Anyone who says their business “runs itself” probably owes a great debt of gratitude to a small army of software applications and Web services that tirelessly feeds the machine from behind the scenes.
From creating and storing documents and staying on top of e-mail to keeping the books and getting teams working together, it takes a lot of code to run a business, or at least to run it well. But setting up your company isn’t as easy as just fishing apps out of a barrel. You want the best you can get, and at a price that isn’t through the roof.
With capability and frugality firmly in mind, we rounded up 25 of our favorite software tools and Web services that we deem the best for powering small and medium-size businesses. Of course, not every business needs every type of program or service, but if your small business could use some help in any of the categories below, our list will give you a pretty good shot at picking a winner.
Intuit QuickBooks Pro
The flowchart-based accounting of QuickBooks is as close to a standard in financial management as the small-business world has, and it’s arguably the easiest way for nonprofessionals to transfer their books from the filing cabinet to the computer, where they belong. Most actions, from cutting a check to billing a client, are just a click or two away from the start screen. ($200)
Backup and Recovery
You can (and should) regularly back up files to an external hard drive or NAS (network-attached storage) device in your office–but what if the whole place goes up in smoke? Hedge your bet with an online backup service like Mozy, which automatically archives whatever you’d like across the Internet, safe and sound. Just select what you want backed up, and Mozy does the rest, either in bulk while you sleep, or in real time, as files are changed. ($5 per month for unlimited service)
If your business still doesn’t have a blog–one of the best ways around to provide up-to-date company and product news–you’re only about three years behind the curve. Hey, it’s not too late to catch up: WordPress installs in minutes (it even offers a free, hosted option on WordPress.com), and the platform is dazzlingly easy to use (the site’s home page carries an ad for WordPress for Dummies, but we doubt you’ll need to crack that volume). WordPress so simple, your team will be begging to contribute to the blog instead of whining that it’s too laborious. (free)
Mozilla’s Thunderbird (our e-mail pick; see that category below) lacks a calendar, so most business users rely on the equally free Sunbird for scheduling. It’s a very straightforward application, with day, week, and month views, and even a publishing feature to enable sending your calendar to a Web site, should you wish to make it public. Get the Lightning plug-in to integrate Sunbird directly with Thunderbird. (free)
With Vyew, anyone can host an Internet session that lets scattered colleagues work together on a project in real time. This Web conferencing platform gives you a very simple whiteboard where you can upload documents for discussion, share your desktop, or create designs from scratch.
You don’t even have to register to use Vyew, but if you do, you get access to VoIP and other audio services. (free for up to 20 live participants; additional services extra)
If your team members all have Google accounts (and why wouldn’t they?), sharing files and collaborating on them simultaneously and in real-time is a snap with Google Docs. A word processor and spreadsheet are your only choices–no free-form whiteboarding here–but the service is free and easy as pie to operate. Upgrading to the Premier Edition brings extra space (a 25GB limit versus 7GB for free) and a conference-room scheduling system. (Standard Edition is free)
Customer relationship management isn’t just for the Fortune 500. Even one-person shops can benefit from a more ordered approach to managing the sales process, tracking leads, and ensuring that follow-ups are done in a timely fashion. Salesforce.com requires some training and patience due to its vastness, but its exhaustive feature set and affordable pricing options make it a business must-have. ($8.25 to $250 per user per month)
Access is a part of many editions of Microsoft Office, but if you don’t already have that database program in your toolkit, consider springing for FileMaker Pro instead. This database application is more intuitive than Access, while offering high-end features like live SQL data source support and easy Web-publishing capabilities, so your whole team can access the database via a browser. And its array of prebuilt templates helps you get up and running in no time. ($299)
Yahoo Small Business
You’d be surprised at some of the sophisticated things being done with the simple e-commerce service at Yahoo Small Business. Yahoo provides everything from templates and wizards to credit-card processing and sales-tax collection. If you sell less than 50,000 units, this is definitely one of the easiest and quickest ways to go online. Even better: A small army of third-party developers stands ready to create Web designs that work specifically with the service. ($40/month and up, plus transaction fees)
If you have Microsoft Office, you already have Outlook, the industry-standard e-mail app. But if you’re looking to save a buck and still get most of Outlook’s features, Thunderbird is a capable, free alternative. Message tagging and a speedy, integratedsearch system actually offer a few improvements over off-the-rack Outlook. (free)
Yahoo Zimbra Desktop
Another interesting, non-Outlook e-mail option is Zimbra Desktop, which Yahoo acquired earlier this year. In simple terms, the Zimbra Desktop is an offline version of Zimbra’s capable Web-based e-mail manager. It includes everything a small-business user needs: a contact manager, an impressive calendar, a to-do list, and even a simple, integrated document manager for quick note-taking. (free)
Don’t call it spam: Communicating via e-mail with your customers is cool, as long as they opt in. Topica has been in the e-mail marketing/mailing-list game for years, and most spam filters are pretty kind to messages that are sent through its service. Topica is also one of the most affordable of such e-mail marketing platforms that you can find on the Web–and it sure beats running a mailing list server yourself. ($50 per month and up depending on e-mail volume)
You don’t have to run four different instant-messaging applications just to communicate with your clients and with everyone in your office. Multiprotocol software like Pidgin allows you to communicate with users across more than a dozen IM services: Not just AIM, ICQ, and other biggies, but also lesser-known ones like Gadu-Gadu (it’s Polish) and Zephyr.
