An Army of One Asks "SharePoint, What Is It Good For?" - Using SharePoint in One Person Companies

It's dangerous to go alone. Take SharePoint. Recently, we've been getting a lot of new customers who are the sole proprietor of their businesses. This isn't too unusual; many businesses are one-person shops who don't have any employees. For example, while it isn't unusual to eventually take on assistants, many tax preparation specialists, accountants, architects, lawyers, IT folks, marketing gurus, or business consultants start out as just an individual person going into business for themselves. I personally went this route; rather than take on a full-time job, I operated as an independent contractor for nearly 15 years.

Liquid Mercury has always been a company based on helping our customers get the best value out of SharePoint. This used to mean mostly Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. Then, Office 365 came along and has greatly increased the audience for whom SharePoint is accessible. Now, even a single person business can buy an Office 365 Business Premium plan for $12.50 a month and get access to SharePoint.

There's a lot of interest in the platform, and one question that people in business for themselves ask us more than any other is "What's the point to SharePoint when you haven't got anybody to share with?"

At first, the answer wasn't entirely obvious, even to me, so I thought it might be worth sharing a few tips on how sole proprietors can get the most out of the SharePoint component of their Office 365 service.

Author's Note: This article got to be much more involved than I expected. So I've decided to break it up into two parts. In this, part 1, I'll go over the first three tips, which are primarily about benefits you can achieve for yourself. In the next part, I'll go into depth about ideas that can help you when working with your customers.

Tip #1: Develop a Filing System

When I think about how to use SharePoint in a one-person office, the first thing that comes to mind for me is to simply get better organized with all the documents needed to operate the business every day.

Any business will have these. There will be invoices and communications from vendors that need to be scanned, filed, and paid out. Possibly, there will be invoices sent to customers. You may have to write your own contracts and then keep track of variations as you negotiate with your customers. Perhaps you'll need to write quotes or formal proposals in order to win the business. There might be status reports and time sheets.

You can certainly organize all these documents into folders. That's how people have been doing it for years. I will give you one good example why this might not be the best option in the long run.

Suppose you decide that your filing system will be organized by customer. One folder per customer, no problem. To keep clutter from piling up, under each customer folder you create a folder for time sheets, work logs, and invoices; a folder for documents the customer shares with you (so you can honor that NDA you signed); and one for the original proposal and agreement (so you can remember what you promised to do for them). You did remember to scan the signed copy of your contract and put it there, right?

Anyway, suppose you hire some help for a large customer. You need to share documents for that customer with your hired help. But there are certain details you'd prefer to keep in house, such as how much the customer is paying you, those confidential/proprietary documents, etc.

Now you also want to hire a bookkeeper to help you convert work activity into invoices. This person needs access to all the customer's documents, but only needs the financial stuff not the contracts or project documents.

You start to think that maybe it would've been better to organize the top level folders first by the type of document, and then have sub-folders for each customer. Over time you change the way your organizing your files, coming up with newer/better categorizations - but you don't really have time to go back and change the historical documents. What you need now is called a "matrix". What you actually have is probably better classified as a "mess".

But what does SharePoint do to resolve this problem?

SharePoint lets you attach any number of properties to a document. These are called Fields and they work exactly like you'd expect fields in a database or columns in a spreadsheet to work. You can have a Field for which customer a document relates to, and a different field for the purpose of the document. Say that later you decide to add a follow-up date to keep track of work on certain documents. With SharePoint, you can add that easily at point down the road.

Of course, we wouldn't just enter extra data about files for the fun of it. Learning to file things in a way that is completely different than what we've been taught to do for the past 25 years takes a certain amount of discipline. New skills will have to be learned and new work habits developed. For this effort, there must be a proportionate reward.

As it turns out there is such a benefit. Fields are useful because you can then create something called a View. Views let you show only the documents that meet certain criteria. For example, "Show me only the proposals that I won the business." or "Show me only the invoices where the customer hasn't paid me yet." Things can also be set up so that your bookkeeper wouldn't need to be confused by all those non-invoice documents that you have to track, because from their point of view (no pun intended) these can be completely hidden. So, you can start to see how Views would be very useful indeed and worth the effort of putting data into Fields on almost all your documents.

