Be an Ethical Entrepreneur, Marketer, and Business Builder

The Top 11 Free Applications for Small Business

In the new post-recession economy (yes, I’m optimistic about the post) the name of the game is leverage… In other words, doing ever more with ever less. Here are the top 11 ways any brick-and-mortar business can have top-notch IT without spending a penny.

  1. Google Apps – Get rid of your small business server and get on Google Apps right away before they start limiting you to 10 users. Read my previous blog about how my small business has used Google Apps for some ideas.
  2. MailChimp.com – Don’t even bother considering another service (unless you’re big into auto-responders then I’d say check out Aweber.com). For sending out mass emails this is your best choice by far and it’s amazingly simple. If you’re still sending out mass emails via Outlook, then go to Mailchimp.com right away. Please.
  3. DropBox.com – This product allows you to sync documents across multiple computers, your smart phone, and even multiple operating systems with ease. Initially it even includes 2 free GB. Learn more about it in my previous blog about DropBox.
  4. OpenOffice.org – Why do you keep paying to upgrade MS Office every year? And if you’ve been thinking about using Google Docs or some other web-based service, they’re still not fast or reliable enough for the real world. OpenOffice is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office that actually has more features and near-seamless integration with the Microsoft products.
  5. Google Analytics – Yes there are other website analytic tools out there but for the standard web data this free service is still the best and easiest to use. Make sure your web developer gives you access to your Google Analytics because it’s free for him to do that. If you want to get more advanced (and start paying) consider adding CrazyEgg.com to your bag of internet tricks.
  6. SurveyMonkey.com – Just as it sounds this is a free service for creating polls and surveys for your customers, or suppliers, or even your Team Members. It can be posted on your website or on your Facebook page or emailed to the interested parties. It’s a marketers dream-come-true to so easily get valuable feedback from existing and potential clients.
  7. WordPress.com / Joomla / Drupal – These are all grouped together because they’re all providing similar power and options and they’re all free. WordPress is a free blogging program (the one I use for this blog) but more importantly can also be used as a powerful Content Management System to help you create and easily maintain high-quality, professional websites.
  8. FreeConferenceCall.com – And it’s new brother, FreeScreenSharing.com, are completely Free and don’t even appear to have a paid option if you wanted to pay them. They’re a great cost-effective option for phone conference calls and web meetings.
  9. Skype.com – By now you hopefully know about this free video conferencing tool. Last week I did my first Skype call with my new HTC Evo 4G Android-based phone. I’ve also used it on my Linux laptop, and Windows 7 netbook. No matter where you are it’s hard to beat Skype for free video conferencing.
  10. Crashplan.com – It’s like Carbonite.com or Mozy.com except it’s free if you’re backing up to a friend or to another computer. In other words, if you backup you work computer to your home computer and vice versa, then it doesn’t cost a cent. What are the chances that your house and your office are going to burn down the same day? I recommend partnering with a friend in another state just in case a major disaster does hit your local area, though.
  11. Google Voice – With an Android based phone, you are finally able to seamlessly have 2 phone lines, a business and personal, ring to and call from the same phone. You can even utilize the Google Voicemail that transcribes the message and texts it to your phone.

As a final note, I really wish I could recommend Linux (particularly Ubuntu) since it’s my preferred operating system 90% of the time. However 10% of the time it can’t do what I need… For instance, certain web applications like GoToMeeting.com and USAA‘s online check deposit feature won’t work in Linux. My Xerox scanner and NeatReceipts software won’t work in Linux. The software I use for engine tuning from Motec and EvoScan won’t work in Linux. Streaming Netflix requires you to install Windows inside of Linux… So though Linux is 90% the best free product for small business, I can’t just give up that other 10% and neither can you.

To your success with keeping costs down and services up, Bryan

Your small business needs Google Apps instead of Microsoft Exchange

…Or Cpanel or any Linux system or anything else that I’ve worked with.

Why????

  1. It’s free.
  2. It works.
  3. It’s simple.

What more do you need? Don’t you wish all business problems provided a solution that met those criteria?

As I go through this blog I will provide links to the tutorials and programs that I reference to help simplify your implementation so click on a link to learn more. If you need help for setting up a different client, such as Thunderbird, just Google it and you’ll find a solution pretty quickly.

Here’s some background. Google Apps is a way to take your own domain name (like EthicalBusinessBuilder.com) and setup a FREE email management system so you can create custom emails such as bryan@ethicalbusinessbuilder.com. You can then use that within your business to provide everyone with their own email address that can be tied to a calendar, contact list, and Instant Messaging with Google Talk. But wait… There’s more! If you want to get more advanced you can use Google Docs to share documents on the cloud or integrate your calendar  and contacts with your Blackberry, iPhone, Palm, Droid, or other smart phone. The administrator of the account can set permissions on who can see and do what. So for instance, you can define who can access certain Google Docs, who can just see your calendar or who can see and modify your calendar, and who will receive the emails sent to Sales@EthicalBusinessBuilder.com or any other generic email lists.

Besides not costing you a penny, everything is on the cloud… In other words, Google maintains the servers where all of your emails, contacts, calendars, and documents are stored including updates, security and backups so you can focus on your business instead of creating your own IT department.

Other than to keep your local Microsoft vendor in business, is there any reason to keep maintaining your own Microsoft Exchange Small Business server with Outlook???

Every tech geek tells you the latest technology is easy, right? Well this time it’s actually true. Google’s step-by-step tutorials are excellent. They have done a magnificent job of stepping you through the setup. Here’s an example of how to setup Google Apps for your domain hosted at GoDaddy.com. Google has tutorials for just about all of the other major registrars as well. You can be setup and running within about 15 minutes by following their instructions. If you have no idea what an MX record is then expect setup time to take you more like 25-30 minutes. Once you think you have it setup, make sure you send yourself an email to test!

