Suddenly Unemployed? Tap Your Inner Entrepreneur

The pink slip you’re dreading – or the one that knocked you for a loop last week – might feel the end of everything, but it could be just the beginning. Every year, thousands of people get a new lease on life by starting their own businesses. This recession has already spawned more than a few rookie entrepreneurs, with doubtless many more to come.

Starting a small business doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition. You can work from home with an existing computer and use inexpensive or free software and services to run your company.

Here’s a checklist of the types of products and services that can help power a new business and give you a professional edge – plus suggestions for specific brands to investigate.

Business Plan

Step one: write a business plan. You can find advice on how to do it and sample business plans at a few Web sites, plus software to guide you through the process and format the final product.

Palo Alto Software’s site offers more than 500 free sample plans organized by type of business – everything from starting your own airline to opening a beauty salon. The company also sells Business Plan Pro, which it claims has been the best-selling product of its type for eight years.

The program guides you step-by-step through creating a business plan, and outputs it in a format favored by, according to Palo Alto, the U.S. Small Business Administration as well as lenders and investors.

Business Plan Pro comes in Basic ($100) and Premier ($300) editions. Premier adds nice-to-have features such as the ability to import content from Microsoft Office Excel and plan-versus-actual analysis tools.

Planware, an Irish company, also has Business Plan Software ($120 to $220).

Your New Office

Setting up and learning to work full-time in a home office may not be as easy as it sounds.

For starters, if you’re now working 50 or more hours a week in it instead of a few, it had better be comfortable. Pay attention to ergonomics. You don’t necessarily have to go out and spend a bundle on new furniture and accessories, but you do need to take care when setting it up.

For a fairly authoritative discussion of ergonomic office design, check out the Web site of Ankrum Associates, a Chicago-area consultancy.

Another site to check: You Can Work From Anywhere. Telework consultant Phil Montero offers low-cost online training and practical tips to help anyone, not just new entrepreneurs, thrive in alternate work arrangements. The Anywhere Office Jumpstart Kit is a $27 bundle of e-books, webcasts and teleseminars.

Microbusiness ERP

Big companies use enterprise resource planning (ERP) software that automates and integrates management of just about every aspect of the business – but costs hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to implement.

Now ERP software for very small businesses is available, including surprisingly inexpensive software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings such as Klix Online.

Klix costs $30 per user per month. You can use it from a network-connected computer anywhere. It automates management of functions related to sales, invoicing, customer relationships, banking, accounts payable, inventory, payroll, etc. – the whole nine yards. And it can be integrated with point of sale and e-commerce systems.

The company says Klix works well for accountants, manufacturers, professional services firms (consulting, etc.), wholesalers and distributors, contractors, non-profits, retailers and agribusinesses – just about any kind of business in other words.

There are other small business ERP SaaS offerings out there, such as Siondo ($120 for unlimited users) and NetSuite from NetSuite Inc., a higher-end product that requires the services of IT professionals to implement.

CRM Online

Maybe you don’t need all-in-one business management software quite yet. For many small start-ups the first and only priority is acquiring customers and managing the sales process. For that you need a customer relationship management (CRM) product.

Again, for no money down and a modest monthly subscription fee, you can buy the same CRM functionality that costs big companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. Check out, for example, Franklin-Covey’s new PlanPlus Online.  

Franklin-Covey is the company that makes paper-based planners. PlanPlus, as its name suggests, provides many of the same functions in an online service and adds quite a few more.

A Basic PlanPlus license ($15 per user per month, $100 per user per year or $400 a year for five users) buys contact management, prioritized task lists, calendar sharing, weekly planning tools, automated task delegation by e-mail, a goal-planning wizard, mobile access from smart phones and synchronization with Microsoft Office Outlook.

The Sales edition ($200 a year per user and up) adds sales force automation, workflow tools, dashboards, sales forecasting and a pipeline tracker. With the Business license ($400 a year per user and up) you also get e-mail marketing tools and lead and group project management.

There are lots of other online CRM and sales-force automation products, including the pioneer in the field Also check out: Zoho CRM, LongJump and CRMTrak.

Show Me the Money

Once you have some customers, you’ll probably want to bill them. If an ERP product with billing functions is still overkill, a dedicated online billing program such as the fairly recent Nett 30 might be all you need.  

Nett 30 lets you send invoices by e-mail using multiple currencies, attach them as PDF files, customize the e-mails, create new invoices based on existing ones, add regularly billed items to a database for easy inclusion in invoices and give clients access to their invoices online.

The product is free for one user and up to five clients. It costs $13 a month for one user and 25 clients, $25 for three users and 100 clients and $39 for five users and 500 clients.

Other online billing solutions: BillingOrchard, the unfortunately named CurdBee (for billing and payment using PayPal or Google Checkout) and Z-Billing from Zuora (regular billing for subscription services).

Time Matters

If you’re starting a consulting business – a popular choice for downsized managers – or you’re an attorney or an accountant going out on your own, you’ll mainly be selling your time. Keeping track of how you spend it and, more importantly, on whose behalf, will be a major challenge. Online time tracking applications such as Bill4Time can help.

Bill4Time is a Web-based service, but it provides a widget, a small program that displays on your screen all the time and lets you select client and project name and activity from pull-down lists. Then it ticks off the time you spend on that activity and sends the information to your account on the Web.

Each client, project or activity can have a different hourly rate attached. You can also use Bill4Time to record incidental expenses, generate invoices and reports and attach documents to a project or activity.

Bill4Time is free for one user and up to three clients and five projects. You pay $20 per user per month for up to two users and up to 20 clients and 30 projects, and $40 for unlimited clients and projects.

Other online time tracking products to check out: Toggl, FourteenDayz and LiveTimer.

Cloud Cuckoo

You’re beginning to get the idea. You can run an entire new business online, saving capital costs for packaged software and giving yourself the flexibility to be able to work anywhere you have an Internet-connected computer.

All the “cloud” services we’ve talked about here promise tight security using encryption and password protection of your account, so your data should always be safe. Of course, you will probably still need some software actually installed on your computer, such as Microsoft Office. But you can use the cloud to safely store Office and other files for sharing and/or backups.

We wrote recently about online storage and backup services, concluding that the best of the bunch are the very similar services from Mozy Inc. and Fabrik Inc., both of which offer free software for automated backups and a generous 2 GB of free storage.

Another set of products, which we wrote about last year, combines online storage and collaboration features – being able to assign permissions to different users (view, modify, administrative) and keeping track of different versions of a file created through collaboration at the site.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the Forums. Join the discussion today!

Must Read

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.