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News & opinion

10 OCT. 2019

The start-up's survival kit

Time is money, especially for small businesses with limited resources. Could any of these five productivity tools give you a boost?

1. Dropbox: a free, secure and easy-to-use online file-hosting service

What it does

The march of digitisation means that every business, be it large or small, now has ever-increasing data storage needs. Dropbox helps you expand data storage away from in-house servers and on to the cloud. It works by creating a folder on a user's computer that is synchronised to Dropbox's servers, and to other devices on which the user has installed Dropbox, so you can keep the same files up to date regardless of the hardware you're using. Subscribers sign up to a free account with limited storage, while paid subscriptions offer more capacity and additional features.

What it costs

2GB of storage is available for free, but upgrading to "Professional" for around £20 per month allows up to 3,000GB of storage, as well as a 180-day file recovery service.

In practice

"Storing data online means we avoid the need to spend thousands of dollars on a robust server," says Andrew Hyett MRICS, director of Quintons in New Zealand. "We store everything from photos to drone videos and 3D scans. Your files are always available even if you are offline, as they will automatically update when you are back in the office or, if essential, via your mobile's hot spot. Our office is in Wellington, which is prone to earthquakes, so having our data backed up online ensures business continuity should a seismic event occur that closes our office and restricts access to our server."

Drawbacks

Uploading and downloading files can be slow at times, and because folders cannot be individually "locked", security could be a concern.

In a nutshell

Although the free version is adequate for small businesses, it's worth upgrading for the bigger storage capacity and higher level of security. dropbox.com

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2. QuickBooks: a desktop or smartphone-based app for organising accounts

What it does

Keeping on top of accounts and tracking invoices can be a pain for any time-pressured small business. QuickBooks helps you organise your finances digitally, and all in one place – potentially freeing up more time for client work and increasing business productivity. Business paper waste can be reduced as well – documents, receipts and invoices can be scanned into the software and backed up online, so boxes of physical copies will no longer be needed.

What it costs

A range of plans for small businesses are available, starting from around £5 per month. A free 30-day trial is available.

In practice

"I don't employ any staff or have admin help, so QuickBooks comes in really handy," says Chichester-based Tim Kenny MRICS. "Working as an independent surveyor can be tough, but it allows me to provide a high level of service to clients and a chance to maintain a good work-life balance. To achieve the latter without compromising the former, I've got to operate efficiently, so the app is ideal for that. I particularly like how it presents all the information I need around cashflow and minimal overdue invoices on the home screen. On the downside, it does occasionally do odd things, such as changing the due date on invoices to today's date every time I save it. Hopefully this will be sorted on the next update. I pay around £14 per month, but it's worth it for the amount of time I save."

Drawbacks

A lack of customisation for reports, and limits for file size and the number of users, might frustrate larger operations.

In a nutshell

Great for cutting paper waste, and accessing and organising your accounts from anywhere. Some may find the interface hard to use. quickbooks.com

meeting-business-technology-pexels
Start-ups are becoming ever-reliant on business tools, in order to optimise efficiency in a number of areas

3. CostX: construction estimating software that takes the hard work out of preparing estimates, tenders and bills of quantity

What it does

Rather than using traditional paper-based methods for carrying out measurement works, which usually involves an inordinate amount of time taking-off from construction drawings and inputting the data into spreadsheets, CostX automates these processes. The time-saving software can take measurements from data files of 2D drawings, as well as generate automatic quantities from BIM or 3D models.

What it costs

Standalone, network and portable licences are available across a range of CostX products, and free trial periods are also available.

In practice

"We used to spend a tremendous amount of time overworking architects' and engineers' drawings with notes, measurements and quantifications," says Kenny Telfer MRICS, director of Scottish quantity surveyor Torridon CPM. "Completing these tasks digitally saves time, increases accuracy, and if there are further queries we can simply open up the drawing and see what was measured at a certain point in time. Six months down the line, if a client is unhappy about particular costs being too high, we can then work with the architect to value-engineer areas of the design back to an acceptable budget. Once we have the new drawings, CostX recalculates and updates our costs. Although using the software can be quite expensive, its value will really depend on how much you use it. For us, it's well worth it."

