One of the things I noticed when we opened our business is that everyone seems to have an opinion about the best program, software, tool, or system to use for their small business. I quickly learned that Googling “<insert some activity> for small business” would yield at least 15 different tools that all seemed fine enough for what I was looking for, and that had decent reviews. It seems like everyone has their favorite tool, and everyone has an opinion on what’s the best thing to use.
There are plenty of comparison charts out there if you’re weighing different options and aren’t sure what’s best for you, and I’d definitely recommend you check out Reddit and Facebook Groups to get some first-hand feedback from small business owners in your industry or niche to get their recommendations. Today I wanted to share what I personally use, in case this is helpful to anyone!
I generally consider myself pretty tech savvy since I have a background in the software development industry and I’ve run several online businesses myself. I’m no stranger to this world but still, when we opened our brick & mortar business I felt totally overwhelmed by the options and what was the right option for us. After tons of research, trial & error, I thought I’d share what has worked for our business, in case there are any of you out there in a similar situation:
- If your business is brand new (not open yet, or less than 6 months old, or you do small volumes)
- If you don’t already have a systems or software in place to run your business
- If you are using something already and aren’t crazy about it
- If you are overwhelmed by the options out there and just want someone to tell you what worked for THEM
...then read on!
Again, there are TONS of options out there, and I’m sure in many cases there are even better choices depending on your business. Definitely do your research! But, this is what worked for us. My main criteria when picking something to use in our business are:
Is it easy to use, and easy to learn? This is table stakes...if I can’t figure it out without reading a complicated manual or taking a 5 hour course, then I’m not interested. I need to be able to fiddle around with it and make it work for us on my own, or I’m not going to use it
Does it have a decent reputation in the marketplace? There are always going to be some haters out there, so I never expect to find a tool that has great reviews 100% of the time. BUT, I do want something that has been around for awhile, has at least a decent reputation in the marketplace for being a “top” tool or program, and that has a big community of users that I can tap into if I need help. I never go for something brand new that no one has heard of. I prefer something that’s fairly popular, that has free documentation and training online, and that has a big group of people on Facebook/Reddit who can help me if I get stuck.
Is it relatively cheap, or free? I don’t know about you, but when we were launching our business funds were tight. I couldn’t afford to invest 5K in a POS system, pay exorbitant licensing fees for a timekeeping app, or pay a software developer thousands of dollars to set up our website. We were on a serious budget and every dollar counted, so I often looked for low-cost or free options that still met criteria #1 and #2.
Soooo...without further ado, let me share the top 3 tools I use day in & day out with my business, and that I would recommend to any other business owner who is just starting out. As you grow and scale, you may start needing something more heavy-duty than what I’m talking about here. Keep in mind this is what we used from day 1 in our business, and now that we are averaging 30K+ every month in sales, these tools still continue to scale with us.
I also put together a list of ALL the tools I use to run my business if you’re looking for a more complete list or additional recommendations. If you’re interested in that free resource guide, you can download it here.
OK, Let's dive in!
1. Point of Sale - Square.
I’ve used Square as a payment processor for three different small businesses (one craft biz, one service-based biz, and now our retail bakery), and find it to be extremely easy to use and seamless. I honestly have nothing but great things to say about using Square as a POS system. Yes, depending on how big you get you may be able to find cheaper payment processors out there, especially if your average sale is more than $20 or so and you're doing more than $20-30K per month. But for anyone who is just starting out, or not doing really high volume sales, I would say go with Square.
When you sign up, Square sends you a free swipe reader that you can use to accept any credit or debit card. The Register app is free to download on your device (we have it on iPhones and iPads at our shop). You can input your inventory super, super easily either through the desktop version of Square or through the app itself. It’s easy to set up different tax rates for different items, so if you sell food and gifts (like we do), you can charge different tax rates for these items. The reporting is awesome too...I can slice and dice our sales numbers different ways to trend how our business is doing and easily track our sales. They have a great Dashboard app so I can see daily sales info from my phone if I’m not at the shop. We also use Square for our employee timekeeping, and the Dashboard app also lets me see who is clocked in at any given time, which is a nice bonus if you have employees. I also use Square to report on our labor vs. sales costs, which I recommend you do if you have employees!
