We’ve entered a golden age of digital business tools. Today’s apps are built to work well with each other, to look great on multiple devices, to provide seamless access to cloud-based databases, and to be mashed up into customizable products via APIs and SDKs. Moreover, it’s easier than ever to find integration components, mobile apps and browser-based SaaS to fit nearly all of our operational needs – often with dozens of options in a given category.
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Choose Your Best Alternative Business App Options
New tools are conceptualized, developed and released into the market on a constant basis, and the virtually endless choices can be overwhelming. Small business owners today find themselves debating between the “established biggies” and new, often cheaper, “underdog” alternatives. As entrepreneurs, we are no longer required to stick with faceless multinational corporate giants who churn out products that are “good enough.”
Today’s small business runs on a variety of app types from a diverse set of software vendors. We’ve even got seemingly endless websites and communities dedicated to indexing, comparing and reviewing these products. Welcome to the era of choice.
This plethora of options, however, makes due diligence a challenge to say the least. You have to do enough research and comparison to ensure that you’re selecting the best tool for your business.
Of course, you’re short on time, too. Naturally. So don’t over-think your decision process. Keep your research confined to these three criteria, and the best apps for your company’s needs are likely to reveal themselves.
1. Does It Do Everything You Need It To Do?
For each category of tool, start by building a comparison table, where you’ll break down your options feature by feature. Even if you don’t intend to utilize every single functionality right this minute, you do hope that your business will evolve and grow, so it’s a good idea to include features that others see as important – especially as they relate to scalability.
Populate your chart using information readily available on the web, picking a few industry leaders and a few newer disruptors. While many smaller or newer apps offer the all capabilities you need, they don’t all offer everything, so do your homework.
For example, until recently, the number of project management platform options was reasonably limited. Basecamp was the established industry leader, and not just by a little. But then hungry underdogs like Trello and Asana disrupted the scene by capturing a significant enough market share to make more and more customers ditch Basecamp. Today, project management tools come in all shapes, sizes, and prices, so when you’re ready to take the plunge, look at the features first. Consider both storage and functional capabilities. It’s even possible to find an in-depth side by side feature comparison of the two.
By examining a biggie and an underdog side by side, you can determine whether the established market leader deserves your loyalty, or if it no longer cuts the proverbial mustard, in comparison to the newbies on the scene. Your ideal is to map out a comparison like this with every tool that makes the final cut into your consideration.
2. Is it As Accessible As It Should Be?
Some lesser-known digital products are underdogs for good reason. Perhaps they are lacking, or buggy, or nonresponsive on your mobile. Or perhaps their interfaces are insufficiently intuitive and pleasant to use.
Take the time tracking and invoicing category, for example. Freshbooks established itself as the small business accounting software industry leader in 2008. This Torontonian product reigned uncontested for a good five years. But in the last 18 months, several more reasonably priced options have emerged. Now even QuickBooks, a proper full-featured account bookkeeping platform, is trying to innovate quickly enough to keep up.
An accessibility evaluation should be relatively easy to perform, since most SaaS options offer free trials. By all means – take them up on that offer, and stalk their demos. See if you like working in the app’s environment. Does it seem intuitive, based on your preferences and the way you think and work? Does it match your style? If it’s a web app, does it display well on your mobile device? If not, is there a mobile version available? Are you dependent on your iPad, but this app doesn’t integrate well with the rest of your Apple apps? Do you prefer to receive your payments via Stripe, but it only supports PayPal? Is the app made to handle the types of customizations and integrations you’re looking for? If you are seeking add-ons, is there a community or ecosystem of developers offering these options?
Although it may seem like an intimidating amount of homework, taking an app for a test drive isn’t as taxing as it sounds. You’ll get a feel for whether or not it “gets” you rather quickly. Finding a Freshbooks alternative is easy. Simply look at the first underdog app on your list, and play with it. Invoice Ninja, for example, actually has a button on its home page labeled “Test Drive,” and their “Forever Free” promise lowers the barriers for thorough due diligence.
3. Is Support Included, Helpful, Attentive and Avoidable?
When investigating underdog apps, make sure you are able to access support, or at the very least a solid, searchable knowledge base to fill in gaps when you require guidance. Again, test drive. Does the app’s support staff reply to your emails and tickets? Do they offer live chat assistance, if that’s your preferred method of interaction?
Think about yourself as an app user. Are you inclined to figure everything out on your own, or do you depend on a good amount of hand-holding? If you are the “Why won’t it work? I need it to work NOW!” type, perhaps you need to go with an app that offers 24/7 live chat support. On the other hand, an app with a highly intuitive interface or an extremely narrow scope of functionality is naturally going to have less of a need for support.
To understand how support can make a big difference to an entire business vertical, let’s take a moment to dial it back a few years to when visual content marketing first got big. Until a few years ago, small businesses generally hired graphic designers to create all of their branded marketing materials, from logos to websites.
Photoshop, the go-to app for graphic designers, costs a few hundred dollars, but that made sense, since only professionals needed it, and they used it all day long. Created by Adobe, a sizeable corporation, Photoshop’s support was distinctively lacking. Responses took days and often didn’t appear at all.
Recently, however, business owners who handle their own marketing have woken up to the need for branded “card” graphics for social sharing and blog post title hero images. But hiring an expert to create such a high volume of images with such short lifespans doesn’t make sense. Hence the rise of specialized web apps like Canva and PicMonkey, which both launched in 2012 to fill the same niche demand. These new tools quashed the requirement for a skilled designer to make quick, consumable visuals and infographics. They’re extremely simple and intuitive for anyone to use, and yes, they also both offer extensive tutorial resources. In addition, PicMonkey boasts a knowledge base and email support.
So think about what your own support needs are likely to be for each type of app you’re researching. Are you a phone person? Does the app even provide a phone number at all? If you are uncomfortable communicating electronically and prefer a live person, is that available? Many of us prefer to reach out via social media channels. When you tweet their help division, are they quick to reply with helpful answers? Do they make any support service guarantees on their website? Does it cost extra? These are critical pieces of information to gather and compare.
The Right Choices Are Out There
Choices abound! After all, this is the age of the consumer.
Although it can be hard to pick the ideal business tools while avoiding the paralysis of overwhelm, self-knowledge and test driving are your keys. First, figure out what you need. Then, investigate the leaders and the up-and-comers in each category, keeping the specifics of your own work flow in mind as you go.
Spend the time to do the necessary homework on feature comparison, accessibility and support. It’s a worthwhile investment – at the end of this process, you will have set yourself up with the ability to conduct business with more ease and efficiency than ever before. 🙂