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.


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.

ASA investigate Chris Cardell newspaper cutting “scam”

Due to the heavy-handed actions of Cardell Media Limited and their factually erroneous cease and desist order, I am withholding the contents of this article from the public until I’m satisfied that my claims and the claims of those who have kindly commented on this article are within their rights.

If I am to determine that we’re within our rights, this article and its associated comments will once more go live and people will once again be able to read my misgivings concerning the sale letter sent by Cardell Media Limited.

In the meantime, please read the subsequent adjudication by the Advertising Standards Authority against Cardell Media Limited regarding the sales letter I and thousands more received back in April this year.

Asking clients the right questions

Rarely do you just manage a project in isolation. To some extent, you’re also managing the client. As an added consequence, you’re also managing their expectations. So are their any questions you ought to be asking your client before, during and after a project?

A while ago, I read 14 questions to ask your clients before and after a project, which I encourage you to read if you’re either a freelancer or aspiring project manager, or someone like me, a Jack of all trades. I decided to follow the article up with some insights of my own, gleaned from managing clients, their projects and their expectations.

But first of all, I’d like to add some questions of my own.

What do you need your website to do?

A stupid question? You’d be surprised. In the past, I’ve talked people out of having a website and told them to concentrate on the marketing methods that are proven to work, rather than experimenting with one that most likely won’t earn them a penny or raise their profile.

People still believe that “If we build, they will come” and that is not often the case. Sure, if you’re a hugely popular brand name, or you intend executing a marketing campaign to promote your website, I can help! But if it’s just a brochureware website, made up of few web pages and bunch of images — all of which you’re unlikely to update on a regular basis — there are better ways of marketing your business.

The needs of the client come second to those of their customers. The odd few people don’t like to hear that kind of talk because they have all kids of ideas about what they want, which don’t always align with what their customers need.

Are you sure?

This is an open ended question, applicable in so many ways. But don’t be afraid to ask! So many will shy away from second guessing a client. It’s not a requirement of the client to know exactly what they need. But once we’ve finally figured out what it is they do need, it is incumbent on them to pay for the whole of the journey, not just the getting there. By asking the right questions at the right time, you can avoid a lot of hassle for yourself and your client. Chances are, all of this stuff is new to them, so be their guide.

Be brave and ask.

Do you have the funds to see this project through?

Don’t be shy! Money is not a rude word. Be up-front and ask the client if they have the funds to meet with the project. Sometimes, the needs of the client exceed the budget and they will probably hope you’re going to come down on price.

It’s essential you have a process in place. If you’re dealing with a project that’s likely to be worth several thousand in web design and development costs, for example, you need to break the project down into smaller, deliverable parts, each of which being billable. This will ease your cash flow and help ease things financially, should the client pull out part way through.

Where do you want to be in 3-5 years time?

I first put this question to a friend of mine, not realizing at the time just a how powerful a motivator that question would be to her. It wasn’t until some time later that she thought about where she’d prefer to be and how that realization simply didn’t match her present direction in life. I change her life with a single ten word question.

You can write up all of the marketing and business plans you like, but just thinking about where you want to be in three or five years time is something totally different. And it’s not until you do this that you begin to appreciate what resources you’ll need access to if you’re going to make your dream come true.

Once you have a clearer thought in mind, the next thing to do is to put together a series of realistic, achievable strategies to help you get there. This isn’t just about having a bigger website, or just getting more clients / customers. This is about building sustainability into everything you do.

And now I’d like to expand on some of the questions in the Design Reviver article.

What is your company’s reputation?

I suspect many companies probably couldn’t answer this question. Many wouldn’t really know how to quantify any kind of sentiment amongst their customers, other than asking them directly, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Of course, reputation is action after the fact. What you really want to be doing is managing your companies brand right from the outset, mitigating some of the problems your reputation may inflicted upon it later on.

So what can you do to measure the value of your reputation? Well, this new social web offers many tools to monitor things like customer perception, for example.

Google Alerts is a free service that allows you to track certain keywords, such as your company name, which will offer some insight into what people may be saying about you.

Then there’s Twitter, which allows you to search for keywords and save the searches, functioning in much the same way as Google Alerts, but within Twitter itself.

