Tools I Use to Run a Business on the Internet (for Free or Cheap)

In part one, I went over the essentials for looking professional on the internet. In this post, I want to help people who are new to the business world learn about some services that exist to make life easier. The best part? Most of these services are available for little to no cost.


At this point, I bill most of my work by the hour and use Freckle for time tracking. Freckle is beautiful and makes me happy whenever I use it. It has a great system for creating invoices based on the hours you work, and it can also handle one-off expenses. 

I used a different service called Harvest for YEARS and was very happy with it. In fact, I stopped using it only because Freckle was released and my friends had built it. Harvest tends to be a little more expensive than Freckle but it is very good and may even be better for tracking time in large businesses. 

If your business does very little billing by the hour, I know many people love Freshbooks for creating and managing invoices. I haven’t used it much myself but I hear good things about it. 

I use Quickbooks for my consulting business because that is what I used when I started the business and I haven’t switched away from it. However, my business partner, John, and I decided to use LessAccounting when we started Lose It or Lose It because it was easier for both of us to enter, access, and view the information we needed.

Selling Stuff with Shopify

John and I also have a site called Nerd Merit Badges, where people can buy embroidered badges that represent their feats of nerdom. In order to do this, we needed an online store. We started with simple Paypal/Amazon buttons but quickly switched to using Shopify. Shopify does their own hosting (no need to mess with servers or anything) and pretty much let you customize the site as much as you want. They work with a ton of payment processors, which means that all you have to do is choose one and use it. 

Shopify works for 90% of what people need and is WAY cheaper than building a custom store.

Managing Clients with Highrise (AKA People Love When You Remember Stuff)

For many businesses, knowing and remembering information about your customers is critical. This is where Customer Relationship Management(CRM) software comes in. Basically, it’s a central repository of everything your company knows about your customers. This way, anybody in the company can jump in and help a customer.

There are several ways to start using a CRM. One is to install some software on your own server, but who wants to do that? Another option is Salesforce, which is infinetly configurable but can be quite expensive. A nice option isHighrise, which meets almost everyone’s needs and is much cheaper than the other options.

On a side note, I think this kind of software is good even if you are the only person using it. People LOVE it when you remember stuff. Use this to add everybody’s birthdays and you’ll never forget them again!

Project Management with Basecamp

I don’t do a ton of project management, but when I do, I use Basecamp. Project management is all about communication, and that is pretty much what Basecamp facilitates. There are messages (kinda like general email), milestones, to-dos, time tracking, etc. I pretty much only use the messages and sometimes todos, but that’s because I only ever manage small projects.

In the end, all that really matters is getting an accurate record of what was communicated. What is nice about Basecamp is that you can interact with it via email almost exclusively, but it tracks who said what when. This means that things don’t get buried in an email somewhere and I often tell my clients that “if it isn’t in Basecamp, it didn’t happen." I’ve found that really disorganized people HATE Basecamp :P

Customer Support with Charm

To be 100% honest, I haven’t really ever needed a customer support tool. That’s because most of my projects are pretty small, so we just use email. However, customer support tools can be useful resources in certain circumstances, so let’s take a look at a few options.

Charm is made by the folks that created Freckle (the beautiful time tracking software I mentioned above) and so I am confident that they will do as great a job with Charm.

Another customer support tool that I’ve seen used a lot is Zendesk. I have never used them from the company-side, but I have used them from the customer-side. I’ve filed many a ticket with Zendesk and it has pretty much worked as expected.

Intranet or Knowledge Base

Back when I was a structural engineer, I realized that we would be well-served by compiling everyone’s knowledge about various aspects of our jobs in one convenient location. This project had mixed success because the people at the top thought that all knowledge should come from the top, and I disagreed. However, the idea was sound, and has led me to put my faith in a knowledge base.

Harnessing the knowledge of the company at large is an great option. Even if your business consists solely of you, having a central repository where you can easily keep notes about how your business works is invaluable. If you have employees, it’s even more valuable because they can learn from what you already know and be more efficient.

There are several ways that you can compile and share your knowledge. You can install some kind of wiki software on your servers… but who wants to do that? Instead, you can sign up for a hosted wiki like PBwiki, which will let you edit pages of text. If you want something more structured, I would suggest trying out Backpack. It has the concept of pages, but guides you into certain kinds of content like text, lists, files, etc.

Collecting Data with Wufoo

If you have any online presence at all, you will come across a situation when you need to collect information from your customers or users. You could pay a developer to come up with some one-off solution, but that can be expensive and may not match your expectations. The data you need to collect could be anything from a contact form on your website to registration for an event and paying its fees.

I like to use Wufoo for these kinds of jobs, which is really saying a lot, since I can custom-write a program for my own use. With Wufoo, you can build forms with drag-and-drop ease. It will also let you configure who gets notified of what and how. You can embed the form in your own site or have Wufoo host it on its own page for you.

One example of how we used Wufoo with great success was when we wanted to give out Lose It or Lose It t-shirts to our users. We created a form that collected their usernames, addresses, and sizes, then, once the t-shirts were made, we used the dashboard to keep track of who had yet to receive a shirt.

Sharing Files with Dropbox

Dropbox is a service that, at it’s most basic, just syncs a folder between computers. You can also access the files via their website or mobile devices.

Where Dropbox really shines is sharing and editing of files with your teammates. Previously you had to email them around and make sure only one person edited it at a time or you had to be on the same network and put the file on a server. With Dropbox, you can share a folder with another Dropbox user and everytime you save it, it will get pushed to their website and downloaded to the other user.

User-centered Task Management with Flow

This is the last thing on the list but it is by no means the least important. I LOVE Flow. LOVE IT. It is probably one of the best-made web services out there and they even have an awesome iPhone app.

So what’s so special about a todo app? Well, the reason I love it (besides the fact that it is beautiful and almost flawless) is because it is user-centered, not business-centered. I use it to track work AND personal things I need to do. Everything revolves around lists and tasks. I share some lists with my wife and others with my business partner.

With Flow, everything I need to do is in one place. So how do I make this work with clients? Well, a lot of the time, items in my own lists point to items in my client’s ticketing or task management systems. This way, I don’t have to look at three different programs every morning to figure out what I need to get done that day.

To put things in perspective, I spend all my working days in two apps — email and Flow. I would be lost without them.


So, that was a lot of information. What I wanted to get across is that there are a lot of free or inexpensive services out there that can make you look more professional and help you save time. What’s nice programs with low monthly costs is that you only pay for what you need and you don’t have any large, up-front expenses. The downside to these kinds of things is you are at the whim of the service owner, which makes it easier for them to change things on you. In my experience, however, monthly charges are usually the way to go. Plus, the companies I recommended in this post are rock-solid.

Keep in mind, if you are using the free version of something, you probably will get less help. If you feel like you will require a little more hand-holding, be kind and pay for at least the lowest level of service.

If you have any questions at all, feel free to email me and ask. I’m happy to help. :)