Starter Web apps for small businesses

If you want to organize your business, look no further than these five online services. You won't be disappointed.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
7 min read

When a business is just starting out and its founders need to fill some administrative holes inexpensively, simple Web apps can fill the void. The apps we're going to look at here are not always good for large organizations; in fact, several are designed specifically for smaller companies that need simple but robust solutions to common business needs.

Manage projects with Basecamp
Once a company starts servicing multiple clients, it needs to manage logistics and ensure that employees are doing what's expected of them. That's where Basecamp comes in.

Basecamp is not only a simple online project coordinator, it's the best of its kind on the Web. Once you sign up, you can immediately start creating projects and share them with employees. The site features to-do list creation, the ability to share files, project progress tracking, time tracking to see which employees have been working on the project, and more. In essence, Basecamp provides a full end-to-end project management service that allows you to see how well your company is performing every step of the way.

Creating and monitoring projects in Basecamp couldn't be easier. But Basecamp is not free. Its Basic edition costs $24 per month and allows users to create and track 15 projects at the same time and store up to 3GB of data. Plans go up from there to $149 per month, which allows for an unlimited number of projects, 50GB of storage, and time tracking (the other plans don't offer time tracking). If you're looking for something simple and effective at managing your projects, Basecamp is worth the money.

Take all your notes with Evernote
Getting down to the business of taking notes and categorizing them is difficult and too time consuming. Evernote is a great tool for entrepreneurs who wants to keep all their visual and text notes organized.

Evernote comes in two flavors--free and premium. The free version allows you to take notes, snap photos, and capture Web pages with the help of a PC or Mac. Once you're done, you can upload those to the Evernote server, which then performs rudimentary OCR on your images, making it easy to find when you perform a search. The premium version, which costs $5 per month, offers 500MB of monthly storage (the free version only has 40MB of storage), better security features, and the ability to synchronize any file type to other computers or mobile phones.

Evernote works extremely well. I use it to take notes and from time to time, I upload audio and photos and within minutes, the data is categorized based on the information it includes. For example, if I search for "Windows XP," in my Evernote account, it immediately displays all the text files and audio clips that mention Windows XP. I'm constantly amazed at how easy it is to find my messy notes.

For the business world, Evernote is an ideal tool. It makes keeping meeting minutes simple and if you want to record conference calls for evaluation later, you can use Evernote to help you jog your memory. In essence, Evernote is another administrative assistant in the office. The only difference is that it's free if you don't need full support, or $5 per month if you want every feature. For a company that wants to ensure everything they do is organized well, that's nothing.

FreshBooks for billing
There are a lot of billing services on the Web and each offers its own mix of usability and applicability to a business. But if you're looking for something simple that will make it easy to monitor your billing cycles, FreshBooks is a good place to start.

FreshBooks makes it simple to manage clients, projects, and most importantly, invoices. The tool generates recurring invoices and automatically bills customers. Even better, it's relatively affordable: you can pay nothing if you need basic invoicing or pay up to $149 per month if you want more employees to access the account.

When I started using FreshBooks, knowing all the features it offers, I was expecting big things from the tool. And luckily, I was satisfied. Aside from being able to import from and export to QuickBooks and CSV files, the tool automatically integrates with payment processing solutions like PayPal and its design makes completing your invoicing tasks quick and easy. In fact, I found that I could create invoices and send them off to customers in far less time than developing rudimentary invoices myself in Word and sending them to clients that way.

Where FreshBooks really shines is in its tracking. If you're using a crude system for billing, you probably have some trouble remembering when or if you were paid. FreshBooks eliminates that issue and provides a menu pane showing outstanding payments and historical payments so you know when money is coming in. And if you're worried about the look of your invoice, you can customize it any way you'd like and even input your company logo.

FreshBooks is a great invoicing tool that I actually like better than the feature built into QuickBooks. FreshBooks is simple, it's affordable, and most importantly, it's useful.

Track employees with InOut Board
Do you want to know when your employees are getting into the office? Do you want to know when they're leaving at night? If so, look no further than the online version of InOut Board.

InOut Board tracks employee status (whether or not they're in the office), attendance, calendars, and even their phone messages with the help of a free Windows-based tracking agent. The tool also includes a company-wide instant messaging platform so your company's employees can chat with each other without using services like AIM or Google Talk.

Once deployed, InOut Board will allow you to add employees to the system and start tracking their status. When employees get into the office in the morning, they can input what time they arrived and use InOut Board to constantly update the system on what's going on in their day. Managers can also secretly track the status of employees to make sure they're working and not doing things they shouldn't while at the office. We don't love this feature.

InOut Board is an ideal tracking tool for a small company because it's lightweight and provides the basic information required by managers. The Online version is free for 30 days and if you decide you want to use it, you'll be required to pay $9.95 per month for 10 user licenses or up to $349.95 per month for 2,000 user licenses.

Presently for employee communication
Presently is, for the lack of a better analogy, Twitter with groups, for businesses. We think it's the best of the "work Twitter" products.

Presently provides companies with the tools necessary to create their own microblogging networks in the office, and it allows managers to separate all the users into groups. In other words, companies can place management into one group and lower-level employees into others so discussions can be had between members without worry of unwelcome employees joining in.

Once Presently is deployed in the office, employees who sign up for it will be automatically moved to their designated groups. They can all converse in a public forum, befriend other employees, and enjoy a companywide experience that's similar to Twitter. In my testing, creating groups and conversing with others was simple and deploying it couldn't be any easier: users need to sign up, join the respective company account, and they're ready to go.

But unlike Twitter, Presently isn't necessarily free. If you want its simplest feature set, Presently won't cost you a dime. But if you're looking for advanced administrative features and the ability to install Presently on your local network infrastructure, the company charges $1 per user per month.

Shoeboxed for all your receipts

One of the most important aspects of running a business is keeping track of receipts, so you can be sure at tax time that you're prepared to file accurate returns. And Shoeboxed will help you do just that.

Shoeboxed is unique in this roundup because it requires something the others don't: some offline action. In order to use the service, you'll need to send Shoeboxed receipts or business cards to the company via snail mail. Once the company receives your receipts, it will scan them into your account and make them available for you online, so you don't lose track of them. It's a neat idea and one that you shouldn't overlook if you have trouble remembering where you put every receipt.

But it gets better. In recent weeks, Shoeboxed has inked deals with companies like Evernote, FreshBooks, and others that allow you to link your two accounts and send your receipts directly to the aforementioned services. I sent a couple receipts to FreshBooks through Shoeboxed and realized that in terms of accounting, it was an ideal way to monitor my operation.

Like the others, Shoeboxed does offer a free version if you want less functionality and ads, but that's not really the best option. The company also offers lite, classic, and business versions, which are priced at $9.95, $19.95, and $49.95, respectively. Each offers the same features mentioned above, but differ based on the limit for the number of receipts the company will scan. I use the $19.95 version, since it's the most useful for me. If you have a large company, you might want to consider using the $49.95 version.