Free Small-Business Software for Shoestring Budgets
Spending hundreds of dollars for productivity software doesn't hurt quite as badly when you have an angel (investor) looking over your shoulder. But bootstrapping small-business owners who lack venture capital may struggle to keep their brand-name applications up to date. Before you shell out another dollar, consider whether one of the many free programs available can help you keep costs down and get the job done.
Here are five leading no-cost apps, plus a few issues to consider before jumping on the free bandwagon.
- LibreOffice. Microsoft Office costs hundreds of dollars — and that's before you factor in the price of licenses for multiple users. The free LibreOffice suite offers most of Microsoft's functionality at, well, none of the cost. The software includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, database, and basic math and drawing components. It deftly handles files saved in the .docx format, too; many other free alternatives do not.
- Google Docs. Whereas LibreOffice stores files on your computer's hard drive, Google Docs stashes your digital goods in the cloud, making them accessible from anywhere you can find an internet connection. The web-based app supports documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and more. However, its feature set is fairly limited compared with LibreOffice and other alternatives.
- Skype. Skype provides cheap, internet-reliant telecommunications services, letting you make free one-on-one phone or video calls to other Skype users and cheap calls to land landlines anywhere in the world. If you need en masse video conferencing abilities, group video calling is available for $8.99 a month per employee via the Skype Manager software.
- WordPress. Can't afford to hire a web designer? WordPress is a one-stop shop whose free themes and plugins provide all the tools you need to build a website or a blog. WordPress will even host your site for free (in exchange for some ad placement space). For more information, see “5 Things About WordPress Your Small Business Needs to Know.”
- GIMP. The GNU Image Manipulation Program works wonders for businesses that need strong image-editing capabilities but can't afford the $700 (and up) cost of a business license for Adobe Photoshop. Be forewarned: GIMP is powerful and free, but has a fairly steep learning curve and lacks some of the advanced features and polish that Photoshop offers.
Before using any no-cost app, remember that free software still comes at a price. You're often on your own when it comes to technical support; if something breaks, you'll have to dig through the help documentation and online forums to fix it.
Free products also tend to be updated infrequently, with the exception of WordPress, which could be a big issue if you run into a troublesome bug. Depending on the program, third-party advertisements might be added to your content, too. Additionally, many free apps are open-source, which means anyone can view and contribute to the program's code. That could lead to increased vulnerability compared with closed-source proprietary solutions.
Despite those issues, free software is a viable solution for many businesses, especially in organizations with few employees. So, do your homework and make sure the software — not just its price — is right for you.
Does your business use free software? Which programs? Share your successful solutions with us in the Comments field below!