Is it possible to run a paperless business?

Ten years ago, going paperless would have been desirable but almost impossible. Now, the idea of running a paperless office is just about doable. I should know, I’ve been trying for long enough. Here’s my experiences and some handy tips to help you make your business paperless, too.

I hate filling out forms. I may have an allergy to paperwork. So much so, I often go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paperwork myself.

I rarely work hard. I work smart instead. You may find me toiling over something for a while, only to discover that over time, I’ve made a saving in some way. So I’m always on the look-out for novel ways of doing boring things faster and more efficiently. Going paperless falls slap bang into this area, but it’s not been easy.

Why go paperless?

But that’s not the only reason I wish to go paperless; email is much quicker and simpler alternative to sending a letter. And then there’s the green argument, which is entirely justified, too. Even though I’ve been working towards going paperless for years, the reality is much different to the imagined.

While I very rarely send a letter to anyone these days, I still get lots of written correspondence, especially from government agencies, like Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, as well as Customs & Excise. Then there’s the junk mail, which is annoying to say the least.

3 reasons to go paperless in the office

To a greater and lesser extent, I have to make concessions, sacrifices and some extra effort to keep the paperwork to a minimum. And here’s three reasons why you should try running a paperless office:

  1. In your own small way, you’ll be helping the environment. So if you’re a big company and you manage to make the transition to electronic communications and document management, you’ll be making an even greater impact.
  2. Save valuable storage space. I have clients who dedicate entire rooms to filing cabinets and storage boxes. Imagine being able to recover all that space and use it for something more worthwhile.
  3. Going paperless also means going electronic, which means things should be much easier to store and find. I emphasize the word “should” because unless you have a good idea of how you want to store your company data, you’re just as likely to lose a file on your computer as you are a letter on your desk! So unless you have the right processes in place, you won’t feel the full force of the savings a paperless office can offer.

What kind of things can you do electronically?

There’s no point going paperless if you’re not aware of the very things where going paperless will have the greatest impact on your business. So here’s a few places where going electronic will pay dividends over time.

So here’s some ideas, with suggestions for alternative ways of doing things, depending on what the idea is and what it involves.

Internet banking

My internet banking offers a wealth of options for managing my business finances. I can view my account, see next day payments, settle invoices, transfer money between my various accounts, as well as view all of my previous bank statements and much more besides.

I’m in the process of adding my accountants to my internet banking account so they can handle all of my finances, keeping my involvement to a minimum. There are also other savings to be had here, such as less time spent traveling to and from their offices, as well is the calls between the two of us as we try to track down that one lost bank statement.

Submitting your VAT and filing your company accounts

You can now file your VAT on-line. I’ve now authorized my accountants so now I don’t even have to sign anything. And once they get access to my internet banking, I doubt I’ll have any involvement at all.

It’s been possible to file company accounts to Companies House for some years. Slowly but surely, the various government agencies are getting their act together and moving onto the internet.

Manage your projects and time sheets

I wrote my own software some time ago to help me manage my projects and to keep track of my work time. But in the end, I ran out of time to add the kind of features that I needed. In the end, it was cheaper to buy a 3rd party application than spend my time updating my own.

So I bought Daylite and Billings. I’m a Mac, not a PC. So unless you own a Mac, Daylite and Billings are no good for you. However, there are tons of alternatives out there.

Daylite is CRM (Customer Relationship Management) package with some solid project management tools thrown in. I use Daylite to manage all of my client projects, emails and events, and more. Billings in a time tracking and invoicing tool.

They’re both from the same company, which means they work quite closely together, so I can shunt tasks or entire projects into Billings from Daylite.

Here are alternatives to Daylite and Billings for PCs, and here’s some earlier thoughts of mine on project management.

Make notes of meetings and telephone conversations

When I make calls, I often make notes of what was discussed, especially if it’s a lengthy call to (or from) a client. Daylite is great here because it has a calendar built right in. So all I do is double-click on the approximate time in the day cell of the calendar and up pops an event window. All I need to do is add in what was said, by whom, when and for how long for. I bypass paper all together.

Send and receive emails with PDFs, not letters or faxes

So once I’ve completed a project and the client is happy, I send an email containing a copy of the invoice as a PDF file. Billings gives me the option to print the invoice, or save it as a PDF. As a backup, I save all of the PDFs to a special folder, so I have copies available.

This is applicable to anything, really. If you use a Mac, you can “print” any document as a PDF from the print window, which is a huge bonus. Again, make sure you have a good storage policy in place so you know precisely where your documents are.

You can even send and receive electronic faxes. I’ve been using You’re Always Connected for years. You get a number to use for either voicemail or faxes. Now, all of my faxes come through as emails with the fax attached as a PDF. So if the fax is from a client, I just move it to the client folder in my mail client. Simple.

Buy ebooks rather than a printed books

Thinking of buying a book to learn something new? Many publishers are now offering electronic alternatives which you can buy on-line and download right there. In many cases, not only are they cheaper, they often include bonus tools and other extras. If you really, really must, you can make a hard copy — and if you really, really, really must print a copy:

  1. make the type size as small as possible, without it being unreadable;
  2. make the margins as wide as possible, without loosing anything;
  3. if your printer supports it, do a duplex and print both sides, and if not, do it by hand.

