Over the past two decades, Americans have turned entrepreneurs into heroes. People who dream of running their own companies—from biotech start-ups to the corner ice cream store—imagine themselves as the next Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard dropout who founded Facebook and became a billionaire.
The reality, of course, is far different. The life of most entrepreneurs is one of never having enough—never enough time, or money, or connections.
Luckily for the millions of cash- and time-strapped small-business owners in America, inexpensive and free productivity tools have been exploding onto the Web. Most are designed to transform the chief-cook-and-bottle-washer life of the average entrepreneur into one that is a little more heroic—and far less chaotic.
Hundreds of software companies now offer so-called hosted applications—software that was once available only to large companies with the money and the technical staff to install it on site. Now, it's de rigueur for these tools to be elegant to look at and easy to learn. Task management software like 37 Signals' Backpack and "follow me" phone systems like Grand Central appeal to the diverse masses of entrepreneurs who want to use software without the rigors of actually having to read the user's guide—or take out a loan to pay for it.
Already, savvy entrepreneurs are dramatically improving their productivity and boosting their sales. But as these small companies grow, so do their workloads. Rather than add employees and overhead, many employ virtual assistants to do the mundane tasks they simply don't have the time to do.
Help for the "solopreneur"
One of the better-known proponents of productivity tools and virtual assistants is Michael Port, author of the book Book Yourself Solid and the soon-to-be-released Beyond Booked Solid. Port, a Tony Robbins-like author and speaker who coaches new entrepreneurs, is himself a "solopreneur." Says Port: "I don't need employees, and they don't like me."
But he does like systems. Like his mentor, E-Myth author Michael Gerber, Port likes to talk about working on your business rather than in it. "The tools you use are only as good as the philosophy with which you run your business," he says. "Every tool I use I create a constraint around," he adds, meaning that he follows rules for using that tool—such as spending only 15 minutes creating a regular presentation or checking E-mail only twice a day.
Rather than hire the dreaded employees, Port relies on seven independent contractors and a handful of affordable Web-based tools to manage his speaking and webinar schedules, bookkeeping, sales, marketing, and operations, which he runs from a home office.
Port and his team use RegOnline for registering attendees to his workshops and webinars ($3.50 per registrant); Basecamp, an online collaborative project management system ($12 a month and up); Wrike for managing E-mail as a team ($3.99 a month); and 1ShoppingCart.com for website orders and payment ($29 a month and up). His most expensive tool is Daylite, a customer relationship management package that's also hosted on the Web, for $189 per user per month—a price he calls a steal.
Perhaps Port's most innovative tool, though, is one he customized himself: He keeps his operations manual online, on a password-protected blog that he created with Typepad, an inexpensive blogging tool. It's part of Port's system of leveraging information and ensuring that the progress of his company doesn't rest on his shoulders alone.
Doing more with less
The upside to all of these tools is obvious—use them wisely, and you can do more in a lot less time. For entrepreneurs with compulsive creative urges, the promise of exponentially greater productivity is a siren call.
Consider Tim Barklage. Barklage, 34, is the cofounder of St. Louis-based Better Life, a line of ecofriendly cleaning products that he's launching this month, while continuing to work at his full-time job in information technology for a $1 billion outsourcing company. Like millions of enterprising peers, Barklage needed to keep his day job while managing the monumental amount of work that goes into starting a company—and, he says, living up to his "obligation to be an excellent husband and father."