While large businesses regularly spend millions on their software licenses, for small businesses, the situation is much trickier. Paying for crucial software can involve deferring expenditure in other areas, such as business expansion or marketing. While this has contributed to a chronically worrying rate of software piracy amongst small businesses, many are now tapping into free software as a way of avoiding the piracy pitfall – and are finding their businesses operate more smoothly than ever.
To help you allocate your software expenditure as effectively as possible, Nett has catalogued 20 free applications that small businesses swear by. Many offer free trials to see whether they suit your needs, and all are worth considering as you plan new ways to optimise your business software investment.
For some, the idea of using a file transfer protocol (FTP) client is prehistoric, but there will be times when customers will ask if you can just ‘grab the files off the FTP’. There are a number of purchasable options out there with more features, but FileZilla gives you the functionality you need – sending and receiving large files.
The client works for both Mac and Windows users, and is fairly intuitive, with the ‘Quick Connect’ option clearly displaying where to put in your details.
The worst thing about ideas is that they come and go like the wind. If you want to capture yours, or just want to keep track of the many pieces of important written, sound, video or other information you see every day, consider Evernote – a free information archiver that runs on Windows and Mac systems as well as iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry and other smartphone platforms. Evernote not only catalogues your miscellany, but continually synchronises it between devices, converts handwritten notes to searchable text, and more. Indispensable for information-based workers – and totally free.
18. Ad-Aware Free
No business, large or small, should be operating online without security software. There are loads of options out there, but most of them cost good money; if you’d prefer a cheaper alternative, look into Ad-Aware Free Internet Security. This free option blocks viruses, spyware, malware, Trojans, keyloggers and other threats, to provide a good foundation for protecting your devices.
Just as OpenOffice is an alternative to Microsoft Office, Thunderbird is gaining adherents as an alternative to Microsoft Outlook. Its design is reminiscent of Outlook, but it adds a range of searching, filtering, security, and other features that means it runs thin, light, fast and smart. Themes and support for hundreds of free add-ons add capabilities like task lists, calendars, advertisement blocking, content downloading, and more, letting you customise Thunderbird to the way your business works.
Efficient timesheeting and labour tracking is important if your business is going to bill correctly for work performed – but collecting the data can be a real pain. A free online system like MyHours goes a long way towards fixing this by providing an easy-to-use way to track the amount of time you spend on work projects. Enter your work details as you perform them, then use the build-in reporting to get daily, monthly, project-based or other reports on the way you’ve spent your time. It may prove enlightening for you and invaluable for your business.
Presentations are essential for many businesses as tools for marketing, training, or just good old-fashioned brainstorming. But presentations can easily get large and complicated. Enter Prezi, a new take on the presentation that lets you build interactive presentations online and share them with people anywhere in the world. Design presentations using storylines, insert YouTube and other videos, and link multiple employees together online so you can all collaborate on the presentations that define your business to others.
If your document needs extend beyond the basic capabilities, an enterprise content management (ECM) system like Alfresco – which comes in paid and free Community editions – may be worth exploring. ECM systems not only manage website content, but can handle your own document files, database records and other content. They enforce document retention, archiving, governance, and security rules, and let team members collaborate on documents.
If you need to access your files on more than one device, or need to share files between your employees, Dropbox may be indispensable for your business. It automatically synchronises files between computers: change a document on your laptop, for example, and it’s copied to a ‘cloud’ service and also copied to other linked laptops, desktops, smartphones and tablet computers.
You can also share a file or folder, making it easy to share files between far-flung team members. Its cloud model also makes it an automatic backup tool, and you can get your files from the web if you need them. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.
Getting customer feedback can be an invaluable way to improve your services, and to retain customers – but hiring market research firms is expensive. Little wonder SurveyMonkey has become the de facto replacement for small businesses: with its traceable and customisable surveys, it’s easy to poll your customers on any issue you like. The free edition allows you to send surveys with up to 10 questions to up to 100 people at a time, which will be enough for many small businesses. Write your questions in 15 different styles; choose your design; and fire away. You’ll have your answers before you know it.
Email newsletters are an excellent promotional tool and are the lifeblood of many small businesses seeking to spread the word about their products and services. Sending out large numbers of emails, however, can be difficult to manage and can put you afoul of your ISPs. Enter Mailchimp, an email marketing service that lets you design and send regular email blasts – up to 12,000 emails per month to a maximum 2000 subscribers, for free (you can pay if your needs surpass these limits). It’s easy to use, flexible, and provides great reporting features so you can spread the word without breaking the bank.
