Low-Cost Tools to Kickstart Your New Business

By Jamie Bsales
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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.

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This article was originally published on November 19, 2009
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