Free For All!

Published Date
01 - Mar - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Mar - 2006
Free For All!
When you've just invested oodles of money in the essential software to get your start-up up and running, the last thing you want to hear from someone is, "You should really invest in X,Y or Z software. It'll help your business tremendously."

The first few months of your business operations should involve as little financial burden as possible while improving productivity, which is why we scoured the net for software that could take some of the headache out of micro-managing your everyday tasks, and for free!

At the very least, some of these will keep you happy until you're ready to invest in something a little bigger (we do admit, there's only so much you can do with freeware); at most, you might find something here that you will end up keeping for good.

You will find all these programs on this month's DVD.

Free Accounting
Free Accounting, as the name suggests, is an accounting package for small businesses to manage their internal accounts and their dealings with vendors and customers. You can manage multiple companies and different branches of the same company, so you don't need to repeat contact lists or any such common data. It's built on Microsoft's SQL Server, so it can be easily used over your office network, and makes migrating to another SQL-based accounting application that much easier.

PagePlus offers you a respectable number of templates to get started on your brochures, posters, stationery, and many other print documents.

We were first impressed by how simple it is to use-even with no accounting experience, we found the interface quite intuitive and well laid-out. Creating items such as business contacts is quite self-explanatory, and so is managing them. The help file is comprehensive, and the tutorials are useful. There's also very good online support for Free Accounting-a big help should you run into any problems.

You can create purchase orders for your vendors, track your payments and manage the terms of your agreement-discounts, deadlines, and so on. Free Accounting also offers a simple interface to manage the inventory for your company, giving you the flexibility to add your own measuring units-be it bags, boxes, barrels or anything else you choose. Customer details are easy to manage-you can even classify customers into different tax jurisdictions if you're dealing internationally.

For each of its functions, Free Accounting offers a wide selection of reports, though they are limited in how much they can be customised.

It isn't all roses, unfortunately-while you do have access to all the features you'll ever need in this free edition, it comes with an ad bar that can sometimes get annoying. In addition, there's only support for one currency ($), so you'll need to decide whether you can bear with this. All this aside, Free Accounting is a surprisingly useful tool, and makes for a very competitive substitute for software that would otherwise cost you at least $200 (Rs 9000).

Serif PagePlus SE
An important part of promoting your business is the creation of smart, professional-looking print material, but the cost of professional applications such as Adobe InDesign or QuarkXpress can really put a dent in the budget-and so the quest for a good freeware tool must begin.

We were sceptical when we saw the Web sites of a Desktop Publishing (DTP) tool, which promised us something that's "so versatile and simple to use that even a desktop publishing novice will be up and running in minutes", but surprisingly enough, it's true. PagePlus offers you a respectable number of templates to get started on your brochures, posters, greeting cards, stationery, and many other print documents, and you can download any of the huge number of templates they offer on their Web site.

The interface is really easy to get to grips with, and true to its claims, only minutes stand between you and your first publication. The publications themselves can be made to look quite impressive, with some very nifty effects-such as picture transparency and basic picture editing- built in.
IDEA! is another tool we found to manage all the contents of a project efficiently-be it ideas, tasks or documents. Everything can be structured as a hierarchical tree, and each item can have a set of documents to support it, so everything you need under a particular item is right at your fingertips.

At the simplest level, IDEA! can be a very useful knowledge management tool, but it can just as easily be used to manage all the documents essential for your business. You can also assign due dates for tasks under each category, and monitor their status.

 Free Accounting  Loads of features for managing internal
accounts, customer
and vendor details
Desktop Publishing 
 Serif PagePlus SE A surprisingly simple and elegant tool
for creating cards,
brochures and a lot more
Collaborative Tool 
Manage documents, ideas and
tasks with this tool for small
Starting Off 
Ultimate Business
Plan Starter
Walking you through all
the essential aspects of
your Business Plan
Knowledge Base

Keep adding to the knowledge
base for quick and easy

The interface is a little bizarre, and it does take a while to get used to. After the first 20 minutes, however, things become a lot easier, and soon you'll be on your way to organising all your data for projects and teams. Expectedly, everything is indexed and easily searchable. 

For a software that has a Professional and Team Edition as well, we expected the Free Edition to be a crippled version of the real thing, but thankfully this is not so. The paid versions do offer features such as integration with Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes, but there's enough usability in the free edition to suit many of your small business needs.

Ultimate Business Plan Starter
This is a tool to create a business plan without wasting much time, and more importantly, without overlooking any aspect of the plan. Ultimate Business Plan Starter has been developed with small start-ups in mind, and we found it's capable of doing the job in quite an impressive manner.

It takes the guesswork out of creating a comprehensive business plan, and we found it quite adept at hand-holding us through the entire process. For each topic, you get a Rich Text editor to put in your content, and a handy guide at the top explains what you should put under that heading, and a few writing tips every now and then. If that weren't enough, there's an example for every topic, too.

The interface is very simple-you should be right at home if you've used a word processor before! The final result is a clean and simple printable copy of your plan. On the flip side, formatting is limited, and each page of your document will contain a line at the bottom that says, "This was created using Ultimate Business Plan Starter" - though some wouldn't mind it that much.

For new start-ups, maintaining a knowledge base is an essential part of being able to understand your domain and make decisions about your future. If you are constantly making additions to your team, this proves to be a big help for newcomers-with a ready knowledge base, they'd require less hand-holding in the time they're getting to grips with the business. Even later on, a knowledge base is a quick and simple reference for anything you need.

TheKBase provides you with a simple way to organise information in a hierarchical tree. It lets you search, colour-code and highlight information items, and quickly classify information. A simple, Notepad-like interface lets you add information on different topics.

The interface is actually so basic that we were baffled for a moment-it takes a few minutes to get used to! Once that's out of the way, though, a few right-clicks here and there had us on our way creating "snippets" about anything and everything.

TheKBase is based on XML, so if you ever decide to develop a knowledge base more suited to your company's needs (which you probably will as you grow), you don't need to lose your current base. You can also merge two or more kbases together to expand your information. Over your office network, you can store the kbase on a central location, and each member of your team can then use the software to contribute to your ever-increasing database. The entire knowledge base can be exported to HTML, so you can even publish it to the Web!

TheKBase's simplicity is sometimes its own undoing, and there are a few bugs that need ironing out. We're big fans of quick and painless software though, and this falls neatly into that category.

And there you have it-neat tools you'd probably never had thought of to give your business a much-deserved shot-in-the-arm without giving it a shot-in-the-wallet.

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.