By now, hopefully, you’ve gotten over your fear of the cloud. Chances are, you’re already using cloud-based consumer apps in your personal life, and cloud-based tech solutions have become entrenched in your daily routine.
Pandora streaming that '80s metal custom playlist into your earbuds? Cloud. Dropboxing Grandma a folder of photos depicting your kid building a snowman? Cloud, again. Skyping your wife from the shop down the block to confirm her favorite cabernet, even though she's told you 4,000 times? Cloud!
And, yet, you find yourself still hesitant to move your business operations -- this is your livelihood we’re talking about! -- to the cloud. Why the trepidation?
One recent study found that since 2009, the average small business has quadrupled its use of cloud-based services. By the end of 2015, the researchers predicted, that number will grow to an average of seven cloud-based services employed by each small business.
So, apparently, everybody is doing it, and for good reason. You may be using needlessly expensive solutions to run your business today, or storing unnecessarily huge files on your computer or on-premises server. But locally hosted interfaces and storage systems are just too unwieldy, volatile and demanding.
Heading to the cloud instead for your business operations is clearly superior, and you don't need to have a trailblazer's temperament to do it. Today, there are plenty of road-tested, cloud-based, free apps that make much more sense for small business than the established, pricier competitors.
Here are five free and excellent cloud-based apps that can provide your small business key solutions.
1. Cloud-based project management
Operating as a team without sending emails back and forth is both liberating and empowering. Project-management software enables teams and external stakeholders to communicate, collaborate, assign tasks, track progress and update one other on progress whenever and wherever. Conversations, explanations and responsibilities are all in one place, and everything is fully transparent and actionable.
Although a multitude of project management tools are out there, they vary signficantly in features, capacity and billing models. But while the established leader in cloud-based project management is Basecamp, pricing for this app starts at $20 monthly. Certainly, that $20 gets you plenty of robust leeway, with up to 10 active projects and 3 GB of storage. But Asana, Basecamp’s up-and-coming alternative, is free for up to 15 users. Its interface and functionality are largely similar, and Asana has all the cloud-based advantages without the price tag.
2. Cloud-based time tracking and invoicing
Every business has to issue invoices. While the administrative logistics surrounding this activity are unlikely to be exceedingly fun for anyone, the advantage (cash flow!) motivates you to stay on top of it. Since most of us are not accountants and some of us have full-blown math anxiety, the best option is to use a system made for easy invoice creation, distribution, logging and payment.
For the last five years, Freshbooks has dominated the cloud-based invoicing app market among freelancers and small businesses, but it's needlessly clunky and expensive. Now, there are arguably better and completely free alternatives, like Invoice Ninja, to do your bidding. This open-source app creates professional-looking, branded invoices and integrates with 30 different payment processors, including Authorize.net and PayPal, ultimately paving the way for your clients to send you money easily and quickly.
A web-based application, Invoice Ninja works well on mobile, and once you move your entire business to cloud servers, you can use a self-hosted version of the app.
3. Cloud-based business cards
We have all at some point yearned for the day when no one will print, trade or request physical business cards -- or hard-copy versions for documents, for that matter. Sadly, in some circles, exchanging business cards is so entrenched in business culture (especially in Japan) that we can’t expect the world to accept virtual business cards as the standard any time soon. But, in the meantime, we need to address how to minimize the waste and nuisances. Data entry, after all, is an annoying time suck, and scans aren't searchable.
There is a better way, and it’s not only cloud-based, it’s free. About.me is designed to turn your personal homepage into a sharable format with a customized intro blurb, layout, contact info and links. You can share any combination of your contact details, track whom you’ve shared your information with and save all those "cards" you’ve received, directly to your address book. No data entry required.
4. Cloud-based customer management
Customer relationship management (CRM) tools are the biggies in the SaaS (software as a service) world. Salesforce is the clear industry leader, boasting a history of powerful innovation and a thriving ecosystem of experts and app-component developers. However, Salesforce is extremely expensive, and doesn't automatically integrate with business intelligence systems.
Alternatively, the Hubspot CRM is entirely free. It’s simple and intuitive, so it requires a minimal learning curve and doesn’t force you to actively log client interaction. Instead, it integrates directly with the business networking, marketing and correspondence tools you already use. While you can certainly add custom fields and filter records, the dashboard is geared to those of us short on time and attention.
It’s designed with an “at-a-glance” philosophy, so you don’t have to jump from screen to screen to deal with emails, calendar invites, client communication, notes, tasks and due dates.
5. Cloud-based voice calls
Monthly fees for a decently robust landline phone system (officially known as a public switched telephone network, or PSTN) for small business can cost anywhere from $30 to $50. But for just $20 per month, many entrepreneurs are making the switch to Vonage and other comparable VoIP (voice over internet protocol) services, which offer plenty of key advantages over PSTNs.
Not sure how ready you are for VoIP? Can't blame you. Popular consumer solutions like Skype and Viber are hardly high enough in quality and dependability to be viable for business purposes. but there are other solutions available. Convoi, powered by Citrix, is a free iPhone app that essentially gives you a dedicated business phone line. You can call or text anyone from your regular personal device, but it appears as if you’re communicating from your company's phone line.
There is no hardware to purchase and no IT setup to manage (a major advantage if you've ever tried working with Google Voice); and you can choose your U.S. or Canada area code. Basically, it empowers you to take your business with you wherever you go -- again, utilizing the killer advantages of the cloud -- and still be perceived as dressed in a suit, even if you’re actually lounging in the sand, throwing back a Corona.
So, shift that heavy lifting, with the cloud.
These apps illustrate why it's high time you took your business to the cloud. You need to stop overpaying and stop limiting your capability for collaboration and enjoying a comfortable travel radius from your desk.
Rather than forking over big bucks to traditional software and hardware providers, direct your spending toward innovation, meeting your business needs and providing in-budget solutions which scale with your business.
The cloud enables your IT infrastructure to evolve as quickly as your business does. So, try these five free apps, and you're unlikely to ever look back.