Almost every small business owner knows there is always more to do than there is time to do the things. Trying to do them all yourself just means you never get to the things that help you grow your business and drains all that entrepreneurial energy that made you set off on your own. And hiring people to do them takes away from money that could grow the business elsewhere. What’s an entrepreneur to do?
The answer lies in workflow automation. It’s more than just a hot topic in thought leader blogs and posts, it’s a force multiplier that is coming into its own now that the costs are dropping to where it’s affordable for smaller businesses. Large companies have been using it for years, but the transformative potential of automation tools is even greater for smaller businesses, where we all have to do less with more.
What is Automation?
Automation is utilizing software or apps to accomplish workflows and processes automatically. Automation takes advantage of advances in machine learning, natural language processing, AI, and other technologies to complete tasks automatically with minimal human intervention. This leads to greater efficiency because it frees up man-hours spent on these tasks, and higher accuracy since computers can accomplish repeatable tasks without regard for stress or a learning curve, unlike humans.
What tasks can you automate? Let’s look at the three Rs. Tasks which meet these criteria are great candidates for automation.
Automation doesn’t do strategy, or creativity. It provides tools to enable humans to complete those tasks, but what automation excels at is taking the repetitive, simple time sucks out of your workload so you can focus on the things only you can do.
It’s important to do some cost-benefit data analysis to determine if the cost of implementing automation will be less than the cost (both monetary cost and opportunity cost) of doing tasks manually, the continuing drop in computing power costs means this bar is lowering every day. This can be a game-changer for small businesses. Automating where you can is a massive force multiplier for small, overworked teams (and who in the start-up/ small business sector isn’t overworked?)
Automation Uses and Tools
So, how should you implement automation in your startup or small business? Well, everyone’s needs and use cases are different, so that’s for you to figure out. What we can do is provide you with some common use cases for automation and some useful tools that work with these situations, so you can decide what might work well for your initial foray into this exciting world.
Many organizations do a slow, methodical rollout of automation tools, trying it with one or a few functions before expanding their program. Others take an a la carte approach, automating functions as they find the right tools. It just depends on what approach works right for you.
Follow Up Phenomenon
Email is often the bane of productivity. The average American white-collar worker gets 121 work emails per day! Over three hours per day are taken up by email. And if you’re like many of us, the worst part of this is follow-up emails. Why? It’s not just you; everyone is getting a ton of emails per day and trying to check them and respond to them while dealing with a dozen other things at once. So if you’re relying on getting results by sending a single fire-and-forget email, well, forget about it.
So, either we have to try to keep track of emails we’ve sent and when and waste a ton of time trying to send follow-ups, or we don’t follow up enough because we don’t want to waste their time (or our own!) Either way is suboptimal. However, there are tools for that!
Let’s take Follow up Fred, for example. It is a basic email follow up extension for Gmail that automates the follow-up process. You simply send an email through the extension, and the extension will automatically send out reminders until you get a reply back. You can vary the timing sequence of your reminders to your preference. Best of all, the built-in dashboard keeps track of what follow-ups you have and tracks the open rate and click-through rate, so you can know if what you’re sending is actually being read.
Many users have saved 15-30 minutes per day by automating their follow-up emails, which makes it a natural early candidate for automation. Not to mention that this way, your follow up emails will actually get done!
HR Functions (Time Tracking and Benefits)
There are several ways to automate your HR functions, but let’s look at two simple ones, time tracking, and benefits.
Time tracking is tedious for both your staff and you. You shouldn’t have to do all your tasks and track what your team is doing with their hours when automation can allow them to track their hours, which projects they are working on, reporting their hours worked or set schedule and time-off. Using automation can result in higher accuracy and accountability and fewer opportunities for miscommunication.
Tools like Everhour or Harvest can be integrated into your project management suites, web browsers, and other apps, allowing employees a simple way to account for their time at work and their time on specific tasks, projects, or clients while providing you with easy reporting. You can even use the tool to create invoices based on billable hours, simplifying your accounting. By automating time tracking, you’re spending more time on your bottom line and less time on accounting for how you got there.
Benefits are another place to add some automation; you didn’t found a start-up to be an HR clerk. Especially for fast-growing startups, an HR software is reasonable, since, automating this can save you a ton of time. Consider using tools like Zenefits, ADP, or Gusto to automate the process of guiding recent hires through selection and enrollment of benefits as well as managing them. Onboarding a new hire should be a cause for celebration, not a ton of extra work.
Connect all the things!
One of the most useful automation tools, Zapier, can be used thousands of ways. Zapier doesn’t really apply to just one use case, it’s an automation app that works with thousands of other applications businesses use every day. It allows you to automate repetitive tasks between apps by creating custom workflows and move information between your web apps automatically.
When you take an action specified in your Zapier settings, it will automatically carry out any actions in other apps that you have specified. There are endless possibilities; you can set up functions to download attachments to your Google Drive automatically, send new video and audio files to a transcript service for transcription, backup files to your Dropbox, tweet updates on new blog posts, update your CRM when you receive an email from a new sender, and/or send you updates in Slack about actions completed or messages received in other apps. If you juggle multiple apps and software suites to get the job done, Zapier is a lifesaver.
Automate The World
Try sitting down and adding up all the time you spend on repetitive, boring tasks each week that have to be done but feel like they take time away from the things only you can do. Chances are there are many others out there just as frustrated with the same tasks, and chances are someone’s developed tools to automate it.
If you’d like to defy the stereotype and actually have some work-life balance while running a start-up, or just create more time to focus on achieving lift-off, automation’s a huge force multiplier. Give it a try with these or the many other great tools out there!