Lucky you, bootstrapper. With an abundance of free software and low-cost, low-commitment services, it's not a bad time to be trying to finance your technology needs on your own. We've compiled and condensed the best bits of advice, as well as how-to guides and expert interviews from Inc. articles to give you ideas for how to do tech on a shoestring.
1. Keep your website simple, and grow it organically.
If you start small, there's no harm in going cheap. Three years ago, Fred Mwangaguhunga launched MediaTakeOut.com, a blog focusing on urban gossip that is beating similar sites run by much larger companies. He says: "It cost $19.99 for the Yahoo account and about $7.99 for the domain name. Because I'm from a small business background, I operate this as a small business. We're lean in everything we do, and every expense is looked at to see how it will affect the bottom line. I want to maintain profitability and grow organically." Read more.
2. Need IT? Get it virtually.
In May, John Brandon wrote about three virtual tech-support services that could save your small business a costly hire. From iYogi (which offers support for one year for one computer for $149) to Support.com ($199 for unlimited support on one computer) to PlumChoice (which serves both Macs and PCs, with service starting at $10/month), there are options for different small budgets – and different levels of hold-time tolerance. Read more.
3. Invest in reliable, but inexpensive, hardware.
- Check out the best printers for less than $1,000.
- Get advice on setting up servers and routers.
- Learn the latest on laptops.
4. Or, just lease your equipment.
For small businesses just starting out, or even well established companies looking to save a little money, opting to lease equipment instead of purchasing can make a big difference when it comes to budgets and balance sheets. Leasing office supplies that need to be replaced every couple of years, like a Xerox machine, will make it possible for your company to upgrade to the latest versions without having to pay an exorbitant cost. Read more.
5. Master Google tools.
As you build your small company's web presence, you'll want to consider some of Google's basic services that can boost your online profile for free – or at minimal cost. There's Google Checkout as a payment option, and Google Base and Google Merchant Center to create highly-indexed product listing. (If you're in online sales, you can also try Google Analytics to monitor customer interest, and Google Apps to provide the company's e-mail, calendar and document collaboration systems.) Read more.
6. Working from home? Consumer tools rule.
In his Inc. cover story on going virtual, Max Chafkin wrote: "Repeat after us: The technology doesn't matter as much as you think it does. The more time we spent out of the office, the less we even thought about the technology. Most virtual employees can do their jobs with a laptop, some free software programs, an Internet connection, and not a whole lot else." Taking advantage of consumer tools, such as Gmail, Skype, and Dropbox is not only free, but some think it is better. Paul Graham, who co-founded a business software company before starting Y Combinator, a small-scale venture capital fund, says: "one of the advantages of going virtual is that you escape crappy enterprise software and get to use the cheap consumer stuff." Example: use Skype for free calls and save $700 or more on phone service per employee. Read more.
7. Use existing sites for online sales.
If you're in sales, there are plenty of websites that would love to host your goods – and will save you thousands in setting up a stand-alone online storefront and doing payment processing. The old standby, eBay, has been spruced up by adding stores to its vendor offerings, and now boasts more than 2 million sellers, nearly 800,000 of whom consider eBay their primary or secondary source of income. Meanwhile, handcrafted-and-vintage-good storefront hub Etsy is thriving. Last year, Etsy sold $180.6 million-worth of goods. Some aspiring entrepreneurs have even quit their day jobs to pursue their Etsy "store" as a career. Read more about Etsy. Read more about eBay.
8. Get free apps for that.
Some of the best Apple applications for business are free, writes Marc Saltzman. The $499 price tag on one model of the iPad might max out your credit card if you buy a couple, but won't cause you to go running to investors. Check out WebEx for iPad, which is a conference call tool that allows for brainstorming sessions and presentation sharing. It lets data be shared in real-time – and makes meetings portable. There's also Square, a free app that allows a business to securely accept both cash and credit-card payments on the spot. The app will generate an e-mail or text message to confirm the transaction. Read more.
9. Use virtualization software.
If you already have servers, there's a good chance some of them are underused. "In very many cases, we see that IT departments buy more than they need," says Robert Houghton, president of electronics recycler Redemtech. Using virtualization software helps the IT department optimize the computing power of each server, reports Kasey Wehrum. The software, which essentially turns each server into several virtual machines, lets the IT department easily swap applications from one server to another if one gets overloaded. Because servers are more fully utilized, that reduces the number of them you must buy, maintain, power, and cool. Read more.
10. Keep IT green from the start.
Today's computers are typically 40 percent to 50 percent more energy efficient than machines from just a few years ago, says Pat Tiernan, executive director of the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, a consortium of green-minded companies. "About half of the energy older equipment sucks out of the socket is just wasted as heat," he says. Tiernan recommends shopping for Energy Star–rated computers that have at least an 85 percent efficiency rating. "Laptops have been designed soup to nuts for power efficiency," says Tiernan. Also, powering down computers at night, not using screen savers, and remembering to use power cords to eliminate phantom power draw are simple money savers. For maximum electricity savings, make sure you share your energy bill with your IT department. Knowing what energy costs will give them the opportunity to do better, and save your business money. Read more.