Six Indispensible Tools for a New Business Startup

New Business Resources, dropbox, freshbooks, hostgator, bluehost, clio, It’s not every day you can say this: I haven’t been writing as frequently on this blog as I’d like because I have been busy setting up a new business.

Earlier this year I decided to go out on my own and launch a new law firm, the Corcoran Law Firm.

When you start a new business, you have a million different details to attend to, and a million questions to answer.

From new phone systems to email providers to billing and invoicing software, it seems there are a million choices you need to make.

Fortunately, there are many more options for a new business owner than there were even a couple of years ago. And most of them are better — and cheaper — than ever before.

If you don’t want to pay a fortune for a traditional phone system, you can use your cell phone or an internet-based system. If you don’t need a large office space when you start out, you can use a flexible virtual office program. If you don’t have a huge budget for advertising and marketing, you can start a blog that allows you to cultivate future clients for nearly free.

I told myself a long time ago if I ever started a law firm, I would not compromise on how I chose to set it up. I would use systems and technologies that work well and reduce inefficiency. I would also streamline costs so I could keep my clients’ costs down and give me the freedom to pick clients I want to work with.

It’s my opinion that in the 21st century, lawyers shouldn’t practice law using the tools and methods of the 19th century. Frankly, many lawyers continue to use these outdated technologies and systems.

So I have made the firm as paperless as possible, reducing waste and unnecessary paper. I am using a Mac computer which is more stable and reduces IT costs. I am using an internet-based phone system so wherever I have internet access, my office phone rings through to me.  My voice mails are transcribed and emailed to me wherever I am.

I did a lot of research and testing before I choose the tools I am using. I wanted to share a few of those resources in this article.

Almost all of these tools are useful not just for law firms, but for many different kinds of businesses.

I tried all of the tools below, and I am only including below tools which I thought were useful and a good value.  (Some of these links are affiliate links, so this blog might receive a small commission if you click through and become a customer. If you do sign up through our link, we appreciate it!)

1.  Dropbox for Virtual File Storage

Just a few years ago, if you wanted to set up a secure server to store your electronic files for a new business, you could have spent thousands on a dedicated box that sat in a closet in your expensive office. The box would be obsolete the day you purchased it. You probably also needed to pay an IT guy to set it up for you and to come out every time it went down. Which could be frequently.

I worked at offices like this. Every time the server went down, it cost money, because no one could get work done.

Now, you can just use Dropbox. The company describes its service in a tongue-in-cheek way as a “magic pocket” that always travels with you, no matter what pair of “pants” you are wearing that day.

Here’s their video explaining how it works:

Basically, you download some software and your “Dropbox” becomes another folder on your computer where you store files. However, you can always access and change those files, no matter what computer you are using to access those files.

Dropbox allows you to have all your photos, videos, and documents easily accessible for multiple devices (i.e. your PC or Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android device, etc.).

They give you a free 2GB to get started, which is like giving someone a small taste of crack. Soon you will be hooked like me. The next level up is just $10/month for 50GB – which is a great deal.

2.  Freshbooks for Time Tracking and Invoicing

Freshbooks is a web-based system that provides easy time tracking, billing, and invoicing. You can format beautiful invoices custom-tailored with your logo and accept online payments quickly and painlessly.

They boast that accepting such quick online payments means you will get paid quicker, which is good news for any small business.

I couldn’t find a short video showing how Freshbooks works, but here’s a short video from Freshbooks showing another company that uses Freshbooks:

You can create estimates for potential clients, then convert the estimate to an invoice with two quick clicks. Another nice feature is if you have subcontractors, they can set up free accounts to invoice you, which you can then turn around and turn into an invoice to your clients.

I used Freshbooks for a few weeks, and I really liked its features. I would still be using it but I decided to start using a cloud-based practice management feature called Clio which is designed for small law firms. (See my review of Clio below)

Clio offers a similar feature, and I am already paying $49/month for Clio, so I didn’t need to use both. However, if I weren’t using Clio, I would use Freshbooks.

There’s one feature my Clio account does not have which I miss from Freshbooks. Freshbooks has a cool feature where you can pay about $2 per bill and they will print, address, stamp and mail off a bill for you.

I prefer to send invoices by email. But if you have a couple of clients who want an old-fashioned paper bill, this can save you time.

Like Dropbox, Freshbooks allows you to try out their system by letting you sign up for a free account with up to 3 customers.

3.  Bluehost or Hostgator for Website and Blog Hosting

I am a big fan of Bluehost and Hostgator for website and blog hosting. I am currently using both, and they have been very reliable.

Hostgator has been hosting this blog, and their technical support has simply blown me away.

I will give you an example.

Late one night, I decided to upgrade my version of WordPress (the open source content management software I use for this blog) and the new version wasn’t compatible with the theme I was using, so my site disappeared. I had no idea how to fix the problem.

I had reached the limits of my technical abilities.

Then I logged in to the Hostgator support chat feature and, chatting in real time with a support person after midnight PST, their support team somehow got me back online. I had no idea how to fix the problem so I would have been lost without them.

4.  Clio for Law Firm Practice Management

This is one of the few resources on this list which is really only for lawyers. However, I’m including it because it is really a crucial addition to my new package of tools I’m using for my business. Clio is a web-based practice management system that is specifically designed for solo practitioners and small law firms.

It integrates with Google products and other popular features like Google Calendar and Dropbox.

Clio stores important client data that is securely accessible anywhere: from your PC, your Mac, and even your iPhone, iPad or Android device.

The company has really thought through how to redesign cloud-based practice management software.

Their support is stellar. Although they have made the site as intuitive as possible, there are still some customizations which are not easy to implement. Every time I have run across a bump in the road, I have called them up, and one of their friendly support representatives has cheerfully guided me to a workable solution.

I also love how they use “crowdsourcing” to determine what features to add next. If you ask a support person if the company can add a feature, they patiently document the request because they determine what features to add based on how many “votes” that desired feature receives.

5.  Shoeboxed for Receipt and Expense Tracking

Shoeboxed is a really cool idea for anyone who has a ton of paper clutter, receipts, and business cards lying around.

They will take all of that clutter off of your hands and allow you to spend your available time on your business.

Shoeboxed takes those scraps of paper and scans them, organizes them, and creates exportable files that you can use with accounting, CRM and email marketing tools.

Here’s a quick video from the company showing how it works:

6. Google Apps For Email

After I set up my new law firm website using Bluehost, then I needed to set up my a new work email address.

This can be a huge hurdle for small business owners, and it can be expensive. I didn’t want to pay an IT support person to configure new email.

Setting up a new work email address can be so confusing that a lot of small business owners just give up and use a free email account as their “business account.” Or they create a new account that looks like [email protected]  I wanted a more professional look with my domain in my email address.

It turns out Google has a great solution with their free Google Apps for business.  I was able to use a free Google Apps account to set up a Gmail account for my new work email.  As a result, I have the professional email address I wanted, but it’s really easy for me to use and maintain the account using the familiar Gmail inbox.

What’s more, it was really easy to configure my work email with my new Android cell phone.

Combined with Dropbox, this one feature really slashed my start-up costs.

Do you have any other recommendations of cheap or free resources for a new business start up?  Share them below in the comments!

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Photo credit: Flickr/veryuseful