Whether your business has just two people or two hundred, these tips can help you cut costs, save money, and let you focus on what’s really important: the bottom line.

1. Use Open Source and Free Software

Let’s face it–when you’re trying to keep your business afloat, plunking down lots of cash for off-the-shelf software hurts like getting a cavity filled without Novocain. Thankfully, freeware and low-cost software can be a pleasant surprise in terms of robustness and functionality.

While not as polished as Microsoft’s Office suite (but not as much of a memory or resource hog), OpenOffice.org is a free, open-source alternative with a full suite of applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and databases that are compatible with Microsoft Office. Though OpenOffice apps let you do nearly anything you can do in Microsoft Office, interoperability between the two suites isn’t seamless. For example, if you use Word’s Track Changes feature, it can be difficult to later delete or modify your edits when you use the document in OpenOffice, and vice versa.

Google Docs is another viable and free alternative to Microsoft Office–and has no software to download or install. Though it’s not nearly as full-featured as either Office or OpenOffice, its basic functionality and streamlined interface may be all you’ll ever need.

Creating PDF files may be crucial for business, but spending $450 on Adobe’s Acrobat Professional is not. CutePDF is a free program that simply exports files to PDF. Just download and install it; from the target file, choose File, Print, and select CutePDF from the printer menu. (If you’re using OpenOffice or Google Docs, you won’t even need to install CutePDF–both let you export to PDF directly.)

2. Telecommute

Gartner Research predicts that by 2009, more than 25 percent of the U.S. workforce will telecommute. Telecommuting lets you save on gas costs, but you can also remain just as productive when working at home, thanks to tools that make it easy to connect and collaborate (almost as if you were in the office).

Wikis make it simple to post text or documents so that a group can make comments or changes. Some wikis are free and public, while others are more enterprise-focused, with more robust security features. PBwiki offers three flavors: Business, Academic, and Personal. The site includes WSIWYG editing tools, storage space, SSL encryption, automatic notifications via e-mail or RSS, and controls on access. It also offers reasonable business pricing–it’s free for one to three users, $8 per month per user for 4 to 99 users, and $6 a month per user for 1000 to 4999 users.

The aforementioned Google Docs is also telecommuter-friendly, offering an affordable and easy way to share files (and to keep tabs on changes). Once you’ve created a file in Google Docs, simply invite others to collaborate online. When you’re done, you can export the file to Word, Excel, PDF, or PowerPoint.

If you cringe at the thought of setting up a VPN (virtual private network), services like LogMeIn Hamachi may just be your ticket to headache-free remote VPN access. LogMeIn Hamachi promises easy setup using peer-to-peer technology to let off-site employees access files. The service works within your firewall and costs just $5 a month for one user license.

If your company doesn’t have, and doesn’t need, a centralized server, Central Desktop is a way to share documents online with virtually no setup. The site lets large or small groups easily share files, keep track of who’s checked out which files (or modified them), and set up separate desktops for multiple groups of users.

The free plan gives you 25MB of space and supports two workspaces with five users each. The lowest paid plan is $25 per month for three workspaces, 10 users each, and 500MB of file storage. At the high end, $249 a month gets you 100 workspaces, 100 internal users (employees), and 100 external users (vendors, clients, or partners), 25GB of storage, and custom branding. An additional fee brings extra security and Web meetings.

3. Hold Online Meetings

Why fly out to see a client when you can hold a meeting in cyberspace? Using free video conferencing software, such as Skype, you need only a Webcam, a PC, and an Internet connection–saving money not only on travel costs, but on long-distance as well. Skype does drop calls sometimes and can be staticky, so hold a few meetings before you drop your landline completely.

If you’d like to upgrade to a more robust Web conferencing service, Cisco’s WebEx lets you share documents, supports up to four Webcams, and lets you run presentations from your desktop.

GoToMeeting is another solution that offers VoIP, supports meetings with up to 15 attendees, and lets you give presentations, collaborate, or provide training from your desktop, saving money on travel costs and meeting space. Who doesn’t want to make presentations in their pajamas?

For the more adventurous, Second Life lets you create an avatar for free and meet “in-world,” make video presentations, and hold virtual meetings or training sessions. You can also buy office space in Second Life if you’d like to set up a more permanent place for employees to meet and collaborate.

4. Buy Refurbished Hardware

While ripping open a box containing a shiny new computer is an unmatched thrill, saving your business a bundle is a close second. Buying refurbished (nearly new) hardware is a great way to get a deal.

If you have your eye on a specific brand of computer, go to that manufacturer’s site to find deals on refurbished systems. But note that each vendor defines refurbished a bit differently. For instance, Dell sells three types of refurbished computers, all of which are tested and restored to factory specs: Certified Refurbished includes laptops and desktops that were returned to Dell and may have minor cosmetic dings or blemishes; Previously Ordered New means a PC that was shipped new, but the customer decided to return the system without so much as booting it; Scratch and Dent products may appear a bit more “worn” on the outside, but still work well and don’t contain dings or scratches on the palm rest or screen.

The Dell Outlet store lets you search for refurbished Dell desktops, accessories, and laptops by price range; most of the items cost up to 35 percent below retail. For example, a Flamingo Pink Certified Refurbished Inspiron 1720 laptop with an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, a 17-inch LCD, and a 120GB SATA hard drive was $879 on the Dell Outlet site. Price depends on whether the item has scratches and dents, whether it was ordered new, and other factors. And if you’re not happy with your purchase, you can return products within 21 days from the date of shipment, less a restocking fee if the product is not defective.

If you’re a Mac devotee, Apple sells refurbished products through its online store. But don’t expect huge savings–some of the newer products are a mere $200 less than the retail price. However, in some cases, you can save much more. A recent look at the Apple Store revealed a refurbished MacBook Air (with a 1.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, a 13.3-inch glossy wide-screen display, 2GB of memory, an 80GB PATA hard drive, and a built-in iSight camera) listed at $1499, versus $1799 retail. A refurbished iMac (with a 2.8-GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme CPU, 24-inch glossy wide-screen display, 2GB of memory, a 500GB hard drive, and a built-in iSight Camera) was listed at $1599, versus $2299 retail.

Apple’s refurbished products are covered by a one-year warranty, and you can buy an extended warranty as well. Apple’s refurbished products are “pre-owned,” but Apple’s site claims that each item undergoes a “stringent refurbishment process prior to being offered for sale.” Some products were returned, while others were brought back due to technical issues. To read the full list of refurbished tests and qualifications, visit Apple’s site.

Amazon.ca features a long list of refurbished computer resellers, and the site’s seller ratings let you immediately know what sort you’re dealing with. The sellers also report the condition of the equipment with a rating system: Good, Like New, Refurbished, and so on. Under Amazon’s A-Z Safe Buying Guarantee, sellers will let you return items if they’re defective.

eBay also offers a wealth of deals. As a buyer, you’ll know immediately whether the seller is shady or reputable based on user reviews. Look for a seller with a large amount of positive feedback, at least 95 percent. Be sure to thumb through the buyer feedback to see the comments before you dive in and bid. Like Amazon, eBay backs buyers, and the community will boot anyone out if they aren’t on the level.

Refurbished systems may not be under any sort of warranty, and the vendor may sell it to you “as is.” This can be a nightmare if, say, the operating system is simply installed on a new hard drive and the drive is stuck back into the computer. Be sure to ask questions of the vendor before buying.

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