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The Tools You’ll Need to Start a Small Business on a Budget

10+ min read • Mar 15, 2021 • Jesse Sumrak

Starting a small business can be expensive. You need money to make money, but you don’t want to dig yourself into a financial hole early on—especially if it’s unnecessary.

Payroll and rent are always going to be your priciest expenses. There’s no getting around that. However, all the other costs add up, too. Software subscriptions, marketing expenses, productivity boosters, website hosting, customer relationship management (CRM) tools, content management systems (CMS), cloud storage—it’s a lot.

Fortunately for you, you don’t need a massive budget to get your business off the ground. We’ve compiled a list of all the fantastic tools you need to launch your startup, and they don’t cost a fortune. Some come with a low-cost, 1-time payment or plan, while others are free now—or forever.

These aren’t your average makes-sense-why-it’s-cheap software tools—they’re high-quality apps that high-growth startups and established enterprises alike use to run their companies. Take a peek below to find the software solutions you’ll need to save time, make money, and start your business.

Marketing Solutions

Two female owners checking ipad behind counter


There’s a whole world of marketing solutions out there, but they aren’t all created equal. Some only offer limited-time trials, while others severely limit the functionality of their free plans. Others cost a premium but force you into feature-heavy contracts that you don’t want.

Your startup deserves something better—so we scrounged up the top marketing software solutions that scale nicely with your brand-new business.

1. Twilio

Twilio provides all the communication tools your business could want: email, SMS, voice, chat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and more. Whether you want to create complex solutions with developer APIs or just need simple drag-and-drop message builders, Twilio has it all.

Check out Twilio Startups and apply for their special program. The program grants you free credits for both Twilio SendGrid and Twilio messaging applications—plus, you gain exclusive access to resources and connections.

If you don’t qualify for the Twilio Startups program, then try their free pricing plans. Twilio SendGrid’s free email plan lets you send 100 emails a day—forever. If you’re building a new email list and don’t need to send thousands of emails just yet, sign up for a free account and upgrade as you grow.

2. Later

You’ve probably heard about Buffer, Hootsuite, Sprout Social, and the like, but there’s another social media marketing platform you should consider: Later.

Later is a visual-first social media management tool that prioritizes images and video content, but it’s also a great all-around platform. Plan, schedule, publish, and measure the results of your social media posts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

The free-forever tier (Starter Plan) includes 1 Social Set (which is 1 linked account on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest), 30 posts per social profile (50 for Twitter), and 1 user. That’s all a small business could ever need!

Down the road, you may want additional social profiles or a higher posting cap (which really isn’t necessary, given frequency suggestions), but you can always upgrade later. See what I did there?

3. HubSpot CRM

HubSpot CRM captures, stores, and organizes all your customer data so you can track, nurture, and convert leads more effectively. It facilitates everything from signup forms to email follow-ups to ticketing and deal tracking.

This all-in-1 platform consolidates your marketing and sales tools into 1 powerhouse application. Here’s a taste of all the functionality HubSpot’s free-forever CRM solution provides:

  • Contact management
  • Custom forms
  • Landing pages
  • Ad management
  • Deal tracking
  • Live chat applications
  • Mobile optimizations
  • Email marketing, scheduling, and tracking
  • Calling
  • Ticketing
  • Chatbots

And that’s not even the half of it. Plus, this isn’t a free trial—these tools are free forever. They don’t have unlimited functionality, but you’ll get enough to cover any and all of your basic small business needs.

The free CRM plan lets you add up to 1 million (yes, million) contacts and invite your entire team for full collaboration in one place.

4. Yoast SEO

Being a founder, CEO, recruiter, salesperson, bookkeeper, marketer, and more can be a little overwhelming. However, when it comes to SEO, you need to bring your A-game to compete—and that’s where Yoast saves the day.

Yoast SEO is a free WordPress plugin that helps you optimize your website to satisfy all of Google’s teeny-tiny search engine crawlers. It provides easy-to-understand recommendations for you to tweak your homepage, landing pages, and blog posts to rank for the words you care about.

With Yoast, you don’t need to hire an SEO expert or spend hours dissecting all of Google’s latest search updates. In the future, you may need to hire a professional to fine-tune the details of your site and roadmap your site architecture—but at the get-go, Yoast has everything you need.

5. Ubersuggest

While you’re optimizing your site for SEO, give Ubersuggest’s free keyword research tool a try. It provides a suite of analytics and keyword ranking insights.

