Useful sites for small business

Nearly all the tools you need to run a small or midsize company are within reach of any Web browser

Whether you're running a business out of your den or from a penthouse in the sky, you don't have time or money to waste on second-rate tools. These well-designed services and resources are among the best the Web offers for small and midsize businesses. Some include apps for smartphones and downloads for your desktop, but all of them provide the bulk of their features within a Web browser.

Productivity

In the land of full-featured productivity suites, the battle royal rages on between Google Apps for Business and Microsoft Office 365. Upstart Zoho, meanwhile, has a loyal fan base of its own. We tend to prefer Google's tools for lean companies with little need for the desktop Office applications included with Office 365.

The free note-taking tool Evernote works in your browser, on the desktop, and on nearly any mobile device, so you really can carry your notes with you. If you've uploaded handwritten notes from a digital pen or a tablet, its basic OCR (optical character recognition) function might even read your handwriting to help you find a "needle" in a haystack of notes. For shared notebooks and video, Evernote costs $45 per year. (Evernote looks eerily similar to Microsoft OneNote. The latter tool is much clunkier in a Web browser, but worth checking out if you own a Windows Phone 7 handset.)

VMWare's SlideRocket is a beautiful, cloud-based alternative to PowerPoint (and Google Docs' weak Presentations). All of your content lives on SlideShare's servers, so team members can see one another's changes in real time. You can easily share and embed slideshows, or conduct a Web meeting to walk people through them. SlideRocket costs $24 per person per month.

Need to brainstorm in a more structured way than in a long text list? Want to visualize your thoughts in a flowchart? Mind-mapping tool SpiderScribe is a breeze to get started with, and it's free.

Communications

If you conduct business from multiple phones (who doesn't?), Google Voice is a godsend. It provides one phone number that rules all of your other ones, so you can white-out all the other digits on your business card. You can use this number to forward calls to your other lines, record calls, and even set your existing phone number as the Google Voice master. Its voicemail text transcriptions produce great bloopers sometimes, but usually communicate the gist of a message. You'll find a decent Web dashboard, too, not to mention myriad mobile apps.

HipChat enables private, browser-based instant messaging among groups, with companion mobile apps for taking the conversation on the go. The service costs $9 per month for a dozen users, with plans reaching to $99 for 100 members (and beyond to enterprise-level support).

Security

Do you stash your login secrets in plain text in a Word doc? Shame on you. Passpack stores your passwords safely, and lets you share them with individuals and workgroups. It offers daily backups and AES-256 SSL connection, with your data encrypted and decrypted in the browser. Passpack is free for two users storing 100 passwords, with monthly business plans priced between $1.50 and $40 for keeping between 1000 and 10,000 passwords, all the way up to 1000 users.

Proxify comes in handy when you want to surf securely on a public Wi-Fi connection at an airport or café. Just enter the URL, say, of the bank you wish to log in to, and it allows you to choose to strip cookies, scripts, ads, and more once you arrive. If a shady-looking filename or URL gives you the stranger-danger vibe, submit it to VirusTotal, which will tell you whether it's safe to open or whether it should go into your virtual recycling bin. To help your employees better detect online threats, include a link to StaySafeOnline in your company handbook.

Office Space

The Coworking Wiki is a great place to get acquainted with alternative, shared office spaces that you can rent by the month, day, or hour. Loose Cubes and DeskWanted match people seeking a temporary work room--or at least a cubicle--of their own with those offering space. If you're in the market for longer-term digs, WorkSnug rates available office rentals in many major cities.

Working Remotely

Both LogMeIn and GoToMyPC let you access a faraway PC securely. The LogMeIn Pro version is $70 per computer each month, or $50 or less per month for at least five computers. GoToMyPC Pro costs $20 per month for up to 50 users. But LogMeIn starts with a free option, while GoToMyPC's basic plan costs $10 per month. Each service offers mobile options as well.

Trip Planning

Frequent flyers swear by TripIt, which collects your jumble of travel plans into elegant itineraries for your iPhone, iPad, Android smartphone, or BlackBerry. When you receive a confirmation email message for a flight, a hotel stay, or a rental car booking, just forward it to TripIt.

Hipmunk's unique airfare finder displays flight options in a handy grid. Rather than forcing you to start each search anew, it arranges each search in a tab. It gets points for sorting flights by "agony" factor, too. And as long as you're using the same browser as last time, it saves your latest searches even if you haven't logged in.

If you're not loyal to a single airline, check out UsingMiles, which is built to help you manage multiple mileage accounts--as well as loyalty programs for hotels, credit cards, and car rentals. Too bad you can't get your miles to count like they did in 1999.

Raising Capital

You're sitting on an out-of-this-world recipe for nano-cupcakes, but you lack the capital to whip them up in batches big enough to sell. Luckily, crowdfunding websites let you ask total strangers for cash to get your fledgling venture rolling. Kickstarter is the best-known option, but IndieGoGo has some advantages: Namely, IndieGoGo lets you keep most of the money you've raised, even if you haven't reached your initial goal. With Kickstarter, on the other hand, if you fall even $1 short of your $4000 goal, then no cash for cupcake batter for you.

Looking for more-traditional ways of securing small-business credit? MoodysBiz includes a helpful tutorial and risk-assessment tool. RaiseCapital aims to take the middleman out of the venture-capitalist-and-starving-entrepreneur relationship; post your business pitch there in hopes of attracting the deep pockets that be.

The Law

Legal Zoom steps you through common legal processes, such as setting up a limited liability company; an LLC setup, for example, starts at $99. Rocket Lawyer provides copious articles and free forms, such as for nondisclosure agreements. It can even help you create an employee policy handbook. Once you log in, its dashboard includes a calendar, access to advice from lawyers, and a numeric score of your legal health.

