Has Any Technology Helped You in Unexpected Ways?

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Which tool or technology has benefited your business in a way you never expected? And how difficult would it be to operate without that tool today?

Once again, I asked several entrepreneurs and business people to answer our question of the week. As usual, the answers give a lot to think about. We learn that technology has the power to free us from drudgery and avoid frustration; make us more efficient; expand our marketing reach; go after new business opportunities; even cut through writer’s block and save money.

Let’s read what my panel has to say, and which technologies have benefited their businesses:

success“Desktop search program,” says Ed Bott, Ed Bott’s Windows Expertise:

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who file stuff meticulously in neatly labeled file folders, and those who stuff everything into shoeboxes.

After years of trying to be a file-folder person, I finally accepted the reality that I’m a shoebox guy. Thankfully, the software industry took pity on me early in this millennium and started coming out with new tools to help me locate and organize information automatically, without forcing me to do much upfront work (aside from throwing it in the right shoebox). Today, I can’t imagine working without a decent desktop search program.

I started out using X1 and later switched to Copernic (which I still recommend for use with Windows XP). Today, all of my business PCs run on Windows Vista, which has superb desktop search capabilities built in. I can usually find an invoice, a report, a draft of an article I’m working on, or a string of e-mail messages within a matter of seconds, by typing a keyword in the search box. If the list of results is too long, I can winnow it by date or file type or person.

Oddly enough, these tools actually have made me a more organized businessperson. When I’m creating a new document, I usually think about how I’m going to find it later, which inspires me to include keywords that will help make it easier to zero in on. And every so often I go through the virtual shoebox that is my Current Work folder, sort the old stuff and completed projects into their own subfolders, and then file it away.

success“Broadband Internet access,” says Harry McCracken, Technologizer:

I like to add new products and technologies to my toolbox as often as possible, so at any given time, my favorite one may be the one I’ve discovered most recently. At the moment, I’m particularly tickled with the Verizon Broadband Access wireless Internet service for my laptop that I finally signed up for after too many months of thinking it over but being intimidated by the cost ($60 a month).

Wi-Fi hotspots and hotel broadband are all very well, and I’ve used them for years. But they’re not always available. When they are available, they’re sometimes slow or temperamental. And they often cost money — it’s easy to blow $40 or $50 a month on them without noticing.

So far, the Verizon service has worked like a champ everywhere I’ve tried to use it. I’m squeezing valuable productivity into formerly wasted moments, like the time I spend sitting in airplanes on the runway before they tell us to shut down our laptops. (Okay, maybe it’s embarrassing that I want to be online even then, but I do.) And the sheer time I save not searching for hotspots and troubleshooting balky hotel Internet connections is a blessing.

For the first time ever, I don’t feel like it’s a crapshoot whether I’ll be able to get online when I need to. The minute I started spending that sixty bucks a month, I stopped stressing out over it.

success“A blog,” says John Jantsch, DuctTapeMarketing:

For me it’s without a doubt my blog — both a tool and technology I suppose. It’s led to many opportunities, national publicity, a book deal, a growing community, brand awareness, product sales and strategic partnerships. Of course, while all of that has been important, the primary thing it’s done is forced me to write, teach, speak and educate — the master small business skills — in ways that have helped me become much better at communicating, understanding and growing my business.

I think it’s easy to look at tools like blogs for the practical ROI. Search engine traffic, subscribers, content, and greater participation in social media are all practical reasons to blog. But, a truly powerful long-term benefit of any tool in business is how it can help shift the overall consciousness of the organization and brand. If a tool can, over time, make the entire organization more aware of what it’s about, now that’s a powerful tool — and for me, that’s the long-term value of blogging.

success“Giant lasers,” says Phillip Torrone, MAKE Magazine:

Giant lasers. It sounds “space age” and futuristic, but it’s not. “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet” – A quote from one of my favorite science-fiction writers, William Gibson.

A couple years ago when I started Epilog 35 watt “mini” – it has a 12″ x 24″ bay (perfect for engraving art on gadgets) – the business revolves around this tool and it’s allowed us to have a successful business while also providing a blueprint for others. We’ve released all our files, documents, settings and how-tos online so others can start their own laser etching businesses … and over the couple years, dozens have!

success“Our Web platform,” says Jeremy Gutsche, TrendHunter.com

Trend Hunter is an online community, so our platform itself is the breakthrough technology that has driven our business. Unlike other publications, Trend Hunter is a virtual playground for those looking for ideas. We are constantly focused on reinventing the user experience and finding new ways to keep our readers inspired and coming back for more.

