A Free (or Really Cheap) Office in the Clouds

If you have access to a computer and an internet connection, you can manage your business operations for little to no cost. This is critical when you are in the startup stage or need to keep a tight rein on expenses. Open source tools and cloud applications have eased the hassle of setting up and managing information technology. Today, companies of all sizes assign file storage, email servers, downloadable software and collaboration with colleagues all over the world to cloud-based information systems.

Concerns about security, stability and who actually owns your data are still high on the list of many business owners. You should feel confident that a system is hack-proof (in this instance meaning every reasonable precaution has been taken) and your data is protected and private. Therefore, taking the time to decide what your business actually needs to effectively deliver to customers is an important first step. Allow the real needs of the business to drive your choice of information technology.

Some business owners may choose a hybrid approach in which some data and applications are stored and managed in house, and some are handled externally. In other cases, multiple backups are maintained by third parties. Despite some lingering uncertainty about the cloud, business owners have many free and effective information solutions: the cloud combined with open source tools, stand alone, and web applications. The best part is, you don’t need a tech guru.

Below is a select list of my favorites for both service and product businesses. Yes, there are a lot more, some to be explored at a later time.

PRODUCTS

INVENTORY

ABC Inventory $0+
This app allows you to organize and track your inventory. It lets you know each step in the inventory life cycle, from the creation of a purchase order to the time you ship the product to your customer. If you are maintaining it yourself, there is an online community to help and the company offers paid support.

available as: standalone app

Office Online $0 - $15/User/Month
Previously you had to purchase and install the product on your PC. Now, you can get free access using your PC, Mac or phone with Office online. Microsoft and many others offer various templates and trainings to help meet your exact business need. You can start inputting data on the spot and collaborate with others on your team.

available as: standalone app, web app, mobile app

Google Apps $0 - $10/User/Month
Manage your Inventory on Google Drive with Google’s spreadsheet app. It is similar to Excel (though not as many features) and available online.

available as: web app, mobile app

WORK AND PRODUCTIVITY

Freelancers/Contractors $0+

If you need people to perform work but aren’t ready to hire full time, sites like U-exchange, Fiverr, Odesk, and Elance helps provide resources. You can barter on U-exchange or contract a resource on Odesk, Fiverr or Elance.

More on Fiverr, U-exchange, Odesk and Elance

Time and Schedule

Kimai $0+
Kimai is an open source time tracker. It will help you manage your time and generate reports. It’s perfect when you are billing your client by the hour. This simple app runs on multiple browsers, or you can install it on your workstation.

available as: open-source standalone app, web app, mobile app

Toodledo $0
Toodledo is an online to-do list. It lets you track and manage tasks. It’s accessible from your computer or phone. And lets your work with others to complete projects tasks.

available as: web app, mobile app

30 Boxes $0
This online calendar offers a traditional look and feel. It lets you track appointments and collaborate with your team.

available as: web app, mobile app

Google Calendar $0 - $10/User/Month
Google Calendar is accessible right from Gmail and available on your computer or phone. It offers multiple views and some collaboration and integration features.

available as: web app, mobile app

Yahoo Calendar $0
Yahoo Online Calendar offers a lot of what’s found in the competition, and some drag-and-type event entry, color coding and sharing.

available as: web app, mobile app

PROJECTS

Project Libre $0

Hailed as an Open Source replacement for Microsoft Project, Project Libre allows for the management of tasks, resources, resource allocation and more. Due to its popularity, there is a lot of community support to help resolve issues.

available as: standalone app

wedoist $0 - $24/Month

Wedoist helps manage to-dos, updates and files. It Also offers a real time chat feature.
available as: web app, mobile app

dotProject $0

This volunteer-supported open source project and task management app allows you to tailor it to your exact business needs. There is no company behind the product but a lot of community support. Anyone can use or update the app.

available as: open-source standalone app, web app, mobile app

RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

SimpleHRM $0+
SimpleHRM is geared towards small and medium enterprises that need to manage employees’ personal information, leave, travel, benefits and expenses. There is a free, open source version, a paid professional edition and the opportunity to purchase a support plan.

available as: open-source standalone app, web app, mobile app

More on Simple HRM

COMMUNICATIONS
Email

Gmail $0+
Google's Web-based email is popular, fast, easy to use and integrates well with other Google applications.

available as: web app, mobile app

Outlook.com $0+
Google's Web-based email is popular, fast, easy to use and integrates well with other Google applications.

available as: web app, mobile app

Text Voice and Video Chat

Skype $0+
Offers Voice over IP to make calls around the world as well as text and video features with phone numbers for receiving calls.

available as: web app, mobile app

Imo $0
Offers Voice over IP to make calls around the world as well as text and video features with phone numbers for receiving calls.

available as: web app, mobile app

Google Talk $0
Sometimes called gChat, this app allows you to instant message or video chat from your phone or right from your gmail account.

