Free software - how useful is it for running a small business?

David Cartwright Advice
19 Mar, 2013

There are plenty of free apps available for the small business? Can you actually keep things running with them?

If you're running a small business, the cost of the applications you need in order to run it properly can soak up a significant chunk of your profits. Yet there's absolutely no reason that you can't trim this cost to the bone by a little judicious use of free software, with a hefty chunk of cloud in there for good measure.

There are three primary components in the toolbox you'll need to run your business:General tools that most businesses would need – office applications and email.Tools that you need for the back-office tasks – paying your taxes, producing invoices, CRM and banking.Specialist tools that are specific to your particular business.

General tools
If you want a completely free office application suite, the place to start is OpenOffice, which is now part of the Apache family. Despite being free it has all the features you'd need in an office suite, and they're all properly fully-featured. Most companies use MS Office - and that's what people are used to - but OpenOffice contains everything that MS Office does (and runs on Macs too) and once you've got used to the GUI differences it works a treat. 

OpenOffice is, of course, not a cloud-based app range – though it is multi-platform. If you want to take a cloud option then you'll have to live with a modest cost – though given what you get it really is very inexpensive indeed.

The two options you'll consider are Google Apps (at £3.30 per user per month for the basic package) or Microsoft Office at a tenner a month. Is the Google option sufficient for the average small business? Yes, probably. On the other hand, the Microsoft option is what you're probably more used to so it's a question of whether familiarity is worth seven quid a month to you.

Note that email has not been considered as part of the above –  it's an entirely separate concept. There's really only one choice here: Google. It's something that's easy to use, is reliable - even with multiple company addresses - and doesn't cost a bean. It can be used with a web interface and with an IMAP client (Thunderbird – which is free, of course) and they work just great.

Back office
If you're a UK-based small business, the taxman is generally a very nice chap and provides you with a load of free software and websites that you can use for your tax matters.

Aside from any filing fees there's no cost for doing your company returns online, and small business owners can rely on HMRC's really cool tools to manage the PAYE (tax and National Insurance) calculations each month. It's possible to do quarterly VAT returns using an OpenOffice spreadsheet, and the bank's web banking site can help here too. You can spend hundreds or even thousands on business packages, and there really isn't a need.

For your invoicing needs, BillFaster (www.billfaster.com) is free in its basic form, though as with many zero-cost online solutions you may find that you want to spend a few quid a month on some of the chargeable, more advanced features. Do you need to do this? Probably not –  you can just use a spreadsheet template in OpenOffice, for instance, and export the results as PDFs. Again not in the cloud, but sometimes you want to have your data on your stand-alone laptop and not rely on being connected to the world 24x7.

Finally, if your customer base is too big to handle with a simple database, you can look to cloud-based CRM systems for managing client information. FreeCRM is the place to start in this respect; although chargeable in its larger forms, you can have up to ten users for free.

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