When You Should and Shouldn’t Choose Free Business Software

— May 30, 2017

So you’ve decided to open your own little business. No matter which one that is, you’ll end up managing finances, projects, clients, and co-workers. Thankfully, today there’s almost an unlimited supply of tools and services that can help you with all of that.

However, it’s easy to get lost in so many different apps and services for business, especially when you start considering their price, features and the actual necessity for your rising company. In this guide, we’ve collected some of the key types of tools and services you’ll likely need at the start of your venture.

Price and functionality are often the key decisive factors to choosing one software over another. To help you navigate, the suggestions are broken down into three categories:

  • Free. Solutions that can cover the basic needs of a relatively small company;
  • Pro. Paid services that you might want to invest from the start as the upgrade from a freemium app might be an even pricier one for a growing team;
  • Premium. The best that money can buy. Such tools are an overkill for a starting business, but they are worth keeping in mind if you want to get the full spectrum of services in a certain area.

1. Office suite

A comprehensive office suite is one of the foundations for an effective team collaboration, productivity, and overall business organization. Ideally, it should include not only word processors and spreadsheets, but also provide some communication and contact management options.

Free: WPS Office

It’s difficult to go wrong when choosing a free office suite. While Docs and all other apps in the Google ecosystem are a great choice, they are better for business as a paid G Suite. You obviously need the Internet connection to fully use it, so there are still some advantages to having an offline office suite.

WPS Office is a good choice for everyone who’s used to Microsoft Office because WPS completely mimics it in terms of looks and functionality. It has a great compatibility with MS Office formats and is also available on any platform you might need to use it. As an alternative, if you and your team are exclusively Mac users, iWork is now a free suite, so you might want to check it out if haven’t already.

Pro: G Suite

G Suite (formerly Google Apps for Work) is a comprehensive and affordable office suite for virtually any business. You can pay just $ 5/month per user for a Basic plan and get a business email addresses, aliases for Gmail, shared online calendars, security and admin controls over the suite and 30GB of file storage in Google Drive.

A viable reason to go for a more pricey plan (“Business” — $ 10/month per user) is the amount of file storage that would be expanded to 1TB. However, considering that the files created in G Suite apps don’t count towards that quota, 30GB would likely be enough. Keeping all your business activities and collaborations secured in Google’s cloud is one of the most convenient ways to manage a growing online team.

Premium: Office 365

If you want to go full-out and make the deepest dive into the Microsoft ecosystem, that’s what Office 365 Enterprise E3 is for. With an annual commitment to $ 20/month per user, you get everything that Microsoft has to offer for office productivity.

Office 365 E3 includes a subscription to every online Office app and an installed offline Office on every device you need. You also get an unlimited OneDrive storage space, unlimited inbox, access to a corporate social network, a Teams chat-based workspace, and VoIP tools. Additionally, there’s the top-tier E5 plan which gets you an advanced threat protection, productivity analytics, and data governance, but this would better be an overtime upgrade than an immediate commitment plan.

2. Project management

Knowing who’s doing what and what they should be doing next by is a useful thing otherwise known as project management. Just like with office suites, there’s no shortage of supply on the market, so you can easily find the one system that would keep your team and yourself organized.

Free: Trello

Unlike most project management tools, Trello makes a strong accent on visuals. Arguably, this service embraces the kanban-style workflow like no other app. Trello helps in organizing your work by placing cards (tasks) on a dashboard with the ability to set due dates, add notes, etc. Unfortunately, Trello doesn’t host files, meaning you’ll still have to use some cloud storage solution for files.

There are some limits to a free Trello account, such as a maximum 10MB size for attachments and a limited integration with other services. However, the free plan is a great start for any team that wants to improve its overall productivity.

Pro: Asana

Compared to Trello, Asana presents you both with a kanban-style dashboard and a list view for your projects and tasks. It spots a superb level of integration with emails (letting you add new tasks by emailing them to Asana) and it’s one of the productivity apps recommended by Google so if you rely on its ecosystem and G Suite, the Calendar and Drive integration will be a welcome bonus.

Asana is rather minimalist, but it can be highly effective for creating and updating tasks in one or two clicks, while keyboard shortcuts additionally contribute to it. If your team is up to 15 users, you can use Asana for free, just like Trello. But if you need some additional features, such as unlimited dashboards, custom fields (to make it more fitting to your business) and task dependencies, the $ 10/month per user price is a justified purchase.

Premium: Basecamp

While Asana is considered to be a rather feature-rich solution, Basecamp surpasses it in many regards. With a price tag of $ 100/month (not per user), Basecamp sets itself as a productivity hub for your team. It pitches itself as a replacement to many other services your company might be using, such as chats, email clients, calendars and external todo lists.

While other solutions cater to team collaboration, Basecamp is aimed exactly at project management. With advanced permissions management options, Basecamp lets you collaborate with people from outside your team, making it more suitable for agencies. It saves all the history and progress of the project, while also featuring reusable project templates, robust document management (with its own storage) and resources allocation by team skill sets.