If you’re in the USA, you know that chip cards are the new thing, and Square has a decent chip reader that you can buy for $99. We have had some issues with the chip reader, but overall it works “fine enough” for us. I’ve spoken with other small business owners who use the chip reader and have heard mixed reviews about how well it works. It hasn’t been enough of an issue for us to switch processors...the benefits definitely outweigh the downsides for us.
I love that we can accept ANY form of payment at the same rate. That makes it super easy and I never have to say we don’t accept AmEx, Discover, whatever. It also accepts Apple & Android pay, which is pretty cool.
Another nice feature we use a lot is the customer tracking and engagement options. Customers can send us messages, leave us feedback, request refunds if we make a mistake, et cetera. We can issue coupons, refunds, send messages, and target specific customer groups with marketing campaigns...like if we want to offer $5 to anyone who hasn’t been to the shop in a while, Square makes that really easy to do!
Their base rate is 2.75% per transaction. Apparently they will negotiate your rate if you do more than 250K per year in sales, but this is not something I have experience with yet...though I should look into it, because we are on track to do double that this year in sales.
Side note: We also looked into both Shopkeep and Clover, and ultimately decided to use Square because it's just the easiest option, really feature-rich, and (for us) the rates were lowest with Square.
In summary: if you are a small business just starting out and you want to accept credit or debit card payments, sign up for Square. It is so, so easy, free to get started, 2.75% per transaction to accept any type of credit card or smartphone payment, and the reporting is amazing. Make it easy on yourself and don’t mess around with anything more complicated! You have bigger things to worry about while you work on getting your doors open.
2. Bookkeeping & Accounting - Xero.
Xero is a competitor to Quickbooks, and we use it for all of our bookkeeping and accounting. They have different payment plans and options depending on what you need...we also process all of our payroll through Xero and invoice our wholesale clients, and I think we pay around $60 per month.
I’m definitely no pro at accounting, and I lean heavily on our accountant every quarter to double check my work. Even with that, Xero is easy enough for me to use that I can cobble together our bills every month. It has automatic reminders for when I need to pay a bill, which is especially useful at tax time when I have to send our payments in.
I also like that Xero integrates with a lot of different software so you can automate all of your billing/payments/money “stuff” and keep it all in one place. It also hooks into Square, so our daily sales numbers get imported automatically and I don’t have to do anything extra to make that happen. Sweeeeeeeeet!
I would highly recommend Xero if you are just getting started. It’s very easy to get going with (even if you’re an accounting n00b), and will be able to handle your business as you grow and scale, too.
3. Employee Scheduling - Google Calendar.
I’ll be honest with you...this is one we went back and forth on a few times! When we hired our first employee, I kept the schedule in Google Calendar, but felt like it wasn’t “professional” enough. I use Google Calendar for almost everything in my personal and professional life...if it isn’t on the Google Calendar, it isn’t happening. So, it felt natural when we started producing employee schedules to start it out in Google Calendar.
Once we were up to 4 or 5 employees, I started to feel like I should look into something different. We had been using the free TSheets pilot for their timekeeping functionality, so I started keeping the schedule in TSheets for a couple months. It integrated nicely with Xero, so I could automate the process of running payroll each month. It also had some nice alerting features to let employees know when a new schedule was published, and other cool things like that. Honestly, I loved TSheets and actually I would recommend it 100% if you are looking for something more full-featured or manage a larger team (>10 employees).
BUT, to be honest with you I didn’t feel like it was worth it (for us) to spend money on something like TSheets when I could do almost all the same stuff in Google Calendar. So after a couple months of using TSheets, we switched back to Google Calendar and I have been really happy with our system! I set up a “private” calendar and invite all of our employees in View Only mode. When I’m working on a draft of the schedule, I save the events as “Private”, then convert them to “Public/Shared” when I’m ready to finalize the schedule and share it with employees. I put together a quick video demo of this process on my YouTube page, if you want to see exactly how I set this up every week. Honestly, I find this extremely easy to use and better yet, it’s 100% free :-)
Alright … so those are the three programs I use almost every day to run our business. If you’re interested in more recommendations, I put together a resource guide that has ALL the programs I use to run our business (11 in total)...everything from file storage, to social media, e-mail marketing, timekeeping, etc. If you want to grab that free download, you can do so here!