Forecasting the future does not have to include handling a crystal ball. As a small business owner, there are tools to help you manage what the future of your business looks like—in sales, financial reporting and inventory, to name just a few. Here's a look at some of the applications that can help you look at your existing company information in a new way. (All software listed is web-based, unless otherwise noted.)
Salesforce is one of the pioneers of web-based software. Most sales forecasting applications come via a customer relationship management solution, and that’s the case with Salesforce, too. Not only do they have over 100,000 customers, they have a robust community of application developers that have created add-ons to let you customize your “install” of Salesforce in a way that handles your exact needs.
I have used the vanilla version as well as highly customized versions (which do require you to spend more than the base price, way more). In every case, I have found their base application and the add-ons to be powerful and easy to use. Most common pricing starts at $15 per user per month, but the “contact manager” plan is on sale for $2 per user per month until Jan. 31 (It does not have many sales forecasting uses, however.).
Zoho CRM (which has a sales forecasting utility built in) helps you study your lead generation methods, figure out where prospects are in the sales stage, evaluate competitors and figure out what’s working in every aspect of your sales process. I’ve used this tool on several client projects and like the simple dashboards, support areas and most importantly their reports module which lets you slice and dice every aspect of your customer database. The best part: Zoho has a free edition for up to three users on a limited plan. The pro edition starts at $12 per user per month.
Budgeting & Financial Projections
Intuit QuickBooks is nearly synonymous with small-business accounting. QuickBooks offers many tools for budgeting and forecasting on nearly any aspect of your business that you enter and track in the software. They offer desktop and web-based versions. So many reviews have been done on this package that it barely needs an introduction. Online Simple Start is the web-based version that starts at $13 per month. The QuickBooks Pro desktop application starts at $230. It allows you to create a pretty wide and sophisticated range of reports from your data.
Two notable areas that I want to point out: One, they have a hip new mobile payment device called GoPayment that ties back into the main program. Two, they built an App Center to allow developers to create customized solutions, just as Salesforce has done. It is worth a look.
PlanGuru is the type of desktop software (which isn't web-based) that you need when you want to go deeper than your basic accounting package will allow. Users can build the usual integrated balance sheet, income statement or statement of cash flow without any special formulas. But their wide range of business analytic tools will help you mine the financial data to make better business decisions. For example, you can build projections around different scenarios to see what will work best for your company. Pricing starts at $400, and you can download a free trial copy to test it out.
Tracmor is built on Amazon web services (which means it can scale up or down as needed) and is one of the only commercial open source inventory management solutions I’ve found. At only $19 per month for the lite plan, it would be worth spending a bit of time evaluating the product. The setup process needs a bit more explaining than what is currently available, but I did find answers in their support forum. It has a 30-day free trial.
Fishbowl Inventory works as a standalone desktop product and states that they are the No. 1 inventory control program for QuickBooks. I downloaded the free trial and it went seamlessly from there. It loads and runs easily and offers everything you would expect from a company that claims to be No. 1. The reports that could be generated from just the sample database were impressive.
The kicker: The software starts at $4,395, which is difficult to find on their website. Normally, I would tell readers to avoid any website that doesn’t disclose its pricing upfront. However, Fishbowl does indeed look to be one of the best inventory management tools out there.
Zoho CRM also has an order management module that deserves a quick mention. It comes with its pro edition, which starts at $12 per user per month.
InFlow Inventory is a desktop application created by Archon Systems that boasts over 210,000 users. They have a free edition, then a regular edition license for $299. After downloading it, I was able to easily figure out how to load and use the program. I appreciated the sample data they provide as it helps you navigate all the options before you load all your own inventory data. The free edition has 15 basic reports, but you’ll need to upgrade if you plan to have more than 100 products and customers.
My favorite business intelligence tool is Tableau Desktop. During a client engagement, I was able to use this advanced analytics software for a few months. It is powerful because it lets you manipulate and process your data visually. You can drag and drop rows and columns; it's made for the spreadsheet user who has started to exhaust the limits of what a spreadsheet can do. The desktop version starts at $999, but they also have a free public version for bloggers.
Real-time Analytics Dashboards
Ducksboard is one in an emerging class of analytics programs that aggregate all of your different reports or data streams into one unified location. That location might be your iPhone or an HD television hanging in your lobby. Pricing is $29 per month for unlimited widgets and dashboards. You can also test it in a 30-day free trial.
Geckoboard allows you to see your web analytics, your social streams and other key performance indicators no matter where they reside—on your network or on your mobile device. Pricing starts at $9 per month and also has a 30-day free trial.
Each of these tools can help you figure out what your company looks like in 2012, 2013 or in a specific time period. The tools built into each of these applications let you avoid guessing at what the future holds and help you make more accurate predictions, based on real data. And what small business won't benefit from a more educated and data-driven approach?
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