To Survive You Must Automate Your Small Business

I’ve met enough small business owners to know that there are still plenty of you out there who have yet to move into the 21st century. For whatever reason, you’re still doing plenty of stuff that could be automated in your business.

Or you are doing things yourself — things you should be outsourcing to an expert or a helper.  Things that could be accomplished more efficiently by outsourcing to someone else, instead of spending your hours.

Now is the time to take action. You simply cannot continue to do things the same way and expect different results, especially in this down economy. You will not survive.

Your primary focus, if your business is living on the edge between a red or black bottom line, should be cash flow. And to increase cash flow you have to sell. Anything that takes you away from selling is a threat to your cash flow.

That’s why when I read the Intuit “Get Paid” survey results, I just shook my head. The survey included responses from 751 small business owners with fewer than 10 employees.

According to the results, 66 percent of small businesses still hand-write invoices, use word processing programs and spreadsheets, or simply don’t have a standardized method. 

Are you one of those businesses? It’s time for a change.

You can sign up for online invoicing tools that will cost you about 10 bucks a month. These tools will even send follow-up reminders to the customer, if they don’t pay within a reasonable period. Your time is worth more than 10 bucks a month.

Besides, if you’re spending your time manually invoicing, you’re not selling. So you suffer a double whammy — you’re costing your business money and you’re not available to make a sale.

And here’s the case for outsourcing to an expert. Nearly 20 percent of small business owners admit to forgetting to invoice or follow up on an overdue invoice. Over 50 percent of these respondents admit that they are simply “not organized”  and “lack an automated system for creating and tracking invoices.”

Ack! Find someone to take care of this for you now. Would you want to tell a bankruptcy judge that the reason for not getting paid was “not organized”?  Would you want to admit your business failed for that reason? How embarrassing would that be?

You can find a reasonably priced virtual assistant who can handle this for you. That way you don’t have to worry about being disorganized. Instead, you can spend all of your time focusing on pumping up your bottom line by selling your heart out.

You can do your business a whole lot of good — and increase those sales too — simply by accepting credit cards. According to the survey, only 30 percent of small businesses accept credit cards and only 22 percent accept electronic checks.

About 85 percent of small businesses accept standard checks (the most common form of payment).  Cash is the next most common form of payment, at 59 percent. But I’ve got news for you. People don’t carry much cash these days. And plenty of them couldn’t find a check if they tried.

Finally, 20 percent of small businesses admit to having lost a customer because they could not accept credit cards. Don’t let that be your business.

If you’re serious about making the most of your cash flow, take a hard look at the things you are doing in your business. I bet you find at least one thing you can change by automating or outsourcing. Why not do that now? Then let me know what you found by leaving a comment. Or if you have a tip to offer, tell me about that too.


Denise O'Berry Denise O'Berry is a small business expert who provides tools, tips and advice to help small business owners be successful. O'Berry is the author of "Small Business Cash Flow: Strategies for Making Your Business a Financial Success." Her blog can be found at Just for Small Business.

26 Reactions
  1. This is a very timely post. Small businesses need to think about increasing profits and growing revenues. What better way to do that than becoming more efficient.

    From our own studies, we have found that small businesses tend to misplace invoices as they are mostly on paper, are drowning in paper and are not organized.

    Just as small businesses are thinking of converting to electronic invoicing, they should also seriously consider going paperless. That is digitize all paper as it arrives and use reminders and power of keyword search to find invoices and take action on time.

    Here are few other benefits of going paperless:

    1. Better customer service – access invoices, orders and other proposals when on the phone.
    2. Better cash management – pay invoices that have early payment discounts and pay invoices later during payment period that don’t have one.
    3. Work from anywhere/anytime – with everything digital, you are not tethered to the office anymore. You can
    4. Save space – Since you are not using valuable space for filing cabinets, you can reduce the office space and save on real estate.

    Prasad Thammineni
    Go Paperless, find documents anywhere, anytime

  2. Denise, great post! I enjoyed reading it. Prasad, good comment.

    Automate’ almost sounds like it will automate a lot of stuff. I am not sure if that is the case. Second, it also sounds like it needs lot of capital investment. (which also, I know, is not the case). Small businesses need something they can ‘run with’ fast without much set up time. Take the invoices question. I currently do manual invoices – I am not sure of avenues that can set me up in less than 10 minutes? Are there?

    I can see the wisdom in collaborating with not just virtual assistants but also other experts who can do it faster and better so you can focus on tasks more strategic to you. (I have a vested interest – check out to understand why). But I think you have to set the right price, right process and right incentives to align the expert’s business with yours.


  3. I happen to be one of those small business owners who was and still struggles with been organized and systemizing and automating my business. My solution was to hire a couple people that had this skill and put these in place so the business is more efficient and scales much better. This freed me up to focus on what I am good at. Since this time my website broker business has been able to expand dramatically.

  4. @Prasad Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, the idea of a paperless office is a good one. It would indeed help small business owners be more productive. But it’s really tough to get them to let go of old habits. We’ve all heard horror stories of “soft” data being lost and I think that is part of the reluctance. Hopefully as the technology improves and green initiatives continue to gain steam it will move them to take the steps you are suggesting.

    @Chaitany Sure you can set up a system with either software or an online service that will do recurring billing for you. And if your invoice is a one off, it still will save you time by using the technology available. One thing to remember. You, as the company leader, are the most expensive employee in your company. If you add up the time it takes to do manual tasks for just one year, you’ll see how much money you could be wasting. Appreciate you sharing your thoughts and your resource.

