Lloyds Bank has revealed that British SMEs with low digital capability could unlock up to an additional £84.5 billion turnover if they were to embrace technology.
However, many entrepreneurs baulk at having to buy expensive software packages outright or license Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) when the bill could run into thousands of pounds each year for small businesses on razor-thin margins.
Yet there are plenty of office productivity solutions out there that don’t tie you in to contracts.
Providing your workstation — whether it’s a desktop or mobile — is up to date, there are plenty of free alternatives to expensive software packages.
Some of these apps listed below use the freemium model, where entry level functionality is offered for free but you have to buy bolt-ons to unlock the full potential of what the app can do.
Some platforms are funded by advertising while others offer a free version as a way to scale up quickly.
Here are 20 free options for boosting your business productivity that don’t involve tying up hard-earned cash flow:
Google’s suite of online tools places more of an emphasis on collaboration than other suites out there. You can select people to work with you on the same document, spreadsheet, presentation or form, and you can all make changes in real time. The beauty of G-suite is that it interconnects with Google’s other offerings, such as Google Drive share drive, which offers 15GB of free storage, and its Google Analytics tools, which shows you how web pages are performing.
Office is the ubiquitous business suite, offering staples such as Word, Excel and OneNote. Microsoft Office Online is a hobbled web-based and free version of its Office 365 software because it wants you to upgrade to unlock more functionality. That said, you can store up to 5GB in its OneDrive back-up service. To find out more about the full version of Office 365 go here.
This basic superfast web-based suite is aimed at entrepreneurs and small businesses. It’s fine for simple tasks but you’re going to need to look elsewhere for more sophisticated features. Zoho offers a word processor, spreadsheet builder and a presentation program. It stores all of your documents in its free online storage space (1GB), and allows you to share them with (member) friends via email invitations. Zoho Writer has some nifty touches like a dark mode and a clacking typewriter sound to liven up a quiet office, while Zoho Sheet – its version of Excel — also allows real-time collaboration. .
This is an open source office suite, which means any of its millions of users can improve functionality. Available in over 100 languages, LibreOffice includes apps such as Writer (word processing), Calc (spreadsheets), Impress (presentations), Draw (vector graphics and flowcharts), Base (databases), and Math (formula editing).
Web-based Gmail takes some getting used to if you’re used to the functionality of Outlook. However, once you get your head around it, it many ways it’s superior. It has a modern interface, integrates perfectly with other services in the Google ecosystem and is very good at blocking spam. Clever features include the option to “snooze” emails, send and request money via Google Pay, send emails with expiration dates, and others which can only be read using a one-time code.
Microsoft’s Outlook Mail is the world’s second most popular email provider after Gmail. While not packed with quite as many as powerful features as Gmail, Outlook.com is still a solid free email service provider choice. It’s a simple stripped-down version of Office 365 Outlook and its design is even more minimal than Gmail. You can easily customise the reading pane. If your business is already comfortable using Microsoft Office products or if you find the features of Gmail confusing, Outlook.com may be the best email provider for your needs.
Yahoo email is the third biggest emailing service, behind Google’s Gmail and Outlook. Over 227 million people use the Yahoo service every month. Each new user receives an impressive terabyte of free storage for email. And Yahoo Mail is probably the best email service when it comes to aliases – you can create up to 500 disposable addresses that are linked to your main email address but don’t contain your name or any other personal data, which is useful if you’re often signing up for web accounts and don’t wish to have your regular inbox spammed or filled with useless email.
However, it isn’t the most stable email platform, with users often complaining about frequent outages and crashes.
Just like its Zoho office suite, Zoho Mail easily stands in for a full desktop application like Office 365. It includes up to 5GB email storage for free (you have to pay for storage of up to 1TB beyond that) and, unlike the free version of Outlook, is ad free. Best of all, it allows you to customise your email address to email@example.com.
Russia’s Yandex Mail has a pleasant interface, with a simple layout making it easy to read. Useful features include a scheduling widget so you can send emails when you want and a customisable interface. Your email login enables access to the rest of the Yandex platform, which offers an image library and up to 10GB of cloud storage for free.
Canada-based Wave is a free web-based accounting, customisable invoicing and receipts platform which you can sync with your bank account. You can send invoices from your business email address. Receipts can be scanned using its free iOS and Android app, recording receipts as accounting transactions.
Where Wave makes its money is if you use it for online payments: the service charges 1.4 per cent plus 20p for each transaction on European-issued cards (2.9 per cent plus 20p for cards issued elsewhere).
