9 Free Programs That’ll Help You Build a Side Business


The traditional view of a small business is changing.

There was a time when building a business involved joint ventures and angel investors. It involved asking the bank for a big business loan to cover overhead costs until you turn a profit. If you had the dream to start a business, you needed to invest a lot of money.

No more – today’s business, particularly a web-based business, has very little overhead.

Want to start writing for a living? Have a service that you wish to offer? You can build a business presence with free software that has all the features you need to get started.

Here are 9 different software alternatives to “brand name” software that can get your business up and running quickly, with no financial investment:

  • LibreOffice/Google Docs (replaces Microsoft Word/Powerpoint/Excel)
    First, if you need to work with documents, you need software that can handle them. Unfortunately, while Word is the standard, Microsoft has priced it out so that any business looking for the latest software with no money is left in the dust. LibreOffice (formerly OpenOffice) is a powerful, free desktop office suite that can handle virtually all types of documents. With LibreOffice, you won’t miss Microsoft Office for a second.

    If you want to go even lighter on your desktop, you can use Google Docs, which lives entirely within your Web browser. Again, you can use these tools to replace Microsoft Office pretty easily, and if you don’t need to do any ultra-fancy formatting, they are more than adequate.

  • Gmail (replaces Microsoft Outlook)
    If you have separate business and personal email addresses, the last thing you want is to have to switch back and forth between them. Many people use Microsoft Outlook to handle all of their email addresses, so that they only have one place that they have to look. Instead, try using Gmail. Gmail makes it easy to handle multiple email addresses, and it runs light and quick. So if you need to search through your vast backlog of email, you have the speed and power of Google behind it. Gmail offers a number of other great little tools, but the ability to easily handle multiple email addresses is at the top of the list.
  • Evernote (replaces OneNote)
    Brainstorming is a valuable practice in a business. Whether you are keeping track of your latest ideas or just fleshing out your latest campaign, having a centralized place to store your thoughts is valuable. Microsoft OneNote is a handy piece of software, but it is expensive. Instead, sign up for Evernote, and store your thoughts online. There, you can access them from anywhere so if you are out and about and have that great business idea, you can pull out your phone and get it into Evernote (via an Evernote app or by texting through Twitter) so that you will not forget it. Their excellent notebook/tagging organizing scheme makes finding any of your thoughts as efficient as possible.
  • Spreadsheet/ClearCheckbook (replaces Microsoft Money/Quicken)
    Tracking all of your expenses and income is a hassle, especially if you have separate business expenses. While many choose to use Mint for their finances, I much prefer handling the transaction record keeping myself. Set up a spreadsheet in LibreOffice or Google Docs (Google Docs even has a great template for it), and you can keep track of your finances on your own. Or, you can use a service like ClearCheckbook, which gives you a few more reporting options. Either way, the bloated price of dedicated financial software just isn’t worth it.
  • MailChimp (replaces Aweber)
    The power of your business is in your email list. You need subscribers that are interested in hearing from you on a regular basis, so put a sign-up box on your home page and encourage people to sign up to receive updates, free reports, etc. The industry standard seems to be Aweber, which is a very powerful tool, but it comes at a cost. Instead, MailChimp offers free emailing for a large number of subscribers, so you can keep your overhead low while you build your list (their interface is a little more pleasant, too, in my book).
  • Google Voice (replaces a separate phone line)
    If you are dealing with clients, you don’t want to be passing out your home phone number or your personal cell number, either. Who has the money to afford a separate business line? Instead, sign up for a free phone number from Google Voice and have it routed to your cell phone or your home phone. Then, you can block numbers, set up special voice mail messages, and do a ton more without having to pay for a separate line or service.
  • Gimp (replaces Adobe Photoshop)
    One of the “necessary evils” of graphic design has been Photoshop. A powerful and useful tool, Photoshop is also incredibly expensive. If you are looking to save money, Gimp is a free tool that works very similarly to Photoshop. The interface is slightly different, but once you use it (and search around for a few tutorials), you can use it for plenty of graphic design and desktop publishing purposes.
  • Scribus (replaces Adobe InDesign)
    Creating a publication, whether it is a magazine or a newsletter, can be a pain without the right software. Again, Adobe claims the standard with InDesign, but Scribus is a free tool that offers much of the same functionality, allowing you to create elegant and beautiful PDFs and printed documents with little hassle (and no cost).
  • Ubuntu (replaces a new computer)
    Finally, if you want to run a business but worry that your old computer can’t handle it, you may be looking at getting a new computer. But instead of wasting hundreds of dollars on a new PC or Mac, try installing Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a version of Linux that feels and acts a bit like Windows or Mac OS X, but without the bloat. You may be able to give that old computer new life and save yourself an expensive purchase.

There are plenty of ways you can build a business online, and you do not need to spend an arm and a leg to do it. Use some of these free software alternatives, and you’d be surprised how quickly and easily you can get moving. Now, if you want to build a business on the side, you have nothing standing in your way!

Written on 6/14/2011 by Tom Meitner. Tom is a freelance writer who helps average people reach their goals at The Practical Nerd, and he publishes a free digital magazine devoted to making your life awesome at HustleLife. Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass

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