Business software

A guide to your business software needs

When it comes to your small business, software applications – or “apps” – are your silent partners.

Without apps — the programs that tell your computers what to do with all the 1s and 0s that are the lifeblood of most modern businesses — your expensive hardware is powerless. For most corporate office jockeys, applications mean using Microsoft Office software, which typically includes Word, a word processing application, Excel, a spreadsheet, and its PowerPoint slideshow presentation software. Office is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to office productivity apps.

As powerful and universal as Office may be, however, for small businesses and startups it may be an expensive solution and may not be able to handle all of your information technology needs. Here’s a general overview of the different categories of business application software that should be on your shopping list and some of the other ways to meet your needs without breaking the bank.

Monitoring your finances: accounting software

Whether your business is big or small, business today is about numbers. It’s a lot more complicated than just balancing your checkbook, especially if you have many customers, have inventory, and have different types of billing cycles. To get a true picture of your business’ financial health, you need accounting software.

Accounting software allows you to record and process basic accounting transactions such as accounts payable, accounts receivable, and payroll, as well as a host of more complex financial tasks. Because accounting software allows you to track financial relationships with your customers over time, it also gives you insight into your customer base.

“It becomes a wonderful database of your customers,” said Ellen DePasquale, a consultant and computer trainer for 20 years.

[For reviews of all of the small business accounting software, visit our best accounting software for small business page.]

Connection: Email

For many small businesses, email is the main link with customers and suppliers. Virtual companies can add employees to the list. The functional aspect of email revolves around the Internet Service Provider (ISP) that provides your email account and the email client software application that you use to send and receive your mail. You can use a paid email service or a variety of free email services.

There are a number of hosting companies such as GoDaddy.com that will provide your own domain and email account. Another way to acquire your own domain is through your local cable provider or telephone company. If money is a critical interest, you can always go the free route with an online email account with Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo.

As far as clients are concerned, the gold standard remains Microsoft’s Outlook, which is a rich email client married to contact management and calendar functions. There are also other full-featured clients available such as Mozilla’s Thunderbird, Firefox browsers or Apple’s Mail client. There are also a number of online accounts such as Gmail that don’t require any separate client software, but have a more limited stable of bells and whistles.

Present yourself in your best light: Documentation

Your business should present many faces to the world. This is where documentation apps come in. Your documentation is all that lets people know about you, what you do and how you do it – text documents, business plans, presentations. It’s all about words – verbiage. And where there are words, there must be a word processor – a word processor application is essential for correspondence, writing text for any business collateral or your website. Presentation apps, such as Microsoft’s oft-maligned PowerPoint, are nice to have, but unless you’re spending some time at trade shows and conventions or looking for money to get funds, this is optional.

What’s over there?

The default documentation solution for almost all computer users is Microsoft’s Office applications package, which includes Word for word processing and PowerPoint for presentations. Both have so many features and capabilities that you could easily learn to use them full time. An alternative is OpenOffice, a free office software suite you can download that includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, graphics, and database applications. And there are online suites such as Google Docs and Zoho, among others. The advantage of using an online application such as Google or Zoho is that your work is automatically saved on their servers.

How much will it cost?

Microsoft Office is not cheap. If you just want Word or PowerPoint, they’re $139.99 each. But you can get the full package, which includes both apps plus Outlook and Excel for just $199.99 if you download the apps, or $279.99 if you want the actual drives. OpenOffice is free, just like Google and Zoho, for individual users.

Keep an eye on your customers: CRM

If you only have a few customers, it’s usually not difficult to keep tabs on your relationships with them, including when you contacted them, what you’ve done for them, and your plans for the future. When this number increases (as you would hope), the task can be more complicated and take longer. This is where small business customer database software (otherwise known as CRM) can come to your rescue. As the name suggests, it helps you track your customers and your relationships with them.

CRM helps you organize your customer relationships every step of the way, from the moment you start working with a new customer until the relationship ends. And even when the professional relationship is over, it can remind you to follow up with past clients to see if they’re interested in renewing the relationship.

What’s over there?

If you want cheap crm software (like Less boring CRM) that you can install on your own computer, the leading game in town to help small businesses manage their customers is Act! Software. But Salesforce.com’s online CRM is a tough contender.

And if you’re comfortable with online CRM, you should definitely take a look at Zoho’s CRM capabilities.

How much will it cost?

The basic act! The software starts at $171.99. Salesforce.com offers a CRM starting at $5 per month. A version of Zoho’s online CRM software with reduced functionality is free for up to three users.

Sorting: spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are the raw material of accounting applications and much more. They display multiple cells containing alphanumeric text, numbers, or formulas in a grid consisting of rows and columns. They are good at keeping track of things, sorting things out (slicing and dicing in business parlance) testing the effects of changes on things like pricing and calculation. They are gnarly, but they are necessary.

What’s over there?

Microsoft Excel is by far the most used, but IBM’s venerable Lotus 1-2-3 has many ardent supporters. OpenOffice offers downloadable spreadsheet applications online, and Google and Zoho have spreadsheet offerings.

How much will it cost?

You can buy Excel on its own for $139.99, but you’d have the money to get it as part of the Office package because you’ll also need a word processing application. Lotus 1-2-3 weighs in at $322. OpenOffice is free. And online, Google and Zoho offer free spreadsheet apps.


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