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Here's Software to Manage Your Business Like the Big Guys

What's different is how these packages describe your business data, called "metadata," which is then related back to the functions that keep your business in business: For example, email can be linked to accounting; invoices to payroll; calendars to planning; travel requests to budgeting and on and on. Everything your small business does can be essentially connected, automated and monitored in real time.

Herein lies the problem -- and the opportunity. Yes, the process of automating the relationship between, say, a phone call and an invoice is powerful stuff. In my business I compete very effectively with much larger media companies using tools like free collaborative software from Google (GOOG), called Google Apps , to build a Web-based spreadsheet that tracks and logs the electronics I test. It's actually more efficient than the zillion-dollar tracking software I used when I worked at the Walt Disney Company (DIS) a decade ago.

However, the way I connect my email archives to this spreadsheet is not necessarily the way productivity software producers -- like 37signals, which has a very nice Web-based business-automation tool called Basecamp , (starts free, $149 for unlimited projects and other features), or Rave , which sells by-seat icon-based sales support tools -- believes I should. So I must build my own bridge from Google Apps to Basecamp. And that either means I eat time and expense of importing the data by hand or have a custom application built, with all the attendant issues of cost and debugging.

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