The Way We Work
December 6, 2011 by Julia Camenisch

Just in time for the gift-giving season, here is a list of things you can get for yourself: 20 tools that will help empower and grow your small business or freelancing career.

Whether you need help giving your marketing efforts a facelift or sorting paperwork, this list has something for everyone. With a price tag of $0, you will not lose anything by taking any of these apps for a test spin. Treat yourself!

Business tools

  • Enloop – Business plans: The essential tool we love to hate. Having one is critical for your business, but writing one – and maintaining it – is often seen as tedious and complicated. If you find this task a little cheerless, take a look at Enloop. This handy app purports to help you generate your plan, figure out financials, and even predict your chances of success. Plus, once you get your plan together, Enloop helps you share it with other business owners for them to critique.
  • Dropbox – We have highlighted Dropbox several times here on the oDesk blog, but it is worth another mention. This cloud-based file sharing program automatically updates files and syncs with all of your machines. Perfect for the entrepreneur on the go.
  • Prezi – Engaging presentations are a must when you are trying to woo customers or investors. Prezi is cloud-based software that lets you create visually-compelling presentations, then share them through the Prezi site or on your own web page. You can also work simultaneously with team members to create a presentation using Prezi Meeting.
  • StringHub – It is a perfect pairing: College students who want to test their skills in areas like graphic design, programming and marketing, and cash-strapped businesses who need extra help. To bring the two together, StringHub allows a business to submit a project, then encourages students to volunteer to help for class credit. While quality can be an issue, it is still a worthwhile option for simple jobs you need to finish that do not fit into your budget.
  • Freemind – Need to organize your research on a subject? Looking for a way to plan an article or brainstorm around a project? Freemind is an open source mind-mapping program that helps you order your thoughts in intricate and detailed ways.
  • Sprouter – Similar to Quora, Sprouter is a forum where you can pose your business-related questions and expect to get answers. The difference? Anyone can answer questions on Quora but Sprouter has a pre-chosen panel of experts that will respond with quality information.

Marketing tools

  • UnBounce – Customized landing pages are the perfect tool for you use to test your marketing ideas and improve the results of your advertising campaigns. UnBounce is the perfect tool for creating those pages without hiring a web developer. While the company does not offer a long-term free plan, they do have a 30-day trial period – just long enough for you to try out some of your ideas without paying a dime.
  • BlogTalkRadio – Want to have your own online radio show? BlogTalkRadio will help get you started. All you need is a phone and a computer. You can host guests, chat live with listeners, embed the player on your site and build a fan base. If you have something to say, here is a way to say it!
  • MailChimp – Ready to start an email newsletter? MailChimp offers a lot of features including Facebook integration, interactive newsletters, custom branding, RSS-to-email and Google analytics. Chances are the free version is all you need: It allows you to manage as many as 2,000 subscribers and send up to 12,000 emails each month.
  • Tweet Alarm – It can be a pain to monitor Twitter for @mentions or important keywords; make the process easier with Tweet Alarm. This app sends you an email message whenever a Tweet appears about any subject you have flagged based on keywords you feed it. One of its handy features is the ability to ignore tweets from certain users, a feature you can activate directly from the email notifications.
  • SnapEngage – When customers have issues, your website is one of the first places they will look for help. Make sure your contact information is easy to find, and give them instant access to your customer support team using the customer chat tool from SnapEngage. With their free version, you are allowed up to 30 chats per month and one live agent.

Development tools

  • Project Locker – If your development team is geographically spread out, Project Locker is a great collaboration tool for you. Source control and issue tracking solutions are available, plus the program integrates with Basecamp and Fogbugz, so your team can communicate more effectively.
  • Google Page Speed – This collection of open source tools from Google allows you to test, evaluate and optimize the performance of your web page. It includes Page Speed Mobile so you can analyze how your site works within mobile browsers.
  • JotForm – Need a submission form? Try JotForm. This easy-to-use form builder uses a drag-and-drop method to build forms. Once you have created the form you need, simply integrate it into your site and any submissions will be sent to you by email.
  • Gimp – If you do not want to pay the bill for Photoshop, Gimp is your open source (and free) alternative. Admittedly, it is not as slick or polished as its Adobe competitor, but for the price tag Gimp is a surprisingly robust offering and has a dedicated community of users you can turn to for help and how-to information.
  • Color Scheme Designer – If you make the wrong decision, a task as seemingly simple as choosing a complementary color scheme can make a your website look hideously ugly. If you do not have a natural eye for colors, take advantage of this free tool.  The Color Scheme Designer site allows you to create various color schemes then demo how they would look on an actual website.
  • Cacoo – From infographics to flowcharts, diagrams are an effective communication tool. Cacoo is a web app that provides dozens of stencils, backgrounds and alignment options to help you create the perfect chart for your project.

Financial tools

  • Harvest – Harvest is an easy, web-based invoicing and time-tracking system. You can get the Harvest app for your Android or iPhone so you can track the time you spend on client projects from anywhere. The free version allows you to track and invoice up to four clients at a time.
  • Shoeboxed – See that stack of receipts, bills and other miscellaneous papers you keep shoving to the side? You cannot throw them away but who has room to file them all? Cut the clutter with Shoeboxed, an online document storage and management app. With the free version, you unfortunately have to enter the data yourself, but then you can categorize and sort expenses by name or date.
  • GnuCash – An open source accounting software for both personal and small business use, GnuCash is completely free. It uses the double-entry bookkeeping system to help you keep track of funds. The software has plenty of useful features, but GnuCash does not have the prettiest interface on the market. That said, functionally it is definitely a viable QuickBooks alternative.

Some of these tools have been around for a while – have you used any of them? What did you think? Leave your reviews and recommendations in the comments section below.


Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.