3. Internal communication

These tools can help you facilitate electronic communications so that staff can share messages, files, data, or documents more easily, and even partake in voice and video group discussions.

Free: Skype

Skype needs no introduction. Despite the fact that it’s generally losing in popularity to other modern instant messaging tools, Skype remains an effective tool for internal and external communications. What’s great about Skype is that just like with email address, everybody has a Skype account, making it one of the default communication channels with clients.

While free, you can conveniently discuss work matters with teammates, setup group chats, video calls and exchange files. Unfortunately, it has way less in terms of organization features, such as message search history and actual file storage, making other team messengers more preferable.

Pro: Slack

Even as a free service, Slack offers team communication for the 21st century. Once you start using it, it might look like your regular chatting app, but as the time passes you’ll notice that it’s more than just a chat. Slack will quickly become your work and communication hub, storing everything from conversations and occasional todo’s, to reference materials, useful links and design discussions. Everything you add to or share via Slack gets indexed, making it easy to find later by current and future team members.

Slack’s business subscription starts at $ 8/month per user and removes any searchable message limits, let’s you integrate it with an unlimited amount of apps, expands storage space to 10GB and ramps up security measures. Additionally, you’ll be able to carry out group voice calls, making Slack an effective hub for team collaboration and a supplementary project management tool.

Premium: Basecamp

Admittedly, there’s little reason to go full-out on expensive communication apps when there are enough cheaper alternatives. But if you’ve already decided to use Basecamp as your project management tool, it also provides some good communication options for your team.

Basecamp can replace emails for internal communication, saving messages for people who’ll join your team later. Campfire is Basecamp’s alternative to group chats and direct messaging, so you might want to use it as a single productivity environment, maybe combined with a few other free tools.

4. Accounting

Managing your budget, salaries, finances and revenue is something any company cannot exist without. Almost any free accounting software can handle accounts management, invoicing and sales, but if you need more advanced, automated and multi-department solutions, paying for it becomes nearly mandatory.

Free: Wave

Wave is an accounting software specifically designed for small business owners, contractors and freelancers. Even though it’s free, Wave has a long list of features to help you with tracking expenditures. You can handle customer invoicing, running financial statements, importing credit/debit card transactions, create business reports and more.

There’s no limit on the number of invoices or customers it supports, but Wave is rather limiting when it comes to writing checks — you’ll have to do it manually and then mark checks as paid in Wave (also manually). Unlike paid accounting tools, Wave lacks inventory and commerce features, but it’s a great accounting software for starters.

Pro: QuickBooks Online

QuickBooks is one of the most commonly used accounting tools worldwide. This ensures both compatibility and integration with over 400 business apps you might need in your specific branch of business. QuickBooks covers all accounting activities you throw at it, from preparing tax forms and accepting online payments, to printing out checks and carrying out inventory management.

QuickBooks Plus will cost you $ 40/month and give you access to over 65 essential reporting options (profit and loss, balance sheets, etc.), inventory tracking, billable time tracking and scheduled payments. Additionally, if you’ll decide on hiring an accounting firm, it’s almost guaranteed that it’ll be familiar with QuickBooks and you’ll be able to provide a limited access to your finances.

Premium: Microsoft Dynamics GP

Going for an enterprise-grade on-premise accounting solution is an overkill for a small business, but this is one of the most comprehensive accounting tools out there. MS Dynamics GP is a tool for companies completely reliant on the Microsoft ecosystem, with databases running on Microsoft SQL which eases the integration.

While a Starter Pack costs $ 5000 and includes three users, the database conversion from QuickBooks would be not cheaper. So if you’re planning on ultimately using MS Dynamics GP, it’s better to do so from the start. The solution is completely GAAP compliant, meaning that transactions cannot be deleted without any record of activity. This, combined with over 700 standard reports, complete transactions history, and data ownership contributes to a secure and more functional accounting solution.

5. Customer relationship management (CRM)

Customers are the lifeblood of any business. When starting out, each client is a VIP and there’s no problem with keeping tabs on them. But once you start growing and your client base expands, a customer relationship management systems will help you in keeping customer and deals data up to data.

Free: Insightly

The problem with free CRM systems is that you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that gives you everything for free. However, it’s not that hard to cut some corners and find the one that satisfies your client management needs when starting off. Insightly is considered by many as the best free CRM system.

The free account is rather limiting, but for a small sales team, it should be enough. Insightly provides you with 2.5K records, task and project management capabilities, basic mass mailing, reporting and accounting tools integration. Where free plan eventually falls short is once you need to add more users or custom fields to collect more business-specific data.

Pro: NetHunt CRM

Most CRMs are complex and they take time to set up and learn, but NetHunt is different. It’s a good choice for G Suite users as it’s a Gmail-based system, giving it an easy access to the contacts, emails, and files you already have. For a small team, it’s an affordable tool ($ 25/month per five users) with unlimited records, views, mass mailing and email tracking.

