This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.
Despite living in the age of e-mail, wireless networks, smartphones, and tablets, many small businesses are still beholden to paper. There are a variety of reasons for this. Often, it's the other businesses or government agencies that you interface with that demand paper forms or faxes. Sometimes, it's just that old habits die hard.
However, there are software solutions to some old paper problems that don't require the network infrastructure of a large corporation. And making a small technology investment now could save your business a bundle long-term not to mention reducing its wasteful reliance on paper products.
We mostly see PDF (Adobe's Portable Document Format) files as immutable documents the opposite of an editable MS Word file. But PDFs are actually extremely versatile, and can be edited, graphically manipulated, and used as fillable forms if you have the right software.
The standard in PDF editing software, Adobe Acrobat, will run you $299 for an individual license, but there are alternatives. One of them is NitroPDF, an extremely powerful editor that starts at $99 for a single license. With it, you can easily create PDF forms that clients can view and complete with standard software, like Adobe reader and most web browsers. You can also edit existing PDF documents without resorting to printing and white-out.
Another great paper-saving feature is the built-in and extremely stable PDF printer driver. Instead of sending that important e-mail or website to your laserjet, select Nitro's printer option and generate a full-color PDF that you can archive digitally on your hard drive and in the cloud (more on that below).
On the topic of PDF printing, if you don't need the full editing suite that comes with NitroPDF, but you're looking for a way to render important documents as PDFs, check out PDF995. It's a PDF printer driver, plain and simple no user interface or controls. Simply install it and it will add a PDF option to the print menu of all your applications.
A PDF printer driver is an excellent way to digitally render invoices, graphic mock-ups, and long text documents that you'd like clients to read, but not change all without ever touching a piece of paper or a scanner.
PDF995 is free, but it is ad supported. Whenever you generate a PDF, a small pop-up window will appear in your default browser, which you can simply close when the file is done rendering. It may take a few seconds of your time for each one, but it's a small drawback for an excellent free product.
3. Fax to E-mail Services
In the words of Michael Scott from NBC's comedy The Office, "Fax? Why don't you just send it over on a dinosaur?"
Indeed, there is little excuse for using a fax machine in 2010, but many businesses do so because other businesses they correspond with, including the U.S. government especially, still rely on the technology. Your business can break this vicious cycle (and save piles of paper in the process) by switching your fax number over to an e-mail conversion service.
Setting up an account will assign a new fax number, ideally in your business's area code, and use a web or e-mail interface to send and receive faxes as PDF files. New faxes will come directly to your inbox instead of that paper-spewing fail machine in the break room.
Some of the leading fax to e-mail services include:
Rates and features vary between services, so investigating how much faxing you plan to do each month is worthwhile. Additionally, if you already host your website and/or business e-mail with GoDaddy.com, they offer an integrated fax to e-mail feature for an added monthly fee.
Nearly every type of business, from a law firm, to a construction company, to a lone freelance designer, should be using contract agreements to legally protect itself from issues with clients and other businesses. Typically, this means generating paper and gathering a signature in ink, either by mail (even more paper) or in person.
But for over 10 years, e-signatures have been equally binding under the law, and a few companies have made the process of creating and sending secure electronic agreements very efficient.
One of them is EchoSign, a feature-rich and user friendly service for generating and archiving digital contracts. If you're already working with a paper version of your business agreement, simply upload it to EchoSign and enter the recipient's e-mail address. They will receive a copy of the document with a link where they can e-sign. The executed contract is stored in your EchoSign account for reference. The software is completely web-based, so there's nothing to install, and you can access your documents from any Internet connection.
EchoSign has a scalable pricing model, starting with a free account that lets one user gather up to five signatures per month, through unlimited signature accounts with multiple users, starting at $40 per month.
Besides saving paper, the speed at which your business can execute binding agreements via e-mail should be enough to make you part ways with the old mail and ink system.
5. Online Backup and Record Keeping
Even if your company has gone digital in a number of paper-centric areas, perhaps the over-arching challenge, especially for small businesses, is archiving your records and files.
Often this data is disparate, spread between e-mails, computer files, and paper records. But if you're diligent about maintaining a searchable, web-based archive of the items listed above, the dividends paid in time and money saved will be enormous in the long-run.
Depending on the volume of your existing paper records, it may not be cost effective to digitize older files. But if you start fresh by printing to PDF instead of paper going forward, you can create your web-accessible archive with a number of services, including these highly recommended ones:
Additionally, if you're using Google Apps for business, the existing infrastructure of document sharing, collaboration, and large storage capacity makes the system ideal for generating a cloud-based business archive that all of your team members can actively use and update.
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