Most things in life aren’t free, but the Internet has made it pretty cheap for small business owners to run their office. From email to collaboration software, there’s a host of ways you can get your business up and running without paying a bundle.
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“It's really easy to go the free route when you're small or just starting out,” says Mario Schulzke, founder of IdeaMensch, an online community designed to help people bring their ideas to life. “With increased growth, it's oftentimes a good idea to up your technology investments as well. Most times smart tech investments pay for themselves.”
According to experts, before you start adopting free or low cost applications you have to figure out which parts of your business are mission critical and which aren’t. For instance Chuck Fried, president and chief executive of TxMQ, an IT services company, says using free software for email or collaboration may make sense, but putting ALL of your customer data on a free customer relationship management app could spell disaster.
At TxMQ, Fried says they use a lot of Google apps for things like email and calendaring, but the company doesn’t only use just free. While he isn’t a fan of completely free, he does say there are a lot of low cost options available to small business owners because of the growth in cloud computing.
“The dangerous part for small business owners is if they run into some challenges and need to get a hold of somebody at say, Google, you basically can’t,” says Fried. “If you need something tweaked or changed you are stuck.”
So what should you spend money on and where should you cut corners? According to small business advocate and Small Business Engagement Officer at QuickBooks Leslie Barber, you should invest in services and technology that will enable you to know where you money is going at all times, as well as ensuring you are meeting all of your legal and regulatory requirements for the industry you are in. Anything that is customer facing is also worth spending money on. The last thing you can afford, if you are an e-retailer, is a clunky or hard-to-use Website.
Other areas you want to invest in include a Web hosting company as well as an attorney, if you are just starting the business. “I usually tell people to get a really good hosting company from the very beginning, one that performs fast and can keep an eye on your security,” says Schulzke. “I used to go the cheap route on hosting, and it cost me dearly in IT and security consultants down the road.”
While you will have to make some investments, experts say there are still a ton of opportunities to run some parts of your business for free. It’s no secret that many small business owners are cash strapped and don’t have the money to launch a big marketing and advertising campaign. A great way to get the word out about your company and products or services without spending a dime is to embrace social media. There are countless stories of small businesses that blew up all because of their Facebook page, Twitter feed or YouTube video that went viral.
For basic computing needs you can also skimp and go with a free service. For instance, Google has a wide range of free products such as Google Drive, Google email and Google Docs, and they aren’t the only game in town.
Because of the plethora of free or low cost services available, it’s important to do your research before choosing a vendor. Fried says that’s where looking at online reviews, talking to people in your network and other small business owners comes in.
“It’s so easy these days to do the research,” says Fried. “Just be careful to ask a lot of tough questions and don’t assume you’ll get a certain level (of support).”