With all of the tasks that go into starting a business, it is easy to forget about properly collecting and managing data on customers and prospects in the beginning. Life in a startup business is hectic, after all, with thousands of tasks vying for your attention - everything from critical things like building the product to hiring to mundane things like getting business cards made and buying supplies.

And since you don’t have a lot of customers and prospects in the beginning, keeping them organized often falls by the wayside – similarly to the way a lot of startups fail to establish a solid financial model because they don’t expect to have any revenue in the beginning.

What I have seen many times, and suffered through personally at least once, is that if you don't take time to establish some sound data collection and management practices up front, you may not get around to it until it becomes glaringly obvious that there is a problem. By that time, you will have lots of neglected leads and angry customers (or maybe no customers).

If you think these suggestions may not apply to your cool "viral" consumer startup that is the next Twitter meets Facebook, well, you could be right if you are really lucky, but you can still use these guidelines to organize data on partners, advisors, investors, etc. For the 99.9% of startups that will need to actively sell to prospects and customers, however, these guidelines are essential.

1.    Make sure contact forms on your web site are going into a database. It is amazing how many companies do not respond to inquiries through their web site forms, despite this being effectively the same as throwing away money you spent on your web site and marketing. If the form just sends an email to someone, it is easy to see how it might get lost (or worse yet ignored, hoarded by a sales rep who is too busy to respond but doesn’t want to share, etc.).

2.    Use a Customer Relationship Managment (CRM) system as early as possible. I recommend Salesforce.com, though there are plenty of other options. CRM systems can be expensive for an early stage startup, but they do wonders for your business in terms of centralizing and organizing data. You can make your forms enter data directly into Salesforce.com via http post, eliminating data getting lost in someone's email. Once the data is in a CRM system, it is also much easier to begin to define processes for following up with and managing the relationship with those customers or leads (hence the name CRM), and some of this can even be automated through autoresponders, workflow rules, etc.

Plus, if you can enforce everyone using a central CRM system, you can always get a complete picture of leads and customers instead of having to ask around to different sales representatives, consultants, etc. This is valuable even if everyone is in the same room, but is more important with many startups that have distributed teams or pre-office space when everyone is working at home or in coffee shops.

3.    Email addresses on web sites are ok, but know what you are getting into. Putting an email address on your contact us page goes against everything I just said in 1 and 2, but it can make for a more personalized touch. It can also be necessary for certain audiences who don’t like filling out forms, or for marketing purposes (e.g. “contact OurCEOcares@bigbusiness.com”.) Just be sure that you are prepared to deal with these emails, and have clear expectations around who will answer these emails and how they will be handled. Best practices are to enable email to case, so each email logs a case or ticket in a CRM system, though this does have associated costs and may not be possible for early stage startups. Also, expect to become a “spam detective”, as sorting the one legit email from a customer out of the 100 spam messages will take some skill. Emails posted on web sites tend to attract even more than the regular insane levels of spam.

4.    If you must use Excel or Google Spreadsheets for customer or lead data, do it with a vision for the future. We all do this sometimes, but a little structure and preparation can save time and headaches. Think about what data you might want later, and keep it clean with clearly labeled, consistent columns. That way you can easily import it into a CRM system later, without further data entry or cleanup.

Bonus “type A personality” points:

5.    Enforce copy paste instead of data entry. I don’t want to sound like a high school grammar teacher, but making sure people get into the habit of copying and pasting data from emails or web sites, instead of retyping, is critical, especially when it comes to email addresses. And typos with gmail, hotmail, etc. rarely bounce to let you know you typed it wrong, one of the other 100 million people with a similar address gets your email and wonders why you are sending them a million dollar proposal when they are still a college student and they have never heard of you. If you follow point 2, of course, you shouldn’t need to do much data entry, because most of your contacts will be pushed into a CRM system.

6.    Don’t put anything in your database that does not belong. As you grow, the notes that you put in a field where they didn’t belong (“customer is a real cheapskate”) or substitutes for information you did not know (last name = “don’t know”) will come back to bite you. Keep your database clean. Automated tools can make sure CA, Calif, and California all get rewritten to CA, but other bad data will live forever. When you are larger and have so much data that you can’t easily manually review it for accuracy, your IT department will magically enable customers to update their data in an account portal. The “cheapskate” may see those notes that were not in a private notes field and be unhappy. Your marketing department will send out beautiful, personalized email newsletters addressed to “Dear Bob Don’t Know.”