Low-Cost Tools to Kickstart Your New Business

by Jamie Bsales

Whether by choice or circumstance, you’re suddenly self-employed during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. But these or low-cost, or free, online tools and services can alleviate some of the financial pressure and make running your business easier.

The statistics are grim. Since the start of the recession in December of 2007, the U.S. economy has shed approximately 6 million jobs, and the unemployment rate has topped 10 percent for the first time in decades. For management-level professionals, outplacement experts warn that it takes a month of job searching for every $10,000 in salary you’re looking to replace. So if you were “downsized” from a $90,000-a-year-job, you should anticipate a 9-month job search.

FreshBooks lets you easily create and track invoices online — for little or no money.
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But for many professionals, the silver lining on these dark clouds is the opportunity to strike out on their own as a consultant or independent contractor. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were about 26 million self-employed individuals in the U.S. at the end of 2008 — and that was before millions more professionals were ushered out of the cocoon of the mother ship to try to find work or to go it alone.

“Many people are finding themselves in the position of starting a business, either through choice or necessity,” said Laurie McCabe, a partner at research and consulting firm Hurwitz & Associates. “Fortunately, there are a lot of free or very low-cost tools out there to help them get started.”

The coming-of-age of online services — often referred to as “cloud computing” or by its more proper moniker, SaaS (software as a service) — seems perfectly timed to help newly minted entrepreneurs start their own businesses. Whether you’re planning on starting a micro-business simply to make it through the current downturn or to make it the next phase in your career, here are some essential tools you’ll need that won’t add to your financial worries.

Invoicing and Time-Tracking Tools

“The most essential function for any business is getting paid,” notes Mike McDerment, founder and CEO of FreshBooks, an online invoicing and time-tracking service. “It is naive to think that clients and customers will voluntarily send payments in full, let alone on time.”

FreshBooks lets you handle billing chores quickly and easily. It can handle recurring invoices (say, billing monthly retainers) automatically, and you can choose to have it automatically follow up with customers and clients when a bill is past due. This combination of ease-of-use and automation not only saves you time, it means you’re less likely to put off your billing duties. Invoices go out sooner, and you have a better chance of getting paid faster.

“Using FreshBooks can cut payment time by an average of 14 days,” claims McDerment. A free version of the service lets you manage up to three clients, and for $19 a month you can manage up to 25 clients.

Billing Boss
Sage’s Billing Boss service is free to use, and offers invoice templates that make you look like a seasoned pro.
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Sage Group, best known in small business circles for its ACT customer relationship management suite and Peachtree Accounting and Simply Accounting software, offers Billing Boss, a free online-invoicing tool designed for small businesses and independent contractors. The service lets you create and send invoices, as well as track their paid/unpaid status.

The main Billing Boss interface contains an easy-to-read list showing active invoices — those that are past due, those that are outstanding and draft invoices for work you’ve started but not yet billed for — as well as the history of paid invoices. The service lets you send invoices as PDFs (in one of seven languages) and, for a small fee, accept electronic payments via PayPal, e-check and credit card. Sage even offers mobile versions of the Billing Boss Web UI optimized for viewing on an iPhone, Google G1 smartphone and BlackBerry Bold.

Not to be outdone, financial-software expert Intuit (of QuickBooks fame) offers Billing Manager, a free service that lets you manage your invoicing online. Professional templates let you easily create invoices and job estimates, then follow up with reminders to your customers.

Conveniently, you can easily convert estimates to invoices once a proposal is accepted by your customer. And unlike some of the other free services, there is no limit to the number of invoices or estimates you can create per month. With the addition of Intuit’s Merchant Service for Billing Manager (starting at $14.95 per month), you can even accept all major credit cards, debit cards and electronic checks through Intuit, with the payments deposited directly to your bank account.

ZOHO offers a range of low-cost productivity, collaboration and business apps, including document management, CRM and communication tools. Its Zoho Invoice lets you create, send and manage invoices, quotes and customer payments online. You can use one of the service’s professional-looking invoice templates or create your own custom template, then track bills, send reminders, accept payments online and acknowledge receipts.