Analyze your domain (or your competitors’ domains) to see what’s working and what’s not. Or use the keyword research tool to find the long-tail keyword phrases your customers are searching for on Google. Just type in a word to see how it ranks, and then Ubersuggest will provide keyword suggestions for other similar words you can target.

Whether you’re planning new content or organizing a backlink-building campaign, Ubersuggest has what your small business needs. You can generate a limited number of reports each day on Ubersuggest’s free plan—which should be all you need unless you’re a full-time content creator or marketing agency.

Communication Apps

Business Owners working together in the shop


Internal and external communication is essential to success. Long gone are the days of conference calls and AOL Instant Messenger—even impromptu in-person chats are disappearing due to remote work and physical distancing. Now, employees spend their time bouncing between Slack channels and Zoom meetings.

Communication apps can become costly, but most offer free (or very cheap) entry-level plans. Here are a few of our favorites.

6. Slack

Slack has become one of the world’s most popular internal messaging tools. The user interface (UI) is intuitive and easy to use, and chat rooms can be organized by team, topic, and direct messaging. Slack empowers you to message, video chat, and file transfer—all within the platform.

Whether you’re a team of 2, 10, 100, or 1,000, Slack has the communication functionality you’ll need. The free plan doesn’t include many advanced features—like automation, security and data protection, and teamwork with outside organizations—but it does deliver basic messaging capabilities.

Limitations:

  • Only 10,000 messages can be searched and viewed in your workspace
  • Workspaces have up to 5GB of file storage for shared images, documents, and video files
  • Members of workspaces can add up to 10 third-party integrations

7. Zoom

Zoom is the world’s leader in enterprise video communications. It’s an easy-to-use cloud-based platform for video and audio calls, chat, webinars, and more. While Zoom has the functionality to support corporate demands, it also provides a free plan for small businesses with limited use cases.

Zoom’s free plan allows you to host up to 100 participants for 40-minute maximum group meetings—1-on-1 meetings have no time limit. That should be all you need in the early days, and you can always sign up for an affordable plan later if you need more functionality.

8. Gmail

Google’s G-Suite is a powerful collection of integrated tools that many take for granted. Gmail may seem like a simple email solution, but it provides so much more communication goodness.

Built-in integrations with Google Hangouts and Google Meet allow you to chat, share your screen, and start video calls, all from within the Gmail platform. Plus, if you’re using Google Calendars and Tasks, you can access and edit these from Gmail, too, making it a complete communications package.

Productivity and Organization Tools

Business Owners checking computer


It might seem like overkill to download a bunch of apps to simplify and organize your life, but it actually works—as long as you focus on quality over quantity. There are free software solutions for everything from project management to bookkeeping, and we’ve shared the best of the best below.

9. Asana

Manage your teams, projects, and tasks across your business with Asana. This simple project-management solution helps you plan, organize, track, and complete all your to-dos. Whether you’re strategizing a product release or making sure your HR team gets payroll completed on time, Asana is the app your small business needs.

Asana’s free plan includes unlimited tasks, projects, and storage—plus, you get access to list, board, and calendar views. Advanced features like dependencies, Gantt charts, and custom fields require a premium plan, but you’ll be surprised how much control you have with the free-forever package.

10. Trello

Trello is another project management app with a small-business-friendly free tier that takes a more visual management approach. Instead of line items, Trello uses “cards” on “boards” to organize teams and tasks.

Think of Trello like sticky notes on a whiteboard—that’s what it feels like, anyway.

Trello’s free plan provides unlimited cards, unlimited lists, and up to 10 boards per team. There’s no better option between Asana and Trello—you’ll just have to choose which task management method is more your business’s style.

11. Google Drive

Google Drive provides up to 15GB of cloud storage for free. Store, share, and access your files from anywhere (mobile or desktop). Invite your team to organize and add files to make Google Drive your cloud-hosted collaboration platform.

15GB will last you a surprising amount of time—unless you’re a photographer or videographer (then it’ll last you all of a day or week).

12. Sunrise

Simplify your bookkeeping and save more money by using Sunrise. Expense tracking, invoices, financial reports, tax assistance, digital payments—Sunrise does it all.

Best of all—it’s free. That’s right. Get full access to all that Sunrise has to offer without ever paying a penny. If you find bookkeeping is taking a bit too much time down the road, you can upgrade to a plan with a dedicated bookkeeper. But besides that, Sunrise has everything you need to do your small business’s bookkeeping at no cost.

