Best free programs for running your small business

Running your own business is hard. You have to do everything. Pay is… laughable, for the hours you put in. Money for business spending is tight. As a co-owner of Next Level Escape, I’ve done everything from sawing wood for props, to managing staff, to designing marketing materials, to name a few.

Along the way, I’ve found some amazing free programs that I can’t live without, and I thought I’d share them with you. Perhaps you already know of them – this is how they’ve helped our business, specifically.

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As the main person designing all marketing materials, I can’t live without Canva now. Yes, I also have a (very old!) version of Photoshop which I use for detailed designs for props and the like. But if I want to make a great-looking flyer, a gift certificate, or even an infographic, Canva is fast and easy.

It provides a lot of pre-made elements, example designs and templates, stylish fonts, and a simple drag-and-drop editor. Then there’s the little things, like a simple slider for spacing out letters in a text box, that make designing simple. I’m not a designer by trade – far from it! – but I’ve been able to make materials that look pretty good (if I do say so myself) thanks to Canva.

Best of all, it’s free if you don’t need advanced features such as exporting images with transparencies, uploading your own fonts, or canvas resizing. The latter has been a bit of pain point for me, but I’ve found as long as I ensure I have the right size from the start, it’s not an issue. That said, if you do want those additional features, the subscription cost is A$12.95 a month.


MailChimp is an email marketing platform, that allows you to upload customers’ email addresses and other details, then send a bulk mail to them. It’s also one of the easiest ways I’ve found to create slick, good-looking emails that are more than plain text or badly formatted disasters in a desktop mail client.

Most businesses use it for bulk emails to their customers, which is the platform’s main purpose. MailChimp makes it simple to create a sign-up form for a mailing list, and send a series of automated emails. If connected with a shopping cart software, you can also trigger emails after a customer purchases something from your store.

We, however, use it to send personalised emails to our players, providing their results from their game and asking for reviews. At the end of a period, usually a day or two, we upload all the player statistics to MailChimp – a simple copy-and-paste from a spreadsheet. We’ve then set up an email template that takes this information and uses a mail merge function and conditional statements to automatically create a customised email for each player with their statistics.

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It’s fast, easy, and looks so much better than our initial plain-text emails. Not to mention, we can send the mails out in batches and the relevant fields are automatically filled in.

Slack (or HipChat)

Slack is a free chat program which allows you to create your own space, set up channels, and invite users. You can also send through files and images with a simple drag-and-drop, search through those files as well as previous conversations, and add reminders to certain lines of chat, to name a few of the features. I’m told that HipChat has similar features, though we haven’t used it ourselves.

Basically, this is our IM program for our 3-person business. We use this when we want to make quick comments to one another without clogging up emails. Perhaps someone’s seen an item that could be perfect for one of our rooms – they’ll take a picture and flick it through. Or I’ve just created a new piece of audio/video for a room and want some quick feedback, so I’ll flick it across. We’re too small to make proper use of the channels, but it’s a good way to keep chat about different aspects of the business separate. And, of course, there’s the direct message feature to a single user.

What makes Slack most useful for me is the ability to quickly search through previously uploaded files and chats. If I need to find something I previously mentioned about a staff member, a quick search will give me all previous mentions, and any related files. Do note that the free version of Slack only keeps the 10,000 most recent messages. If you want it to be a proper archive, you’ll need to pay subscription costs.

Google Drive (or Dropbox and OneDrive)

This is our central repository for data. Dropbox and OneDrive are other good alternative, but we use Google Drive because we also use Google Docs and Google Sheets, which automatically save to Google Drive. The principle for all three services is still the same – a shared folder that multiple people in the business can access. Since our business has three co-owners, this is very important to us.

It also helps that all our key files for everything, from financial documents and contracts to puzzle design, has a back-up in the cloud. If my laptop dies, or is stolen, it’s not the end of the world. We still have everything we need online. If your business doesn’t currently have a back-up plan for your key documents, I would highly suggest creating one now. All of these companies provide space for free, with the option to purchase more if you need it.

Google Sheets and Docs

I mentioned this above – Google Sheets is the online equivalent of Excel, and Google Docs is similar to Word. I should note that they don’t have all the features of the Microsoft Office suite. But what they do have is excellent collaborative features. You can have the document open across multiple computers, and everyone can see and make changes in real time.

We use Google Sheets to record all player statistics, as it can be open on multiple computers at one time without causing issues. If two different people are running games and recording information, it doesn’t cause any conflicts. We’ve also left comments for one another (eg. “Is this a real email address?!”) and made changes to the document structure, such as changing how we record times, while the other person has the document open.

Square payments

This isn’t software, and there’s a small charge, but I wanted to add this in because it’s such a big part of our business. Square is a payment system that allows you to process secure card payments with your mobile phone. We found out about it from a friend, and it was ideal for a business that wasn’t earning much in the very early days.

It takes a flat 1.9% cut of all payments processed (and takes AMEX), instead of the flat fee that many banks charge for their terminals. The most basic version of the terminal that reads card chips and has a magnetic swipe is only A$29. The tap-and-pay version is A$59.

Whether a bank terminal is better for your business is something you’ll calculate based on your projected earnings. Work out 1.9% of your earnings and compare it with the bank fee for their terminals. Going with Square is best if you’re only expecting to earn a small amount each month, say $2,000 to $3,000. Any more, and the flat fee from a bank may be a better option.

One advantage we have found with using Square is the ability to quickly generate an invoice that can be emailed and paid online via credit card. We’ve found this particularly useful when taking deposits, for example.


What programs do you use for your small business? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!