Pandle has been developed from the get-go with British small businesses in mind. Only 20 per cent of small businesses in the UK currently use bookkeeping software, with the remainder using spreadsheets or manually kept records.
Easy to understand drop-down menus allow you to enter transactions and suppliers, create quotes and customisable invoices and export figures to Excel. The platform allows you to create profit-and-loss, create balance sheets and file VAT returns to HMRC through its Making Tax Digital initiative.
Pandle makes money through paid-for bolt-ons such as payroll plus you have to pay for multiple-user functionality.
However, Pandle is not designed for large volumes of transactions and the bank import/explaining process is not that sophisticated.
Collaboration and project management
nTask is a project management tool that is especially good for creative projects. It’s an online calendar-based platform that enables you to create tasks, bundle those tasks into projects, convene meetings, flag issues and create timesheets. Nifty features include seeing what percentage of each task or project has been completed.
Overall, nTask keeps abreast of the functionality of other, more expensive and complicated workflow management platforms.
Agantty from Germany is also calendar-based, enabling you to add tasks, projects and assign team members, adding to a use-flow Gantt workflow chart. You can toggle between what needs to be done today, this week or this month. And it interfaces with popular cloud storage sites such as Dropbox and Google Drive.
Slack is a simple to use instant messaging system that enables much faster communication than interoffice emails. It enables you to group messages into theme-related “channels” such as “new project” or “export plan” – anything you want – keeping workplace conversations organised. It interfaces with cloud storage solutions including Google Drive, Dropbox and Microsoft Online. And it also feeds into project management systems such as Asana and Trello. British companies that use Slack include the BBC, Ocado and News UK. However, the free version only stores up to 10k worth of messages (paid-for plans allow unlimited message storage).
Flock’s simple, colourful interface allows you to have private or public conversations with workplace colleagues, upload files and create opinion polls with colleagues. It also connects with other commonplace apps such as Google Drive, Twitter and Trello and also has a nifty video conferencing feature. The free version is aimed at small teams getting started. As with Slack, the free version stores up to 10k worth of messages and 10GB of storage. The paid-for version offers more functionality and is, according to Flock, two thirds cheaper than Slack.
At its most basic, Evernote allows you to create to-do lists but it can do much more than that. You can create notes that are then stored in notebooks for easy reference. Evernote Business adds features enabling collaboration and links to Google Drive, email systems such as Outlook and CRMs like Salesforce. The business version costs £11 a month. Over 224 million people worldwide use Evernote for business planning — or just making a note of a favourite recipe.
If you’re on the road and juggling client meetings, Doodle – available on iOS and Android – is a fast way to check participant availability and fix times and dates.
The ad-funded free option offers basic scheduling suggests times, let’s you invite participants, pick the best option and lock the meeting.
It also integrates with your favourite calendar, whether it’s iCalendar, Outlook or Google.
The premium business version – used by Apple, Amazon and Google – costs €59 per user annually and allows you to send reminders, send calendar invites, add your company logo and scrape participants’ contact information.
Social media management
Digital marketing via social media is crucial for any small business, whether it’s for launching a new product, customer engagement or simply ensuring you stay front of mind.
However, it’s also important to monitor what people are saying about your brand, competitors and your sector as a whole.
With so many proliferating social platforms, keeping on top can feel daunting.
Hootsuite is a sophisticated social media management dashboard that connects with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others which enables you to schedule posts and analyse how they’re performing. Importantly, its analytics function allows you to track and improve social return on investment (ROI).
The free single-user version allows you to connect to three social platforms, have two RSS feeds so you be instantly updated about what the internet is saying about your brand and gives 30 free scheduled messages.
Professional plans start at £25 a month allowing you to connect to 10 social media profiles and, crucially, let’s you automatically schedule posts.
Trying to make sense of any business’s Twitter stream can feel overwhelming. One widget that puts your Twitter feed in order — and is completely free – is Twitter’s own Tweetdeck. You can add as many Twitter feeds as you want — searching for competitors or what people are saying about your sector – and you can manage up to 200 Twitter accounts from one dashboard. Helpfully others apart from yourself can also see the same Tweetdeck page, and monitor or send tweets without having to share their passwords. Oh, and you can schedule tweets as well.
Google Analytics provides you the information needed to improve your website and make it the best it can be.
This free Google tool enables you to see who’s coming to your website, whether it’s organic search, paid digital advertising or referrals from other websites. This way you know whether your digital marketing campaigns are working.
You can also discover which of your website pages are performing better than others, which pages users linger on and how many they’ve seen in total — again, helping you tweak that marketing ROI.