The Best Things in Life are Free

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This story appears in the January 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The Best Things in Life are Free

Web design software: free
Online marketing campaign: free
Long-Distance calling: free
Running your small business for next to nothing: priceless.

Over the decades--heck, even centuries--philosophers, politicians, tycoons and other leaders have insisted that you can't get something for nothing: "There's no such thing as a free ride," or "Nothing in life is free." Well-known economist Milton Friedman once said, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Even Entrepreneur columnist Robert Kiyosaki's rich dad told him the same thing.

But in our evolving Web 2.0 world and with Google leading the way, the rules have changed: You can get something for nothing--and for entrepreneurs, that something can have a significant impact on their businesses. Today, the web is full of free tools to help entrepreneurs start, run and grow their businesses for next to nothing. It'll just cost you some time and an internet connection.

On using free stuff
• Just because it's there doesn't mean you have to use it. "Because there's so much out there, businesses have a tendency to be like a kid in a candy store," says Drew McLellan. "Start with the strategy of what you want to accomplish, and then find the tool that will allow you to do that."

Adds Mike Whaling, "It's a matter of figuring out which tools are right for your business. Know your audience, and then go to where they are already having conversations."

  • You don't have to figure it all out by yourself. McLellan suggests doing a simple Google search on a tool or task you want to accomplish. "You'll find people talking about it," he says. "And people are incredibly quick to share what they know."

  • Don't lose your company's brand. Using a variety of tools can lead to an inconsistent company image and voice. Says McLellan, "Run it through the litmus test of 'Is this right for my business? Does it portray my business the way I want?'" Whaling also emphasizes thinking about what your business's name will be associated with because many free tools are ad-supported.

 • Push your preconceived notions aside. MySpace and Facebook aren't just for the kiddies anymore. Says McLellan, "There are a lot of people conducting business on [these sites]."

 • Does the tool have staying power? For every successful blog, video website or social network, there are dozens that won't make it. So, again, talk with people online and discuss their experiences with the tool to gauge its stability and reliability.

 • It may be free, but you still need to invest. Just creating a profile won't cut it. Making the most of these tools requires time and effort, says Whaling. "There's an investment in reading other people's blogs, commenting on posts, getting involved in the community and building relationships."
Gary Vaynerchuk, co-founder of Wine Library, has been taking advantage of free business tools for nearly three years to grow his 11-year-old wine retail business. Using a combination of web-based tools, such as social networking, blogging and video, he's taken his company to annual sales of $50 million. His success with these tools has even landed him two book deals and regular speaking engagements across the country. "Building brand equity and connecting with your consumers through these social tools has a global impact on your business and your brand," says Vaynerchuk, 33, who launched Wine Library with his father, Sasha, 65.

Springfield, New Jersey-based Wine Library uses Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to notify its "friends" about daily specials, something it used to do solely through e-mail. Its Facebook presence includes a custom app called Ask Gary, where people can ask questions about wine. And the company keeps a regular video blog, Wine Library TV. "Viral aspects of your message explode once you use these tools," says Vaynerchuk. "When I think about how much brand equity I have with Wine Library TV and how quickly it happened for [so little cost], the fact that I spent millions of dollars building the brand prior to using these tools makes me want to throw up."

As Vaynerchuk has found, "customers appreciate the interaction," says Mike Whaling, president of 30 Lines, a social media marketing company that helps businesses expand their brands' online reach. "Traditionally, it was one way. It was shouting: brochures, white papers, advertisements. Now it's much more focused on multimedia and engagement." And whereas brochures and advertising of days past had a price tag, more and more of today's tools are free.

But aside from the obvious (duh, it's free), what does this surge of tools mean for small businesses? "It starts to level the playing field," says Whaling. "It gives small businesses the opportunity to put themselves out there and really compete with the larger companies."

"It allows a little guy to look like a big guy," says Drew McLellan, owner and CEO of McLellan Marketing Group. "It makes a small business look very sophisticated." For example, an entrepreneur can build a website easily with various blogging and web design options. A company can launch a targeted marketing campaign across numerous social networks. A business owner can manage calendars, clients and projects using different collaborative and project management software. All for free!

