I run my business very lean.

I am a sole practitioner with some contractors that I employ on a project-by-project basis.

As I’ve built out my social media advisory practice, I have placed a high priority on mobility and platform flexibility.

I should also mention that I’m a bad delegator. I like to have my hands on the controls. I like being able to access information when I need it and understanding how things work in my business. I’m sure there are lots of people like me out there.

It wasn’t until I assembled this list of business applications that I most rely on that I realized this was a cloud computing story. Every one of my most relied upon applications is cloud-based and low-cost. That means more of my top-line revenue goes to the bottom line and more of my time goes to my clients instead of to maintaining the apparatus of a business.

So, without further ado, here are the five low-cost, killer applications that make my business work.

Gmail takes care of my email and calendars.

I used Microsoft Outlook for well over a decade to manage my email and calendar. When it worked, it was great. But when your PST file got corrupted, or exceeded the 2 Gb storage limit, watch out. On several occasions over that time period, I seriously considered options. But the options to Outlook never seemed robust enough to handle my needs.

In 2009, I acquired an iMac and for the first time in a long time Outlook was not going to be the easiest or best option. Rather than get tangled up in another platform-specific system, i.e., Apple’s Mail and iCloud, I decided to go with Gmail for my main email client and calendar. And I haven’t looked back.

Gmail is amazing for many reasons. First, it’s free. Second, it’s good software. Third, it’s in the cloud which means I can move from my iMac on my desk, to my MacBook Pro in the coffee shop, to my PC on my other desk and have the same information available at all times. My iPhone syncs nicely with the Gmail platform too.

I love that I can send and receive email from multiple accounts in Gmail and maintain various digital signatures for different email accounts. This isn’t unique to Gmail, but the user interface is just nicer in Gmail as compared to Outlook.

I know virtually all of this is true of Apple’s iCloud as well, but my experience with platform-specific computing solutions over the decades has made me wary of being tied to a platform. For now, I’m happy with Apple’s computing devices and phones, but Android is lurking in the back of my mind as the next phone I buy and the last thing I want is to be so far into Apple that I can’t get out.

Gmail works even better with the Rapportive add-on

Gmail with the Rapportive sidebar shows me a picture and the social media accounts of my contacts.

Another nice addition to Gmail is some of the plugins that are available for it. One that I use regularly is called Rapportive. It a get an email from someone I don’t know that well, the Rapportive plugin will display their social media accounts to me in actionable format. For instance, if the person has a Twitter feed and a LinkedIn account and a Google+ account, I can follow them, connect with them and circle them via the convenient Rapportive sidebar in Gmail. It’s like having a light version of a social CRM built right into Gmail.

Cost: Completely and totally free. (RIP Outlook.)

Google Drive and Dropbox are slugging it out for dominance in my cloud.

Google’s Drive and Dropbox have become very powerful tools for my day-to-day collaboration needs.

I started using Dropbox first and grew to love the ease with which it fit into my Windows PC file structure. I find it works great if a client wants to share a directory of assets with me on a temporary basis for a project or if I want to do the same with the client. And I’ve started using Dropbox to save my own working files to the cloud so I can be computer independent and do my work from anywhere.

Google Drive, however, has it’s own benefits. Since it incorporates the old Google Documents, it functions as a handler for Microsoft documents that come in. I tend to read Excel and Word files to Google Documents and work with them there.

I also love the way I can share documents one at a time with clients or contractors via Google Drive – and they can share same with me.

Cost: Google+ is free for up to 5Gb of data, Dropbox is free for up to 2 Mb of data.

Freshbooks makes my invoicing enjoyable.

Invoicing, and accounting in general, is the bane of many small business people’s existence. Not mine.

I LOVE INVOICING because of FreshBooks. There’s a reason they advertise this fact about their cloud-based accounting service.

I’ve always felt that invoicing and cheque depositing was high-value work. How else can you spend 5-10 minutes of time, whether issuing an invoice or depositing payments in the bank, to earn so much.

I’m not sure how to explain why I love Freshbooks so much. Partly, it’s the fact that Freshbooks just has an easy to use and well designed user interface. It’s logical and works like I expect it should. I’ve developed hosted web applications in the past and this is one that works exactly like something I would aspire to build myself.

I use it for invoicing and tracking hours worked on projects. Once invoices are created, they can be sent directly from the application as an email or printed and mailed. I love the reminder function that sends out customizable 30, 60 and 90 day reminders (or whatever interval you want, or not at all). I love logging in and seeing my payables on the dashboard. I love being able to run a report at any time and see what I’ve billed for the period. I love that my contractors can track their time in the system and their invoices show up for me to pay in my Freshbooks account. I love that I can enter expenses that need to be billed back to clients and scan PDFs of the receipts. Then, when I send the invoice to my client, I can include the reimbursible expense and it attaches the scanned receipt to the emailed invoice. Wow!

Cost: Free (up to 3 clients), then $19.95, $29.95 or 39.95 per month depending on service requirements. (Sign up using my affiliate link and fall in love with FreshBooks yourself.)

MailChimp helps me add value to my prospects and clients.

I’ve used MailChimp for numerous clients in a wide variety of industries over the past several years and it works very well.

Mainly, I use it now to publish my free e-newsletter on content curation.

I had a brief stint this year with iContact and I was disappointed in many ways. While the user interface for authoring/creating emails seemed very nice, every time I went looking for something in the admin area I was stymied. I’m not a novice and I just found the user interface unintuitive. I’d look at the stats and feel I was unable to find the data I was looking for. iContact brags on its site about winning user choice awards, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

It didn’t help that the Vocus people who have recently acquired iContact were bugging me to upgrade from the first moment that I signed up for a trial. Even after I had upgraded from my trial account and sent 3 weekly email newsletters, I was still receiving calls asking me to upgrade. After 30 days and 4 email newsletters, I was informed that my trial was over. Fail.

I switched back to MailChimp – at least no one is pestering me with sales calls there.

The truth of the matter is that email list management is becoming a must for many businesses and there are lots of competitors out there, each offering some unique value and features. I’ve also interacted with Constant Contact and Campaign Monitor, and I’m hearing a lot about Aweber.

But, in addition to offering excellent functionality at a good price (see below), MailChimp has a sense of humor that is remarkably effective at retaining me as a customer. (I’m a sucker for the personality layer in software.)

Cost: In the meantime, it’s hard to beat the price of MailChimp – free (for up to 12,000 outbound messages per month).

LastPass ensures security and convenience when managing hundred of sites.

Password management is one of those applications that is critical to any active online user. In addition to the dozens, if not hundreds, of sites for which I have unique login and password credentials, I manage sites for my clients. That takes the number into the multiple hundreds for sure.

Going back to the late 1990s, I used an Excel file to track all the logins and passwords. But this became clunky and its not very secure to have an open file on your system with ALL your logins and passwords.

LastPass is a cloud-based storage system for logins and passwords. You set up one master password and then get access to all your logins and passwords from anywhere. Again, the advantage here is that the application is cloud-based which means you can access your data from anywhere at anytime.

Additionally, LastPass has some cool features that allow you to automatically login to sites. Each browser platform (Chrome, Firefox, etc.) has a LastPass plugin that detects when you are on the login page for a site and auto-populates the login and password field. Or, if you create a new login and password for a site, LastPass will prompt you to save it to your library.

Cost: Free. Unless you want mobile app access in which case the cost is $12/year. (Best 12 bucks you’ll ever spend.)

Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without these amazing apps.

If you don’t use them, I’d be very interested to know what you are using and why. Please share in the comments.

And if you need any help with these, please don’t hesitate to ask.