If your business involves publishing information online, you’re going to need some sort of content management system (CMS). Joomla! is totally free, open-source, hugely popular and supports thousands of extensions, with customers ranging from giants like General Electric and eBay to the South Australia Police and Victorian Parliament. Run it on a server in your office, or get a cloud hosting company to run it for you and just focus on publishing your content online.
No matter what business you’re in, you’re probably using Microsoft Office for everyday document creation tasks. But you don’t have to; if your needs don’t stretch to complex scripting and other power-user requirements, you can get an Office-compatible productivity suite for free. OpenOffice is the best-established alternative, providing Windows and Mac OS X users with word processing (Writer), spreadsheeting (Calc), presentation (Impress), drawing (Draw), and database management (Base).
Whether your business team is all in the same office or spread across the country, Skype can help you communicate more easily with your co-workers, partners, and suppliers. You may already be using it for its free voice and video calls, but you can also use Skype to ring normal and mobile phones around the world at rates far lower than you’re probably paying through your normal phone. A favourite of entrepreneurs and small-business owners as an alternative phone service of sorts, Skype’s ease of use, free nature and features like conference calling and group videoconferencing have made it the de facto standard for online communication. Even better, you can make Skype calls from your smartphone, and even some TVs, as easily as from your office. If your business requires communication in any form, you’re likely to get value from Skype’s broad feature set.
Photoshop is fantastic, but it’s also expensive – and far too complicated for the image-processing needs of most small businesses. If you work with pictures but don’t want to blow your budget, consider one of the free alternatives. GIMP is a desktop application for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X systems that provides a huge range of advanced image features.
The internet offers many ways to publish your information, but WordPress has become one of the best blogging and website hosting tools thanks to its easy setup and generous feature set. Free users get 3GB of file storage, access control, a choice of over 100 site templates, commenting, uploading of photos from Flickr or Photobucket, continuous saving, posting from your smartphone, and more. Because it’s online, it’s accessible to anybody, anywhere – and it’s free (although, like most of these services, you can pay for extra features if you need them). WordPress is a great place to start – and offers enough that it may well be the place you finish too.
If your business involves lots of geographical locations, BatchGeo may be a lifesaver. Copy addresses from a spreadsheet into BatchGeo, and it translates them onto Google Maps, then produces an interactive map you can embed in your website for customers or employees. Chart the locations of your offices to help customers, the locations of your customers to help sales staff, or the locations of your sales staff to help your dispatchers.
Zoho is a contender for the Google Docs crown, offering a range of business software that’s available in free and paid versions. The free customer relationship management (CRM) software provides all the functionality many small businesses will need to manage their customers. This includes tracking leads and sales opportunities, account, contact and case management, marketing campaigns, calendar tracking, and reports and management dashboards to keep track of the action. Zoho’s two dozen or so other apps complement the CRM and are available in limited free versions or higher-volume paid versions: the Zoho Creator application builder, for example, lets you build your own CRM applications.
Asterisk turns a PC running Mac OS X, the free Linux or Solaris, or other operating systems into a full-featured phone system for your business. It is broadly supported, extremely flexible, and supports features like call handling, accounting, billing, conference calling, call recording and monitoring, telemarketing dialling, and computer-telephony integration that lets it work with other applications. Third-party applications can add features like text-to-speech and speech recognition, while companies with a bit of technical nous can use it to build complex workflows for internal business processes. Replace your current PBX with Asterisk and you’ll save significantly – and get access to high-end phone features for nix.
2. Sugar Community Edition
Every small business needs a way to track information about their customers and their order histories – but commercial systems can be expensive and complex. SugarCRM started out as an open-source development project but has become a commercial enterprise on the back of its wide popularity and extensive feature set – which includes sales-force automation, marketing campaign support, customer support, business reporting, and other features. Many companies will charge you for the services to customise and implement SugarCRM, but Sugar Community Edition offers 85% of the commercial version’s functionality, and is completely free. FastStack installers for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X simplify installation, and there’s documentation available if things get a little hairy.
1. Google Docs
Broad format support and powerful features have made Google Docs the de facto Microsoft Office alternative standard for small businesses. Core word processing, presentation and spreadsheet applications interface with other Google services like the Translate engine, Google Chat instant-messaging and free Gmail service – which itself includes calendar, task management and excellent spam filtering – to provide a complete productivity suite. Because they’re stored online, documents are continually backed up and available from any desktop or mobile device.
There’s even built-in optical character recognition (OCR): scan a document, upload it and Google Docs will produce an editable file for you. It’s all that many users need. For long-term Office users, it may take a little adjusting, but most of the core features are in the Google Docs alternative, and can be picked up relatively quickly.