What is your target audience?

Sometimes, this kind of question can have unexpected consequences. Be careful how you interpret their answer, because “target” can often be misconstrued as “idea”, and the ideal customer isn’t always the same as the ones they already have. In chasing down the ideal, there’s a danger of neglecting the needs of those they’re currently servicing.

It’s certainly a question that needs to be asked, but any provisions you choose to make, with respect to your website being re-design and / or re-developed, should be done so with an eye towards maintaining the same level of service your current crop of customers and come to expect.

Do you plan on having any revisions and updates done to this project?

This is a question I don’t actually ask in this way. The question arises as a result of establishing the clients broader needs. If it’s web application project, like To Book, then we build a series of plans, covering short-, medium- and long-term needs.

Building a website (and even more so a web application) is like building a house; it’s essential you get the foundations right at the outset. In most cases, I start by planning and then building a framework.

If a framework was a house, it would be the foundations, the wiring, the plumbing and the locks for all of the doors and windows. The actual plans, as well as the building materials are for the developers, like myself, to decide upon and ultimately build on top of the framework.

By establishing all of these things at outset, and by agreeing on what features are to be included and then expected one, two and then three years hence, I can get the foundations of the website in the right shape from the outset.

After all, there’s no point putting the foundations down for a bungalow if the client wants a four story office block in three years time!


Simply accepting a brief from a client is just negligent. You have a duty to ensure their expectations are realistic and achievable, or you’re just creating problems and storing them up for later on. Don’t just say “Yes!” to everything if you don’t agree or think / know there will be problems. If required, say “No.” and propose an alternative.

But above all, be brave and ask questions.

Managing client expectations is no magic trick

Expectations are a funny thing. Sometimes high. Sometimes low. Managing client expectations is as much an art form as it is a process. If you’re good, they might even think you’re magical — and that could spell trouble.

Managing expectations is something I learnt early on, before I even started Octane. My philosophy is to underestimate and over deliver. Give the client more than they expected. In short, make them happier than they thought they would be.

Why quick is not synonymous with simple

However, doing so quickly with apparent effortless ease can give the impression that what you just did was simple. Remember all those kids from the eighties, solving muddled up Rubik’s cube in seconds? Quick, yes. Simple, no.

Fact is, you might have been quick, but quick doesn’t equal simple. So you don’t want make something look so easy that your clients begin to think everything is easy.

Working all hours to meet a deadline is commendable, but it’s imperative you make it clear this extra effort is not to be a pattern to be repeated henceforth, and that this extra effort commands and extra fee, too. Of course, if it’s your own fault you’re working late, that’s tough. Live with it.

Often, the cause of these extra hours is the result of bad planning, which Leslie Poston summed up perfectly in a recent message on Twitter:

Today’s theme seems to be: “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

To which I replied:

“And if you jump through that fiery hoop of unrealistic expectations, you’re then forever beholden to their whip cracking.”

White rabbits, black hats and business sleight of hand

This being Easter, it does seem somewhat appropriate to talk about rabbits. OK, so these are white rabbits in tall black hats and not the Easter bunny, but the thought was there!

I am not a magician, no matter what some of my clients think. What I do as a trade isn’t some dark art or the work of the devil. But I will confess, programming isn’t something anyone can just pick up over night. Similarly, the eye of a designer is more intuitive than it is a learned skill. Put all those things together and you have a web developer and a web designer, not a magician.

By going that extra mile time after time after time, you’re giving the impression that not only is this easy, but you’re prepared to keep doing so. You are forging a rod for your own back. A yolk of totally unrealistic expectations that essentially absolves the client of any culpability in their imprecise planning. Remember what I said about the power of saying no? Well here’s were it really counts.

“And as if by magic…”

I recently had to do a vanishing act of my own and cut a company loose who were making me look bad. They work all hours because they just can’t plan things properly and constantly cave into their clients disorganization. So when I said: “no, there’s just not enough time” or: “no, we need to plan this properly first” I became the villain of this crazy stage show illusion.

The thing is, clients are people and when we succeed where others have failed, or help them in a time of crisis, they place a huge amount of trust in our abilities. High expectations, for sure. And the best trick of all isn’t magic, but managing their expectations.