Use your iPhone as an ad hoc route planner / alternative to maps

Going to a meeting for the first time? Planning on using Google Maps to plot your route and then print it out? If you have an iPhone, use the Maps app’ and then use it just like a GPS for your car.

You get all of the benefits of Google Maps, such as a turn-by-turn route planning, and it even shows you when you’re in motion, moving along the road.

A better workflow

Sadly, there isn’t one application that will scoop everything up and make all of your paperwork suddenly vanish. You need to commit to a slightly different way of doing things. I’m not going to fool you into thinking this is simple because it isn’t. You need to sit down and workout your workflow and make it more efficient. If you have a team, then it’s a team effort.

As an example, I wrote a web application for a client, which took their system of pen, paper and Excel and transformed it into an app’ called To Book which automates and manages almost all of the hotel room booking process, from initial request to confirmation of reservation. Here’s some ideas for making your company workflow paperless:

  • There’s no getting away from the fact that at some point, you’ll still be using paper. So when you do (be it a print out, or a doodle), use the clean side for making quick notes, and then when you’re done, recycle it.
  • Having the right software is paramount, especially when it comes to notation. You need to be able to launch that app’ fast and make notes quickly, especially when someone calls you on the phone. So make shortcuts to those applications and ensure you can export your notes into something else, like your CRM software.
  • When it comes to software designed to deal with customer data, for example, try to standardize across the business, so everyone is using the same tools for things like notation, calendars, office productivity etc. This way, it’s much easier to synchronize and share your data.

Here’s an article of mine (as a PDF, funnily enough) discussing ways of making your workflow more efficient.

Use web-based office productivity software

Here I’m thinking of Google Docs, but now Microsoft are getting in on the act with Microsoft Docs. You can create and share spreadsheets, presentations and text documents with clients and colleagues wherever and whenever. Also, you can sort and store your documents in colour-coded, named folders, which will help make managing you digital assets that bit easier.

And then there’s Google Wave, too. Wave is a word processor with some added smarts. Several people can type into the same document at the same time, which has some truly amazing side benefits, especially for brainstorming. Also, there’s a visual revision history tool, so you can skip backwards and forwards through the different changes that everyone has made, should you (or anyone else) make a mistake or wish to go off in a different direction.

Here’s some ideas of mine on how to make the most of Google Wave.

Use document management software

Chances are, you’ve got thousands of documents that you can’t just send of to be recycled. Besides, you may still need them. So what do you do? You need a document management system. Essentially, a document management system contains the scanned versions of all your printed materials.

This does depend on the kind of document management software you’d be using, but the process typically involves some kind of OCR, which stands for Optical Character Recognition. Which means? Once scanned, you can search your documents as if they were word processed files. In fact, that’s exactly what they become.

So that room filled with shoulder-high filing cabinets can be squeezed into a modestly sized external hard drive, with room left to spare.

Thoughts from the community

Fujitsu Scansnap scanner, industrial shredder, eFax, Instapaper on iPhone. Paperless office sorted.” — Sally Church of Icarus Consultants.

“I find using Evernote removes the hassle of paper notes. Plus, it also allows you to keep notes sync’d across devices.” — Simon Barker, owner of Zath, the tech & games blog.

“A good place to start going paperless is invoicing — much easier and cheaper to produce and send out PDFs instead of printed forms.” — Brian Heys, freelance software tester.

“Scan your signature, paste it into your documents and email back contracts. Sign up for electronic billing wherever possible. Tick the ‘don’t pass on my details to third parties’ box at all times. Always choose email / text / phone as preferred contact method and not postal mail. Sign up for something like EchoSign so that you can get e-signatures. think before you print, usually you just don’t need to. Cancel newspaper subscriptions, and read news on-line, or get a subscription to Factiva / Lexis Nexis for comprehensive electronic access to the news.” — Emily Cagle, communications consultant.

“Forget business cards connect using LinkedIn (simply typing in a public URL).” — Joe Edwards, designer and marketer for Hurricane Marketing.

“Make a list of all the crap publications you get and wipe them out [unsubscribe], all of them!” — Jon-Marc Creaney, architect and designer.

Conclusion

Hopefully, we’ve managed to fill your head with no end of new ideas. But if you’re already running a paperless office, we want to hear your ideas!


Ebook: How to use WordPress to manage your company website

How to use WordPress to manage your company website is my latest ebook, written specifically to help businesses understand the potential of WordPress, as a tool to manage and control their website.

How my ebook will help you get the most from WordPress

“I’ll be taking you through WordPress from a business perspective: what it does, its strengths and weaknesses, how to use it, how to get the most out of it, and how it can genuinely benefit your business. I’ll also be including a guided tour of WordPress, for the total beginners amongst you.”


