10 free online tools for businesses
Why are these services available at no cost?
It's a logical question: why are all of these services free? Are they ad-supported? Do the firms creating them use your information to make money some other way? Or are the companies just gullible dot-commers foolishly trading unprofitably? In most cases, the answer is no.
The real reason these tools are free is that the creators hope you will graduate onto a 'premium' (paid) version at some point in your business's development. Take MailChimp, the email promotion and management service. It lets you send out 12,000 emails a month to 2,000 subscribers and gives you some really excellent management tools to go with that, all for free. But for a firm that wants to do a regular email round, 12,000 is a barrier that they could run into fairly soon. If and when that happens, Mailchimp reckons that your success will encourage you to spend €20 per month with them for much higher volumes. (If you're not growing, you would have been unlikely to keep up a subscription anyway.)
It's a similar story with storage services such as Dropbox and file-sending services such as Wetransfer.
They're happy for you to use their services for free, as it may get you to include the premium versions - with more storage and security features - in your company's official day-to-day operations. (Even if you don't, the limited free versions don't cost the companies that much in infrastructure costs anyway.)
On the other hand, some of these outfits aren't really looking very hard to upsell you much at all. For example, Google simply wants you to use Google instead of Microsoft, so it gives you a pretty impressive office suite (Docs) and Skype alternative (Hangouts) for free.
So maybe we should simply not look gift horses in their mouths. The bottom line is that the 'digital age' has brought lots of genuinely useful, accessible services to the attention of ordinary, non-techie business people.
Allows you to send huge files to recipients online
This is one of the handiest services around when you need to send a large file to someone, especially as email services such as GMail have 20MB limits per email. Wetransfer allows you to 'send' a file that is up to 2GB in size to someone. It does this by asking for your email address, the recipient's email address and then prompting you to upload the file to its own site, from which the recipient can then download it.
A paid premium version, which allows up to 10GB per download, 50GB of online storage and password security, is available for €10 per month.
Business email and newsletter management service
Creating an email subscription service is an interesting way of building traction with clients and business partners. Some services are very expensive. Mailchimp is well worth a go for a small business who wants to dip a toe in the water. It gives you decent analytics (such as who opened your mail, what they did subsequently) for the free version and lots more for the premium subscription, which kicks in if you're sending over 12,000 emails per month. It also gives you some pretty clever promotion tools.
Online event management service
If you want to organise a networking or other business-related event, this is a relatively efficient, cost-effective way of doing it. Once you've created an event, you can promote it using the service and track attendance specifics. If you're not charging for the event, everything is free. If you do charge, Eventbrite takes a 2.5pc service charge plus 75c per ticket sold (with a per-ticket cap of €7.50). There's an additional 3.5pc credit card processing fee. Even if you're charging for an event, the event-creation element of it is free.
Online storage of, and group access to, files
Dropbox has busted out of its niche segment to become arguably the flag-bearer for low-cost (and free) online storage services. It's not just that it's available across all devices, with native apps. It's that the free version generously allows multiple access to individual files and folders as specified by the account administrator(s). This is very useful for small businesses working on projects.
The free version starts at 2GB of online storage, but this quickly increases to over 10GB when a few basic actions (such as sharing files) are completed. Premium versions offering unlimited storage and premium tech support start at €10 per month.
Allows colleagues to collaborate on projects
There are now umpteen services that allow us to annotate, amend, edit and approve work projects we're currently engaged in with colleagues. For example, most mainstream office software packages (Microsoft Office, Google Docs) allow some flavour of this.
LibrePlan is worth looking at because it provides fairly extensive workflow tools online, accessible by lots of different, permissioned people. This includes calendars, goals, edits, expenses, tasks and other items. Personalised dashboards are part of the service.
Allows you to make presentations quickly online
While we all still dread death by PowerPoint, presentations are still a very central part of business communication. Prezi is a fairly idiot-proof service that lets you create a serviceable presentation with a few clicks and your own points. There's a certain amount of personalisation allowed, with a few templates to choose from. It also allows some use of images and video. When you want to deliver the presentation, just sign in on any web-connected device. The free version gives you 100MB of online storage for your presentations while premium versions - which give offline editing, more customisation and more space - start at €4 per month.
Video conference calls for up to 10 people
In an era of ever-faster broadband, 4G and ubiquitous smartphones, conference calls are slowly growing in business popularity. Google's Hangouts service is an excellent place to start, partly because it's very easy to use. All you need to get going is a free Google account (eg Gmail).
The service works on PCs, Android phones and iPhones, although there is no official Hangouts app for Nokias and Windows phones. You can extend the number of conferencing participants to 15 people if you activate Google Plus premium features.
A free conference call service for up to 1,000 people simultaneously
Like presentations, conference calls are a staple feature of the corporate diet. But most telecoms services cost money. So it may come as a surprise to small firms and start-ups to realise that there are free options like this one. It's quite easy to set up and you can invite up to 1,000 people on the same call. It also gives a few handy features, such as a recording of the call and playback.
Allows you to share your PC or phone screen with someone
Despite all the handy online storage and sharing services out there, sometimes you need to simply share what's on your screen with someone else. Tech support is one obvious reason. But collaborating on certain types of projects also calls for such 'live' interaction. Join.me does this very well, while also allowing you to talk through the process. The free version only allows you to share with one person, while a premium membership gives access to 25 people and personalised features for €10 per month per user.
Google Docs (google.com/docs)
Free online office software
Microsoft has come a long way in transitioning its Office software from being a CD-based product to an online-friendly one. But it still lacks the absolute simplicity and ease of access that Google Docs has honed.
Anyone with a Google (Gmail) account has a Docs account. It features word processing, presentation, spreadsheet, form-creation and drawing modules that are all very simple to use and easy to share with colleagues. Offline use is relatively straightforward now, while its accessibility through native apps on all mainstream machines and devices is also a huge plus.