Business owners will often say that entrepreneurship illuminates your best and worst qualities. My best quality is that I am a living, breathing growth engine. My weakness? Paper.
At first, I joked about the piles of paper on my desk. But then, I started losing receipts and forgetting to log my travel expenses. I was wasting time (and losing sleep) chasing tax forms, cheques, and business receipts.
It’s an understatement to say that paper was a problem in my business. But what I didn’t realize was how much time and money I would save after taking the time to set up systems to help me go paperless. Here are a few paper-related problems and how I’ve solved them.
1. The business cards I collect
Earlier this year, I went to my Women 2.0 meetup in Los Angeles and collected about 50 cards from some of the most inspiring entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. I came home and dumped the cards on my desk, thinking that I would take the time to send follow-up notes via LinkedIn. I knew it would take a whole afternoon to input the data, and because I was traveling the next week, I never got around to doing it. Those cards stayed in my drawer for months, along with a pile of other cards that I had forgotten about.
A few months ago, I discovered CardMunch, a mobile app that converts business cards into LinkedIn contacts. The next conference I went to – AdTech San Francisco – I stayed in touch with everyone I met. I followed up with each new contact, and one of those contacts became my client. I can only imagine the lost opportunities from previous events.
2. The important notes I take
I am constantly meeting, interviewing, and engaging in brainstorming sessions with the smartest folks that I have ever met. I rely on note taking to remember key discussion points, and always document the insights that stem from great conversations. When I used to make those notes on paper, I would occasionally lose some of them. Paper just seems to have a way of disappearing sometimes, like socks. I would frequently waste hours of my time tearing through my house to try to find notes, leaving behind a horrible mess (that just made the paper situation worse). Six months ago, after not being able to track down some important notes that I had promised to share with a group of people, I decided it was time to look for a solution.
I turned to Evernote, a platform that takes the paper out of note taking. I make all my notes digitally and store them in the cloud, all in one place that I can access from anywhere I am. The software also makes it super easy to share my notes, and collaborate with others on anything I’ve captured. Since using Evernote, I have a complete historical record of all the notes I have taken and have stopped wasting time chasing information. I can only imagine the hours this system has saved me. Plus, with without the pile of paper notes, I get to see what my desk looks like.
3. The documents I need others to sign
At any given time, I have at least a dozen clients, and we’re all on separate contracts, independent consulting agreements, non-disclosure agreements, and others. A few months ago, my office printer and scanner broke, and I decided not to replace it.
Every time I needed to sign something, I would drive 1 mile to FedEx office and use a public computer to print and scan my files. I would come away with printing bills upwards of $60 sometimes. Not to mention, the printers at my local FedEx kept breaking, so I would easily spend an hour just trying to print something. It was a huge waste of time and money.
On the other side of the equation were my clients and contractors. I would send them forms and expect the same — for them to go print and sign contracts. I quickly discovered that they were just as paper-challenged as I was. The process of getting a deal signed would literally take days when it should have been taking five minutes.
I was joking about this pain point with one of my clients, and he pointed me towards a solution that I probably should have learned about years ago — e-signatures. This software makes it easy to digitize the entire deals process and create legally binding agreements.
EchoSign is one example of a product that businesses can use to set up signatures from any device. It works with any file formats including PDFs, Word, Excel, and others. Clients simply receive a “click to sign” link, and they’re done in just a few minutes.
RightSignature is another highly rated option (and it integrates with FreshBooks!). This solution is especially helpful for businesses that require invoice approvals from accounts payable teams. You can get invoices (and other documents) signed in under a minute.
4. The ever growing pile of business expenses
When I first started out as a business owner, I did a terrible job of keeping track of my business expenses. I knew it was vital to take advantage of every opportunity to bring down my tax obligations, but my poor accounting skills stood in my way. I’d collect receipts in my purse, dump them in a pile, and promise myself that I’d go through them. Whenever I got around to doing that, I would discover some missing, and would forget what many were for. I was literally hemorrhaging money during tax season.
I’ll never forget the time I visited my accountant in 2011 with a pile of disorganized receipts shoved in a manila folder. He gave me a polite but blank stare, told me to fix my mess, and sent me home.
A friend, who had a similar problem, turned me on to her solution—her cellphone camera combined with a FreshBooks cloud accounting system. I took her advice and since last year, I’ve been photographing receipts before they hit my purse and uploading them right away to the mobile app version of my FreshBooks account. Of my 50 most recent business expenses, I’ve only lost two receipts.
The end result is that I have more time to spend on my business, a track record of business expenses to write off my 2013 taxes, and peace of mind that everything is in one place.
Solving the above four paper challenges have taken me pretty close to going paperless, but there’s another problem that’s next on my list to tackle…
5. The forms I have to deal with
When I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2012, I ran into a big problem—I needed my business’s tax records but couldn’t find them anywhere. I was able to track them down by talking to a rep at LegalZoom, but if I had a digital copy of the forms that I could easily access, I could have avoided wasting several hours—hours I could have spent growing my business or catching up on valuable sleep.
To avoid having to track down paper forms like my tax records and all the other forms and letters I get, I plan to buy a high-speed desktop scanner. This device couples with a digital filing system. In a nutshell, it will process your paper pile for you—no human involvement necessary.
I am still researching options, which is why I haven’t bought it yet. I am looking for the solution that best complements my lifestyle and working habits—I need a device that is extremely low touch that can, essentially, do 100% of the thinking and grunt work.
Here is one option that I’ve been eyeing from NeatDesk:
End result: save time, save money, improve efficiency
What all of these solutions share in common is that they’ve saved me time—twenty hours a month by my estimation—and lots of money, which are two of my business’s most valuable assets. Not to mention, I can now focus on making money instead of chasing paper.
What tools have helped you eliminate paper from your business? Share your thoughts (and self-help strategies) in the comments below.