How to save time by connecting your business apps
If your business is anything like mine, you use a lot of apps. I’m just a freelancer, but I still need all of these…
- An accounts package for bookkeeping and invoicing
- Online banking to track payments in and out of my account
- A time tracker so I know how much time to invoice for
- Planning tools so I know what work I’m supposed to be doing
- A website for my blog and to advertise my services
- Email marketing software to turn website visitors into customers
- Social media tools so that I don’t have to keep stop working to tweet stuff
None of these apps stands alone. I need to move information between them on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. And I’d rather not transfer the data by hand. It’s tedious and time-consuming, and too easy to make mistakes.
Even if you get software custom-built for your business, you’ll probably need to plug it into other apps. On a recent project, we built a bespoke digital platform for handling award entries. But we also needed accounting and support systems to make the whole scheme work for users.
We could have had these built to order too, but it would have cost a significant chunk of our budget. And why would we make things from scratch when we could rent software that does the job for a flat monthly fee?
But that still left us with the challenge of moving data around our new set of apps. And not wanting to do it by hand, if we could avoid it.
Four ways to move data between apps
Most software suppliers understand that their app doesn’t live in a vacuum. So they usually build in plenty of options for you to plug their app into your existing toolbox.
Depending on the app, the options generally fall into one or more of these categories:
- Built in connectors
- Third party connectors
- Export/import tools
- APIs for creating your own connectors
Let’s look at each of those in turn.
Built in connectors
If you look under the settings of any app, you’re likely to find options for connecting to other apps or accounts you already own. These might be labelled ‘connected apps’ or ‘integrations’ or something else entirely, but they all work in a similar way.
Starting in app A, you request a connection to app B. You’ll usually get a login window for app B, to authorise the connection.
You might also have options for choosing what data gets moved, and when. For example:
- When I connect Google Calendar to Timely, I can decide if I want all my appointments added to my time log or only the ones that I choose.
- When I connect Pocketsmith to Xero, no transactions move until I say so. I push a button to transfer individual transactions to Xero as expenses.
It’s worth taking the time to read the help and find out how the connection works. Otherwise, you can get surprised by the results, and never feel confident that the connection is working.
Built in connectors are usually reliable and supported by the app vendors on each side of the connection. They work so well that I often find myself picking new apps based on whether they connect easily to what I already have.
But what if you need to connect something different?
Third party connectors
Some software companies exist just to connect apps to other apps. They offer connectors for hundreds of different services, so you’re no longer limited by the links built into your app.
There are lots of services like this out there - though Zapier and IFTTT are perhaps the best known - and they tend to work in a similar way. First, you choose a trigger - for example, ‘when I create a new contact in Google Contacts’. Then you choose an action - like ‘create a new contact in Xero’.
For each app, there will be a list of triggers that you can fire and actions you can take. There’s usually a library of template connections too, that you can copy and customise to suit your needs.
This is a bit more complicated than using built-in connectors. To keep things simple, try to find a service that works for all of the apps you want to connect.
You may also need to consider the cost. IFTTT is currently free but has a limited selection of connectors for business apps. Zapier offers a limited free plan, but if you need more ‘zaps’, you will need to start paying. However, if the alternative is building and maintaining your own integrations, these services are good value.
Sometimes, you can’t find a connector that works on the mainstream services like Zapier. But if you Google for the specific apps you want to link up, you might find someone else has built a connector. (That’s how I found FitDataSync, a service that transfers Garmin workout data to my Fitbit account. This stuff is useful for more than business apps!)
Once upon a time, most data moved between IT systems in this way. You export the data from one app into a simple text file - often .xls (Excel) or .csv (comma separated values). You might reformat it a bit, and then upload it into another app.
This kind of connection is very flexible because neither app has to know anything about the other. If you can convert the text output from one into the text input for the other, you can make it work. If you need to change the app on one side of the conversation, the link can still work, so long as you can create the right kind of text file.
This does involve a bit of manual effort, but it works well when you need to move a lot of data infrequently. For instance, I use this kind of connection every month to move expense data from my accounts package to my forecasting tool.
If reformatting the data is tedious, create a template to do it for you. Create a workbook with two sheets - an input tab and an output tab. Use formulas and formats to fill in the output tab from the input tab - for instance, to put input column A into output column C, with the right number format. Save the output tab as a CSV file, and you’re done.
APIs - for when you need something special
Sometimes you need to connect two apps, but there’s no support for mainstream connector services. And if you’ve built some custom software for your business, you’ll need to make your own connectors.
This is where APIs - ‘application programming interfaces’ - come in handy. These work a bit like the ports on the side of your laptop. You can plug in anything, so long as it’s the right shape.
If the app you want to connect to has an API, you can build your own connector to plug into it. Not all APIs are available to the general public, so check before you get started. Search for your app name + API to see what you can find.
Unless you’re a developer yourself, it’s likely that you will need to hire help to build your new connector. So here’s a tip: make sure you explain exactly what you need.
APIs are usually very flexible; that is, there’s lots of scope for differences of opinion. Avoid misunderstandings by writing down what data you want moving, and in what format.
This is especially important if you’re getting some bespoke software built. Maybe you need to export data from the new system into your other apps. If you don’t specify exactly what's needed, you might end up with the wrong shaped plug.
A spreadsheet is a useful tool for this. Add every single detail, no matter how trivial it seems. Especially if you think it’s ‘just common sense’ or ‘obvious’ - because that’s when problems creep in.
Don’t forget that APIs change. If that happens, you’ll need to update your custom connector. Remember to put aside a bit of budget for those updates. On the other hand, if you felt the need to build a new connector, maybe someone else would like it too. To offset the maintenance cost, you might decide to licence your connector to others, for a fee.
Oh - and don’t forget you will need to test your new connector software, once it’s been built.
If you’re interested in learning more about the apps I use to run my business, take a look at my Toolkit.
I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned.
Typewriter photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash