Five Free Programs Every Business Owner Should Use

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A couple of weeks ago, I offered tips on how to launch a business on the cheap. Today let's talk about running the business you already have. How can you keep costs low but efficiency high?

Start with software. If you're spending (or planning to spend) money on commercial software for your business, chances are good there's a free or open-source alternative that can do the job just as well.

I rounded up a few attractive candidates in part 2 of the aforementioned dirt-cheap-startup post, but those were mostly for individual use.

Today, let's look at five incredible utilities--all of them free--designed for business operations. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what money can't buy.

1. Microsoft Security Essentials

Perfect for smaller shops, Microsoft's free (and highly rated) antivirus utility can be used on up to 10 PCs. (I'm not sure what would prevent you from installing it on, say, 30 or 40 PCs, but Microsoft says that 10 is the limit.)

This has the potential to save you hundreds of dollars annually on security software. I'm running it myself on five machines, and it has performed quickly, quietly, and efficiently on every one of them.

2. OpenProj

Designed to replace Microsoft Project (which, incidentally, sells for a thousand bucks), OpenProj offers a full roster of project-management features: Gantt Charts, Network Diagrams, WBS and RBS charts, Earned Value costing, and so on.

Plus, it's cross-platform compatible (Windows, Mac, and Linux), unlike the Windows-only Project.

3. OrangeHRM

You spend enough money on human resources without paying for HR software on top of it. OrangeHRM is a complete human-resource management program designed for SMBs. It includes modules for things like personnel information management, leave management, time and attendance, and benefits. There's even a self-service module that employees can use to update their own information. This is a killer tool for companies looking to manage HR on the cheap.

4. Soluto

Does your PC take a week to boot up? Are you constantly fielding "My computer is slow!" complaints from employees? Before you cave and spend all kinds of money on new machines, try installing Soluto. This ingenious free utility makes PCs boot faster. (The latest version also keeps installed software up to date.) I'm running it myself on my desktop and laptop, and it has improved the boot times on both of them considerably. It's the kind of thing you or your IT manager would have to deploy one PC at a time, but it's worth the effort--and it should help quell the complaints.

5. Spiceworks

Whether you're the IT guy in charge of your company's ten PCs or you have a staff managing a thousand of them, your business needs a comprehensive approach to network monitoring. Spiceworks, arguably one of the best free IT tools of all time, offers network management and monitoring, a user helpdesk, equipment inventory, and lots more. The latest version even comes with Android and iPhone counterparts for easy systems management on the go.

Have you found any other free/open-source gems for running a business? Tell me about them in the comments.

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