. In our case, we decided to use an open source system called Roundcube. This was easy to install (for a web developer) and configure on our web host. The interface is attractive, easy to use and a vast improvement over the existing options. So for the occasions where we don’t have our computer at hand, but need to spend some time checking and replying to emails, we have available a great web based email system.
Our telephone ‘system’
Telephones are almost the complete opposite to emails in terms of portability. Yes mobile phones are physically portable, but they are expensive to ring and ring from and are prohibitively expensive if you are overseas. A fixed landline is just that, fixed to one spot, one telephone.
VoIP services such as Skype have changed the way we can now communicate. Like email, a Skype account can be signed into from most computers as well as mobile phones. Skype is mostly known for free computer to computer phone/video calls, but can easily ring landlines and mobile phones. What Skype also offers however, is the ability to have a ‘normal’ phone number that links back through to Skype. This has several benefits:
- We can be anywhere in the world and a client can ring the same number to reach us. To them it just costs a local phone call. If necessary, Skype can be set to forward through the number to another phone such as a mobile if need be.
- To a client the actual phone number looks professional. I don’t think a mobile phone number is an appropriate business number.
- Several computers (or other devices such as my iPod) can be logged into the same Skype account. They all ring at the same time, so it is easy to choose who answers the phone.
- It has a built in answering machine for missed calls. When a message is recorded, an email is sent to you know to let you know this. Skype can also send SMS’s.
- Skype can manage phone numbers and old messages, making it a useful tool in itself. You can cut and paste phone numbers off of a website directly into Skype to dial them.
- We have microphones built into our computers, so we effectively have hands free phones. If you have had to use a computer while a phone is wedged up against your shoulder, you will know how handy this is.
- If we speak to someone who is also using Skype, we can share our computer screen to show/explain ideas and developments.
- When all costs are considered, it is generally cheaper than a normal phone or mobile. If you are on naked broadband, the cost of having a Skype number is much less than phone line rental (at least in South Australia).
- One final feature I really like is that when a call comes through it will pause any iTunes music that might be playing.
I’ve been a fan of wikis for a long time, finding them an excellent place to store notes, links and records. Most people know of Wikipedia, but do not realise that a wiki can be incredibly useful in a business or organisation that needs to store lots of notes. Notes on a wiki are immediately available to all users who have access, can be modified by other users, are easily searchable, printable and are well organised. A wiki also keeps track of changes, so if you delete/overwrite something, that information is retrievable. On a day to day level I use the wiki as a todo list and bookmarking tool. Longer term, I can retrieve technical solutions to tricky problems. The usefulness of a wiki becomes obvious after only a few uses – you don’t ever want to go back to miscellaneous files, scribbled notes and, *gulp* paper.
We chose the system Dokuwiki for our wiki system as it is open source and easy to install. It also has some great features like double clicking to edit pages.
Our accounting system
In the past I managed my relatively few jobs of invoicing and record keeping manually using some template wordprocessing documents. This worked ok for a while, but the ‘system’ didn’t keep track of expenses very well and was time consuming.
To keep our accounting records in better shape and provide a way to automatically generate invoices, we found an online system called Saasu. This system is Australian, meaning it is accurately set up to handle Australian tax considerations. It displays cashflow in graph form and is very easy to manage overall.
The main timesaving feature we like from this product is that you can type in the details of a job and click a single button to generate a PDF of an invoice, complete with our logo and details. This is a common feature of many accounting packgages, but Saasu is highly configurable in this regard. Also, because it is web based, there isn’t the reliance on one person (and machine) to manage the accounts.
One small thing we have set up is Dropbox accounts on our machines. This free and simple service is simply a shared directory. If I put a file into the Dropbox folder, all computers can see it. This could be achieved with a shared network folder, however this means there needs be a server or a computer that is always on. Dropbox syncs up the folders, including a folder on the Internet. Also, when a file is added to the folder, others get notified with a small pop up on their machine – clicking on this notification (called Growl by the way), takes the person directly to the new file.
At this point we feel we have achieved one of our setup goals – the ability to manage the business from pretty much anywhere. Our notes, emails, phone system, accounting system and important files are all securely accessible online, meaning that our computers are only needed for the nitty gritty of actual development. Our website and this blog are also editable online and can be updated without any development tools. We of course take regular backups of our work and computers’ files but the management systems are backed up by their very nature of being on the web. Simply put, the management of our business is now purely online.
Most of the above systems were free to set up, or cost very modest amounts per year. If you are interested in organising something like this for your own business and have questions (or perhaps would like some help setting things up), we are more than happy to point you in the right direction.