9 specialist tools that are better than Excel

Just because you can use Excel to organise your information doesn’t mean you should.

Developers are dividing up the mighty kingdom ruled by Excel and turning the pieces into handy business apps for your smartphone or tablet.

The king of spreadsheets, Microsoft Excel is often the default tool for tracking information and managing tasks. The combination of rows, columns and formulas can be applied to an unlimited number of scenarios to bring order to chaos.

Enterprising users have figured out how to use Excel for activities it wasn’t originally intended for, such as project management, invoicing, to-do lists, scheduling, research and even games.

However, just because you can use Excel to organise your information doesn’t mean you should. The program has a number of limitations that make it less than ideal for many tasks. 

For example, Excel is not intended to be multi-user software: you can’t edit an Excel document at the same time as someone else. This makes it difficult to collaborate with others. 

It’s also difficult to secure an Excel file and it’s easy for users to accidentally break formulas or references.

Due to these limitations, it’s worth using a specialist tool that can do some jobs better.

1. Asana

What’s it good for? Project management

If you’re using an Excel spreadsheet to track your team’s projects and associated tasks, give Asana a try.

Asana’s list-based user interface will be intuitive to anyone familiar with the rows and columns of Excel. Asana also has the ability to assign tasks and communicate with other Asana users. All discussion is logged against the relevant project or task. There’s also a project dashboard where managers can get a high-level view of the status of each project.

The only significant downside of Asana is the lack of offline capability. If you don’t have internet access, you’re out of Asana.

It’s free for up to 15 people; more people and more features are available with paid plans.

2. Pocketbook

What’s it good for? Personal budgeting

If you’re looking for a more automated way to do personal budgeting, check out Pocketbook.

Pocketbook connects to your bank and credit card accounts to automatically import transactions. This allows you to easily see what you’re spending versus what you’ve budgeted using the budget planner. It’s easy to adjust your budget as needed in response to your actual spending. That’s something that isn’t quite so easy to do in Excel.

The current full version is free, and available for iPhone and Android devices.

3. Streak CRM

What’s it good for? CRM

Salespeople and business owners have been using spreadsheets to track leads and customers since, well, the invention of spreadsheets. Move over Excel, Streak is here to make that job easier.

Yes, tracking leads and customers is one area where Excel really shines. You can do all sorts of reporting using charts and graphs in Excel, assuming your data is up-to-date. However, keeping the sales spreadsheet current is one of the biggest challenges of using Excel for this purpose.

Streak CRM aims to solve this problem by integrating the CRM and sales pipeline directly into Gmail (Google’s email service built into Google Apps). Streak CRM works a lot like Excel but lives inside your Gmail application. It also allows you to associate email threads directly with leads and share those leads with other team members. Each team member can then see all the communication with each contact associated with that lead.

Unfortunately for Outlook and Office 365 users, Streak CRM is currently only available for Gmail. It’s free for one user, and more users and more features are available on paid plans.

4. Toggl

What’s it good for? Time sheets

If you and your team are tracking time in Excel, give Toggl a try. In many ways it’s even easier to use than Excel.

Toggl also has mobile and desktop apps for every major platform, including iPhone and Android. Unlike many of the apps on this list, Toggl works even when you’re offline. Track time without an internet connection, and once you’re back online, Toggl will sync the entries to the cloud.

But wait – it gets even better! Toggl is completely free for up to five users. If you have a bigger team or want more advanced features you can upgrade to a paid account.

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5. FreshBooks

What’s it good for? Invoicing

A problem with creating invoices in Excel is that it’s difficult to keep track of what’s outstanding and follow up with customers to collect payment.

Enter FreshBooks. This app makes it easy to sign up and start making invoices quickly. You can send invoices to clients by email or snail mail, and get paid electronically. Then you can use FreshBooks to keep track of what’s outstanding and even send email reminders to clients automatically. 

As a bonus, you can also use FreshBooks to track your time on projects, then quickly turn those time entries into invoices. Now that’s a time saver!

Try it free for 30 days, then sign up for a plan that suits.

6. Expensify

What’s it good for? Expense reports

This may be the most dreaded category for corporate road warriors. Nobody likes doing expense reports. That’s why Expensify’s motto is “Expense Reports That Don’t Suck!”

Excel works great for adding up all those expenses from your latest trip, but after a point, it doesn’t work so well. You have to print out the report, then somehow attach all your crumpled receipts so that you can submit it to the accounting department.

Expensify eliminates the paper component of expense reports. Just snap a photo of your receipt or invoice with your phone and Expensify handles the rest. Expensify scans your receipt and enters the key information (amount, date, vendor, etc). Then you can add the receipt to a virtual expense report and submit it for approval via email. 

Expensify can even handle the reimbursement of funds directly to the employee or contractor.

Try it free for 30 days; individual users can use the basic version free, or choose to sign up for a paid plan with more features.

7. MailChimp

What’s it good for? Mailing lists

If you have a mailing list for your business, where do you put it if not in Excel? MailChimp is a great option for this.

If you add postal address fields to your MailChimp lists, you can keep track of each contact’s mailing address in addition to their email address. One big benefit of this method is that you can now target your snail mail campaigns based on your customers’ open and click rates on email campaigns. This can help cut costs.

Another perk of merging your email and snail mail marketing lists is that customers can update their own data via the profile change link in each email you send. If you go this route, you’ll need to make sure that you set up the proper permissions in MailChimp. You probably don’t want all your staff having the ability to send email campaigns!

It’s free for the basic service or add more features with the priced plan options.

8. LivePlan

What is it good for? Business plans

Think Excel is the king of business plans? One company is out to prove this assumption wrong. 

LivePlan is an app specifically designed to help entrepreneurs write and evaluate business plans. From pitch deck to formal plan to financial projections, LivePlan walks you through the whole process. 

It even connects to Xero and QuickBooks online accounting software so you can measure the results once the plan is in motion.

Take the 60-day free trial, then decide on a plan.

9. MileIQ

What’s it good for? Mileage logs

Excel is great for tracking business mileage for tax purposes but how often do you have a laptop handy when starting or ending a trip? 

Most of the time you’re keeping two sets of records – one set on paper, which then gets periodically copied to a second set in Excel. MileIQ is a mobile app that eliminates this wasted time by letting you track your car mileage directly from your mobile device. 

You can even have MileIQ automatically detect and log your travel by monitoring your GPS coordinates in the background.

Use it free for up to 40 drives per month, then pay a small subscription fee if you need more.

Read next: 3 note-taking apps to fix information overload


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