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Eight Business Apps That Will Change the Way You Work

I need to start this list of the business applications I use every day with a confession. Even though I'm a venture capitalist who spends most of his time investing in startups that develop business applications, I am not a super early adopter of such apps. Many of my colleagues love to be the first to try out new programs, testing them as soon as they read about it. Not me. Not only do I lack the temperament, I also lack the time. I call myself a lagging early-adopter, inquiring about apps that seem to have the potential to add productivity my workday, and making them part of my routine only after I’ve heard a couple times that they've actually proven themselves.

This might seem like a problem for someone in my profession. Actually, I think my fast follower status is an asset as I decide on which startups to invest in. In Silicon Valley, we're surrounded by tech buffs and early adopters enamored with the latest buzz. That buzz soon fades, but what remains are the apps that deliver real business value and productivity. In fact, most people are a lot like me, happy to use something if it really helps them get their job done, but unwilling to spend time with something simply because of good PR or a fancy award.

Now that you understand my show-me attitude, here are the programs that are either on my browser bookmarks bar or on page one of my iPhone. Not only do I use all of them pretty much every day, I can't imagine doing my job without them.  I believe all these tools will not only get mainstream adoption, and as a result, have the potential to become very big companies.

Full disclosure. Several of these apps we at Emergence have an investment in. While this list may sound self-serving, as a firm we focus 100% on investing in game changing business applications, so it’s no surprise there is a lot of overlap. I’m an active user of all of them and I have no connection with several of the apps below... except for being an enthusiastic user.

Yammer. The elevator pitch is "Facebook for business." Our small company installed it, and it quickly became our virtual water cooler. Not only has it reduced our internal “FYI” email traffic, which in and of itself is a huge benefit, but it's dramatically increased the amount of sharing that occurs across our organization. Anything that can increase the flow of information while saving me time is, as far as I'm concerned, a big deal. Yammer is the thing I check most during the day, other than email. Maybe that’s why over 150,000 organizations globally and millions of users have already adopted it. The only disadvantage is that you need a critical mass of users in any company for it to have real value. So get on Yammer, and invite your colleagues! It’s completely free for end users until the company decides to purchase it to get administration benefits. This “freemium” model which was invested in the consumer internet space has caught on in the enterprise as well.

Evernote. Throw anything you want into it -- typed notes, web pages, screen shots, PowerPoint slides. EverNote keeps it all on one place, totally searchable and available on just about any device you can imagine. I use it to take notes during company presentations, board meetings and partner sessions; for personal correspondence, too. I especially love taking screenshots of PowerPoint slides, and then writing notes around them. My dream is an Evernote iPad app that will allow you to write notes directly onto PowerPoint slides, and then have them saved, transcribed and searchable. Evernote isn't all business, either. I love good wine, and have a habit of snapping a photo of the label of a bottle I like, and then saving it to Evernote. The program then transcribes the label, so I can search for it later on when I want to buy the wine again. Cool, very cool.

YouSendIt. Email hasn't been keeping up with technology in terms of file size. Most of us now have PowerPoint decks in the hundreds of megabytes, and videos in the gigabytes. If you have ever tried to attach one of those files with Outlook or in webmail, you understand the problem that YouSendIt solves. If you want to be assured that those huge email attachments get to their intended recipient, then YouSendIt is your savior. Nothing is more frustrating with a big meeting or conference call coming up to not be able to get your materials to people participating and make sure it gets there. While I use it less frequently than Yammer, when I do, it works flawlessly. If you send large files as a part of your daily job, YouSendIt is invaluable. The company also is a poster child for the freemium business model and is free to use for sending up to 5 files. Try it you’ll love it. We at Emergence Capital are a service business; for us, everything revolves around relationships. Salesforce is our relationship database of record, and it should be the “guts” of every relationship-based business. We use Salesforce to track our deal flow, investor relationships and portfolio company contacts. Marc Benioff was the first person to fully recognize the power of the software as a service approach, where programs run in the cloud, relatively cheap and hassle-free. This is the future of software. It’s no accident Emergence grounded its entire investment approach on this historic transition underway to the cloud.

Box. The sharing, synching and collaboration tool also known as The name change reflects the company's new emphasis on the enterprise, and the new capabilities it's added for collaboration. What I like about Box is the way it solves a familiar problem: I use different computers, at home and in the office, and don't want to keep emailing myself and my coworkers the PowerPoint deck I'm working on as I move from place to place. Box lets you store files in the cloud, and synchs those up with what you have on your desktop. Mobile platforms are supported too, of course. Dropbox is another great app for synching your personal files but for sharing in a corporate setting, Box is more secure and better tuned to an enterprise solution.

