The 8 Must-Have Free Online Business Tools You Need
By Julie Neidlinger on November 5, 2012 in News.
In business, you need a way to track finances, manage projects (alone or within the team), get things done, create and share documents, connect and network, and manage social media. While there’s no shortage of online apps that can do just about everything you can imagine needing, are there any apps that let you get started free of charge? Are there any that you can put to work for you right now?
If you’re an entrepreneur just getting started, or a small business owner looking to work online, there’s a solution for you right now, free.
Finances: Wave Accounting
Wave Accounting is a completely free app that helps you manage your business finances from any place you can get online. For an entrepreneur or freelancer, it also allows you to separate and track your personal finances, too, so you can handle all of your financial management from one location. You’ll find invoices, expense tracking, reports, and more. It has its limits, of course. It doesn’t track timesheets and some of the other features you’ll find in a paid app, but for those getting started or with a small business, it might be the perfect choice for you.
Social Media Management: TodayLaunch
Managing social media for your business should be about getting things done. TodayLaunch treats your social media accounts like an inbox, with the focus being on sharing and responding and then archiving. It isn’t meant to be a stand-in for everything each social media network’s own system provides, but a way for you to get past the distractions and discover or respond directly to the person who is communicating with your brand on your networks. Accounts are free to get started.
Taking Payment: Square
Just about everyone has seen brick-and-mortar small businesses, from coffee shops to street fair artisans, using card readers with their mobile devices. There are several card-readers out there, but the one that started it all is still your best bet. Square makes it easy for small businesses to accept credit cards without breaking the bank, and the interface of the mobile and online app are very user friendly. There are options to import your transactions right into your accounting software, and even a variety of ways to integrate square as a complete POS system. It’s free to get started right now, and even free to request the card reader.
File Storage: Dropbox
Dropbox is your storage in the cloud, sure, but it also helps when you have a team that is repeatedly accessing and sharing files. Share your Dropbox folders and make it easier to keep everyone quite literally on the same page. Post documents publicly and share files with clients who have the link. Get started with a free account, and upgrade if necessary. You might also like to try out Box, which has a free personal account with a 5 GB limit.
When your whole team can’t be together and you need a brainstorming session that goes beyond a typical teleconference, there’s Mural.ly. Connect the ideas of the entire team in one visual virtual layout, whether it’s Pinterest pins, virtual post-it notes, research findings, or a visual catch-all, you can create a virtual bulletin board to generate ideas from for your projects.
Not every business has clients that need to schedule appointments, but if you do and you aren’t ready to pay for extensive appointment booking software, you might want to give Appointlet a try. It integrates with your Google Calendar and allows clients to book appointments online themselves. The free account is limited to one type of service and one staff member, but it might work for what you need.
Project Management: Trello (And Others!)
Where to start? There are so many great free tools out there for you to try, and they each offer slight differences in services and UI that it really comes down to personal preference.
Trello is a sort of virtual post-it-note board system, and the most noticeably different UI of the project management apps out there. It allows you to share selectively among team members, attach Google Docs and discussions to projects, and more.
Co-op helps your team stay on the same page. It’s not exactly project management, but almost a mini Twitter or chat system for within a team. You can let the team know what you’re doing, if you’re away from your desk, or what’s on your agenda for the day. Share links, ask questions, post comments.
Do is a full-featured project management app that lets you share files and lists with your team. It has both an Android and iOS app so you can take it on the road. It is similar to Asana, although Asana only offers an iOS app. Both of these have a similar UI that is familiar to most people; it looks like an inbox.
The Over-Achiever: Google
It’s hard to pin Google down for just one app. Google Drive is a mix of the old Google Docs with a twist of cloud storage. Google Calendar is practically a standard. Google+, that crazy social media network that people still aren’t sure what to think of, includes Google Hangouts and a mobile app that automatically backs up photos from your smartphone. Google Moderator is a way to get user feedback and let users vote on desired product features.
Why Use The Cloud?
Why take your business online, and put your sensitive documents in the cloud? Isn’t it fraught with danger of people hacking accounts or apps that have a short shelf life and shut down? Won’t you risk losing them, or losing access?
There are risks, whether you work off of a harddrive (crash, damage, theft) or whether you work in the cloud. If you’re taking precautions online, such as using things like two-step verification, or creating unique passwords for every account using password management software like 1Password or LastPass, you’ll reduce many of those risks. The benefit of working online is pure and simple: absolute convenience. It means that you’re able to access and manage your data and business from any location with an internet connection. Throw in mobile and tablet apps, and it means you can do it on the road. Your data isn’t a vulnerable prisoner of a specific building or computer or operating system. You’re not locked into a software package that you have to purchase and upgrade.
As your business grows, you’ll either upgrade from your free accounts, or look to more robust paid apps. However, you can get started right now with these apps at no charge.
[Question "What are some of your favorite free business apps?"]