Whether you’re new to the world of entrepreneurship or you’ve been doing this for some time, you’re likely familiar with the financial strain that comes with getting a small business off the ground. When you’re your own boss, you have to wear many hats including CEO, accountant, marketer and administrative assistant. With so many responsibilities, chances are you’re always looking to streamline your operations and, of course, improve efficiencies.
Unfortunately, streamlining and efficiency come at a cost that many new business owners can’t afford. The good news, though, is that there are many free and budget-friendly solutions out there for even the tightest of budgets. And best of all, these tools don’t sacrifice quality for price.
While I’ve been using some of these tools for years, others I only recently discovered. Either way, they’ve each managed to make my small business journey a little easier and can likely help with yours, too.
Curious to know more? Keep scrolling!
Google Workspace ($8/month)
If there’s one productivity tool that I think all small business owners should invest in, it’s Google Workspace. Known formerly as G Suite, Google Workspace is a full suite of online communication and collaboration tools that covers everything from email to videoconferencing to cloud storage.
For most small businesses, Workspace’s Business Starter plan (which costs less than $8/month per user) is all you need. On top of giving you access to Google’s full suite of tools like Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Slides, Google Analytics (the list goes on), you also get 30GB of cloud storage and video conferencing for up to 100 participants.
If you’re new to the #smallbiz game and are unsure how to create your own custom email address—look no further than Workspace. Not only can you make a branded address but you can also create up to 30 aliases per user. So while your main email address might be email@example.com, you can also receive emails through alias addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Workspace was one of the first tools I invested in when I started my business and frankly, it quickly became a must-have product. I love that I can access it from any device and that all the applications integrate seamlessly with one another. It’s also been a lifesaver when it’s come to collaborating with clients; I can see their changes in real-time and, if needed, there’s a record of all the changes.
If you’re prepared to take the plunge and get started with Workspace, a word of caution: the admin console can be somewhat challenging to navigate. Fortunately, Google’s support is available 24/7 both via live chat and the phone to help you out. Just another reason to love Workspace!
Have you ever needed to present a service or product to a customer but didn’t have the time in your schedule for a one-on-one meeting? Maybe you’ve needed to put together a tutorial or training session for a client but didn’t have the necessary video editing skills. Or maybe you’re simply on the lookout for a cost-effective tool to streamline collaboration within your small team.
This is where Loom comes in. It’s a web-based video messaging and recording software that lets you record your computer screen, camera or both while also capturing your voice. Saved videos are instantly shareable and available to re-watch as many times as you need.
Loom has quickly become one of my favourite business tools. It’s user-friendly, convenient, it looks great and, best of all, it’s cheap. The Starter plan is free (yes, free!) and lets you save up to 100 screenshots and videos that are no more than five minutes in length. If you hit the limit, you can even delete old recordings to free up space—no need to upgrade if you don’t want to!
For just $8/month you can take advantage of the upgraded business plan, which gives you unlimited screenshots and videos – with no maximum length – and the ability to write or draw on your videos and add call-to-actions. You can even add your own branding.
An example of a Loom recording. (I seriously freaking love Loom!)
Another great thing about this tool is that all your recordings are automatically saved on Loom’s servers and kept behind their firewall, which is a must when dealing with client or customer information. While there are definitely comparable options to Loom out there, not all of them have this added layer of security.
Truth be told, when I first started a2aCREATIVE I gave little thought to bookkeeping. I had a very basic Excel spreadsheet that I used (inconsistently) to track my expenses. My quotes, invoices and receipts were all made in Word and lacked an overall professional look. Admittedly, my bookkeeping was all over the place. And while I knew it was bad, I also knew I didn’t have the resources to invest in a full-service business management tool like HoneyBook or Dubsado. So when I stumbled upon Wave, I couldn’t believe my luck.
