As a busy entrepreneur, you don’t have time to examine thousands of tech products, apps, utilities, and services to get your small business working. Our list of affordable must-haves can help you get started.
If you run a small business, you’re no doubt inundated with pitches along the lines of: Product X will earn you revenue beyond your wildest dreams! Service Y will turn you into a super-mogul! The hype and hysteria floods your inbox, your mailbox, and the blogs and sites you read. As an entrepreneur, however, all your energy has to go into maintaining and expanding your business. You don’t have time to examine every product, service, and app to determine which are right for your business—and which of those you can actually afford. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Small businesses need to consider their tech purchases just as carefully as enterprises do. A single doctor medical practice must comply with the same stringent patient-privacy regulations as the largest hospital. Run a two-person bakery or a small auto repair shop? In addition to tending to bread and brakes, you still need a solution for managing your finances and customer information, just like a major retail chain does. Moonlight as a club DJ? You need to know the best tech for storing your jams, and what service will help you quickly recover your data if your storage hardware gets hosed, just like a Fortune 500 company does.
There are, of course, differences. Budget is one of the most significant. A single-person small business—or even one with ten employees—must watch its every penny. Big businesses have to watch their bottom lines, too, but small businesses tend to operate much closer to the bone, and they can also find it much more challenging to raise the capital needed to fund tech upgrades. So understanding which tech offers the best mix of affordability and efficiency is critical.
Manpower is another key difference. A small business owner is unlikely to have much IT support. IT is often the province of a go-to employee who wears another hat most of the time. Your expert may even be a savvy family or a friend who informally provides help as needed and when available. So ease of deployment and management is just as essential as affordability.
We’ve compiled a round-up of services, software, and hardware that fit the most common needs of small businesses. Our solutions include CRM (customer relationship management), backup and restoration solutions, financial management services, storage hardware and services, and more. The tech products and services in this roundup have a few things in common: First, they’re the best-of-breed offerings in their categories. Second, they won’t strain your business’s budget in this challenging economic climate—some are even free. Check out the list: we’re sure there’s at least one in here that can help every SMB.
Got suggestions for other software, services, and hardware? Let us know in the comments.
1. All-in-One Copier/Printer/Scanner/Fax
Even in this age of email and the cloud, let’s face it: Sometimes you just have to deal with paper. You’d be hard pressed to find a business that doesn’t still occasionally need a printer, fax, or copy machine. PCMag Lead Analyst for Printers, Scanners & Projectors, M. David Stone, deems this all-in-one unit a “good fit as either a heavy-duty personal MFP [multifunction printer] or a shared printer in a micro or small office or workgroup.” It also connects via Wi-Fi.
2. External Hard Drive
The Seagate Backup Plus is a highly flexible addition to any small businesses’ local storage solution. It has USM adapters available for USB 3.0, FireWire, and Thunderbolt, so it can serve in PC and/or Mac environments. Our review notes the drive is “a killer combination of speed, ease of use, and versatility, all while innovatively incorporating social networking.”
3. Network Attached Server (NAS)
NASes are a good fit for small businesses. They provide a way for everyone in a business to share data, and most of them also allow you to sync files across multiple computers and mobile devices. They also offer backup options. In her review of the excellent shared storage product Transporter, networking security analyst Fahmida Y. Rashid wrote that the solution “offers a simple way to share data across multiple sites and users in a secure and private way.”
Even with all the cloud services and storage solutions available, a small business may still need an local server. HP’s ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 is an affordable starter server for businesses that need nothing more than centralized file services, printer management, and light virtualization.
5. Thunderbolt-Compatible Portable Drive
Mac-centric small businesses looking for portable storage should look to Western Digital’s My Passport Pro. Joel Santo Domingo, PCMag’s lead analyst for storage, laptops and desktops, calls the My Passport Pro a “spacious, Thunderbolt-equipped, portable hard drive” with “speedy throughput scores.” The My Passport Pro provides a whopping 4TB of storage capacity and data redundancy with RAID levels 0 and 1.
6. Wi-Fi Signal Booster
With businesses increasingly dependent on Wi-Fi for Internet and network access, it’s important to have good wireless signal coverage. Look to Netgear’s AC1200 WiFi Range Extender (EX6200) to boost an existing wireless signal into bothersome Wi-Fi dead zones. This excellent and affordable Wi-Fi signal extender also has five Gigabit Ethernet ports plus a USB 3.0 port for wiring device and adding shared storage and printers.
Managing accounts payable and receivable is a necessary part of operating a business. PCMag’s Editors’ Choice for doing so is Bill.com. In our review of the low-cost service, Bill.com is lauded for its “simple, clean user interface, good help system and relatively painless setup.” In addition, this financial manager in the cloud offers “tremendous collaboration, financial transaction-processing, and tracking tools.”
Netwrix Change Notifier for File Servers
Solutions that audit and report on any changes made to data can be expensive and complex to deploy. For a far more affordable option, Netwrix offers its Change Notifier for File Servers solution. While a full version is available for purchase (pricing depends on the required number of licenses) a small business with perhaps one file server could get away with the auditing capabilities in the freeware version. These include tracking changes and access attempts to files, folders, shares and permissions—critical for businesses that must comply with HIPAA and SOX, for example. Change Notifier is freeware; if you need even more powerful auditing, Netwrix Auditor for File Servers is also available, though you’ll need to get a quote from the company for pricing.