available as: web app, mobile app

Google Voice $0
You get your own phone number and can make calls within the US and Canada right from your email.

available as: web app, mobile app

WebEx $0 - $89
Basic plans include unlimited meetings, free mobile apps, file sharing and IM. It’s a great communication tool for teams with members working from different locations.

available as: web app, mobile app

Moodle $0
Moodle is an open-source learning platform for delivering courses online with plenty of add-ins, templates and community support.

available as: open-source standalone app, mobile app

MONEY AND FINANCES

GNUcash $0
This open source financial-accounting tool allows for double entry bookkeeping as well as financial reporting. It has a well-established community for support.

available as: open-source standalone app, mobile app

Freshbooks $0 - $39.99+/Month
This open source financial-accounting tool allows for double entry bookkeeping as well as financial reporting. It has a well-established community for support.

available as: open-source standalone app, mobile app

Excel Templates $0
available as: open-source standalone app, mobile app

SALES AND MARKETING

Social Media

Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest,Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Google+...
Marketing on these sites can generate sales if you consistently update the right platform with the right content. You have to know which platforms your customers actively use, create attractive content and consistently post. Applications such as Hootsuite (see below) can make it easier to update and manage your posts.

Hootsuite $0 - $8.99+/Month
Hootsuite is a social media control center that helps you manage multiple social media profiles from one platform. You can schedule updates and analyze their performance.

available as: web app, mobile app

Websites

With so many free website tools you can purchase a domain name (e.g., www.thebusinesschannels.com) and forward it to a free site such as Drupal or Joomla or use your social media channels to direct users to all of your web addresses.

You can buy a domain on Godaddy or other sites for as low as $9.99 and forward it to your free Google site. Or just use your Google, Facebook or LinkedIn page as your company’s main website.

Google Sites $0

Google gives you an easy way to setup a site. There are pre-built templates or the option to customize it from scratch.

available as: web app, mobile app

Drupal $0
This open-source tool lets you build professional content driven websites (like howtooperate.com). There is plenty of community support, templates and modules you can add in to expand its functionality. If you are new to web development it may take a little time to set up, but you can easily find a developer from Elance or Odesk to help you with the work.

available as: open-source standalone app, mobile app

Joomla $0
Joomla is an open-source content management tool similar to Drupal. It also has a lot of add-ins for expansion and community support.

available as: open-source standalone app, mobile app

Elgg $0
Elgg is a user-centered open-source tool that lets you set up your own social networking engine. If you are not familiar with developing sites, it may take time, or you might need a developer, but there is plenty of community support.

available as: open-source standalone app, mobile app

LOGISTICS

Dropsend $0 - $90/Month
Store or transfer large files with ease. This simple desktop tool allows you to upload both single files and entire folders.

available as: web app, mobile app

Box $0 - $35/User/Month
Similar to Dropsend Box offers file storage and transfer. With Box you also have Microsoft office integration for file editing and email access.

available as: web app, mobile app

Microsoft One Drive $0 - $100/year
You can use your free Microsoft account to get free online storage for any kind of file. If the files are Microsoft Office docs, you can give others the rights to view or edit them even if they don’t have Microsoft Office.

available as: web app, mobile app

Google Drive $0 -$299/Month
Similar to Microsoft, Google gives anyone with a google account free online storage, the option to share files and integration with Google Apps.

available as: web app, mobile app

POINT OF SALE

Open Source Point of Sale $0
This web based point of sale tool allows you to ring sales, track inventory and run reports.
Great if you are opening a small shop and don’t want to spend on a more robust system.

available as: web app, mobile app

Odoo Apps $0 - $15+/User/Month
This system integrates POS, warehouse, accounting, project management CRM and more. It offers a standard version and features you can purchase and have professionally customized.

available as: open-source standalone app, mobile app

Apache OfBiz $0
This open source tool helps you use utilize your resources properly by offering a suite that includes CRM, POS, billing, fulfilment and more. The objective is to bring as many aspects of your business together to meet customer demand.

available as: open-source standalone app, mobile app

Accept credit cards

When looking at any service that allows you to accept payments you first have to make sure it’s secure so your customer’s information will be safe. Check to see if the company accepts the credit cards most important to your business. For example, some don’t accept American Express or may charge an additional fee. This may or may not be a big deal based on how your clients normally pay.

You want to know ALL of the fees ahead of time. There can be a variable rate per transaction, flat fees, monthly fees or a combination. You also want to know how long the company takes to process your payments. Some may charge a lower rate but take longer to deposit the funds to your account. Before you decide, prioritize a list of your business needs then find the service that offers those options for the best price.

PayAnywhere 1.69%+
This payment processing systems offers free equipment that can be used at the shop or on the go.
Accepts all major credit cards.

available as: mobile app

Square 2.75%+
The Square accepts credit and debit cards and works from your iphone or Android.

available as: mobile app