If you snubbed the attorneys at your cocktail party, where can you turn for a basic legal question? You might try Law Pivot, a Q&A site where lawyers specializing in everything from administrative law to workers compensation are available to answer.

Career Building

Are you offering your new assistant a competitive wage? Is your cubicle buddy making more money than you? Maybe they've reported their earnings to PayScale or Salary.com. When you tell each site your salary, it taps into its database of responses from other users to estimate if you're getting a fair shake.

GetRaised goes a step further by assessing, for free, if you're possibly underpaid; then, for $20, it guides you through a custom raise request with your boss. If you don't receive a bump in your bottom line within six months, you get your Jackson back. Next, JobSpice will step you through crafting a killer résumé.

Look Bigger Than You Are

Whether you need a virtual secretary, a Web app developer, or an SEO expert, BPOVIA has a stable of virtual assistants offering to help from afar. It starts at $120 per month for 10 hours of services, all the way up to ten times that amount for full-time help.

ZenDesk provides a virtual help desk for companies that require customer support and can't keep up with flooded inboxes and never-ending help-desk tickets. It charges between $9 and $119 per month, depending on how many support agents you enlist.

Managing the Paper Trail

You'll reduce papercut injuries by signing up with EarthClassMail--as long as you don't mind strangers' opening, scanning in, and uploading your snail mail to a private website for your online reading. The service will recycle junk mail, shred sensitive stuff, or ship items to you that you'd rather handle in person. It starts at $20 per month for 100 pieces of mail, or double the price for double the volume.

Alas, some people still insist on doing business via fax. If your fax machine already went under the sledgehammer, FaxZero lets you fax a .doc, .docx, or PDF file for free. An ad will follow your document out of the recipient's machine, but you can eliminate that with a $10-per-month subscription or a $2 one-time fee. HelloFax performs the same job, with no ad the first five times you use it. After that, the pricing is pretty much even with FaxZero's, but the service offers pricier options for power faxers.

Shoeboxed wants your receipts, expense reports, and business cards. Either snap a smartphone photo of each item and email it, or pack up your piles and mail them to the service. Shoeboxed will scan your pages and make the data available for export. It provides unlimited storage for free, plus paid and multiuser options with more features for up to $50 per month.

Time Tracking, Billing, and Accounting

Both Harvest and FreshBooks offer time tracking, billing, and bookkeeping tools ideal for service-based businesses. FreshBooks, $20 monthly, has a clean interface, plus integration with Basecamp for project management. Harvest also works with Basecamp, as well as with Google Docs, Outright, and other services; it costs $12 per month for an individual, and up to $90 for ten users. Harvest has more features, but neither service offers accounting.

Think of InDinero as Mint.com for small businesses. It imports data from your bank, credit card, and other accounts (including Harvest and FreshBooks), after which it spells out where your money is flowing, through handy charts. You'll pay from $20 to $50 monthly for more features. At $10 per month, Outright provides a similar financial dashboard. It integrates with other services for invoicing and payables, which are baked into InDinero.

Then again, for more features under one roof, you can always turn to another little name in accounting software that you may have heard of: QuickBooks. Intuit's accounting and bookkeeping package dominates the field, although reviewers often wish that its online versions better mirrored the desktop software.

Managing Customers

When it comes to choosing a customer relationship managment service, Salesforce is overkill for smaller businesses. But you'll get a wide range of CRM features alongside usability in Landslide, which starts at $29 each month for a team of five. Insightly is a solid but lean option to add to your Google Apps suite--and it's free for three users.

Scheduling Appointments

Schedulicity lets your company pop an appointment-scheduling widget onto Facebook, as well as on your own website. The color-coded appointments integrate with your Google, Yahoo, Outlook, and iCal calendars. You can make recurring and split appointments, and even triple bookings. Smartphone and iPad editions are available, too. You pay $19 per month for one person, or $40 for up to 20 staff members.

Genbook, similarly, lets you add a 'BookNow' button to your site and then schedule appointments. It costs the same as Schedulicity, but its mobile components are iOS-only.

vCita provides a professional contact card that you can embed on other sites, featuring options to schedule a phone call or video meeting. It could use more creative design options, but it's a great way to offer your expertise to potential clients. vCita is free if you don't charge for your sessions, or up to $22 per month.

Storage and Backup

Dropbox, in just a few years, has made backup and file sharing almost sexy for consumers. But it isn't the best cloud-storage service for business.

That honor should go to Box.net. You get 5GB of storage free--more than twice the Dropbox free limit--or you pay $15 per user each month, up to 500GB and 500 users. The paid Business option includes role-based access and granular administrative controls. If you're looking for all-you-can-eat storage, its Enterprise plans are negotiable, and they toss in custom branding, group-based access, and dedicated support.

Web Design

When we took a closer look at five DIY Web design services earlier this year, we noted that many offered similar features. But Weebly stood out for being the friendliest for beginners to get a website off the ground. In addition, it creates a mobile-optimized site without making you work any harder. You'll get a lot of features for free, or the option to manage ten websites for $4 per month.

Marketing

Email newsletters aren't quite as old-school as direct snail mail is, and they're a surprisingly effective marketing staple for companies that play nicely and don't spam. MailChimp helps you design attractive newsletters, share them on social networks, and email up to 12,000 messages to 2000 subscribers in a month for free. You'll pay between $10 to $240 a month, depending on how many inboxes you reach.

Which Web services do you live, work, and swear by? Suggest more awesome options in the comments.

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