There are thousands of Cloud applications out there that can help a business or a team work more effectively, and many of them have free, starter options that might be perfectly adequate for a small business. David Terrar guides you through a selection.

There are thousands of Cloud applications out there that can help a business or a team work more effectively, and many of them have free, starter options that might be perfectly adequate for a small business.

That’s the ”Freemium” business model, where the company offers a free service for a small number of users, or a limited set of options in the hope that your business will grow or you will roll the solution out to a larger group, and so upgrade to a paid for premium or enterprise edition.

There are some apps that every business should be using, but at the very least you should consider trying some of these to test how the cloud can help your business. Here are a few ideas along with a pointer to some directories where you can search for several thousand more:

Collaboration

Google Docs - Allows a group of people to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings up in Google’s cloud for free. All you need is a Google account and you can invite people in to share the document you are working on by email. All of the changes are tracked by user. You can upload existing office documents and spreadsheets and straight away you are avoiding the syndrome we are all used to - if you emailed the spreadsheet to 4 people, the second it left your inbox you were out of control with 5 copies of that same document, so who’s got the latest version? With Google Docs you avoid all that. After a while you will consider upgrading to Google Apps for Business.

Writeboard - You create a sharable, web based text document that lets you save every edit, roll back to a previous version, and compare changes. It’s like a whiteboard in the cloud that everyone you’ve invited in can see and use. It’s completely free. It’s from 37Signals who hope that using it will trigger you to consider their other collaboration products.

Wikispaces - If you want to create a free wiki for a project, or a team or maybe product documentation, then try this. It has a all of the features you would expect from a good wiki, allowing a group of people to create and organise the content to create a “Wikipedia” style web space on the topic of your choice. The basic version is free supported by adverts, but you can upgrade to remove the ads and make your wiki private for as little as $5 a month.

Doodle - This is a free service that helps you schedule a meeting by email. You create a date/time poll of when you are free, mail it to a group and they all fill in when they can meet (in one place). It can dramatically cut down the back and forth that can turn in to a scheduling nightmare. The free version is ad supported, but you can upgrade for more features and to make it ad-free.

Skype - I hope you are using Skype already. If you aren’t you (or your company) should be ashamed of yourselves. It gives you free skype user to skype user chat, calls, videoconferencing and screen sharing. It’s great for customer support and collaboration. It doesn’t have all of the features of commercial web meeting software like Webex or GoToMeeting, but it’s free! You can buy additional services, like low cost International calls to landlines and mobiles.

Business Apps - CRM, ERP, Invoicing

Really Simple Systems - RSS is Europe’s largest provider of cloud based Customer Relationship Management software. If you are used to things like ACT! or Goldmine, then this does more than those for less. It’s free for 2 users and up to 100 accounts (customers, suppliers, partners) and additional users start at £10/month.

Zoho CRM - Like RSS, this provides comprehensive sales force automation, marketing and customer support too. It’s free for up to 3 users, and the paid for version gives you more users and added features like inventory, workflow and additional security. It’s also part of a family of products that cover collaboration including wikis, documents, chat, calendar management and more.

Freshbooks - This is an invoicing solution that can help you track time, organize expenses and create professional invoices for print or for online billing and payment collection. It’s free for unlimited invoicing of up to 3 clients, and then you can upgrade to 25 clients for $19.95 a month.

myERP - This is an integrated CRM, invoicing, inventory, expenses and accounting solution (although the accounting hasn’t yet been fully Anglicised). It covers a fairly comprehensive set of functions for the average commercial business, and it’s free for 2 users. It integrates with Google apps and has quite a novel, search based user interface. The premium version gives you additional users for $29/month.

Cloud directories

If you want to find more than 1001 cloud based options, then here are two places to look:

AppStorm - Reviews and explanations of the web tools that are available, and covers mobile devices, Macs and PCs too.

GetApp.com - A business software marketplace with 4,557 applications and tools across just about every application area you can think of in the directory at time of writing.

And so in conclusion, there are plenty of excellent cloud based productivity, collaboration and business tools with a free option to get you started. For some small businesses that could provide a lot of support and help with no cost other than the time and effort to set them up. At the very least you should be using some of these to help you do your job better. You should also use this as a route to start exploring what commercial cloud apps can do for your business.

David Terrar is a consultant and software developer who specialises in the use of Cloud applications and social media in business. He is a co founder of Cloud Advocates, an association of consultants who aim to demystify the Cloud and provide pragmatic help and advice for businesses, organizations and accounting practices. To find out more, visit www.cloudadvocates.com