The best free software for small businesses

Setting up a small business is hard enough without the extortionate costs associated with modern software licenses. Set up a number of seats with full-price software and you could be looking at monthly bills nearing the salary of an employee.

Now, we wouldn't advise that you start cutting corners – a creative business trying to survive on Gimp and Inkscape rather than ponying up the cash for Creative Cloud isn't going to remain a creative business for very long.

But there are some business functions that you can reasonably hand off to free software without too much difference, and there are certain pieces of free software that can make your business more efficient.

We've compiled this slideshow based on ten key business functions. Whether you're a design studio or a gas fitter, there's software here for you. So let's begin!

Your choice of office suite really depends on your specific requirements, so we’ll recommend a pair of packages here.

If you require compatibility with Microsoft Word and Excel, open source OpenOffice successor LibreOffice is probably your best choice since it’s very similar in terms of interface to those paid-for packages. It also includes a presentation package similar to PowerPoint, a drawing package perfect for flowcharts, and its own database software.

Document collaboration is an increasingly important requirement. It’s certainly possible with LibreOffice, but we’d lean more towards the multi-user world of Google’s web apps – Docs and Sheets – for items that teams might need to work on simultaneously.

Changes are visible as they happen, they can be rolled back, and there’s even in-document chat for complex collaboration. There are other obvious advantages to using a web app, not least of which is cross-platform compatibility with basically no IT costs. There’s no need for any installation, and no upgrades to worry about, just hop online and you’re connected to your documents wherever you are.

While Microsoft and Apple have their own options for managing email for free, neither has the sophistication or advanced features of Thunderbird, a well-trodden email package from Firefox’s parent company Mozilla.

Now, you may choose to have all mail managed online through services like Gmail, which is certainly useful if you have a distributed team, no definite hardware ownership, or need frequent access to mailboxes remotely. There’s nothing stopping you – you can integrate web mailboxes with Thunderbird using IMAP, and the changes between them will be synchronised.

The big advantage to using an email program is redundancy. If a rogue digger slices through the fibre to your building, at least you won’t be without your email records – and let’s face it, sometimes email is the only place a critical piece of business info lurks. Thunderbird makes it easy to search and manage your messages, so it’s well worth installing.

Keeping tabs on what needs to be done, who's doing it, and what's being done at any given time is the central pillar of good project management. Trello uses the Kanban technique, originally created as part of Toyota's ultra-efficient just-in-time manufacturing process – think a whiteboard covered in sticky notes and you won't be far off. Create your tasks, and as users move them into the different columns, you'll know their status and who's taken charge.

Trello's just as useful if you're using it on your own, and since each task card – which is simple on the surface – can contain all the information you need to store about each task, it's a great way to keep your projects in order. The free version offers unlimited boards and projects but only 10MB of file attachments – this won't go an awfully long way, but for small projects it should be adequate. A worth addition to our best project management tools countdown.

Make no mistake about it, chatting with co-workers on Slack is one of the best sanctioned ways there is to procrastinate. But the online business communication tool du jour is not just about flinging the latest memes and cat pictures around the office, and there's a reason so many businesses have come to rely on it as the backbone of their working environment.

Firstly, it's an absolute breeze to administrate – if you're working on a new project, you can create a new chat channel in seconds and invite everyone involved to share status updates, ideas, and even related files.

It's fully integrated with Google's office suite, so you can attach related documents to each channel for ease of access, and you can even install bots in each channel to perform various business functions or connect with other services. And if you're working with a geographically-distinct team, it's a great way to keep them connected with all the relevant business banter without resorting to the clutter of email.

Look after your money and… well, you know the rest. Adminsoft Accounts may be a little clunky to look at (okay, a lot clunky) and somewhat tricky to get to grips with, but it offers a massive amount of functionality that can manage most aspects of your financial business for you. Made by a small business owner for other small business owners, it's currency independent and perfect for managing a growing customer base.

