FSome commercial software for departments like accounting, marketing, and email can be tempting. But when choosing small business software, it’s important to consider its long-term suitability, not just its price.
“There is an advantage to paying upfront and trying to find the right solution that can meet the needs of the business where it is, but also where it expects to go,” says Joni Krolczyk, Senior Business Consultant at Michigan Small Business Development. Center.
Free options have their place, especially for very small businesses and sole proprietorships. Still, you’ll want to understand their potential downsides before you invest your time in them.
Here are six questions that can help you determine what free software will really cost your business and whether these options are right for you.
1. What support do you need?
Some software products can afford to be free by providing minimal customer service. If your business has an urgent issue, for example, you may find it frustrating not to be able to access dedicated phone support.
If live support is available, you may need to pay extra for it. For example, Wave, a free accounting software, offers one-on-one coaching, which starts at $229 for a one-hour session and additional support.
2. Do you have anti-virus software?
“When you’re talking about free software, there’s definitely a security risk involved,” says Scott Taber, cybersecurity specialist at the Michigan Small Business Development Center.
It’s unclear whether the software is legitimate or contains malware, he adds. This is especially true if you have never heard of the product before.
Taber suggests running anti-virus or anti-malware software on your computer to combat the risk. If you don’t already have such software to help protect your business against cyberattacks, this is another potential purchase you should consider making.
3. How important is usability to you?
For some business owners, user interface can be just as important as price. At the very least, you shouldn’t be afraid to use your business software products, says Michael Aparicio, founder and principal consultant at Revby, a coaching and consulting service for small business owners. He adds that paid services often have smoother and less generic user experiences.
4. Do you rely heavily on software integrations?
Free business software can hurt your business efficiency if it doesn’t integrate with your other business apps, warns Krolczyk.
For example, your payroll system should be able to share information with your accounting system so it can record how much money is going towards employee salaries. If the integration isn’t straightforward and seamless, you may have to manually enter data, which is time-consuming.
5. Do you want updated software?
Paid software can come with regular, weekly, or even more frequent updates for potential security issues, Taber says. This is probably not the case with free software.
“Often you will find that the free versions have no updates or very sporadic updates,” he says.
This can quickly date a product in terms of usability and security.
6. Can this software grow with your business?
Free trials and free plan tiers can be great for small-business owners who want to test out a particular product before committing to it, says Aparicio. But the software must be able to grow with your business.
If you need to transfer data from one platform to another, it can be expensive.
“Depending on the size of the solution and the amount of data you have, you may need to hire someone to help or assist you if you don’t have the technical expertise yourself,” says taber.
This is especially true for free accounting software that stores your chart of accounts, banking information, and transaction details. Ultimately, these large data transfers may end up taking longer than you’d like.
“It’s always a bigger headache than people anticipate,” says Taber.
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