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Free business software for services like accounting, marketing and email can be tempting. But when choosing small-business software, it’s important to consider its long-term fit — not just its price tag.
“There’s an advantage in paying upfront and trying to find the right solution that can meet the business’s needs where they’re at, but also where they're expecting to go,” says Joni Krolczyk, senior business consultant at the 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 disadvantages before investing your time in them.
Here are six questions that can help you tell what free software will actually cost your business, and whether these options are right for you.
1. How much support do you need?
One way some software products can afford to be free is by offering minimal customer service. If your business runs into a time-sensitive issue, for instance, you may find it frustrating to be unable to access dedicated phone support.
If live support is available, you might have to pay extra for it. For example, Wave, a free accounting software program, offers one-on-one coaching, which starts at $229 for an hour-long session and additional assistance.
2. Do you have antivirus software?
“When you are talking about free software, there’s definitely a security risk to it,” explains Scott Taber, cybersecurity specialist at the Michigan Small Business Development Center.
It’s difficult to know if the software is legitimate or has malware attached to it, he adds. That’s especially true if you’ve never heard of the product before.
Taber suggests running an antivirus or antimalware software on your computer to combat the risk. If you don’t already have such software to help protect your business from cyberattacks, this is another potential purchase you’ll have to consider making.
3. How important is usability to you?
For some business owners, user interface can be just as important as price point. At the very least, you shouldn’t dread using 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, less generic user experiences.
4. Do you rely heavily on software integrations?
Free business software programs can weigh down your business’s efficiency if they don’t integrate with your other business apps, Krolczyk warns.
For instance, your payroll system should be able to share information with your accounting system so that it can record how much money is going toward employee wages. If the integration isn’t direct and seamless, you may find yourself having to manually enter data, which is time consuming.
5. Do you want up-to-date software?
Paid software may come with regular updates, weekly or even more frequently if there are potential security issues, Taber says. That's likely not the case with free software.
"A lot of times you’ll find that free versions have either no updates or very sporadic updates," he says.
This can quickly date a product in terms of both usability and security.
6. Can this software program 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, Aparicio says. But the software has to be able to grow with your business.
If you need to transfer data from one platform to another, it might cost you.
“Depending on the size of the solution and how much data you have, you may need to hire someone to help or assist if you don’t have the technical expertise yourself,” Taber says.
This is especially true for free accounting software that stores your chart of accounts, bank information and transaction details. Ultimately, such large data transfers can end up being more drawn out than you’d like.
“It's always a bigger headache than people ever anticipate it to be,” Taber says.