And now for my own “unexpectedly helpful” technology:

success“A headset,” says Anita Campbell, Small Business Trends:

Six or 8 different technologies come to mind that have transformed my business in unexpected ways. But one of the most fun and personally liberating is my headset for my computer.

I use a stereo USB headset. It plugs into a USB outlet in your PC — that means it is easy-peesy to install AND has great sound. For something that costs under $50, it has done more to liberate my time and open up new communication options than anything since my first cell phone.

With a headset, I can use the voice recognition software that comes with Windows XP and Windows Vista (you may not even realize you have voice recognition software, but it’s there). I am able to dictate articles and emails. I can even dictate blog posts directly into WordPress. With a good quality headset and taking an hour to “train” the voice recognition software to recognize your pronunciation, the results are remarkably accurate. Not only can it be faster to compose documents via voice, but dictation often helps me break through writer’s block. If I don’t know where to start on a lengthy report or article, I simply begin talking. It’s the little secret to being able to write as much as I do each day.

I also use the headset with Skype, to initiate long-distance phone calls. That way, I am able to get by with a much lower wireless cell phone bill. Whenever possible, I return calls using Skype, which costs just a few dollars a month. And the headset is ideal for conference calls and online meetings, where I need my hands free to take notes. I even conduct my Internet radio show using my headset and Skype.

So — having heard 6 examples of technologies that are unexpectedly helpful, tell us your picks. What technology have you found to be “unexpectedly helpful” in your business? Or, that you could not operate without? Leave a comment below.

21 Comments ▼

Anita Campbell - CEO


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses, and also serves as CEO of TweakYourBiz.com.

21 Reactions

  1. Online Shipping – When I first started selling online, I used to have to put aside a couple hours a day to pack, print address labels, and drive the packages to UPS or the post office and wait in line. Doing that daily is so frustrating. Sometimes I would have so many boxes that I would have to call someone to come and help me. Then I discovered that I could print and pay for shipping online. I bought a good shipping scale and a plastic deck box to put next to my mail box at the curb. I simply have my postal carrier take my USPS boxes instead. No more waiting in line and wasting time driving around. It was a lifesaver to me.

  2. PayPal — I used to be afraid to give out a credit card number on line. With PayPal i can pay online without giving out my card number. Who knows who is on the other end, whether they are protecting your credit card, or just waiting to have a blast with it. Now that I use PayPal I buy more on line.

  3. Amazon S3.
    To use their biilion-dollar infrastructure for storage, and to pay only for actual usage not fixed monthly rate, made a lot difference.

  4. I’d have to agree that Paypal was a big life saver for me. It gave me the confidence to buy and sell online and thus, opened up a whole new way of life for me.

  5. I would have to say being able to transform a paper based process for marketing, transfer it into software and now being able to offer it as a download from our website.

    Anita I also agree with you about Skype.

  6. Great post Anita!

    Skype and free broadband access in the form of Public Libraries has been big win for me as well.

    To add to this great list, RingCentral.com has enabled me to setup a big company phone system in a day. I used to setup VOIP systems that were innovative but still much more challenging than this was.

    The best thing for me is that all my voicemails now drop into my email as wav files so no more dialing my number, typing in my pin, etc.

    Also, for mac users only speech-to-action is supported by default, dictation requires an additional program. One of the best is here: http://www.macspeech.com/

  7. @Susan, your transformation from paper to software download sounds exciting — would love to hear a “case study” about it someday.

    @Jon, don’t you just love all the “voice” related technology? Sounds like you’ve learned how to harnass it.

    Anita

  8. Hi Anita,

    I will look at puting it into a case study and send it to you.

  9. My Ipod Touch. I still think Apple made a mistake marketing it as an Ipod rather than a PDA. I use it every day and I’ve only listed to music on it 2 or 3 times! And no $60 monthly fee like the Iphone.

