Full disclosure: MogoCRM is a client of ours and I have no other affiliations with any other vendors mentioned other than as an user.
Cloud computing has made running a business completely in the cloud much easier. Just a few years ago, you could not have lived without expensive software you had to purchase to do anything. Now you have everything with a Saas like monthly billing or even free. We are a consulting company and here are the tools we use to get every thing done with almost everything being cloud enabled.
Emails and Collaboration
While there are hundred’s of email vendors, from Zoho to Rackspace, to me this is a no brainier. Use google apps. They have a free and supported version for up to 10 users, and if you upgrade to business edition, you pay 50$/user/year.
With this you get emails, document management, calendar, voice and text chatting within your organization. The biggest advantage with Google Apps is that a lot of business tools integrate with Google Apps. Most of the tools I use Google apps for SSO like login, they use Google contacts and can create entries to my Google calendar. More on this in a minute.
Having a good CRM tool is essential for a consulting (or any) business. You need to keep tracking of all your leads. See what channel’s leads convert to clients and which are a waste of your time. You need to follow up with people who may have bought from you in the past or from people who may have indicated that they may need your services in future. A good CRM tool can handle all of these.
There are lot of CRM tools: Zoho CRM, Highrise, Salesforce but a lot of them are too complicated and assume a large sales force. If you are a Google apps user, you should look at a tool which has deep integration with it. I want my CRM tool to pull contacts from my Google Contacts, use my Google docs for pulling my sales collaterals and mark my calendar with the calls I need to make. The one’s I have found good are CapsuleCRM, Nutshell CRM and Mogo CRM. All these have about equivalent functionalities, so try them all and choose one which suits your taste.
If you have a list of clients who are interested in hearing from you, use Constant Contact. If you haven’t created one yet, use Mailchimp to let people opt in to your newsletter. We use both these tools, as we use MailChimp for a mailing list but also send a monthly news to our clients using ConstantContact. Both are similar in capabilities though and you can get by with using only one.
You are probably sending a lot of emails. Do you know what people are opening your mails and who are clicking through? We use ToutApp for that, and it changes the links to unique traceable link. It integrates well with Google Apps and you can use it from within your mailbox.
Managing People and Time
Like many consulting businesses you may be working with many people in many locations. Its important to use a good project management tool for this. Basecamp from 37Signals is one of the most used tools and it is very good and fairly user friendly. However, Basecamp is too generic tool for my taste, and I suggest to use a tool more specific for your business. For example we build software so we prefer Assembla which has tools customized for integration with Git. Assembla and most tools have time tracking built in, but you may want to use a more specialized tool like Harvest
Invoicing and Accounting
Use Freshbooks for accounting. They are a widely used tool with integration with many CRM tools, which will allow you to track your ROI on customer acquisition efforts, and find out what customers and sales channels are most profitable.
Freshbooks has some accounting feature built in, but I prefer to use a more sepcialized tool for it. Freshbook lacks many advanced features, such as multi currency expense reporting, expense trends on a line item basis etc. We use Zoho Books for our accounting, but Wave Accounting is good as well. Both of them have good integeration with Google Apps.
The cloud bring advanced learning right to your bedroom. While sites like Udacity and Coursera are free and bring many university lectures to you, Sitepoint‘s own Learnable can teach you advanced web and mobile development. There are many paid cloud based learning sites for other specialized subjects. As Alvin Toffler said: “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
So these are the tools (With costs) I use and recommend using for a small consulting startup of 10-15 people.
Google Apps: 0-750$/Year(Or 0-60$/Month)
Assembla or Basecamp: 50-100$/Month
Zoho Books or Wave accounting: Free-30$/Month
Learnable or Udacity: 0-20$/Month
And for this price you get tools which were available only to Fortune 500 companies only a few years back. Isn’t cloud computing amazing?