Get Your Apps Together

By Joseph S. Adinolfi Jr. Small businesses are getting their software tools to play nice.For years, many small firms have been leaning on low-cost online programs to handle jobs like inventory, accounting and payment processing. But those services came with a big caveat: They couldn't share information with each other. So, if your order system rang up a sale, you had to record it manually in your inventory system.Now small companies are finding simpler ways to swap their data. They're using new programming tricks and low-cost third-party services that let them link up online software with minimal fuss. "For some of these companies, that amount of savings in time and money is substantial," says Ross Beyeler, founder of Growth Spark, a technology-consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. "It's more than substantial. It's the deciding factor that allows them to start up."One of the tools companies are using is something called an application program interface, or API—a numeric code that lets programs share information. Type the API from one program into another, and they can communicate. Kevin Lavelle uses this method at Mizzen+Main, his men's apparel company in Dallas: When a customer makes a purchase at his online store, the information flows from the store's host, Shopify, to PayPal, which collects payments, and Stitch Labs, which monitors inventory. Then it's processed by Xero, which tracks the store's finances.For business owners who don't want to tinker with codes, there are third-party programs—such as Zapier and If This Then That—that automatically link up applications. Zak Tanjeloff uses Zapier at his New York-based workout-supplement company, JackedPack. When he gets an order, Zapier sends the customer's data from an e-commerce program to another service that sorts the customers onto specialized mailing lists to keep them abreast of new products and promotions.Still, these methods have limits. For one thing, not every online service is set up to work with every other service. So, some businesses will still need to shell out for a custom solution—or transfer data manually. And many online services can handle only so much traffic before they run up against technical limits. "With these systems, everything works good enough, but it's not perfect," Mr. Tanjeloff says. Mr. Adinolfi is a writer in New York. He can be reached at

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