7 Reasons to Rethink Free Online Tools

Photo: OtmarW

For a small business just starting out, free tools for running a company — for bookkeeping, word processing, file storage, contact management — can make a world of difference. Such tools can help you keep the cash you need to get through the tight spots every new business has.

But free tools are often worth exactly what you pay for them, providing as many problems as solutions. It’s important to consider the potential issues that you may face, if only so you can plan for the time when those free tools can be replaced.

1. Free tools often lack important features.

Getting tools to do what you want isn’t always as easy as it seems. Matthew Jones, co-founder of Shizzle Dizzle Magic, found that Google Docs didn’t quite do the same thing as Microsoft Office. “One of the first things I tried was Google Docs. We have a lot of forms and contracts that we use for each customer. I wanted to put them in the cloud so I could use them from any computer and eventually ditch Microsoft Office. Unfortunately, it became a nightmare. A lot of the formatting was lost and it was darn near impossible to get it back. Also, I couldn't make the forms do a lot of the things I wanted them to do.”

2. You can outgrow free tools surprisingly quickly.

Edward Hechter’s company, Party Pail, soon outpaced the capacity of the free tools the firm had used at its founding. “The capabilities of the "free" email were so limited that they cost us money, and made things difficult for us to manage our customer care team as we grew from 2 people to 20+. Things like spam control, the ability to provide customers with automatic responses and receipt confirmation, the ability for multiple people in a customer care organization to share an email account were solved by using an inexpensive "cloud" service for email where we now host over 100 email addresses used by the company for a wide variety of customer interaction methods. Again, this less than $20 per month tool saved us much more than the cost by enabling our work groups to collaborate on customer requests, share a common customer service email box, and provide customers with better, faster responses.”

3. That free tool can suddenly grow a price tag.

Marjorie Asturias, who runs Blue Volcano Media, has been using the Outright bookkeeping system for free but recently learned that the service will soon have a monthly fee. “I’ve been using Outright for about 3 years, and have been impressed with the simple yet powerful bookkeeping functions. It was perfect when I was a solo entrepreneur, with a clean, user-friendly interface and stable and secure database. They are transitioning to a paid model, but for users who were on the system prior to the switch, they can continue to use Outright for free until the end of 2011. Still, the transition has hurt them quite a bit as they tweak the interface — many users complain on the forums that it's no longer as user-friendly, and I’ve had to grapple with missing data and unsynced invoices (Outright syncs with Freshbooks, the web-based invoicing system) for several months...I worry that as my business grows and theirs does as well, they won’t be able to handle all the problems, resulting in a bad bookkeeping experience for entrepreneurs who rely so heavily on them. They’ve since fixed some of the problems, but I continue to monitor my books carefully and am reviewing other options (including paid, complex ones like Quickbooks) in the event that they fail again.”

4. You may not be able to easily upgrade when you need new features.

Bookkeeper Katrina Harrell found that her tools weren’t working in all situations, and she needed a new solution. “I use ZohoAssist to remote access my clients' laptops to perform bookkeeping services to them and it works great, except for my Mac clients — I have recently noticed a terrible lag time of 5 seconds! Not productive at all! My staff was losing time (and costing money). After about two weeks of this I reluctantly moved to a paid remote access program called join.me, and it's much better! I did consider upgrading to ZohoAssist’s paid version — and actually did for the free trial — but, nope, still lagged 3 to 5 seconds.

5. Free tools aren't always compatible with the paid tools your vendors, customers, and employees use.

Lawyer Todd Gallinger learned the hard way that compatibility can be key. “I run a small law office with two full-time and two part-time employees. When we initially hired the part-time employees, I needed to get more computers. I purchased two very inexpensive desktops which came preloaded with Ubuntu, a free version of Unix. I had worked with Ubuntu before, and knew for the basic tasks online and in word processing, it is very easy to use. However, no one but me in the office could figure it out. Additionally, we ran into problems with the formatting of Open Office, a free office suite and competitor to Microsoft Office. Ninety percent of our work is in the word processor, and Open Writer works well for letters and other basic documents. However, much of our work needs to be in specific formatting required by the courts. Open Office couldn’t do this and, if we opened a file created in Microsoft Word, it would mess up the formatting. For these issues, we abandoned the computers and free software. I set up Microsoft Windows XP and MS Office on the computers. Though they run slow (since the software is not as efficient as the free versions), people now know how to use them.”

6. Free tools often do not include customer support.

Angela Nielsen has faced exactly that problem more than once. “The biggest problem our company has faced using FREE services, is the lack of prompt support. Most free services we have tried only offer support forums or the like, and when we have had a problem, we had nobody to call (or even email) for fast response. Running a business means we need answers to our problems solved right away, and don't have hours to dig through support forums. Our solution was to be very careful when choosing any type of free service or product. If there isn't same day support offered, then we tend to purchase support plans, or upgrade to a paid service so we can get the support when we need it.”

It’s not always easy to get access to the free tools you want to use.

Sonny Ahuja uses free tools, but has had difficulty training his clients on them. “I am a social media coach and visit my clients often to train their employees on how they can use Twitter, Facebook, etc. effectively to increase their business. Personally, I used TweetDeck for these applications but soon realised that working between several different computers, I will have to choose another option as Tweetdeck has to be downloaded first on to any computer before it can be used. So now I use and train people on Hootsuite which you can log in to from any browser or computer with a login and password and it doesn’t matter if it’s your own computer or a client’s computer that you are using. It made my life a lot easier!”

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