Google has provided a simple tool, again with tutorials, to help you import your emails, contacts, and calendar from Outlook. Keep in mind, that if you’re using outlook to access your email from your local Internet provider, you can keep using the Outlook program on your desktop to access your new Google Apps email address. You would still have all of the benefits mentioned above, but in your Outlook program. Actually, you can even keep your old email address and setup Outlook to also access your new email address all from your existing Outlook program.

So again I ask, why not make the switch???

Now that we have all of the geek stuff out of the way, how does this really help the small business owner beyond the IT department?

  1. Better Communication
  2. Complete Integration
  3. Improved tracking of marketing

By now, everyone has email, but few businesses really appreciate the power of Instant Messaging. Every time you setup a new account in Google Apps they are instantly also on your internal instant messaging program. So what? To better communicate in your office, here are a few ways my small business utilizes instant messaging.

  1. To replace hand-written notes. It saves time and money. It’s faster, it’s instant and it’s search-able. Google saves all of your chats (unless you turn that feature off) and then allows you to search for conversations. Don’t you hate when you lose that paper your receptionist gave you with the phone number to call back? With Google Talk, that’ll never happen again. Even if it’s weeks or months later.
  2. To communicate when you’re busy. If you’re on a phone call and someone in your office needs you, what usually happens? They interrupt. Sometimes it’s for something worthwhile and sometimes it’s not. Instead they can shoot you an IM (instant message) that you can quickly review and determine if you need to end your call or ignore till you’re done.
  3. To stay in touch remotely. With Google Talk integration with your Blackberry, iPhone, Palm, or Droid, you can be connected to your office wherever you are. While you’re waiting in line at the bank, or waiting for a client to show up for an appointment you can respond quickly and easily to your office without having to text. Why is that important? Because texting isn’t allowed in my office. Personal cell phone use is against the rules. If your office staff is allowed to text, then how do you know if they’re texting for business or personal reasons? And if you don’t want to be bothered, simply don’t login to Google Talk on your phone.
  4. To stay connected across multiple locations. Do your sales reps work from home? Do you have multiple office locations? Do you ever take business trips where you still need to communicate back to your office? No matter where you or anyone on your team is located you can communicate instantly with them. You can even utilize the microphone and video features to have a true video conference call which is a great way to have team meetings across multiple locations.

Once you get used to all of the ways IM makes your office run more smoothly you’ll wonder how people ever got things done the “old fashioned” way. We even use Google Talk to communicate with major vendors. How do you use it at your business?

Complete integration is about a few different pieces…

  1. Document and file sharing with Google Docs. If you don’t have a method for remotely accessing your files and sharing them with your team members (like a Windows Terminal Server) then this is a great way to manage and share documents. The biggest drawback is that Google Docs’ folder system is a bit cumbersome to organize and performance is a bit slow even with a high-speed connection. The beauty is that you can have multiple users updating and modifying a spreadsheet or document from different locations in real-time. Google Docs will assign each person a color and any time they start typing in a cell, that cell is highlighted in their color. It’s a great way to collaborate on documents. Realistically, for the small business owner, this feature will probably not be widely used because of its limitations.
  2. Calendar sharing and syncing – With Google Apps, your calendar is linked to your account. That calendar can then be shared with anyone on your team with a Google Apps or Gmail email address. This way your secretary can set appointments for you or your lead catcher can set appointments for your sales reps. I always had a Business and Personal calendar so that I could separate who could see or modify each. The best part is both calendars integrated with my Blackberry so whether I was adding an appointment to my phone or at my desktop, my calendar was always with me. You can create as many calendars as you need so you can have a calendar for each of your service technicians to help manage appointments even though they don’t have access to a computer.
  3. Contact syncing – Don’t you hate it when you add an email or phone number on your computer to find out, when you need to call them, they aren’t in your phone’s address book? Well with Google Apps and a Blackberry, iPhone, Palm, or Droid, that’s no longer a problem. It will automatically sync your entire contact list whether you input the contact from your phone or desktop. Keep in mind, this is all done completely wirelessly utilizing your phone’s data plan.

Improved tracking of marketing is about utilizing email lists. A list is a simple way to create a custom email address that can be forwarded to one or more people on your team. Here are a few ways we utilized email lists:

  1. Tracking sales leads – Our business had multiple territories and each territory was handled by a sales representative. We had a 24 hour answering service who was trained to determine the proper rep based on the territory. In addition to calling the rep, they would send an email to something like chicagosales@ethicalbusinessbuilder.com. That address wasn’t an actual email account, but a list. And on the list was the email address for the rep, the email address for the sales manager, the email address for the lead catcher in the office responsible for putting the lead into our database, and the email to text address for the rep (i.e. 5551234566@sprintpcs.com). So our answering service sent one email that went to all of the important parties immediately. We use a similar system to track all of our web leads as well.
  2. Tracking lead sources – We decided to partner up with a local home builder to market some of our products and wanted to know how many people contacted us based on the handouts he gave his clients. So, in addition to asking people what prompted them to call us, we created an email list for homebuilder1@ethicalbusinessbuilder.com. That list sent an email to the lead catcher and sales manager who then passed it on to the rep. Instantly we know exactly what prompted them to call us.

There are plenty more ways to improve your office with Google Apps so comment below to let me know how you’re flying high on the cloud in your small business.

To your success with firing your IT department, Bryan