September 17, 2013, 1:27 PM — You can't run a business--even a small one--without technology. You need computers, smartphones, file storage, a website, and a whole host of other tech assets. So how do you afford it all with a budget that's tighter than a hipster's jeans?
Sure, some costs simply can't be avoided, but you can get the tools you need without maxing your credit line. One of the easiest ways is to swap out expensive commercial software for open-source alternatives. The open-source community offers an array of programs that deliver professional-grade features without the big-business price tag.
To point you in the right direction, we rounded up free alternatives for the most common software used by small and medium businesses. If you replace your current commercial software products with these open-source equivalents, you can save nearly $2,000 per user. We can hear you breathing easier already.
Office suite: LibreOffice
With its word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software, Microsoft Office is the heart and soul of productivity for most businesses. But Office Home & Business 2013 will set you back $220 per user, and an Office 365 subscription runs $150 per user per year.
LibreOffice offers the same general functionality in a free package. It works with the standard Microsoft Office file formats, so you'll still be able to open and view Office files from others, or share your LibreOffice documents with partners or customers who use the Microsoft suite. It also integrates with Content Management Systems and online document storage for easy collaboration.
Email is the primary method of communication for most businesses. There are a number of paid and free email clients available, but Microsoft Outlook is one of the most widely used. Outlook is part of the Microsoft Office Home & Business package, as well as the more expensive Microsoft Office Professional suite, or it can be purchased separately for $95.
You can save that $95 per user, though, by switching to Thunderbird for your email. Developed by Mozilla--the makers of the Firefox Web browser--Thunderbird provides comprehensive features including tabbed email, integrated chat, smart folders, and phishing protection. And, like Firefox, it's customizable via add-ons.
Another function that most businesses rely on Microsoft Outlook for is the calendar. With all your appointments, conference calls, sales meetings, and deadlines, you need a robust calendar tool to manage your days.
Mozilla also has a free tool to fit this need. Lightning integrates with Thunderbird to manage your scheduling, send and receive meeting invitations, and manage events and tasks. You can expand its capabilities with add-ons.
It's no surprise many businesses rely on Quickbooks to keep their books. The Intuit software helps manage quotes and proposals, invoicing, accounts payable, accounts receivable and more, all from an intuitive interface. But Quickbooks options start around $150.
TurboCASH gives you the same capabilities for free. You can manage debtors, creditors, invoicing, bank reconciliation, and more. TurboCASH has comprehensive report features, and it can be configured for different currencies and industries to meet the needs of small businesses around the globe.
Project Management: OpenProj
There are a lot of moving parts involved with keeping a project on track. You need to manage and allocate personnel, budget, and other resources, and monitor milestones and deadlines. Microsoft Project is a great tool for the job, but it will set you back $456 per user--and it's fairly complex for the needs of many small and medium businesses.
Save a ton of money by using OpenProj instead. It gives you very similar features and capabilities, including Gantt and PERT charts, work breakdown structure, resource breakdown structure, and more. And its similarity to Microsoft Project guarantees a gentle learning curve.
Keeping track of prospects and leads and having tools available to manage your customer relationships is critical for growing your business. Salesforce.com has established itself as a leader in this area, but it runs about $300 per year per user.
SugarCRM is a full-featured open source platform that provides similar features. SugarCRM Community Edition is free, and as your business and needs grow, you can move up to the Professional, Corporate, Enterprise, or Ultimate editions for a fee. No matter which version you use, you have access to the source code so you can modify the CRM tool to meet your needs.
File archiver: 7-Zip
WinZip is the de facto standard for file compression software, with a powerful set of tools and options for compressing and decompressing files in a variety of formats. It won't break your budget, but it does cost $30 per license.
As an alternative, consider 7-Zip. It works with a broad range of compression formats, just like WinZip. It also offers 256-bit AES encryption, integration with Windows, and localization in 79 different languages.
Desktop publishing: Scribus
Many small and medium businesses also create their own marketing and advertising, designing brochures, fliers, and other content using a product like Microsoft Publisher. Like Outlook, Publisher is included with some of the pricier versions of Microsoft Office, or it can be purchased separately for $95.
You can get the same page layout capabilities with Scribus. The open source software includes the tools you need to create professional-looking marketing materials, including press-ready output using color separations, CMYK and spot colors, and ICC color management.
Invoicing: Simple Invoices
No matter what business you're in, one of the most important functions--if not the most important--is getting paid. A lot of small businesses turn to services like Freshbooks to create professional, custom invoices to send to customers. The basic Freshbooks service is about $240 per year, though.
For an affordable alternative, take a look at Simple Invoices. This invoicing tool lets you track clients, manage recurring billing, adjust tax rates, and more. And Like Freshbooks, you can access it from any Web browser.
Diagram creation: Dia
If you need to create flowcharts or other visual diagrams, Microsoft Visio is a great tool to use. It will also cost you $250 per license.
Instead, try Dia. Inspired by Visio, Dia includes a variety of tools and special objects to help create entity relationship diagrams, flowcharts, network diagrams, and more. It can also save diagrams in a variety of file formats, such as XML, EPS, WMF, SVG, PNG, and XFIG.
Adopting open-source solutions
Although open-source tools themselves are free, there are hidden costs you should be aware of. Whether you're starting from scratch or switching from an existing software tool to an open-source equivalent, there will be a learning curve to get comfortable with the new software. If you're transitioning from one tool to another, you may also need to find a way to convert or migrate data from your existing programs.
Also, most open-source projects have robust communities of supporters willing to help and share knowledge, but you won't have a vendor to call when something goes wrong. Some open-source projects or IT companies do provide support for open-source tools for a fee-- but then that defeats the purpose of choosing open source in the first place, doesn't it?