Running a small business well requires the ability to gather and manage a vast array of data, from sales leads to customer complaints and employee vacation time. Because this information is so critical, business automation companies, such as Basecamp, LiquidPlanner and Salesforce.com, charge good money to organize it.
Now, a category of lesser-known yet powerful organizational tools is quietly gaining traction: online business forms. These can be anything from a web-based survey tool found on a company website to an internal sales pipeline shared on a company intranet.
While building unique online forms once required professional programmers, just about anyone can use these tools. Most have simple drag-and-drop interfaces and simple pull-down menus and templates. If you can invest the time needed to create a much-needed online form, the result can be surprisingly sophisticated, effective and cheap.
Related: Ready for a DIY for Online Forms?
Here's a sampling of online-form builders that can serve a role in your business.
What it is: JotForm by New York-based Interlogy LLC bills itself as the "Easiest Form Builder" -- and it is. Using the easy web application, it takes only about 10 minutes to register and build a simple "Contact Us" form for your website. JotForm can do much more if you're willing to dig into features such as "Conditions," which sends respondents to different pages of the form based on their answers. There's also an iPhone app version.
What it costs: The free version includes unlimited forms and reports, 100 Mb of data storage and up to 100 submissions. Premium and professional accounts cost $9.95 and $49.95 per month, respectively, if you need more data storage or have to track more payments or submissions from users.
What stands out: JotForm is cheap and many features are available under its free service. With a bit of effort on your part, this free tool can automate a lot of processes in your shop.
What does not: You are limited to 100 submissions per month for the free service, which is not that many. Expect to use one of the paid versions.
What it is: You may either love or hate Wufoo by Tampa, Fla.-based Infinity Box Inc. The service takes an informal approach to form building with a colorful interface, goofy tutorials and instructional pop-up boxes. But there is a powerful form builder can be found inside.
What it costs: A free account includes one user, three forms and reports, 10 entry fields and 100 user submissions per month. Paid accounts range from $14.95 to $199.95 per month and add more features such as SSL encryption and online payment integration.
What stands out: For the graphically challenged, Wufoo walks you through the process of creating a certain look by choosing colors and typography in advance. If you're integrating the form into a website, and not just sending it by email, this can be helpful in matching the form to your site.
What does not: The "jolly form-builder" attitude is simply not appropriate for some firms. So if the feel is not what you're looking for, move to another form builder. There are many excellent choices in this market.
What it is: Chicago-based FormSite.com is like a more complex version of JotForm. The interface is still easy to use, but some of the features go a bit deeper, such as the ability to integrate with spreadsheets created in other applications, such as Google Apps, to generate reports. FormSite.com also has some decent analytical tools, such as one for comparing answers across multiple forms. Users can also assign scores to different answers.
What it costs: A free account includes five forms with up to 50 items per form, 10 reports, 100 submissions and 50 Mb of data storage. Paid accounts range from $9.95 to $99.95 per month, with the more pricey accounts allowing for additional users, PDF reports and ad-free forms.
What stands out: Besides the more advanced tools, FormSite.com has nearly 100 form templates, which should give you a running start in building the forms you need.
What does not: Complexity comes at a price. Expect to invest a lot of hours to make FormSite.com pay off.
CoffeeCup Web Form Builder
What it is: CoffeeCup Software's Web Form Builder is the only form builder on this list that requires a software download. Also, the software only runs in Windows, so Mac users need not apply. That said, CoffeeCup's form builder offers the same benefits as its web-based counterparts with a one-time-only installation fee, so there's no hassling with monthly charges. However, pre-made themes do cost extra.
What it costs: The full version of CoffeeCup Web Form Builder costs $39 for three licenses. A 21-day free trail is also available. The software may also be bundled with other CoffeeCup programs.
What stands out: For ambitious users, this is the program for building online forms from scratch. If other form builders use building blocks, CoffeeCup is more of a paint set. Users can make their form look exactly the way they like -- for better or worse -- by drawing text boxes, adding images and placing menus and buttons wherever they'd like.
What does not: It was surprising how limited the desktop versions of form writers are. Though CoffeeCup's program can work well, if you are looking for a deep collaborative experience, this is not the solution.
What it is: Branford, Conn.-based frevvo may be the most sophisticated form builder and business-process tool in this set. The company's Live Forms can be used to create interactive business forms shared by you and your employees or colleagues. The Live Forms for Confluence service can be used for time cards, performance reviews, invoices and many other documents. It allows an administrator to receive and approve forms and even return them to the original respondent, who can then send it back again and vice versa. Deploying the service takes more than cursory dedication, but frevvo can digitize a mountain of office paperwork.
What it costs: Free trial downloads of frevvo Live Forms and other applications are available. Firms should contact frevvo via its website for individual pricing information for the full service.
What stands out: Frevvo is a very powerful tool that can be accessed online or installed behind a firewall to be used with a company intranet. It can also be integrated with a Google Apps account or your company database.
What does not: Frevvo's hip vibe can mask what this tool requires to use it properly. Expect serious internal debates on how forms should be built and which processes automated. In other words, frevvo works, but almost too well.
Related: Free and Low-Cost Forms from FormNet