NetHunt’s flexibility makes it suitable for most business activities because you can customize its records with unlimited fields of various types. It’s easy to group clients by various types of data, creating sales pipelines, mass mailing lists and prioritize follow-ups. NetHunt lets you share tasks and emails with everyone in the team to support a business that prioritizes communication via email.

Premium: Salesforce

You can’t enter the realm of CRM without coming across Salesforce. While you can immediately go for it as your primary system, it can be somewhat confusing and complicated unless you have clear business requirements and a strategy prepared. The amount of resources you need to spend on Salesforce is significant, however, once everything is setup and running, the result is worth it.

When you’re ready to pay $ 300/month per user for the top tier Salesforce Sales Cloud, you get everything a CRM system can offer. In addition to an unlimited account, lead and opportunity tracking, email marketing campaigns and inbox integration, you get such advanced options as territory management, custom app developments and automation, forecasting and up-to-date contacts from data.com.

6. Web hosting

What do you do when you need to look up some information about a certain company? The obvious solution is to check their website. The same thing would happen to you once you enter the market. If you don’t want to take care of your own server to host a site, turning to a web hosting provider is the best choice. Keep in mind that the type of hosting would influence your site traffic capabilities and low speed can negatively reflect on your site SEO rating.

Free: 000webhost.com

Dating back to 2007 and with over 14 million worldwide users, 000webhost.com is a go-to option for a free site web hosting. Unlike many free web hosting providers, 000webhost.com doesn’t display branded ads on your site, has no limit on bandwidth and provides 1.5GB of disk space.

The service guarantees 99.9 percent uptime which should put your worries to ease. The free plan supports PHP and MySQL and offers a basic site builder, which should be enough for most to setup a site and test their web-hosting needs. Even if you’ll face the need to upgrade for better support, more frequent back-ups or more FTP accounts, $ 5/month is a good price.

Pro: BlueHost

If you’re expecting a high volume of traffic, shared free hosting wouldn’t be enough. This is where a virtual private server (VPS) from BlueHost becomes ideal for hosting your site. With over two million customers, BlueHost is a recommended hosting platform by WordPress and it’s specifically optimized for that.

Depending on the amount of data you’ll be storing, BlueHost’s “Enhanced” $ 30/month pricing plan gives you 60GB SSD storage, unlimited bandwidth, and enough RAM to expect a stable site. You can add unlimited email addresses and FTP users, install SSL certificates, and even configure backups frequency. This, combined with a one-click website setup, easy-to-use cPanel interface and premium phone support makes BlueHost an optimal solution for your business site.

Premium: HostGator

So you’ve reached a point when your site received thousands of visitors daily and it’s time to consider a dedicated server. HostGator is one of the best-known web hosting companies in the world which offers various VPS and dedicated server solutions. The entry-level dedicated offer starts at $ 80/month and creeps up to $ 130/month for some more capable servers.

With unlimited domains, FTP and email accounts, weekly back-ups, full root access and thousands of templates to design your site around, you can create and sustain a site that would effectively represent your company. The powerful hardware with up to 16GB RAM, 4-cores Intel Xeon processors and RAID-1 1TB disks should prevent you from worrying about its performance.

7. Site Analytics

Now that you have a website, do you know how much traffic does it get? Where are the visitors coming from? Are they here because of your ad campaign, email marketing efforts or some influencer writing about you in a popular blog? Web analytics can help you answer those questions and help you in improving site conversion rates, which, in most cases, means more closed deals.

Free: Google Analytics

Google Analytics is a must have tool for virtually any site and, considering it’s free, you have no reason not to use it. After you add its tracking code to your site, you can check the countries your site has been seen in, the comparison between the key traffic drivers, and their key numbers, broken out by day, week, month, or a year.

Google Analytics presents such information via easy-to-read charts and graphs so that even the least tech-savvy individual can feel confident with understanding their information. There are some cons to it (like the limited amount of goals to set and data arriving not in real time), but because of its popularity you can easily master it with help of numerous guides and get the first insights into your web presence activities.

Pro: Clicky

Clicky excels where Google Analytics lacks the most, mainly the real-time data, while its depth is on a comparable level. This might be essential if you’re seeing spikes of visitors from some outside resources.

Clicky spots some additional features that you might find desirable, such as heat maps, bot filters, video and Twitter analytics, as well as site widgets and various alerts. All of this is priced at $ 10/month per one million page views, making it a viable Google Analytics alternative if those features are something you really want.

Premium: Kissmetrics

Kissmetrics has a different approach to analytics. Instead of putting page views and sessions front and center, Kissmetrics is more suited for e-commerce sites as it monitors each visitor as a customer. Compared to Google Analytics, you can go back to when the client first visited your site and see what he or she has been doing there, what features has been using and what purchases made.

Such data makes it easier to concentrate on the sales funnel and conversions. It’s also more effective at analyzing what sources are driving more paying visitors to your site with revenue reports per each source. If you have a high-traffic website, Kissmetrics won’t be cheap (up to $ 700/month per 300k events) but it’s eventually worth it if it helps you increase the actual sales.

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