There are a bunch of online apps and services that make running Distilled much much easier, and I wanted to share these with you. This is mostly written from my perspective at Distilled LLC (our new American office) – as I wanted to give some idea of how we function as a small, flexible company. I also didn’t feel it was fair to keep some of these tools to myself – as they might help you be more focused, productive or cost-efficient.
The ‘Must Haves’
These are the apps which literally keep our business running; everybody uses them, and they’re working well for us.
The ‘shiny new toy’ of the webapp world; Dropbox provides an incredible service; at its most basic, you can sync a folder across multiple computers and backup the files on their servers. Their basic package is free, but you get more space on a premium account.
For Distilled, each staff member has an account, and we share our project files on it – allowing each person to have access to all necessary files from their desktop, without us having to run any kinds of classic shared drives or network storage devices.
If you’re not on Dropbox already, it’s definitely worth giving it a try – even if only as a way to make sure your most important folders are backed up in the cloud. And if you do want to give it a go, use this link to:
When we first launched Distilled in America, it was anticipated that we would outgrow our office within the first year. (In fact, three months later, we’re already about to move, and the new office has had to have been extended before we even moved in.) I didn’t want to sign up to a long term telephone contract, or have the difficulty of porting numbers between buildings when we move.
Using Skype lets us have a Seattle phone number that calls our computers for about $6/month. (Adding phone numbers in other cities or countries costs about the same, and means that people can call you from abroad without it costing them overseas rates.) We can receive calls wherever we are logged in – so being at conferences, airports or in our UK office doesn’t mean I’m unavailable.
For $3/month per person, each staff member has unlimited calls to anywhere in the US and Canada – that price is only $14/month for unlimited worldwide calls.
Of course, all this relies on you having an internet connection in your office (I’m assuming you do) and there can be a little bit of fiddling to get the audio levels right on each computer, but all together, I’d highly recommend it for any small business that needs a flexible phone system.
In contrast to Dropbox – a solid service that does just one thing well – Google Apps is a massive heavyweight that fulfills a huge number of roles. We primarily use it for email and calendars (all our Distilled email in the UK and US runs through the system) – and although you could just use it as an email POP server, the Gmail interface is my favorite user experience of any webmail service or desktop mail client. The calendar ‘just works’.
Also part of the bundle is Google Docs, most useful for its spreadsheet application which is fairly limited in terms of functions, but brilliant for collaborative data capture, editing, etc. For example: there are a bunch of internal files (blog post ideas and schedules, holiday calendars, link building resources, financial information) that we store there, and the user permissions allow us to restrict files to particular people or teams.
We also use the ‘Google Sites’ application; like a private ‘wiki’, it’s a collaborative site building tool, and we use it to power our private intranet. It also includes a local version of Google Wave – the less we say about that the better.
For businesses, Google Apps costs $50 per-user-per-year, which is a reasonable cost, even if just to save the hassle of managing mail servers.
The Blue Ribbon Apps
There are a variety of apps that we also use at Distilled, which aren’t as ‘mission critical’ but having tested out the alternatives, we’ve settled on these.
Distilled has always taken a fairly relaxed view to internal management practices such as time tracking. We believe that the real value is to help you identify which projects and task-types are efficient or profitable, and which areas need looking at more closely. We don’t use it as a tool to keep tabs on what our staff are doing for each minute of the day, and I’ve always believed that time tracking should be very painless and take very little time out of the day.
There are a few tools that focus on time tracking, but we’ve just started using Toggl for our teams in the UK and the US.
From a management perspective, it has a web interface that lets me get to project and task data, and allows me to export exactly the kind of reports I need. Perhaps more importantly from a user’s perspective, they can input time using the website, a desktop app or an iPhone app. The app even lets you select the task/project you’re working on, and then hit a timer button to record time while you’re working, so there’s no need to log anything later on. Hopefully, the easier it gets to log time, the more useful data we’ll collect as a team.
Distilled has a mailing list of around 1,000 subscribers, who receive information about our SEO conference calls. Mailchimp handles the subscriptions and the sending with ease, and serves up friendly stats to help you grow your list and manage your campaigns.
With clients all over the world, we often need to arrange conference calls with groups of people in different locations. Go To Meeting allows each meeting participant to ‘call in’ using their phone or computer – and it supports sharing of the meeting coordinator’s desktop.
There are some tools that individuals prefer to use for different parts of their job.
I heard about this tool from Alexis Ohanian, who claimed it was making him a ninja with his time. It sits quietly on your computer, recording every application and website you use. It returns reports to you, specifying the percentage of your time spent on productive tasks, and doing things that might have just been time wasting.
I’ve not been in the office a lot since I started using it, so have’t collected a lot of data, but it’s definitely starting to be interesting already. I’d definitely recommend some manual tweaking though – lots of my clients’ websites are registered as being ‘distracting’, so my efficiency stats were dreadful at first. Give it a go, but be prepared for some surprises.
Oh – and the ‘Get Focused’ mode will block any distracting websites for an hour, to force you to get on with some work.
Distilled employees use a variety of systems for their ‘task management’ – from lo-tech wirebound notebooks to hi-tech online systems. Some ‘Distillers’ recommend Remember the Milk – an app which allows you to input tasks and read your to-do list online or on your mobile.
This tool lets you capture thoughts, ideas and notes very quickly – and find them again more easily that other similar systems might allow. In particular, people who follow the ‘Getting Things Done’ method of task management will find it a useful place to start the process by capturing anything that needs to be processed later on.
I’ve always been happy to read and post to Twitter via the website, but some people definitely prefer a desktop app – particularly if they want to watch the tweets from a smaller group of their friends.
I’m tempted to take another look at these now – I think Tweetdeck might be up my street – but take your pick if you’re looking to graduate up from the ‘plain vanilla’ website.
I’m not going to give SEOmoz a plug here just because we’re associates of theirs, but because for small and medium sized businesses without a dedicated search team, their Pro membership is an invaluable tool to help manage your SEO marketing. Plus, they’re currently really busy on a product launch that will (and I don’t say this lightly) change the way some organizations do SEO – check this out and keep an eye on their site for more info.
Rob Ousbey VP Operations - Seattle