Here’s just some of the many benefits of understanding how to use WordPress to manage your company website:

  1. Take more control of your website, helping your business save money
  2. Write and publish articles about your products and services in your own time
  3. Share your content on social networks, like Twitter and Facebook
  4. Interact and engage more directly with your customers

My ebook will help you understand and do all those things and more, and includes:

  • An illustrated guide to using WordPress, including how-to videos
  • Examples and links to many of the valuable resources you’ll come to rely on when using WordPress
  • Learn how to optimize your business website or blog for social media
  • WordPress security and privacy (managing email addresses, comment spam and software updates)
  • Video tutorials, to help you with the basics

A business case for WordPress

Like any modern business, having a website is only part of the puzzle. Now, with the web maturing and becoming a deeply social arena, positioning your business as a brand at the heart of a conversation about a product or a service is probably as important than the product / service itself.

So why WordPress?

WordPress is probably the most popular content management system there is, either free or commercial. Thousands of people all around the world write Plugins for it, to extend WordPress and add additional features.

Getting the most from WordPress

It’s also very easy to change the appearance of WordPress, to suite your businesses corporate style. Also, because WordPress makes use of very popular technologies, installing WordPress is, as they say, just five minutes of your time.

If you know of any friends or family members who’re in business and interested in learning more about WordPress, please feel free to tell them about my ebook and send them the link!

All things Octane — This ebook is professionally composed, prepared using Adobe InDesign (a high-end pre-press publishing application), complete with linked indices, graphics and linked references to various other articles of my own, including a collection of short video tutorials on YouTube — yes, I wrote, designed, composed and rendered everything you see in this ebook, including the videos.


Ebook: The Beginner’s Guide to Social Media

The Beginners Guide to Social Media ebook cover graphicThe Beginners Guide to Social Media: an introduction to social media from a business perspective, is my new and free social media ebook, ready to download right now.

Lots of businesses around the world are struggling to understand what social media is, what it offers and what it means for their business. My new ebook will help demystify social media, helping you understand how to incorporate social media into your business:

“My eBook, The Beginner’s Guide to Social Media is your introduction to social media for businesses. This 35 page illustrated eBook is packed with advice and years of practical social media know-how and hard-earned business experience.”

Here’s just some of the many benefits of understanding social media for businesses:

  • Find out what Facebook can do for your business
  • Discover how blogging can benefit your business
  • Learn how to optimize your business website or blog for social media
  • Read what your customers are saying about your business
  • Track and monitor topics and trends in your industry
  • Maximize your business presence on the web
  • Get to know all of the top websites to promote your business

In addition to the ebook, there’s a blog, which I hope will become a good place to share all of the simple social media hints & tips I come across during my travels.

Right now, there’s three articles, discussing how to make the best of Google Alerts, Google Trends, and a discussion detailing the benefits of having a business blog.

Questions? I imagine so. That’s why I’ve written an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page, to help you along.

Download ebook

To download my new ebook, just follow the link, fill out the response form and then follow the download instructions.

If you know of any friends or family members who’re in business, but unsure about social media, please feel free to tell them about my ebook and send them the link!


New social media ebook pre-announcement

In lieu of the launch of my new ebook, entitled: “The Beginner’s Guide to Social Media — An introduction to social media from a business perspective”, I’d like to just explain a little about why I decided to write such a book in the first place.

I’ve been writing about social media from a business point of view quite some time. Back in June, I posted an article explaining in brief what social media is, which came out of some ideas I was playing around with at the time.

When I look around the business community, I see a lot of people talking about social media, but having little idea what it entails, or how social media can properly benefit their business.

There’s a lot to know about social media — certainly from a business point of view — which is hard to capture and commit to memory, just from catching conversations and the odd blog article here & there.

Writing a book about social media for business

With that as a backdrop, I decided to write, what was at the time, a simple presentation. After giving it some more thought, I realized a presentation just wasn’t enough to do the subject the kind of justice it deserved, or to give business people a real taste for / of social media. So I decided to flesh the presentation out into a full-blown book.

The book is broken down into 4 main parts, which are:

  1. What is social media?
  2. What does social media do?
  3. How can social media impact on your business?
  4. Optimizing for social media

To some extent, I’ve been fortunate enough to have written about many of the key themes and elements of the book on the Blah, Blah! Technology blog, such as Social Media & Social Networking and SMO (Social Media Optimization) & SMM (Social Media Marketing), over the last couple of years.

I’m really, really pleased with the book so far. And the feedback I’ve had from those who’ve been kind enough to proof read my book has been fantastic. Over the next month or so, I’ll be building a social media marketing campaign of my own around my ebook, to promote it as far and as wide as possible.

I’m still not sure whether I want to sell the book, or offer it for free. However, most people seem to think I should charge something, so that seems to be the direction I’m leaning towards for the time being.

Rather than give an exact launch date, I’m just going to keep working on the book until I’m 100% happy with it, and then take it from there. But writing a book is a very different proposition to then launching and publicizing it, which is something I’ve never done before. So it’s going to be a lot learning!

So stay tuned and watch out for my brand new social media book, coming soon…