13. Toggl

Time tracking can be essential to the work you do. Whether you want to see where you’re spending all your time or you need to track hours to bill clients, Toggl is a free, reliable time-tracking browser-based app.

You can create manual entries in Toggl, integrate your calendars, or create autotrackers to ensure the time you spend working gets documented. You can then create fancy reports to analyze your and your team’s time or forward them to clients for more transparency in the billing process.

Toggl’s free plan can have up to 5 users and includes the basics: time-tracking, timeline, auto-tracker, Pomodoro Timer, integrations, and more.

14. IFTTT (If This, Then That)

IFTTT is a web-based service that empowers you to create software triggers to automate areas of your life and work. For example, you could make an IFTTT widget that automatically posts on all your social media profiles if you upload an Instagram post. Or you could create a widget to sync your Siri to-dos with your Asana tasks.

You can find existing IFTTT conditional statements, or you can create your own. It only takes a few minutes to set up a new widget, and each widget can save you time every day—and that can add up to some serious time savings over weeks, months, and years.

Creativity and Branding

Two female owners stare at each other


Designers aren’t cheap. While they’re usually worth the price, it’s still difficult to justify forking out thousands of dollars for a logo and succinct color set in the early days.

Later? Yes. In the beginning? Probably not.

Fortunately, there are plenty of free apps and services that can provide the fundamental creativity and brand-building functionality you need.

15. Canva

Canva is a simple drag-and-drop graphic design platform that makes it easy to design, share, and download everything from business cards to logos to presentations to website hero images. The platform includes built-in templates and thousands of plug-and-play elements to help you design the perfect image—whether you’re brand-new to digital design or you’ve been around the block once or twice.

Canva’s free plan has everything you need to start designing. It provides over 250,000 free templates (yeah, that’s a lot), 100+ design categories (social media posts, presentations, resumes, etc.), free downloadable photos and graphics, real-time collaboration features, and up to 5GB of cloud storage. That’s all you’ll need to start designing your brand or putting the finishing touches on your website.

16. Grammarly

Grammarly is a free online writing assistant that uses artificial intelligence to turn your everyday writing into professional masterpieces. Yes, it provides basic grammar and plagiarism checks—but Grammarly really shines when it comes to analyzing tone and sentiment.

Once you’ve established your brand’s voice, Grammarly can help you to nail the style consistently. Whether you’re going for casual and laid-back or smart and academic, Grammarly can help improve everything from your blog posts to your website’s copy. 

17. InVision

InVision is a digital product design platform that teams can use to collaborate on taking a design from concept to reality. Whether you’re brainstorming your website’s new homepage or ideating on what the mobile app will look like, InVision’s tools will drive the process forward.

InVision’s free plan gets you limited access to all of its core products. Freehand is an endless digital whiteboard, perfect for remote team brainstorms and planning. Prototypes empowers you to build screens with built-in interactions, like clickable links and buttons.

18. Unsplash

Unsplash is a royalty-free site where you can find free images and pictures of practically anything in the world.

Unsplash’s license reads: Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.

Whether you need images to accompany your social posts or stock photos for your website, Unsplash has it all. Best of all—it’s not your typical run-of-the-mill stock photo website. Unlike other sites, you’ll have no problem quickly finding high-quality images—and there are no bait-and-switch pricing tactics once you do.

Do More for Less

Starting a brand-new business will always require some cash, but with the right foundational apps, it can cost a lot less than you think. Before you start handing over your business credit card for this-and-that subscription, check out all of these great free software tools.

You’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish on an app’s free plan—often, you’ll never need to upgrade. Start small and do more with less. All of these applications scale with your business, so you’ll never outgrow them. Begin on the free plan, and when (or if) the time comes, upgrade to a premium account.

 

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post does not, and is not intended to, constitute business, legal, tax, or accounting advice. All information, content, and materials available in this post are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this post should contact their attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor to obtain advice with respect to any particular matter.

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Jesse Sumrak

Jesse Sumrak is a Social Media Manager for SendGrid, a leading digital communication platform. He's created and managed content for startups, growth-stage companies, and publicly-traded businesses. Jesse has spent almost a decade writing about small business and entrepreneurship topics, having built and sold his own post-apocalyptic fitness bootstrapped startup. When he's not dabbling in digital marketing, you'll find him ultrarunning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Jesse studied Public Relations at Brigham Young University.