5 automation tools for small and medium-sized enterprises to get started
Automation has long since arrived in the digital economy. If data is the currency of the future, then it is essential to use this data efficiently. It's no wonder, then, that automation tools are springing up that promise efficiency and productivity simply by handing over data automatically and processing it according to conditions.
However, there are very different degrees of what can be automated. That's why we're presenting three automation tools that have automation written all over them, as well as two applications that you might not even think of as automation tools.
There are basically two different options for automation. On the one hand, more and more applications offer integrated automation. This means that one software can be connected to another or processes can be automated within the software. This type of automation is currently on the rise. Individual tools, for example the CRM Pipedrive, have already built up their own marketplace where numerous applications can be linked.
On the other hand, there are dedicated automation tools. We came up with this term once. These are applications that have no other purpose than to link applications together and provide the interface and technology for this. This market is going through the roof and new automation tools are being added every week. Most of them are based on using programming interfaces. In this way, processes and workflows can be automated and shaped according to numerous conditions.
Short digression: How do automation tools work?
Automation tools make use of open API interfaces of software. These APIs, short for Application Programming Interface, are provided by the applications. This creates endpoints at which very different data arrive. This data can also be read and used by other applications. However, this requires API integration. We have already written more about API integration here.
But instead of laboriously programming such interfaces yourself, it has now become extremely easy to connect the APIs and thus let the applications talk to each other. In most cases, all that is needed is the API key of one software to be inserted in the other. The goal is automatic data exchange. Dedicated automation tools do this in a big way. There are often numerous functions that can be mapped via a single API.
Dedicated Automation Tools:
These are automation tools that want to make your life easier. They provide a clear interface that usually does not require any programming knowledge. You are guided through the process and can create not only one-step automations, but also highly complex, branched and interdependent processes.
At the beginning there is always a defined trigger. This can be an incoming email or a data change. This trigger then starts the workflow and the automation tools take care of the rest. For example, the incoming email can be scanned for attachments (e.g. invoices), which are then automatically uploaded to the correct folder and forwarded. There is now a real market for this type of automation tool, which is highly competitive. We have only listed a few of our favourites here, but these are by no means all of them.
Zapier as a market-leading automation tool
Zapier is the top dog among automation tools. Zapier is best known in the scene and has been on the market since 2011. Zapier has set itself the task of appealing to a broad target group by making automation as simple as possible and supporting thousands of applications. These are precisely the strengths of the American automation tool:
Zapier supports more than 3000 apps
Zapier is easy to use and perfect for getting started
Zapier's free plan allows you to get a taste of it first
When you start with Zapier, you are taken by the hand and guided through the creation of your automation. You are always told what to do and where to click. The resulting processes look like this, for example:
The trigger is an email. Python is then executed, which leads us to another strength of Zapier: It can execute code. Then entries are created in the Airtable database and a deal in the Pipedrive CRM. Finally, the process can be split into two different paths: One if the language is English and one if it is not. In this way, conditional logics can also be implemented.
Make was founded in Prague in 2012 and has been competing with Zapier ever since. One could get the impression that Make always has to measure itself against Zapier and a direct comparison is inevitable. We have made this Zapier vs. Make comparison for you here. But Make is so much more than Zapier's eternal antagonist. Because Make has a lot to offer:
The modular interface creates an overview and simplicity
Make works as a European company DSGVO compliant
Data can be extensively formatted and cached via data storages
The Make interface could hardly be more different from Zapiers. Each application is displayed as a separate icon and by linking it to others, an easy-to-follow process flow is created.
Different paths and an almost infinite number of branches are also possible. Each connection can be assigned a filter that specifies in even more detail when which data should be transferred. In addition, an error handler can be added to each app with Make. So if something goes wrong, you are informed and know immediately which process is stuck at which point. Another plus for Make and admittedly our favourite automation tool.
n8n is a newcomer among automation tools, so to speak. The Berlin start-up has just received huge funding, which also shows how much trust is placed in the scene. n8n is so far unique in its form: it is the only open source automation tool. That means you can host it anywhere you want. This means maximum security, especially for large companies. But if that's not enough for you, you can also use the cloud version of the German automation tool with n8n.cloud. This is also one of the strengths of n8n:
Only open source and fair code licensed automation tool
Strong community that likes to get involved in app development itself
Multi-triggering, i.e. processes can have more than one trigger
The n8n interface is more reminiscent of a flowchart. The process flow can be recognised at first glance. In addition, n8n has a very simple copy and paste function, which allows you to set up new automations in a flash.
n8n may not yet support the mass of applications, currently around 200, but it is growing every week. In addition, n8n is in our eyes one of the most user:friendly automation tools in this list. If you host it yourself, the source code is accessible for free. The automation tool is available via n8n.cloud from 20€ per month.
