8 essential (and free) “cloud” apps for small businesses

  1. Documents/Calendar/E-mail: Google Apps Standard Edition. Google Apps provides Gmail, Calendar, and Google Docs by default and hundreds of optional applications in their Apps Marketplace. I recently moved my e-mail accounts to Google (though this site is still hosted with HostGator) and it was a relatively painless process. Google provides 7GB of storage space shared between Gmail, Calendar, and Docs as well as an Exchange Server for syncing with your iPhone or Blackberry. In a later post, I’ll talk about setting up a VPN for securely sharing files and more using Google Apps.
  2. Video Conferencing: Skype. Disclaimer: I haven’t had a chance to try this out yet and it’s still in beta with mixed reviews from testers. That being said, Skype is a popular, profitable, reliable company whose service I’ve used as my personal phone for over a year, so, even if the service has a few kinks at the moment, it’s not going anywhere. I’ll post a proper review later once I’ve test-driven it myself. For now, other alternatives include ooVoo and VoxOx.
  3. Conference Calls: Freeconferencecall.com. I had a short and unprofitable (to put it euphemistically) stint doing multilevel marketing at one point in my life. The one thing I learned, however, (aside from how to lose money while straining relationships with friends and family) was how to host conference calls for free. I can’t say enough about this service; they provide not only high-capacity conference calls but the ability to moderate and record the calls–it’s incredible that they’re able to have a sustainable business by giving away so much functionality for free.
  4. Invoicing: Freshbooks.com. I use this service for my personal clients and it’s made my life so much easier. The free plan limits you to 3 clients but gives you the full functionality of the service including project management, tracking time (for you and employees), automatic invoice e-mailing, and an optional client login page that allows them to pay you through PayPal. They even have an iPhone app.
  5. Backup: Backupify.com. The free version of Backupify gives you 2GB of storage for backing up cloud services from Delicous.com to Twitter to Google Apps. Backups are automatic and can be set up to be e-mailed to you. I just started using this service in mid-May and it’s very easy to set up.
  6. E-mail Alerts and Filtering: Syphir.com. This one isn’t a standalone app (it requires Gmail), but it’s so useful that I had to include it. Syphir adds more complex filters for Gmail and even allows you to send notifications to it’s $2.99 iPhone app. I use it to notify me whenever a client sends an e-mail or leaves a voicemail on Google Voice. As opposed to being notified of every e-mail on my iPhone, Syphir is very convenient.
  7. CRM: SugarCRM. The free, open-source (PHP-based) version of Sugar isn’t hosted (you have to download it and host it on your own domain) but I recommend it because I haven’t found anything better yet available for free. I set it up in March for a client and it’s allowed us to segment our sales team so each member can only see and update accounts that they’ve created. Other useful functionality includes website integration for capturing leads.
  8. Tech Support: LogMeIn. After a set of unnecessarily long and frustrating tech support phone calls with friends, family, and clients I discovered this service and breathed a huge sigh of relief. The free version is Mac- and Windows-compatible allows secure, remote control of up to 16 different computers (with their owners’ permission, of course) through a web browser. Even if you’re not in IT (I’m definitely not), this service is very helpful. You can turn your mouse into a laser-pointer and point out where whoever you’re helping should click, show powerpoint presentations, magnify items on the screen, and it even supports computers with multiple monitors.