Technology

16 Tools & Capabilities Your Growing Business Needs to Compete in 2021 and Beyond

It has been quite a year. All of us have been indirectly affected by the pandemic, of course. Far too many of us have been touched directly, whether by the death of a friend or family member, the struggle of a personal illness, or the financial shock of lost revenue or employment.

While 2020’s end can’t come soon enough, it’s clear that the world won’t simply go back to normal when the calendar turns to 2021. Whether we like it or not, we’re living in a “new normal,” one that will demand more of us than we realize now.

For businesses large and small, the “new normal” is both fraught with peril and rich with opportunity. Countless enterprises have already failed as a result of the pandemic and the recession it precipitated, and sadly many more will follow suit in 2021 and beyond. Entrepreneurs who’d like to remain viable for the long haul need to understand the danger that lies ahead and do what they can to prepare for it.

To that end, the approach of a new year is a good time to take stock of the tools and capabilities upon which your enterprise relies to remain competitive in an ever more uncertain marketplace. On what measures is your business doing well? Where is it falling short? And what can it do in the coming months to gain an edge over competitors known and unknown?

We’ve identified 16 ideas to do just that. Each section below highlights an important business tool, process, or capability that strong enterprises tend to have (and weak enterprises tend to overlook). If you’ve already added some, that’s great — you’ll have that many fewer items on your to-do list come January 2021.

1. Secure Cloud Sharing 

When was the last time you sat across the table with your fellow collaborators? If you’re like most service-based entrepreneurs and professionals, it’s likely that you haven’t had a face-to-face meeting with clients or team members since the first quarter of 2020. Feels like forever, no?

It’s not like you haven’t been talking to them, of course. But perhaps you’ve been wanting for a way to easily and securely share ideas, work products, financial documents, and whatever other bits of information flit between the various nodes of your enterprise.

The solution is clear: a secure cloud sharing platform that allows you to share, access, and edit files from anywhere with an Internet connection — without worrying about who might be snooping on the connection. Your solution should enable multiple users to collaborate simultaneously and offer distributed data deployment for faster upload and download capabilities.

In short, it should be a modern cloud sharing solution, one that’s built for the needs of a business that expects to operate remotely for the foreseeable future. Because, let’s face it, that’s probably going to be the case.

2. Real-Time Remote Communication (Chat)

How do you chat with your collaborators? And don’t say, “rapid-fire emails.” That doesn’t cut it in a world where seconds matter and answers are not simply a walk-down-the-hallway away. (Remember, we’re in a new remote normal now.)

The solution, once more, is simple: a workplace chat tool that enables real-time communication, file-sharing, and notifications during (and after) business hours. The category leader is Slack, but this is actually a crowded space, and your enterprise’s needs might lead you to a different solution. This guide rounds up about a dozen of the best options for teams of all sizes.

3. Disaster Recovery and Backup

The worst can happen. Doesn’t mean it will, but it can. If and when it does, you need to be prepared to pick up the pieces with as little disruption and data loss as possible.

That calls for a comprehensive data recovery and/or backup solution that protects the information and programs that you can’t afford to go without. This is different than a run-of-the-mill cloud storage solution, which is important but not sufficient to respond in the event of a true disaster. Crucially, it’s also much less vulnerable to compromise by malicious actors than big-name cloud storage platforms that are secure but not that secure.

4. Anti-Malware 

On the subject of malicious actors, your enterprise needs an anti-malware solution that’s up to the task of defending against threats known and unknown. Sad to say, the off-the-shelf solution that came preloaded on your work device probably isn’t going to cut it. But that’s okay: Security is one of the few areas where it really doesn’t pay to cut corners. Put another way, you should be willing to pay a bit more for the peace of mind that comes with business-grade anti-malware security.

5. Encrypted Email

Your workplace chat and secure cloud sharing solutions will do a great deal to reduce your reliance on traditional email. Unfortunately, they probably won’t eliminate your need for email altogether. At the same time, it’s no longer a best practice to rely on popular email suites like Gmail for sensitive business communications. You just don’t know who’s listening.

The solution is self-evident: encrypted email. Basic encrypted email solutions are available for free, without a subscription or commitment, so there’s no reason not to invest in one, especially if your work involves industries with high-security compliance requirements (like banking) or unusually sensitive matters.

6. Crisis Communications and Response Plans

Do you know what you’d do if…it…hit the fan? As in: Can you visualize the sequential steps that you and your collaborators would take to deal with a true-to-life crisis that threatens your enterprise’s reputation, viability, or both?

If the answer is “no,” you need a crisis communications strategy. This is distinct from but related to (and intertwined with) a crisis response strategy, which covers the internal actions and roles that obtain in the event of a true crisis. A full-service PR firm can help you with both, though you’ll also want to turn to industry- and subject-matter experts for help developing a response strategy with a high probability of success.

7. A Contingency Plan for Every Low-Probability, High-Risk Event You Can Contemplate

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the unexpected can happen. If a once-in-a-century pandemic could strike this year, there’s no reason to expect an equally devastating but unlikely event couldn’t occur next year or the year after. 