Drawbacks

Costs for use and training can be quite high – and time will need to be set aside for training to measure more complicated 3D BIM models.

In a nutshell

Revolutionary, time-saving technology for quantity surveyors, but initial outlays for software licences may be quite steep for some. exactal.com

4. Trello: a project collaboration app that encourages engagement

What it does

The smartphone and desktop-based app uses colourful boards, lists and cards to help visualise, organise and prioritise projects. Coworkers can collaborate on ideas, see who's working on what, which tasks are outstanding, and what's coming up next. Comments, photos, videos or PDFs can be added to tasks, which are then synchronised to everyone's devices, and backed up in the cloud.

What it costs

A limited version is available for free, while business versions start from around $10 per month and bring customisation and automation.

In practice

"I run a small consultancy, and last year a government client of ours was using Trello to facilitate project management around a very diverse team," explains Kathryn Bourke MRICS, managing director of Watford-based Whole Life. "Initially, it was to provide us with a work plan, which was kept on the various home-screen cards featured on the app. We could also access individual work streams, where everyone in the team can post notes and files. It was disconcerting at first, as it was so different to what I was used to, but I became so impressed with it that we started using it on our own projects. Its transparency is a key aspect – it helps you see the wider picture of all work streams and deadlines without feeling overwhelmed. However, the cards do need to be maintained to remain effective."

Drawbacks

The app's redeeming simplicity also means it may be unsuitable for large projects, and it cannot be used offline.

In a nutshell

It could change your firm's whole approach to project management, but might require careful "in-app" management to avoid boards and tasks overwhelming teams. trello.com

Project Management
Project management, invoicing, and data storage tools can be implemented by small businesses to save time, and maximise output

5. eTech: a stress-free mobile mortgage report software

What it does

Desktop or tablet-based software that helps surveyors carry out residential mortgage valuation reports. Information is captured in a consistent format, while site notes, photographs and floorplans can be included in the final digital report. A database of comparable properties aids valuations, and with all data backed up online, an accessible audit trail is available to support any defence claims.

What it costs

Transaction based, each report can cost as little as a few pounds.

In practice

"It's an incredibly useful tool for residential surveyors," says Joe Arnold MRICS, managing director at Arnold & Baldwin in Croydon. "The site notes are mapped to lender guidance and criteria, so, for example, if I'm doing a mortgage valuation on the 10th floor of a building and there's no lift, the software will decline the valuation because the lender's criteria stipulates there must be a lift at that height. We also used to have to manually check a huge number of comparable properties, but because the software is linked to Rightmove, this is all taken care of. More than anything, I like how it ensures we have consistent and legible reports. In the past, a colleague might have filled out a form in illegible handwriting, and if they left the company, we couldn't work out what had been written."

Drawbacks

Although mortgage valuation report data can also be fed into eTech's HomeBuyer Report "sister" app, it currently does not link lender guidance notes across the two, says Arnold, "so filling out the same data twice can be a pain."

In a nutshell

The software's quick, efficient and low-cost digital reports are great value, but interoperability with other software could be improved. etech.net

...and two more from RICS

Be sure to take advantage of these time-saving tools that we've developed for our professionals:

RICS Building Carbon Database

This recently launched database allows users to calculate the whole-life carbon emissions associated with each phase of a building's lifecycle, so you can identify where carbon reductions can be made throughout the construction process. Furthermore, because you can access other buildings' data, your designs can be benchmarked against other projects in the database. wlcarbon.rics.org

iSurv

The online subscription service contains a vast amount of technical information on a range of property and construction-related topics, as well as government legislation, RICS regulations and case law. With more than 25,000 pages of constantly updated information, it can help you put theory into practice, and potentially help to resolve workplace issues. A free trial is available. isurv.com

  • This article originally appeared in the Talent issue of Modus (October 2019)