  10. I would say the same thing as John Jantsch of DuctTapeMarketing. The tool by Blogger has helped me in many ways, from venting to spreading better ideas, to meeting new rational individuals (Anita, you are included) I have meet online through my blogging. I have had courses in blogging for organizations and I have become almost an “evangelist” for this type of communication. I want to spread the mission on how you could use this tool in your personal life and in your business. I also want to get rid of some of the hype around blogging. It has become very hysterical here in Sweden, but that’s a story for some other time… ;)

    John Jantsch: By the way: Do you know when Amazon will send the book?

  11. Almost hate to admit it but voice mail and PDAs (and no I’m not all that obsessed with the phone) are certainly two of the most important technologies in my life. And the unexpected part of that statement is that really I don’t like phones or voice mail all that much — but I don’t need to like them to recognize their importance in my business, and personal, life.

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  13. Mike,

    I too love my iTouch. In suburban Ohio it is a little harder to use than in some parts of the country for regular use, because it is harder to find free WiFi. But when I travel it is very convenient. I can even download a video and watch it — my own entertainment system!

    – Anita

  14. I would definitely have to say my Blackberry. I’ve always had a ‘run-of-the-mill’ cell phone, but when I recently switched over to the Blackberry – everything got easier.

    I can respond to sales inquires 24/7. I can reach out to partners and accounts at a moments notice. I can even open documents. It is definitely convenient.

  15. Hi Anita. Interesting insights again especially with the headset feature. Anyway, one I could not really live without is my Internet Service Provider. I am almost 24/7 online and do my tasks online, pay bills, accept payments, transact, communicate online. So, I can’t just live without Internet in my life and in my business.

  16. Great question, and one that made me think. The first thing that came to mind was the Naturally Speaking speech recognition software I purchased almost a year ago. At the end of the day, when the body is tired of staring at a monitor and slumping over a keyboard, the mind is often still going with thoughts and ideas that need to be recorded. With this software and a headset, I can relax in a recliner or even lay in bed and just speak my mind, while the computer converts everything to text. I bought it thinking I would try it out as a novelty, but it has transformed my productivity.

  17. Skype. A headset. These combined has opened up so much when communicating with clients and prospects.

  18. Technology: The Internet! My business as a virtual assistant would not even exist without the internet! I have access to a greater diversity of clients than I would if I had tried to build my business in my local area. In fact, during 10 years I have been in business I have never had a client from my local area! And not for lack of trying!

    Tool: My GN9350 Wireless headset! It allows me to move about my office or into another room freely. I can make/receive calls on my landline and Skype. I love not being hands free and cord free (Even my keyboard and mouse are wireless)! I can’t wait until they create a model that will combine all 3 phones: landline, VOIP & cell phone!

    Anita, how do I access the voice recognition software that comes with Windows XP? I would love to try that!

  19. Hi Ginger,

    To use the speech recognition feature in Windows XP, first get yourself a good headset with microphone if you don’t already have one.

    Then click on the green “Start” Windows button. Then click on “Control Panel.”

    You’ll see an icon for “Speech.” Click on the Speech Icon. Or depending on how you display your control panel, you may see a category called “Sounds, Speech and Audio Devices.” Click on that category and then on the Speech icon.

    That will open up a small window which has instructions for configuring your microphone so that the system will recognize your headset and the volume you speak at. Then you’ll also need to go through a few training modules (Click “train profile” in that little window). The training trains the software to recognize precisely the way YOU pronounce words.

    You can get started in less than a half hour if you want. I went through all the training modules, as it helped with better recognition of words — but you don’t have to do all of them at first. Just go through one and get started.

    Once you set up speech recognition as above, you should see a little Language bar appear on your screen. That little bar contains the commands for when you want to begin dictation. If you don’t see the little language bar, try this:

    - On the Microsoft Windows Start menu, click Control Panel.
    - Click Date, Time, Language, and Regional Options.
    - Click Regional and Language Options, and then click the Languages tab.
    - Under Text services and input languages, click Details.
    - On the Settings tab, click Language Bar, and then select the Show the Language bar on the desktop check box.

    Like I said, it works even when using Internet Explorer to access WordPress – you can dictate blog posts. Hope this helps, Ginger. Let us know how it works out for you.

    Anita

  20. For me it is a combination of tools, our website on a hosted platform as opposed to hosting it internally, our blogs, the various web 2.0 tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and submitting articles to various web directories.

    Of note are Joomla and WordPress, without either of those 2 tools, our marketing would have been much less efficient and more costly.

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