9. Backup and Restoration
From $59.99 per year (Home Edition)
SOS Online Backup has won multiple PCMag Editors’ Choice awards—it’s just that good. Although our review focuses on the home edition (which could suit the smallest of businesses) there are subscriptions for businesses of all sizes. Lead software analyst Michael Muchmore wrote in his review of SOS Online, “With its intuitive and well-though-out interface, reasonable price covering five PCs, Live Protect, versioning, top performance and many more unique capabilities, SOS Online Backup remains our Editors’ Choice for online backup, and continues to add to its lead.”10. Branding
The Mighty Badge
Networking—the kind that refers to schmoozing, as opposed to routers—is a huge part of succeeding in business. If you’ve ever hosted your own business gatherings or mixers, you know that being able to put faces to names is critical. You don’t have to spend a huge sum at a printer to drum up name badges at your events, however. The Mighty Badge kits from Imprint Plus allow small businesses to create customized, eco-friendly, magnetic name badges on the spot. All you need is the kit and a printer. The badges are reusable, and they can be personalized with a name, title and company logo. And, yes, if you have a hospitality or food-services business, The Mighty Badge can be indispensable.
Free version available; paid version from $7 per month
Insightly is a cloud-based service that goes beyond mere CRM (customer relationship management). It’s a comprehensive business-process solution designed with SMBs in mind. Insightly brings collaboration, CRM, and project management together into one solution. Its intuitive workflow, good help resources, and competitive subscription pricing make Insightly a great CRM pick for smaller businesses.
12. Custom App Creation
Need to create a beautiful, custom-branded app for your business? You can create one, even if you don’t know the first thing about app development. With FileMaker Pro 13, you don’t even need to hire a programmer. You can create simple, gorgeous database-backed apps with the helpful templates and ample assistance that FileMaker provides. You can even create Web-friendly apps.13. Customer Service
From $36 per month
If real-time customer service and interaction is central to your business’s success, take a look at LiveChat. Businesses can integrate LiveChat and provide customers with real-time communications without going the expensive and unsatisfying call-center route. In fact, surveys have shown that many customers prefer this method of contact over email and phone calls. In addition to unlimited chatting with customers, LiveChat provides guarantees of security, reporting, and a tracking system.
Many of today’s small businesses are not traditional brick-and-mortar establishments, instead operating completely online. If you run an online business, a professional, polished Web presence is a must. You most probably don’t want to set up a website or virtual store from scratch, and, with a service such as Tictail, you don’t have to. Tictail is an online platform that allows anyone to set up a virtual store quickly and easily. Oh, and it’s a free service, too.
From $8.77 per month
Security is important for a business of any size. Encryption is pertinent to securing data. With CertainSafe, you can encrypt your data that is stored online without spending a fortune. As PCMag’s lead security analyst, Neil J. Rubenking says in his review of the solution, “CertainSafe protects your cloud storage with encryption that’s certified for HIPAA and other standards, yet it’s really easy to use. Individuals might prefer a free solution, but for any size business it’s a great solution for secure file storage and sharing.”
ERP (enterprise resource planning) is not only for large enterprises! Small businesses also need hardy business management software and the cloud-based NetSuite ERP fills the bill. Here’s PCMag’s financial services reviewer, Kathy Yakal, on NetSuite ERP: “NetSuite ERP focuses on financial management but is much more sophisticated and flexible than what you find in entry-level accounting software. Its core solution (which is priced from $129 per user per month on average) includes General Ledger, Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable, Inventory, and Fixed Assets, and many other features.”
17. Project Management/Productivity
Free version available, paid version from $50 per month
Project management, collaboration, and productivity are all bundled into one wonderful, free service named Asana. PCMag’s software analyst and Get Organized columnist, Jill Duffy calls Asana “well-designed for personal task-management or teamwork.” She observes, furthermore, that “Asana’s thoughtful design, fluid interactive elements, and generous team member allotment in its free version make it a powerful task-management app.”
18. Virtual Workspace/Remote Access
Free version available; paid version from $10 per month per user
Pertino allows you to create an on-the-fly network in the cloud. You can add your network devices you use every day such as file servers, computers, printers, and fax machines. That done, you can invite others users to connect to the network and share these devices—no matter where you, the devices, or the invited users are located. Pertino is an example of the emerging Networking-as-a-Service (NaaS) trend, and it’s targeted at the smaller end of the small and mid-sized business market. Pertino’s killer proposition is eliminating the need for a small business to invest in traditional networking hardware and networking IT. 19. VoIP
Skype is replacing many traditional VoIP systems in small businesses as it not only offers phone calling but videoconferencing. Lead software analyst Michael Muchmore recently reviewed Skype for Windows Phone, declaring the VoIP app the, “the department store of communication: voice, video, and text chat, as well as calls to regular phones.” And Jeffrey Wilson, in his review of the Mac version of Skype, posits that “Skype is more than a simple PC-to-PC VoIP tool. You can use it to read Facebook status updates (and chat with friends who use the social network), as well as call landlines and cell phones at extremely wallet-friendly rates.”
20. Wi-Fi Optimization
Is the Wi-Fi at your business painfully slow? Does it seem like you can’t get a connection unless you are practically on top of your wireless router? With inSSIDer, you can help optimize your wireless signal, and you don’t have to be a Wi-Fi guru to do it. inSSIDer is great for troubleshooting Wi-Fi performance issues. This clever software has an easy-to-use interface, plus lots of help and tutorials. There are versions for Windows, Mac OS X, and Android.