Tip #2: Find Things Faster, Easier

One thing that SharePoint has always done pretty well is search. (Hey, you SharePoint experts, don't laugh; I am serious.) Since the first version back in 2001, I have been very impressed that SharePoint was able to crawl all the documents on my entire network, including file shares, and bring back results that often times I'd completely forgotten even existed.

This was no small accomplishment, and SharePoint's ability to uncover hidden gems has only gotten better with time.

Quick Benefits Right Out of the Box

Today, in Office 365 we have something called Delve, which will show you not only what documents you've been working on, but timeline of your work with thumbnail representations of what these documents actually look like. Most one person shops are not running an traditional server with an enterprise version of SharePoint, so I feel pretty safe saying that for the purpose of this article, most interested readers will have access to Delve.

Here's a screen from Delve showing my recent documents.

Also, many people do not realize that OneDrive for Business is essentially SharePoint with another face. Yes, OneDrive lets you sync files to your local hard drive. However, when you browse the web site to look at the copies of your documents that are stored in the cloud, that web site is a SharePoint web site and those documents are stored in SharePoint Libraries. As a result, they are also searchable in SharePoint and will show up in Delve.

So, you can get a tremendous benefit without any extra effort at all on your part simply by choosing to save your documents into SharePoint or OneDrive for Business.

Taking Search to the Next Level

Combined with the proper use of the Fields we talked about in Develop a Filing System, SharePoint search can be used to not only search for documents based on their content, but also on how they were categorized using the data in those Fields. For example, just like you can create a View to show you certain types of documents within a Library, you can also use Search to surface documents stored on any SharePoint site.

This feature has many practical applications, especially for larger businesses, but the most compelling for a sole proprietor will likely be digging through lots of documents to find the one you need - as quickly as possible. Imagine for example that search results can be filtered by a specific customer, by a set of products that they relate to, or let's say... maybe by whether you remembered to scan and upload the final signed version.

Tip #3: Create Standard Operating Procedures

Almost every one person shop starts out with the idea that if you build a better mouse trap, people will beat a path to your door. Yet, in the course of business, we often fall into a trap ourselves. We discover that we're spending more time being a bookkeeper, bill collector, contract writer, office clerk, tech support, etc. rather than the thing we went into business to do.

Eventually, if you are going to stay focused on your mission, your one person business is going to take on hired help. That could mean employees or it could mean contracting with other specialty firms.

Either way, how you go about getting your work done is something that will need to be documented and shared. Without proper documentation of your processes, it becomes much more difficult to identify those parts of your work that can be effectively retooled, delegated, or outsourced to make your operation as efficient and competitive as it can be.

If you get to the point where you're successful enough that you are forced to grow, then you'll have no choice but to try and explain to other people what you want them to do and how you want it done.

Take it from me, it will be better for you if you start writing these things down before that day comes.

I learned the hard way that rapid business growth can be every bit as dangerous as a period of decline. In fact growth can trigger missteps, leading to long term problems and the ultimate downfall of a small business. Growth can turn many strategies that help the tiny business survive into bad habits that hold it back. Growth puts such a strain on the leadership of a business, that it might make one reconsider why they went into business for themselves in the first place.

By documenting your business processes before you're busting at the seams, you can go a long way towards making sure that once you're simply too busy to train new employees, there'll be a guidebook they can follow to help you get the most out of hiring them.

So enough about why you need to be writing SOPs before you actually think you need to have them. How does exactly SharePoint fit in with helping you define your business process?

Unstructured Notes

The first step is having a ready-to-share platform for writing things down as you think of them. At this stage, your ideas may not even be fully formed, so getting things on record quickly without interrupting your other work is essential.

For the unstructured piles of stuff I tend to generate at this stage, I use OneNote. OneNote is great because I never have to remember to hit Save, and it makes it relatively easy to record the web site where I found whatever helpful bit of information I might be working with. It has lots of features in that are helpful in taking down information quickly.

Okay, but you don't actually need SharePoint to use OneNote. It's part of Office and you could simply save your Notebook files to your laptop, or if you're really cloud savvy you can put them into OneDrive.

SharePoint sites include something called a Site Notebook. Site Notebooks are simply OneNote Notebooks that are already saved to a SharePoint library, set up for sharing with team members, and web accessible. If you start with a Site Notebook rather than creating a new Notebook some other way, then no extra steps are needed to start sharing the notes you take there.