EchoSign. Sales contracts, employment agreements, NDAs, investment documents, leases, etc... you or your customers can now "sign" documents on the web without needing to print them out, grab a pen and find a fax machine. In the world of e-signatures, you do so by entering your email address and clicking “e-sign”. It’s that easy. The end result is just as safe and legally binding as the traditional John Hancock. I believe we will look back in a few years and see 2011 as the year that e-signature went mainstream. The other day I signed a legal document while on a train on my iPhone. How cool is that? Here’s another benefit, when multiple people need to sign a document you can schedule multiple people in a sequence. And I don't need to ever again worry about where I filed a document, since EchoSign keeps track of all of them in one place for me. Probably not something I use daily, but I love it when I need it. Also a “freemium” business model… Notice a trend here?

LinkedIn. Most of us know LinkedIn as the biggest searchable resume book on the planet. For me, it's much more than just a giant collection of resumes to be used in recruiting. It’s becoming an amazing tool for identifying off list references, business development contacts for our portfolio companies -- or doing some down and dirty due diligence and competitive analysis. If you haven’t spent time boning up your LinkedIn profile you should. It’s become the defacto business record in the cloud. The Linkedin mobile app also has some interesting features, including a way of exchanging contact info that is so quick that it pretty much eliminates the need for business cards. The time you spend getting to better know LinkedIn will almost certainly pay off very quickly.

Wunderlist. This is a simple “to-do list” desktop and mobile app that finally solved my task management problem. I've been looking for a good, simple and quick to-do list manager for years, and breathed a sigh of relief when I found Wunderlist recently. Wunderlist lets you create a new task in literally seconds, far faster that you can using the iPhone's built-in calendar program and easily share that list with others. You can easily send yourself a task reminder by email. A freemium product that so far has been great until Apple does their own.

"Cool" apps I rarely use:

Twitter. A VC is on thin ice when he admits he doesn't faithfully send out tweets. It isn’t that I don’t "get" social, it’s that I don’t find any personal satisfaction in the medium. I'm at my best in a two-way conversation, in person and face-to-face. I like human contact, and believe a strength of mine is the ability to read people’s body language -- which communicates more than any tweet. Albert Mehrabian, Professor of psychology at UCLA, best known for his publications on human communication showed that over 93% of communication is based upon physical and verbal tone and only 7% based upon the actual verbiage of your communication. Another problem I have with Twitter is that I’ve never been comfortable broadcasting my immediate thoughts to the world. I guess my perspective is anything worth saying to the world is worth sleeping on.

Facebook. Nothing against it. A company for the ages. But personally I spend more time on LinkedIn and Yammer. I’ll check out Facebook occasionally, to get a quick update on friends on the periphery of my social network. But I prefer having fewer but deeper relationships. I’ve always had a small, core group of close friends, and I work hard to spend quality time with them ... rather than spending my evenings "friending" and “updating” people I'll rarely if ever see. Those with hundreds of friends on Facebook should think hard about which friends will show up when you really need them. Facebook will be the biggest advertising network on the planet in a few years no doubt but for me it’s on the periphery.

FourSquare: My idea of a “check-in” is at a nice hotel for the weekend with my wife. I know lots of people are supposedly using services like these, but I frankly don't quite understand the attraction.

"Uncool" apps I still use:

I use Mac Mail with Exchange on the backend. I’ve been waiting patiently for Gmail to match the offline capabilities of Exchange for my email and my shared calendar, and I look forward to the day I can jettison Microsoft on the back end. At least I’m back to using a Mac laptop and iPad. I started my computing life on an Apple Mac and IIe and have always been passionate about Apple products, so I'm glad they are now legit again in the corporate world. Macmail isn’t fancy in terms of features but as with most Mac products is clean and visibly appealing which makes pouring through my hundreds of emails every day less taxing.

And finally, something I wish was using:

A personal goal management/time allocation app. I’m big fan of setting goals, both personally and professionally. Once I set a goal, I do my best to stay focused on the things that matter. But invariably, I get sucked into the day-to-day reactivity of responding to the constant information flow, and the non-stop requests for my time. I have a hard time saying no to those asking for help, and that tends to get me into trouble. I try prioritizing the things that really matter by sitting down at the beginning of the year, month and week and writing up a list of key priorities. I’d love an app to help me analyze how I use my time relative to those priorities -- a kind of a analytics for calendar management. When my time allocation gets out of whack, it would suggest ways to get me back on track. Entrepreneurs and developers out there, let me know if you figure this one out!

What business apps do you love? Love to hear the ones I missed in your opinion.