At its core, Wave is all about empowering small businesses with great software at an affordable cost. They have three plans ranging from free to $20/month (plus a few minor fees) but for entrepreneurs and single-employee businesses, Wave’s free plan is a solid option. The plan allows you to run multiple businesses in a single account, track unlimited income and expenses, view real-time snapshots of your business’ performance and create estimates and invoices in lightning speed. Wave also lets you accept credit card and bank payments directly through their platform (although they’re subject to some fees), which makes for better bookkeeping.
Like any tool, Wave has its shortfalls. It doesn’t allow you to send proposals or contracts for signature and there’s no time tracking feature. The overall look of their invoicing templates is also somewhat dated, which can be an issue if you’ve already invested in a strong visual identity. These things aside however, Wave is still one of the best free account management tools out there.
Did you know that next to social media and websites, email is the most popular marketing method of distributing content? And not only is it incredibly popular but it’s also one of the best ways to retain customers and build brand loyalty with your audience.
When it comes to email marketing, there’s a ton of options out there but perhaps the most popular is Mailchimp. It’s one of the more powerful and dynamic solutions, making it the right tool for many small businesses. Over the years, Mailchimp has grown to be much more than just an email marketing platform; today, it offers e-commerce solutions, customer relationship management, built-in design capabilities, landing pages, signup forms, website integration—all to name a few. Adding to the list, it also includes in-depth insights and analytics across its many offerings.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with Mailchimp’s interface (I’ll be honest, the dashboard isn’t the most intuitive), creating emails is a breeze. If you’d prefer to build your own email instead of using one of Mailchimp’s premade templates, the tool’s drag-and-drop builder lets you create responsive layouts in minutes. For those who have coding knowledge, Mailchimp’s advanced feature lets you create your own look using HTML and CSS. There are also several built-in tools to help you improve your email’s open rates once you’ve hit “send.”
One notable drawback to Mailchimp is that recent changes to its pricing structure have resulted in higher costs for scaling businesses. For example, Mailchimp’s free plan allows you to build a single audience (think of it as a list of subscribers) with up to 2,000 contacts but once you surpass this limit or need a second audience, you’re forced to upgrade to the Essentials plan, which starts at $9.99/month. On the bright side though, the Essentials plan offers you even greater tools to help make your email marketing a success, like A/B testing, making it a worthy investment.
This wouldn’t be a list of budget-friendly solutions if I didn’t include Canva. This DIY design tool is a must for nearly all small businesses with an online presence. With more than 250,000 templates for social media, presentations and stationery, hundreds of photos and graphics and the ability to collaborate with team members – all included in its free basic plan – Canva is the ultimate dream for the small business on a budget. For businesses that have the financial means to invest in the tool’s Pro plan (which runs for $150 CAD/year), Canva offers even more templates and graphics, expanded editing tools and the ability to schedule content to your social media channels.
An Instagram post template in Canva
But Canva isn’t without its limitations. Its templates, while modern and clean, are relatively easy to spot, which can make for an overall unoriginal and bland look across your brand. The tool also has technical limitations (for example, you can’t upload and use custom fonts), which makes for a frustrating experience when trying to manipulate templates.
This aside, Canva is a great solution. Ultimately though, it doesn’t replace the quality, skill and results that you would get from working with a designer. It’s a solid option for small businesses that are just getting off the ground but as your business grows and you begin to make a profit, I would suggest relying less on Canva and investing in custom brand design. Like almost everything in your business, you get out of it what you put into it, and good branding is always worth the investment.
There’s no question about it—starting your own business can be expensive. But does it have to be break-your-bank expensive? Absolutely not.
Although these are some of the productivity tools that have become staples in my business, there are many more that can go a long way in supporting you on your small business journey. If you’re on the hunt for new tools that can save you time and money, be sure to subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Chronicles of a Creative below—I’ll be dropping an even bigger and better list in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you’re not using these five tools already, be sure to give them a try. I promise you won’t regret it!
Chronicles of a Creative is my monthly newsletter where I share all things branding, design and business.