When it comes to business apps, free doesn't always mean best. And they're not always easy or convenient, either.
While cash-strapped entrepreneurs can be tempted by free online apps that promise to simplify any number of business functions, the reality is that many no-cost applications require as much effort as sophisticated enterprise software to set up and use profitably.
Here are five tips for avoiding some of the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to using low-cost online tools:
1. Don't rush into deploying a free app.
Even if a business function can be automated with a free app, that doesn't mean it should be. Seemingly basic apps such as Gmail or Zoho Documents require a significant amount of work to set up and deploy in an organized, effective way. A more complex, but free app such as Do.com, a task management program by San Francisco-based Salesforce, can be overwhelming if you don't have time to manage it properly.
Keep in mind that any tool adds another level of complexity to your company. So before rushing to use a new Web tool, wait until you face a recurring problem. Then invest in a solution that makes sense for your company -- whether it's free or low-cost.
2. Know what you need.
If you have a significant business problem to solve, resist the impulse to grab the first tool that claims to solve it. Online marketplaces such as GetApp, Google Marketplace and Downloads Marketplace for Microsoft Office are gatekeepers for thousands of business apps, but window shopping isn't an effective way to pick business software. Think of these sites as the final stops before committing to business software -- not the first.
Before you choose an app, ask yourself: "Where does this specific app fit in my business?" Then, get a better understanding of your workflows and what you're trying to accomplish. Several online diagramming tools can help you select the right kind of workflow solution, including Cacoo, Mockingbird and Lovely Charts.
3. Understand that less is usually more.
Don't be reluctant to start with simple tools, including ones you may already be using. Can any of them do double duty? For example, shared spreadsheets from downloaded premade templates from Google Docs or Microsoft Office can be useful for keeping task and project lists.
Also, remember that using multiple apps requires managing multiple passwords, user identities and administrator accounts, and perhaps worst of all, creates a serious hassle when it comes to migrating and uploading company and employee data.
To keep things simple, use as many apps as you can in the same family of products to simplify and centralize management and the ways employees access them. Google Apps, Zoho and Microsoft Office all have grouped products. Choose a service that offers paid upgrades once your business outgrows the free version.
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4. Ease your team into using new apps.
A tool is only as good as the people who use it. Don't be too surprised if your employees resist using a new tool, especially if it seems to come out of nowhere. Even small changes to your employees' routines can be disruptive and possibly stressful.
Start using a new service with one project or one account and then get everyone's feedback about how the system can work in your shop. If it's a bust, you'll know early and won't face an office revolt.
5. Find out the actual cost of "free" tools.
No matter how little they cost, free tools never really cost nothing. Even if they don't cost you money to use they do require one of your most valuable assets: time.
Plan for how many hours you will need to invest in learning the new tool, so that you can spend the rest of your time most effectively. You'll need to consider the time it will take to choose which app is right, to set it up, to train employees how to use it, handling administration and troubleshooting.
To give you an idea, time managing tools such as Klok and Toggl can show what you and your employees invest in deploying new systems. If it looks like using a new app won't be time-effective for your business then you might want to consider another option.
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