Say that all you do when you start your business is create one SharePoint Team Site for each hat you have to wear - accounting, marketing, sales, management, and operations. Then, open the Site Notebook for each site in OneNote so you have a central place to start taking notes. When the time comes that you're ready to bring on some outside help, just share access to the appropriate Team Site, and they'll have your notes too.

By the way, there's a nice thing about sharing Notebooks this way. Two people can edit the notes at the same time and see one another's changes in real time.

Structured Documentation

Suppose you get to the point where you want to formalize your notes a bit further into something your assistant can use to help you perform some business tasks that come up fairly often. There are a couple things you can do in SharePoint that might be a better choice than using OneNote.

The first option is to create a Wiki Library. Wikis are web sites where you can quickly post and edit information directly on the web page. For example, this can be useful for creating and updating a company FAQ, employee policy handbook, etc. It's a bit easier to lock down a Wiki so that only certain people can make changes but everyone can read it. Wikis have the advantage that you have more control over how you structure the pages and navigation between them, and that users will not need any special knowledge beyond how to get to the web page using a browser. Wiki pages also show up as individual entries in search results (see Finding Things Faster) rather then one search result for an entire Notebook.

The other option for structured information is to copy your notes into Word documents. For example, if you wanted to create an Employee Handbook this might be the way to go. Personally, I find that if a process has a lot of diagrams, pictures, or screen shots, then creating the Word document is a lot easier than the work involved with uploading all those images to a Picture Library in SharePoint so they can be used on a Wiki. It's also easier to create a PDF from a Word document than a Wiki or Notebook, so if your process is something you'll have to share with people who don't have either Office or access to your SharePoint site, you might want that option. Word documents also show up in search as one result per document.

Defining a Process

When I talk about defining a business process, a lot of people will immediately jump to thinking about workflows. Workflows in SharePoint provide a way to marshal a process through several steps, with notifications for people when their step comes up.

Let me just get this out front; developing a workflow is not necessarily a great idea. There are several reasons. Firstly, workflows add overhead to a process. In addition to completing the task, you often have to report to the workflow that the task has been completed. Second, workflows define a process rather rigidly. This becomes a problem if your process changes fairly often - or worse yet maybe you don't even have the process fully defined. These issues are most obvious when you're a single person operation and need to track your own work.

SharePoint does provide some ways to improve your processes without forcing yourself into taking on a cumbersome system to track every step of what you do.

For example, Task Lists are a great way to plan a project and keep tabs on the steps involved so that you don't lose track of your progress. Over the years we've built a number of SharePoint add-ons to Tasks that let you do things like copy a set of template tasks to a new Task List, manage multiple projects within a single Task List, and more.

Microsoft recently released a tool called Planner that comes with some Office 365 subscriptions. We really like Planner! It shows a lot of potential, and in many ways it is easier to use than the SharePoint Task List. We wonder what Microsoft's plan for SharePoint Tasks will be in the long term, now that there are two different ways to accomplish essentially the same thing. Even so, Planner is a new product with several caveats and limitations that make it less amazing than we'd like it to be. For the moment, there are still times when choosing SharePoint Tasks instead is a valid option.

Screenshot of Microsoft Planner in Office 365

Beyond Task Lists, there are other ways to use SharePoint to structure your processes. Many people do not know that you can create a custom List in SharePoint very easily. These Lists can hold any kind of information you can imagine. For example, you could record a list of product prices, or a series of trade show events that are important to your business. You can even build a customer relationship management database using SharePoint.

Next Time in Part II

I'll post again soon about the next three tips, which are primarily about how you present your tiny rowboat of a company when you're working with all the tugs, oil tankers, and cruise liners of the world.

  • Tip #4: Look Bigger Than You Are
  • Tip #5: Share Documents, Securely
  • Tip #6: Structure Customer Service and Interactions

I hope you'll join us. Please consider subscribing to the blog to get notification for the next part and other content that might be of interest to you.

As always, if you use SharePoint or you're considering Office 365 for your one-person operation or army of employees, please don't hesitate to contact me, or visit us at http://www.liquid-hg.com/cloud to learn more about what we offer and how we can help you.