As already mentioned, however, many applications that actually pursue a different primary purpose also upgrade properly. This list could be endless, so we would only like to give a brief impression. These integrated automations can be used to automate small, often two-step processes. This is usually extremely intuitive and quick to implement, but it also has many limitations. However, in our view, it is a great way to get started.
For example, Airtable can automatically send emails when data has been edited. Or create a calendar entry when data meets certain conditions.
These are all small facilitations in everyday life, especially for frequently recurring processes.
What is really unique about Airtable is that even in connection with the dedicated automation tools presented above, an incredible number of options are available. Every cell, every value, almost every letter can be controlled, changed or updated.
Clickup confidently advertises with the slogan "one app to replace them all". We have to admit that this is not entirely true in our eyes. Nevertheless, the software for project and task management really takes a lot of work off your hands. You can structure your projects in the team over numerous levels, invite guests, create conditions under different tasks, create related documents and collaborate. Time tracking is included, of course.
But Clickup wouldn't be in this list if it didn't also have built-in automations. Different triggers can trigger different actions. For example, when a task, its priority, status or person responsible is changed, or when a new task is created, postponed or checked off. Subsequently, further tasks can be created or postponed, times recorded or deadlines set.
This way you can really automate your task management. Additionally, Clickup offers some templates for such automations. However, all the other automation tools in this list actually do the same. Clickup currently offers integrations with email, the appointment booking tool Calendly, Github and the customer management system Tiwlio.
Clickup makes sense as an automation tool if you already use it for your PM. Airtable, on the other hand, is worthwhile in our eyes for almost everyone who is thinking about a database, and in our experience, there are quite a few. You can start using the tool via the free plan here.
Conclusion: Free automation tools are plentiful
In our eyes, integrated automation tools can be a good way to get started with automation and to understand what it means. But these usually reach their limits extremely quickly. No wonder, then, that there are numerous automation tools that want nothing more than to link software. These have their raison d'être simply because they support hundreds and thousands of apps and offer a wide range of possibilities for actions. Most of them also offer a free version, which is perfect for trying things out.
Cloud Integration, iPaaS, SaaS, BPA… Ough, hard to keep track of all these terms. They are currently used frequently (and increasingly) in the context of automation, and it is sometimes difficult to make a clear distinction and distinction. We have already written blog posts on the terms iPaaS, SaaS and BPA, but we’ll take them up again here to make the difference.
But let’s start with cloud integration, because that’s the central umbrella term in which we embed all the other technologies in this blog post.
To illustrate these advantages, an example is suitable that we know well from our everyday work as an automation agency:
The central data to be used here is the data of a major customer. This can be the simplest information, such as the address. This address is required in numerous but completely different processes in the company: on the one hand, for correct invoicing in accounting. On the other hand, in the CRM system, where all the data of the large customer is also stored. But the address is also important in sales, for example, when employees go to the sales meeting on site.
Now the customer announces that the address of the company has changed after a move. This information will reach you by e-mail. There are now two options:
01. The e-mail is forwarded to all affected departments, accounting, sales, customer service, marketing… All persons open their corresponding program, CRM, accounting software, marketing tools (such as newsletter marketing) and change the data already stored there of the customer. This means that in multiple applications, different people do exactly the same thing: change one address. 02. But there is also an alternative: By connecting your applications, thus by integrizing them, the customer’s e-mail, or rather the information it contains about the address change, is automatically passed on to all affected applications: CRM, accounting, marketing, ERP. This does not require any clicks, because the cloud integration detects a trigger, i.e. address change, and thus automatically starts the process.
What sounds unimpressive in a single process becomes more effective when such a process occurs several times a day or weekly. Because there is a lot of data that is available in different applications and should always be correct. If these applications are cloud applications they are suitable for cloud integration.
But cloud integration doesn’t just happen. There are now a variety of applications that enable and implement this. Such tools usually allow us to link the relevant cloud applications on a central platform and define clear rules on when, how, where, how much data should be passed on and what happens to them.
IPaaS, SaaS, BPA, ABC – who can still see through it?
To realize cloud integration, there are various applications and technologies that are sometimes used interchangeably.
Cloud integration cannot be done without SaaS, iPaaS and BPA
Cloud integration is rather an umbrella term that includes numerous technologies, such as SaaS, iPaaS and BPA, and this is also absolutely necessary. Cloud integration is a concept that is made possible by appropriate technologies.
However, all terms share the commonality that they are cloud-based and thus offer enormous potential for growth and scaling. In addition, they are often cheaper to implement and maintain because changed requirements are easy to implement.
As an independent automation agency, we implement cloud integration according to your requirements. We use a variety of SaaS tools and iPaas (strictly speaking BPA) software. Together we find individual solutions that are flexible and scalable.