Alison Boris and Kathi Chandler, 38 and 31, respectively, have been capitalizing on free tools since nearly the inception of their Los Angeles-based online bag boutique, AllyKatStyle, in 2007. Like Vaynerchuk, they've created a MySpace page for their company. They also have profiles on Digg and StumbleUpon, which are community-centric content sharing sites, to drive traffic to Outside of the popular social networking tools, they use QuantCast (embedded in the website) to monitor traffic, frequency, demographics, geographics and more, and Skype is their official business phone. Says Chandler, "They're great grass-roots tools to drive traffic to the site and provide free advertising through bloggers and word-of-mouth."


Dimdim: open-source web conferencing application; free basic service
I Want Sandy: keeps track of daily details
Jott: voice-to-text service for creating notes, lists, e-mails and text messages; free basic service
Oovoo: video messaging, chatting and conferencing
Paltalk: group IM, chat and video call application
Plugoo: direct chatting with any blog or site visitor
YouSendIt: send files up to 2GB; free basic service

Adrive: 50GB of online storage and backup for all file types; free basic service
JZip: data compression utility
Mozy: 2GB of online, data and remote backup solutions; free basic service

BizEquity: company valuations
Mint: personal finance, money management, budget planning and financial planning software
MyBizHomepage: financial dashboard for small business QuickBooks users
QuickBooks: small-business accounting software; free download (Simple Start 2008)
Wesabe: financial advice, analysis and planning

Audacity: open-source software for cross-platform audio recording video blogging, podcasting and video sharing service; free basic service
BlogTalkRadio: radio network for users to host their own shows
DropShots: video hosting and photo sharing
FeedBurner: media distribution services for blogs and RSS feeds
Fix My Movie: video enhancement service; free basic service
Paint.NET: image and photo editing software
Phixr: picture and photo editor
Seesmic: video conversation platform
SlideShare: share and embed slideshows, PowerPoints and PDFs into web pages
VideoSpin: video-editing software

Blogger: blog publishing tool
Craigslist: online classifieds and job postings network
CollectiveX: create social networking and collaboration sites for groups
Entrepreneur Connect: Entrepreneur's social networking site
LinkedIn: business social networking site
Pligg: open-source, community-centric site for discovering, rating and sharing content
PolicyMap: geographic and demographic information system for creating custom maps, tables and charts; free basic service
YouNoodle: networking for startups and valuation with Startup Predictor
Your Pitch Sucks?: PR pitch reviewing and advising

Office Productivity/Organizational
Adobe Buzzword: collaborative word processor application
CutePDF Writer: PDF creator; free basic service
Dabble DB: create, manage and share online databases; free basic service
Doodle: schedule and coordinate meetings and other appointments
FreshBooks: invoicing, time-tracking and expense service; free basic service
Google Calendar: shareable calendar and schedule organizer
Google Docs: collaborative word processor and spreadsheet applications open-source office software suite for word processing, spreadsheets and more
Stikkit: organization and reminder system that integrates with productivity applications
SurveyMonkey: create and publish custom online surveys; free basic service
ThinkFree Office: office productivity suite; free basic service
WuFoo: HTML form builder for creating interactive forms; free basic service
Zoho: office, productivity and collaboration applications

Project Management/Collaboration
LogMeIn: remotely support and access digital information; free basic service project management solution and updates
Project2Manage: collaborative project management solution
Remember the Milk: task management solution and to-do lists
Socialtext: wiki and website collaboration; free basic service
Team Task: collaborative project management and community website builder
Yugma: web meeting and collaboration service

Adeona: open-source laptop tracking and recovery software
BitDefender Online Scanner: virus scanners; free basic service
ZoneAlarm: firewall protection from hackers and threats; free basic service

Google Alerts: e-mail updates based on choice of query or topic
KickApps: platform of applications to integrate social features into a website
Microsoft Office Live Small Business: create a company website, domain and e-mail; free basic service
Synthasite: web hosting and building
Weebly: website and blog creator
Widgetbox: web widgets for various applications
Woopra: web tracking and analysis application; free basic service

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