10 essential free business apps, tools and services for SMBs and startups


Introduction

Skype video call

Running a small business can be stressful, as you try to deal with all the competing demands on your time. That’s quite normal – it’s difficult when you have to do almost everything yourself – but fortunately there are plenty of free apps and services which can make your life easier.

Do you need to get more organised, for instance? Keep important information in one place? Manage projects, track how you’re spending your time, communicate more effectively with others, or automate your invoicing? We’ve found ten essential free services to help you with all these tasks, and many more.

Evernote

Evernote

Managing information is a key part of running any small business, and Evernote is the ideal service to help. Grab a web image, an article, URL, make a note, a to-do list and more, and it’s instantly uploaded and synced across all your devices.

Browse through this data later on and you’re able to organise and search it, maybe share the details with others and take part in group discussions.

Overall, Evernote is a versatile package and a convenient way to keep track of just about anything. If you need more, the Plus account (£19.99 per year, which is around $30, AU$40) lifts the monthly upload limit from 60MB to 1GB, also adding email saving and offline access, while Evernote Premium includes email searching, PDF annotations, scanning and digitising business cards, and more.

Google Docs

Google Docs

Every business needs good productivity software, but that doesn’t have to mean spending big money on Office 365. Google Docs’ document editor, spreadsheet, presentation tool and survey builder are easy to use, with plenty of templates and guidance to help you get started, yet are still more than powerful enough for most tasks.

The core office suite is just the start. You can extend the package with some quality add-ons, many of them free. You’re able to access your data from any browser on any device. Others in your business can do the same, which is ideal when you’re collaborating on a project, and because it’s all hosted in the cloud, you don’t even have to spend time and money on backups.

Skype

Skype

Skype’s classic app is a convenient way to send instant messages, and make free voice or video calls to any other user, whether they’re on Windows, Macs, phones or tablets.

This isn’t just about personal chats. You’re able to send files, maybe share your entire screen if you need an instant opinion on something, or set up an instant audio conference for groups of up to 25 people.

The service has its share of technical glitches, and if you check the Google or Apple stores you’ll find some very mixed reviews. But the response is still broadly positive, it’s worked well for us in the past, and upgrading to Skype for Business gets you extras like Outlook integration and group meetings of up to 250 people.

Slack

Slack

The easiest way to communicate within a business is often to send emails, or maybe instant messages, but there’s little structure to this. Key information is held in different places, making it difficult to track.

Slack offers a smarter, cloud-based solution. Sign up as many users as you need, then create ‘channels’ for specific purposes: individual projects, customers, whatever makes sense to you.

Channels can be private or public, and used to send messages, share images, documents, spreadsheets and more. Everything you add is indexed right away, becomes searchable, and is immediately synced across desktop and mobile devices.

Slack’s free account has some limitations – there are no group calls allowed (two-person only) and only 5GB total storage – but if you need a serious collaboration tool, it’s still a solid choice.

Streak

Streak

Most CRMs are complex, and they take time to set up and learn, but Streak is different. It runs inside Gmail, giving the system easy access to the contacts, emails and files you have already.

In a click or two you can group or view related emails, add and track customer status, notes and more. ‘Boxes’ help you define where you are in sales or other pipelines, and it’s easy to keep everyone in the business up-to-date on your progress.

Bonus features include some handy Gmail power tools, including Snoozing, Send Later, Mail Merge, Templates, Thread Splitting, and 200 tracked emails per month.

Streak’s free plan has strict limits on the amount of data you can share with other users in your business, but if it’s mostly for you, the service could work very well.

Toggl

Toggl

Running a small business can be challenging, and will probably soak up every spare minute you have, so it’s important to ensure you’re working as efficiently as possible. And that’s where toggl comes in.

This easy-to-use time tracker records the websites and applications you’re using on just about any device, detects idle time, allows tasks to be added manually, and produces detailed reports on demand.

It’s a simple way to find out how you’re spending your time, but that’s not all. Use toggl across your business (up to five people in the free version) and a web dashboard enables tracking your employees and seeing exactly what they’ve been doing at any time.

Toggl’s commercial plans support unlimited users, billable rates, time estimates, enhanced reporting and more, but the price is high (from £6/$9/AU$12 per user per month) and the free account will be enough for many.

Trello

Trello

Trello is a web-based project manager which has something to offer absolutely everyone, from individual home users to the most demanding of businesses.

The service uses ‘boards’ to hold lists containing whatever information you need: notes, checklists, due dates, file attachments and more. It’s a very visual approach, and just building a board will help organise your ideas.

Next, invite other people to the board, maybe assign them some tasks, and they can add comments, notes, files, maybe a few lists of their own. Your board syncs with other devices whenever something changes, so you’re always up-to-date, and notifications and powerful search tools help you find whatever you need.

Trello’s free account does have some limits, in particular a 10MB maximum for file attachments, but overall it’s still a very usable, high quality service.

Wave

Wave

Wave offers simple, straightforward invoicing tools, free of charge, yet with more features than some of the competition.

The program has no annoying limits on the number of invoices or customers it supports, for instance. You can set up recurring invoices for regular transactions, use multiple currencies and set any sales tax.

The package is also able to track late payments, create receipts, estimates, quotes and more.

There’s even support for accepting credit card payments right away, without any setup fee or other hassles. It’s not quite the bargain it seems because the commission you pay per transaction is higher than some commercial products, but if you’ll only be taking very few payments then Wave still looks like a good deal.

Wunderlist

Wunderlist

Wunderlist is a superb “to-do list” service, ideal for managing anything from a simple shopping trip to a complicated business project.

You could start by adding a few simple text notes, then extend your list with web content, or by forwarding emails, and add reminders or due dates to make sure nothing gets missed.

Share lists with others, add notes and comments, organise related lists into folders and everyone will know exactly what has to be done. And because Wunderlist syncs across all your devices – PC, Android, iOS, Mac, Windows Phone, Chromebook and the web – you’ll hear about completed tasks almost as soon as they’re finished.

Zoho

Zoho

You probably won’t agree with everything we’ve included in this slideshow. Maybe some of our choices don’t quite hit the mark, or perhaps there’s an area we haven’t covered. Whatever it is, take a look at Zoho – there’s a good chance you’ll find something to help.

The site offers website creation, for instance, along with contact management – and a CRM. There’s also a project manager, virtual meeting tools, a productivity suite, invoice and accounting software, visual reporting apps, support and helpdesk tools, and the list goes on.

There are free accounts for just about everything, too. Some are relatively limited – the Project Manager supports only one active project with 10MB storage – but others are very capable. For instance, the invoicing package supports invoicing up to 25 customers and has more features than some commercial products. Browse the site for a while and you’re sure to find something you can use.



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