  5. How long will American companies continue to accept the standard phrase: “check is in the mail”?!

  6. Oh yes, I used a spreadsheet for the first year I was in business and then I switched to QuickBooks. I used the free SimpleStart version on a PC for several months and it was awesome.

    Then I switched to Mac and purchased QuickBooks 2009 for Mac. I have to say that this software is only about one step above using a spreadsheet. It’s not user friendly or intuitive and after the last automated update, the ability to customize invoices and quotes vanished. I’m hoping it will get better but after spending $200, I’m mostly disappointed.

    In any case, spreadsheets, handwritten invoices, and word docs are definitely unprofessional and should be avoided. I’m sure accountants don’t appreciate them very much either 😉

  7. @Martin If they are smart, they would have stopped it a long time ago. Thanks!

  8. @Melissa Glad to hear you made the switch. Progress is a good thing. Sorry about the challenges you’ve had with QuickBooks. I’ve used both the PC version and the online version with great success. It would be a good idea for you to pay a visit to the QuickBooks forum at or the QuickBooks Users forum at I’m sure someone there will be able to help you out so your invoices become quick and easy again and you return to thinking QuickBooks is awesome. 🙂 Give it a shot. It will be worth your time.

  9. @David BINGO!!!! Thanks so much for sharing the approach you took and how it has worked for your business. That is exactly what I was talking about. May you have as much success as you seek.

  10. I agree with you Prasad. The idea of going paperless is really a good one. Save time, effort in mgt. and money in printing everything.

  11. I think many people need to be walked through those steps – in-person – and to not feel embarrassed to show the way.

    As a former journalist, I love Intuit because it is made for people non-geeks like me.

    BTW your writing is so clear, friendly and conversational – likea friend trying to give me advice. Thanks

  12. I find it interesting that some businesses don’t take their billing and invoicing more seriously. I’ve seen more than one small business treat it like it’s an annoying pest instead of what powers your business. The last business I worked for couldn’t take two minutes out to address outstanding customer invoices. They had that “I don’t need that money that bad” mentality. I think that’s a huge mistake and they could have really benefited from automating.

  13. Another place for business owners to find qualified, reputable Virtual Assistants is the Virtual Assistance Chamber of Commerce. Unlike other organizations, they screen their members to their standards of excellence and qualification. Of interest:

    Virtual Assistant Directory

    RFP Center

    Client’s Guide to Virtual Assistants

    How to Hire a Virtual Assistant

  14. Great article, Denise. Not only will your advice simplify your billing and invoicing processes, but all of this is very convenient for your customers. We offer one simple solution that offers credit card processing, email invoicing, recurring billing, and more — all which will help increase cashflow, save time, and reduce headaches.

    Back on point, automating routine tasks can definitely be the differentiating factor that wins over business.

  15. @Arthur Yes, good idea. But can they really do it?

    @Kare I agree. Showing someone how to do it goes a long way. Thanks so much for the compliment about my writing style. You made my day!

    @Amanda It is a shame, isn’t it? They only pay attention when the situation gets so bad that they have to.

    @Danielle Thanks so much for the great resource links.

    @Chad Simple solutions are the key. If it gets complicated, they’ll go back to the old way no matter how much time the new solution will save them.

  16. It’s definitely true that savvy small business owners need to use every tool available to stay afloat in this slowdown. I have two tools to recommend: First, is, an excellent Web 2.0 ecommerce platform that I am using to run my business. Second, in the spirit of outsourcing tasks to take advantage of others’ comparative advantage, I recommend making sure your website and your important business documents are error-free with an inexpensive editing and proofreading service (this will help impress prospects on your website or potential investors who read your business plan). I’m biased, but I run an online business that provides such a service: 🙂

  17. Well I hope they will Denise… 🙂

  18. @Erick Sounds like you’re in tune with this market and have created some helpful tools. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Great post, Denise. The more small business owners automate, the more they can focus on marketing and sales, which is what propels the growth of the business.

    In working with lots of small business owners, I’ve noticed that we tend to either entirely neglect the stuff we don’t like to do (invoicing, collecting cash, book keeping usually fall in that category) or we reluctantly work on the things we don’t like to do and spend WAY too much time doing it. My advice to entrepreneurs is:

    1. Come to grips with the fact that when you start a business, you have to do a bunch of stuff you don’t love
    2. Automate as much of that “stuff” as possible
    3. Build your business to a point you can delegate or outsource the stuff you don’t love and you can’t automate (viewing the delegation as a reward for success works well); and
    4. Always work toward doing ONLY the stuff you love.

    The reality is when we start a business, we have to do a bunch of stuff we don’t love (unless you’ve got boatloads of cash, which usually isn’t the case). I firmly believe a lot of folks lose their business because they don’t come to grips with this brutal fact. But if we follow the steps above, the business grows and the entrepreneur becomes more and more satisfied in pursuit of doing ONLY what he/she loves.

  20. @Clate That’s a good observation. We do tend to focus on those things in our business that we love. You provided some good advice. Thanks.

  21. Good post! It is quite hard to understand sometimes when you meet people that do not have automated processes in their business.

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  22. Hi Amanda…that is really what entrepreneurs should learn to do — avoiding as much as possible the error. Most of the time we tend to learn in a hard way when in fact we could have prevented it to happen.

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

  23. This is the very reason that winweb ( started in business and the very reason we have partnered with winweb, by providing a full tri-ledger accounting system small business clients are able to automate the accounting function, couple this with being online (hosted) they can make use of a VA (virtual assistant) to enter the data, win win you would think, but it is not that easy convincing small business this is the way forward!

  24. @Jason Looks like you captured the essence of what a small business needs. Thanks for sharing your site.

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