Tools for the job

Choosing web-based software for your business

If I can get anything for free, I will. It's not that I'm cheap (honestly), it's just that I believe if you can get something for free that does the job as well as something that costs money, then you'd be a fool to pay out for it.

Notice that I'm very careful to say that it has to do the job as well as the one that costs money. That's the important bit. Expecting a tool that costs money to do the job better than something that's free is fair enough - you get what you pay for, right? Well, that idea is changing when it comes to the internet. And small businesses and non-profits can make their money stretch further by choosing the tools they use very carefully.

Business tools available on the internet can save businesses a small fortune. It's very important to carefully manage your IT budget, especially when you don't have one! That's where Software as a Service or SaaS comes in. It can make things easier and save time and money along the way.

What's SaaS?

You may have noticed terms like Cloud Computing and Software as a Service being bandied about over the last year and a half.

The idea of Software as a Service is that software for your computer, being something that you have to buy and own, like a physical possession, is no longer the best way for software companies to sell their expertise.

A good example is Freshbooks, a way to track time and invoice your clients. I use it myself and find it extremely useful.

The software is the tool those companies produce, whilst the service is the new way you, the software consumer, uses that software. You no longer buy a box with a disk in it that you have to install on your computer. You don't even install anything. You subscribe, just like you'd subscribe to a magazine each month. With a magazinbe, the service you're subscribing to is for someone to create a magazine and delivering it to your door each month.

With SaaS, the software is provided as a service rather than as a physical product.

The idea is that you no longer pay for a copy of the software the company wrote. You now pay for regular access to an online version of that software. You can pay for a month, each month, or until you decide you don't want to use it any more and stop paying. You can, sometimes, pay a year in advance and get a hefty discount over the monthly fee.

You usually get to the software by logging-in to the supplier's website with an account you created when you registered. And, all you need is a computer and an internet connection. What's more, a basic account is usually free. And it's always up-to-date and bugs usually get fixed quicker than normal software.

Where's the catch?

In most cases, you're better off with the service products, rather than the expensive software. You don't have to shell out a huge lump sum up front, you Pay as you go. But there can be a few issues to watch out for and they vary by supplier.

The features you get sometimes depend on signing-up for a paid account. While free accounts are usually well-stocked with the things you need, check that they have everything you use in your business, otherwise you may have to sign-up for a paid account to get the benefits you want.

Working with other software is a big-deal for SaaS tools. Will it connect to your existing e-mail tool or calendar or contact database? Check this up-front to make sure you don't waste time copying and pasting details you've already entered somewhere else.Freshbooks, for example, connects to my Task Management and my Customer Relationship Management tools - both of which are SaaS tools by the way.

Make sure they're not going anywhere. Don't bet on a lame horse. Check that they have some good referrals and see what the news on the web says about them. If you sniff trouble, stay away.

The Practical Side

What's available and how do I find it? A good place to start is somewhere like The Small Business Web and their directory of software for small businesses. As always, try before you buy. If they have free accounts, sign up and give them a whirl.

Take a look at the IT and Web tools you already use and see if there's a SaaS alternative. If you find one, compare the features they provide with your existing software and check how much it would cost you to replace them with the SaaS alternative.

Remember, compare the cost over a period of time; a SaaS subscription isn't a one-off payment like your current software may be.

Then, if you've been using a few good SaaS products for a while, see if they connect to each other. These kind of connections can save you a huge amount of time and money. Imagine if your invoicing software linked with your timesheet software. Bingo, start the timer; work for someone for a while; when you finish, stop the timer; the software automatically creates an invoice and e-mails it to the customer you clocked the time against. Easy. And how much work would that save you?

Here are some of the SaaS software tools I use and would highly recommend you try:

  • Freshbooks - A great time-tracking and invoicing tool. It even does postal invoices and let's your customers log-in to pay them - Freshbooks
  • Mailchimp - An E-Mail marketing solution. Use it to send e-mail newsletters to your customers - Mailchimp
  • Basecamp - A well-respected project and task management tool. Connects to loads of other software. - Basecamp
  • Mojo Helpdesk - If you need to support your customers long after they've bought something from you or if the service you provide is long-term, try a helpdesk to keep track of any issues they may have - Mojo Helpdesk