Trillian is similar, but it supports fewer services. (free)
Don’t need a full-fledged accounting app like QuickBooks? Zoho Invoice is a near-perfect Web-based solution for managing simple billing needs. Create and manage customer accounts, build invoices, and then print or e-mail them with a mouse click.
You can also tie in your use of Invoice with Zoho’s other, extra-cost business services. (free to $35 per month depending on invoice quantity)
Mobile Device Remote Access
It’s one thing to be stuck in an airport without access to a critical file back at the office, but what if you don’t even have access to a computer? Enter SoonR, which lets you snag files from your PC or Mac via a mobile phone. SoonR isn’t built for serious data transfer needs–but it just might get you out of a jam when it counts. (free)
Like it or not, any business, big or small, probably needs at least one copy of Microsoft Office somewhere in the building. All of the suite’s applications are simply too close to being industry standards to ignore. It can be pricey, but you likely needn’t worry about upgrading to the latest version–anything produced since the turn of the century should do. ($85 to $400 per user, depending on version)
Don’t want to fork over beaucoup bucks for Office? We can’t blame you–and this alternative suite will work for 95 percent of your productivity needs. OpenOffice.org is mostly compatible with Microsoft Office, and operations are similar enough that any Microsoft user should have no trouble using it. The big three apps–word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool–are all here, along with a simple database and drawing tool. One caveat: OpenOffice has trouble with Office 2007 files; but the imminent new version, OpenOffice 3, is said to remedy that limitation. (free)
Build complicated project timelines, to-do lists, and message boards, and share files among your team members-all via one simple-to-use Web tool. Basecamp can keep all your workers on task while letting everyone else know what other team members are up to. It can even track project time on a per-member basis, for creating detailed billing and reports when the job is done. ($24 to $149 per month, depending on number of projects managed)
If all you need is occasional access to a single PC that isn’t within walking distance, you can get by with this simple remote-access tool. LogMeIn lets you quickly connect to your office computer to grab a file or check an application you don’t have on your laptop, all via any computer with a Web browser. (free to $20 per month)
If you regularly use more than one computer, keeping track of which machine has which version of which report can get a little confusing. The solution: Synchronize the PCs so you can ensure they’re all up-to-the-minute, while protecting yourself in the event you made different changes to the same file on more than one PC. Unlike most traditional sync software, Syncplicity works over the Web, so you can sync from anywhere. (free for 2GB limit, to $10 per month for 40GB limit)
Yes, you need to protect your business with a solid antivirus package, but big-name, enterprise-level protection can be really expensive. At its most basic, Avira offers security for individual PCs for free (if you’re willing to deal with one ad pop-up per day); but if you need protection for file and mail servers or other central services, Avira can provide such tools as well, for a generally reasonable price. (pricing varies by protection level)
When it comes to finding employees, contractors, service providers, and even outsourcing partners, LinkedIn has proven to be an invaluable tool for many businesses. But the real beauty of LinkedIn is something that becomes apparent only with use and time: As you expand your network–recommending other businesses, and otherwise participating–you may find that other LinkedIn users are recommending your business, as well. In addition, a Q&A system lets you ask for general advice on all matters business. (free, up to $50 per month for premium services)
Post-it notes and day planners are so 1988. Get your schedule, brainstorming notes, to-do lists, and just about anything else you have tacked up around your office into one place–your PC, that is–with Chandler. This free, open-source application gives you deep control over your day while still being easy enough to use that you’ll never have to crack the manual. (free)
Skype for Business
Spend megabucks on your own PBX (private branch exchange), or spend nothing for a voice-over-IP setup like Skype for Business? If you’re on a shoestring, the answer is clear. Sure, Skype can’t easily handle things if, say, you want to run a tech support call center out of your basement. But for modest calling needs-especially if you place a lot of international calls-Skype is a solid and hugely affordable choice. (free software; subscription up to $9.95 per month for unlimited international plans)
There’s no need to set up complicated VPN (virtual private network) servers to give remote users secure access to the corporate network: Hamachi (which recently became part of LogMeIn) does the job with managed peer-to-peer technology, so no centralized VPN server is necessary. It’s easy to set up, easy on the budget, and your subscription gets you LogMeIn’s remote desktop system, too. ($5 per month)