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Free Online Tools for Business

by Alan Gleeson

Most start-ups need to keep their costs down when they start out, as revenue is uncertain. There are a bunch of free online tools that can help you manage your business costs more effectively. The companies running some of these tools rely on word of mouth as their primary marketing technique and hence some of them will not be familiar to you. Help is at hand though, as this article aims to introduce you to some of the free business tools available – all you need is an Internet connection and a willingness to try these out.

Blogs

Blogs have become increasingly popular as a means for companies to communicate with their customers. Blogs are typically news posts that tend to be more informal than the typical corporate blurb you find on most websites. However, before you implement a blogging strategy, you need to consider the likely demands on your time that result. An empty blog sends out all the wrong signals, so someone in your company will need to commit to writing stories for the blog to ensure it remains up-to-date.

o    More Information:  http://wordpress.org/
o    Drawbacks – Keeping a blog up-to-date can be very time consuming.
o    Verdict –Don’t rush in!

Business plans


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Writing a business plan is one of the most important things a start-up business should do, but it is a task that many new entrepreneurs find challenging. Help is at hand from Palo Alto Software  which provides a whole host of free business-planning tools and resources. These range from free sample business plans to hundreds of articles to business start-up calculators.
o    More Information: BPlans
o    Drawbacks – Using a free or inexpensive sample plan from the Internet is rife with pitfalls. No sample can exactly represent you, your location, or your business.
o    Advantage – You are better off writing your own business plan from scratch using Business Plan Pro.
o    Verdict –Upgrade to Business Plan Pro (£79.99)

Customer service email

Once your website is up and running you’ll need a system to manage your email. Here at Palo Alto Software, we designed an email product to help you manage all email going to shared email addresses such as info@, sales@ or support@.
o    More Information: Email Center Pro
o    Drawbacks – Given we built it, there are none!
o    Verdict –Try it out free here.

Keyword search alerts

Google Alerts sends you emails updating you on the popularity of particular keywords or terms you specify. These alerts can help you monitor competitor behaviour, or keep you abreast of the latest developments in your industry.
o    More Information: Google
o    Drawbacks – Extra mails in your inbox!
o    Verdict –Optional Tool.

Google Docs

With the increasing shift to online applications, it may not be necessary to kit everyone in the office out with their own copies of Microsoft® Vista™. Instead, some people could use an open-source desktop application, along with the online file-editing and sharing tool, Google Docs. These applications work like simplified versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint®, and allow colleagues to work together on the same document.
o    More Information: Google
o    Drawbacks – Don’t lose the password!
o    Verdict –Essential Tool.

Internet-based phone calls

With Skype you can make Internet calls to whoever you want for free (assuming they also have Skype) or for a small fee if to a landline.  Again it is ideally suited to start-ups who want to keep the cost of calls down, and like instant messaging, is ideally suited to facilitating communication when people are geographically dispersed.
o    More Information: Skype

o    Drawbacks – The reception can be flaky on occasions.
o    Verdict –Essential Tool.

Instant messaging

This is a popular form of two-way communication using typed text.  A key benefit is the fact that the communication can take place in real time and hence it facilitates improved communication, particularly amongst geographically-dispersed colleagues.
o    More Information: Yahoo
o    Drawbacks – Ensure everyone is on the same client, i.e. America Online, Yahoo!, Skype or Windows Live.
o    Verdict –Essential Tool.

To do lists

There are a number of online ‘to do’ lists which help you manage your priorities. Of course some people will be happy with the trusty pen and paper. However, if you want online access to your ‘to do’ list consider some of the free options that are available.
o    More Information: Remember the Milk or ToDoist

o    Drawbacks – Do you really need 24/7 access to your to do list?
o    Verdict –Stick to the pen and paper.

Web analytics

All start-ups typically create a website right away for a number of reasons: to market their business, to generate leads and to sell their products or services. Once you have a website live, it is vital that you understand who is using your website, what they are doing when they arrive, how long they are staying, etc. All of this information is available free using Google Analytics.
o    More Information: Google
o    Drawbacks – the main drawback is the fact that Google owns the data.
o    Verdict –Essential Tool.

Summary

One thing all start-ups face is uncertain revenues against a backdrop of largely certain costs. Many of these free applications are perfectly suitable for use from Day One, ensuring you save money without compromising on business essentials.

Alan Gleeson

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