Too Many Apps at Work?

According to a recent study, the average number of apps used by the modern worker is 9. No wonder people are feeling “app fatigue” or “app overload” at work. Many tech-savvy businesses use project management systems (Basecamp, Asana, Trello, Zoho), customer relationship management systems (Salesforce, SugarCRM, CiviCRM), marketing and sales management systems (HubSpot, MailChimp), and e-commerce systems (Magento, Shopify). But each of these apps lives in its own universe. Each requires its own username and password, so you are constantly logging in and out of different applications. They don’t share data with one another, so there is a lot of redundant data you have to manage and synchronize. It’s easy enough to find two that talk to each other through the APIs they provide, but as soon as you need to add a third one into the mix, it becomes a complex puzzle where you are limited to the one that can talk to both. But what if this one doesn’t have all the features you need? Many of these apps have overlapping features, and you use only a small percentage of each app, but you have to pay for all the features. Because each has so many features, your employees have to navigate through the complexity of each app. These unused features turn into liabilities, not assets. This is a familiar story for many. What is the solution?

Why are startups like Amazon (department store), Uber (car service), Airbnb (accommodation booking), and Spotify (music store) so successful? Because they developed unique systems that allowed them to do what they do better than anyone else. This is why the vast majority of startups focus on building their own systems. They incorporate their unique philosophies, perspectives, values, processes, and strategies into their systems. You do not have to be a VC-backed startup to develop your own system.

A typical business today might use Trello to keep track of the to-do lists, Salesforce to keep track of their customers, MailChimp to send out newsletters, and Magento to sell products online. If you were to imagine building your own system that can compete with these apps, you would naturally give up. It’s true; it’s not realistic to think that you can build your own Salesforce. But when you carefully evaluate which features you are actually using in each application, you would realize that there aren’t many. What you need is not your own Salesforce but your own app with a few features from each of these apps. When you focus only on the features you need, you realize that it’s perfectly realistic to build your own system.

When you have one integrated system of your own, you only need to have one set of login and password. All the different parts of this system are aware of who you are and what other data you have. Your to-do list is aware of your customers’ contact information. The contact information is aware of what marketing emails you have sent to her in the past. And, the marketing email is aware of what she bought on your website. There are no redundant data.

Having your own system isn’t just about efficiency; it’s also about differentiating yourself from your competitors. The software companies who create these off-the-shelf apps profit by building one application and selling it to as many customers as possible. These apps incorporate the “best practices” of your industry, but if everyone is doing the same “best practices,” how do you expect to rise above them? Every business has something unique and special, but these systems cannot accommodate it. This means that, by using these off-the-shelf apps, you end up diminishing the aspects of your business that make you unique.

Suppose you have a marketing firm that specializes in acupuncturists. Generic marketing apps are not aware of the idiosyncrasies of the acupuncturists’ market (like their license requirements, insurance, demographic), so by using these apps, you end up operating just like any other marketing firm. Your own system could incorporate the idiosyncrasies and would allow you to operate in a way your competitors wouldn’t be able to.

Your business should not be a mere “user” of the system everyone else uses; you should be a “developer” of your own system. Today with all these technologies that allow us to find the best possible product at the lowest possible price in a matter of seconds, if you can’t differentiate yourself, you cannot survive.

If you have your own system, integrating third-party apps will also be easier. Some apps and platforms are too critical to give up. We can’t, for instance, take a feature out of Facebook because we cannot replicate their data. As mentioned above, if all of your apps are third-party, you are limited to those who can talk to each other through their APIs. We can’t demand these software companies to add the features you need. But if you have your own system, you can always make yours talk to any other third-party apps. Having one flexible piece of the puzzle at the center allows you to connect any other pieces you want. Even if one app goes out of business, it won’t have a cascading impact on the whole ecosystem of third-party apps. You can swap it out with another easily because all apps are connecting only to your system.

These days, we increasingly rely on these online systems to manage our business. Because the data is in the “cloud,” the work can be performed anywhere. Even if we commute to an office, most of the time, we are still working virtually anyway. These systems are gradually replacing our physical office space. Virtual office spaces have become more important than physical ones. Having a comprehensive and productive virtual office allows you to move and arrange your physical office flexibly. The same desk can be used by different employees. The employees can work from anywhere. They are not even tied to any specific computers. With this trend, you’d be better off investing more money in a virtual office space than in a physical one. Unless your business is retail, physical space will not give you any competitive advantage as more people are shifting towards working virtually.

For some nonprofits, a virtual office is becoming a necessity because many of them do not have an office. Most of their members and volunteers do not work for them full-time. The only way to coordinate their efforts is to do so virtually and asynchronously because trying to meet face-to-face would be nearly impossible given their time constraints. Investing in a system that allows their members to collaborate from anywhere anytime is a great use of their limited funds. In many cases, it eliminates the need to have a physical space.

Now even large corporations are allowing small groups of their employees to operate independently like startups, because they realize that, to survive in the digital world, they have to express their uniqueness. If you operate like everyone else by following the “best practices,” sooner or later, some startup will disrupt your business. You cannot forever rely on off-the-shelf apps; you need a system that allows you to be who you truly are.

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