For a small business just starting out, free tools for running a company—for bookkeeping, word processing, file storage, contact management—can make a world of difference. Such tools can help you keep the cash you need to get through the tight spots every new business has. But free tools are often worth exactly what you pay for them. Here are seven things to consider before downloading.
1. Free tools often lack important features.
Getting tools to do what you want isn’t always as easy as it seems. Matthew Jones, co-founder of Shizzle Dizzle Magic, found that Google Docs didn’t quite do the same thing as Microsoft Office. “One of the first things I tried was Google Docs. We have a lot of forms and contracts that we use for each customer. I wanted to put them in the cloud so I could use them from any computer and eventually ditch Microsoft Office. Unfortunately, it became a nightmare. A lot of the formatting was lost and it was darn near impossible to get it back. Also, I couldn't make the forms do a lot of the things I wanted them to do.”
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2. You can outgrow free tools surprisingly quickly.
Edward Hechter’s company, Party Pail, soon outpaced the capacity of the free tools the firm had used at its founding. “The capabilities of the "free" e-mail were so limited that they cost us money, and made things difficult for us to manage our customer care team as we grew from 2 people to 20+. Things like spam control, the ability to provide customers with automatic responses and receipt confirmation, the ability for multiple people in a customer care organization to share an e-mail account were solved by using an inexpensive "cloud" service for e-mail.”
3. That free tool can suddenly grow a price tag.
Marjorie Asturias, who runs Blue Volcano Media, has been using the Outright bookkeeping system for free but recently learned that the service will soon have a monthly fee. “I’ve been using Outright for about 3 years, and have been impressed with the simple yet powerful bookkeeping functions. It was perfect when I was a solo entrepreneur, with a clean, user-friendly interface and stable and secure database. I worry that as my business grows and theirs does as well, they won’t be able to handle all the problems, resulting in a bad bookkeeping experience for entrepreneurs who rely so heavily on them. They’ve fixed some of the transition problems, but I continue to monitor my books carefully.”
4. You may not be able to easily upgrade when you need new features.
Bookkeeper Katrina Harrell found that her tools weren’t working in all situations, and she needed a new solution. “I use ZohoAssist to remote access my clients' laptops to perform bookkeeping services for them and it works great, except for my Mac clients—I have recently noticed a terrible lag time of 5 seconds! After about two weeks of this I reluctantly moved to a paid remote access program called join.me, and it's much better.
5. Free tools aren't always compatible with the paid tools your vendors, customers, and employees use.
Lawyer Todd Gallinger learned the hard way that compatibility can be key. “When we initially hired our two part-time employees, I purchased two very inexpensive desktops which came preloaded with Ubuntu, a free version of Unix. I had worked with Ubuntu before, and knew for the basic tasks online and in word processing, it is very easy to use. However, no one but me in the office could figure it out. We eventually abandoned the computers and free software. I set up Microsoft Windows XP and MS Office on the computers. Though they run slow, people now know how to use them.”
6. Free tools often do not include customer support.
Angela Nielsen has faced exactly that problem more than once. “The biggest problem our company has faced using free services, is the lack of prompt support. Most free services we have tried only offer support forums or the like, and when we have had a problem, we had nobody to call. Our solution was to be very careful when choosing any type of free service or product. If there isn't same day support offered, then we tend to purchase support plans, or upgrade to a paid service so we can get the support when we need it.”
7. It’s not always easy to get access to the free tools you want to use.
Sonny Ahuja uses free tools, but has had difficulty training his clients on them. “I am a social media coach and visit my clients often to train their employees on how they can use Twitter, Facebook, etc. effectively to increase their business. I used TweetDeck for these applications but soon realized that working between several different computers, I will have to choose another option as Tweetdeck has to be downloaded first on to any computer before it can be used. So now I use and train people on Hootsuite which you can log in to from any browser or computer with a login and password and it doesn’t matter if it’s your own computer or a client’s computer that you are using. It made my life a lot easier!”