The service also offers graphical reports so you can see how your business is doing. The free version of the service lets you create up to five invoices or estimates per month, and for-pay plans start at just eight dollars per month for up to 25 invoices.

Bill On Site is another invoice creation-and-tracking service, but with a twist. It lets you use your Web-enabled mobile phone to create and send invoices, so you can bill clients while still at their location (or wherever you happen to be).

In addition to creating and sending invoices, the service lets you track unpaid and overdue invoices, keep track of client histories and collect payments automatically via PayPal. Bill On Site starts at $15 per month for up to 25 invoices.

If you plan to bill for your services on an hourly basis, you’ll need a system for tracking billable hours — something a bit more advanced than hash marks on a Post-it — and turning those hours into invoices. Enter Bill4Time, an online time-tracking program that helps ensure you don’t miss out on possible income.

Billing Boss
Bill4Time offers a dashboard viewso you can monitir billable hours by client or project. 
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With the company’s service, you can record your time and enter expenses directly from your Mac or PC desktop using a handy desktop widget, without having to install and learn a cumbersome time-tracking application. The service also lets you record time and expenses (and access other Bill4Time features) in real-time from most PDAs and mobile phones including the iPhone, Blackberry, PocketPC and Palm devices.

Bill4Time also supports flexible billing rates that can be set by project or client. Pricing starts at $19.99 per month, and a free version supports one person with up to three active clients and five active projects.

Other Essentials

Of course, if you’re just starting out you’ll need a lot more than a convenient billing tool. A Web site to announce your existence to the world is a must. Intuit has you covered, here, too, with low-cost Web hosting starting at just $4.99 per month.

The service offers 2,000 professionally designed templates that you can customize to get just the right look, and the design tool’s drag-and-drop functionality hides the complexity of creating a site. The industry-specific templates even include relevant graphics and text, so you won’t be starting from scratch.

For many consultants, real-time collaboration with clients is extremely important. Setting up one-on-one phone calls is easy, but if you need to have three or more parties on the line, things get tricky — and expensive. FreeConferenceCall.com offers free private conference lines. Just enter your name and an e-mail address on their site to receive an instant account.

FreeConferenceCall will provide you with a dedicated dial-in number and an access code, which are ready for immediate use 24/7 — no need to make a reservation. Long distance charges may apply, but there are no additional charges from the company. Calls can be up to six hours in length, and the company offers free recording and downloading of the calls. Recordings are accessible by phone or computer, and you can distribute, archive or even send recordings to your listeners via RSS and podcast.

Since you’ll be flying without an IT department, you also need to worry about backing up critical files. And while you’re at it, remote access to those files and the ability to collaborate on them would be nice.

Of course, setting up an Exchange server with SharePoint and VPN access is out of the budget, so consider a service like Nomadesk. This service allows you to store and share data via online file servers and offers local 256-bit encryption of files, automatic synchronization of files among several PCs, and Windows and Mac compatibility.

Like other online backup services, Nomadesk ensures that critical files are safely stowed off-site should your hard drive crash or your PC gets stolen. But Nomadesk goes further, allowing an unlimited number of authorized guests to access a company’s online fileserver for easy file sharing and collaboration, while also letting them automatically synchronize stored files across multiple devices including desktops, laptops, PDAs and smartphones.

The service offers two versions: Team Fileserver costs $15 per month per fileserver, and it’s designed for businesses that need to share and collaborate on documents. It supports unlimited synchronization, file sharing among an unlimited number of guests, secure storage and backup, adding files to a fileserver via e-mail, the sending of download links for files to anyone, TheftGuard protection and free, live tech support via phone or online chat.

The Personal Fileserver service costs $50 per year and is designed for individual customers primarily interested in synchronizing files among multiple PCs or devices. It supports up to five PCs and delivers all of the features of Team Fileserver except for file sharing and e-mailing files to a fileserver.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Nov 19th 2009
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