For this reason, entrepreneurs that truly want to remain competitive for the long haul need to contemplate specific low-probability, high-risk events that could derail their plans. This exercise is distinct from crisis communications and response plans, which contemplate more localized events. It requires you to imagine how your business would adjust to, say, an earthquake that devastates infrastructure for miles around your home base or a widespread cyberattack that knocks out Internet connectivity for an indefinite period.

These events may or may not happen next year — or ever. But you need to have a plan in place just in case.

8. Cloud-Based Invoicing Software

Now, let’s turn to a much more mundane but no less important business need: invoicing. 

Just about every service-based business needs to do it. And if you’re still relying on emailed or (heaven forbid) printed-and-mailed invoices to recoup payment for your services, you’re way behind the times. Invest in a cloud-based invoicing platform with a built-in secure payment portal and join the rest of us at the payment party.

9. Key Person Insurance

This, unfortunately, is another capability whose importance has become clear in the past year. Key person insurance is, essentially, a life insurance policy that ensures business continuity in the event of an owner or partner’s unexpected death. The details are a bit technical, but the idea is to compensate the surviving owners or partners for the loss of the deceased person’s skills, expertise, and perhaps capital contributions. 

For best results, key person insurance should be paired with a formal contract or incorporation framework that guarantees ownership transfer (or, at least, right of first refusal) to the surviving partners, rather than the deceased person’s spouse or children.

10. Landline Connectivity

Really? Still?

Yes. Just as competitive businesses need continuity plans and post-disaster data recovery protocols, they need a backstop in the event of an extended Internet outage — an outage that will surely knock out your cable company’s Internet-based phone service. If your home (where you’re most likely working from now) still has a landline, great. If not, you know who to call.

11. Marketing Email Automation

Still sending out marketing emails by hand? Toiling over your newsletter, paragraph after painstaking paragraph, until late into the night?

Stop torturing yourself and get an email automation tool that takes the tedium out of reaching the top of your prospects’ inboxes (and staying there for more than a fleeting moment). As a bonus, you’ll reap a host of useful analytics to improve your marketing efforts in the future.

12. Social Media Scheduling (And a Dedicated Manager)

You might not have the resources to hire a dedicated social media manager right now. Perhaps you’re too short on cash even for a virtual assistant responsible for a few hours per week of social content creation. But you can definitely afford a social media scheduling tool — some are free for smaller businesses, and others cost a mere pittance.

Like email automation, social media schedulers save time, which we all know is more valuable than money. Use the savings to do something really valuable, like refine your customer acquisition strategy.

13. Inbox Management

Speaking of virtual assistants: They’re ideal for entrepreneurs who can’t be bothered to tame their own email inboxes. Two hours per week might be all that’s needed for you to achieve and maintain coveted “inbox zero” status — and ensure that nothing important falls through the cracks in the meantime.

14. Video Marketing

You don’t need to hire a full-time videographer or retain a blue-chip marketing firm renowned for producing award-winning commercials. You do, on the other hand, need to produce eye-catching marketing videos that attract and retain eyeballs on YouTube and your social media channels. That starts with a free-flowing ideation process (preferably one that includes your most creative collaborators) and a video editing tool that allows you to produce videos with at least the appearance of professionalism.

15. Task Management Software

It’s okay to admit that you have trouble staying on task. We all do, to a greater or lesser degree. What separates the procrastinators from the truly productive is a willingness to do something about it. 

In this case, “something” is a task management tool that improves upon the traditional work calendar. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to guide you toward milestones, follow projects through to completion, and ensure no “little things” are forgotten in the meantime.

16. Project Management Software

Tasks and projects are not quite the same, as you know. And while task management software can help with the granular steps inherent in any larger project, it’s unlikely to be enough to manage truly complex undertakings with multiple roleplayers and external collaborators. This is another solution that you should be willing to pay for on the expectation that it’ll pay for itself sooner rather than later.

Is Your Company “Capable” Enough to Succeed in the New Normal?

The world is not going back to its pre-pandemic state. Not in 2021, not in 2022 — not ever.

Let’s be clear: When the immediate danger from the virus passes, after effective vaccines are widely available, people will go back to congregating in large groups, traveling across international borders, and interacting with vulnerable family members without undue fear of causing them harm.

But that world will be different from the world of 2019 and before. Who knows how different, or in what exact ways. But it will be different.

This is a scary thought for entrepreneurs and executives who prize predictability and stability above all else. Wouldn’t it be nice to know how the world is going to change, and on what timetable, so that preparations might be made in due course?

It would be, yes. Unfortunately, that’s now how the world works — not ever, and certainly not now. The best the business community can do is take proactive measures to reduce risk, patch up weak spots, and enhance competitiveness. 

The steps we’ve outlined in this article provide a sound foundation upon which to build. The sooner you can begin implementing them within your own enterprise, the sooner you can turn your attention to developing a strategy to compete in the “new normal” that will be here before you know it.