You can do full stock control, purchase ordering, deal with various HR functions, manage your cash-flow and budgets – basically everything important. We leave it here with a small caveat, though: you may have to put some work in if you later want to export Adminsoft Accounts' data and import it into a paid-for package like Sage 50, but that would be true whatever accounting software package you were using.

As long as you're running a truly small business of fewer than 10 employees, there are a number of packages that will deal with paying them. For the UK we lean towards the HMRC's own Basic PAYE Tools package, which – while it's as basic as its name suggests – offers all the tools you'll need to pay proper taxes for your employees.

It also includes calculators for sick and maternity pay, and issues advice when you're nearing critical dates for, say, expenses and benefits. The only thing it doesn't deal with is workplace pensions: you'll need to administer them before you run your salaries through payroll.

Those forced to deal with the IRS are slightly less fortunate – while your employees' taxes are their responsibility, you'll still need to file your business and state taxes, and there's not much in the way of free software to help you manage that. We'd recommend a service like TaxAct – you can use the software for free, and pay only when you need to actually file.

Proper invoices are important. If you’re demanding payment you want to look professional, you want to be quick, and you want to make it as easy as possible for your payees to get you the funds. Wave accomplishes all of these tasks within a free, cross-platform app so simple that you can even issue invoices from your phone.

If you choose, you can also use it to accept credit card payments – Wave makes its money by charging a small fee on payments made, and in all other respects it is free.

You can use invoice templates to speed things up even further, and Wave can automatically hound those who are late with your money to make sure they know it’s time to pay up. It covers sales taxes, gives you ‘read’ reports on invoices you’ve issued, can issue estimates and quotes as well as full invoices, and you can customise its templates to match your logo or colour scheme. It’s basically a one-stop invoicing shop.

Backing up your data is crucial to the security of your business. If you’ve ever lost a hard drive, you’ll know how catastrophic it can be. To do it right, you’ll want to follow the rule of three: you should have three copies of critical data stored in at least two places, at least one of which should be off-site in case of environmental disaster.

Duplicati is the perfect choice – it’s free, open source, encrypts your data before backing it up, and you can choose for your backups to go to a number of locations. That could mean a local drive, a fileserver you’ve set up yourself, or even a cloud service.

It can take incremental backups, meaning that – after the initial backup – it needs only send a small amount of data each time it runs to keep its archives up-to-date. Yes, it’s not pretty, and it might take a bit of technical knowledge to get it (and whatever backup targets you’ve designated for it) going, but once it’s up and running you’ll be safe.

IPFire covers a number of critical business roles: it’s a firewall, a content filter, and an activity logger amongst other things. You can even use it as a VPN gateway for your business, allowing remote users to log in as if they were in your office.

It’s cheating the theme of this list, admittedly; it’s a suite of programs and modules contained within a completely bespoke Linux installation. This non-reliance on a core distro means you won’t be waiting for updates from, for example, Fedora to keep it up to date with the latest security threats.

IPFire needs to be installed on its own machine, ideally located between your modem and network switch to intercept rogue traffic going in and out. You can also use it to separately administer wireless networks or create an additional network with looser controls. It may seem intimidating, but with a straightforward browser interface and good documentation, even the meekest sysadmin should be able to handle it.

We're ending this gallery with an antivirus choice that wouldn't normally be high on our list, but the realities of license agreements have forced our hand somewhat. You might think that installing something like Avast, AVG or Avira on your users' machines would do the trick and, technically, we're sure they'd be fully protected.

But delve into the small print and you'll realise their free versions are not actually licensed for small business use – and you wouldn't want to get your business into legal hot water.

Instead, turn to Comodo Internet Security, which has a license agreement that specifically states it's valid for small business use. It's a fine, no-nonsense package valid for both Windows and Mac devices – there's the usual free AV upgrade hassle, and you'll certainly get more features and stronger security for your business if you do make the leap, but for cash-free protection it's entirely adequate.

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