5 Great Software Titles for Small Businesses
By Dan Horne

If you run a small business, chances are you're too busy to keep to keep tabs on software that can add real benefit to staff and customers alike. Here are five great products, covering a spectrum of uses. The criteria for selection? They have excellent utility value, and provide a lot of functionality for their price.

1. Act! 6.0 Contact Management

Act 6.0! Every interaction recorded
Can you easily find the emails you sent to your customers, or do you have to sort through the sent folder? What sales are in the pipeline? Where is the letter you sent to your top prospects? Have you ever had a customer phone up about a problem raised with your salesperson last week, but you had no record of their issue?

Many small businesses have an ad hoc record of their customer interactions. Files are stored in arbitrary folders, and emails are in private inboxes. The problem is that no one has a coherent view of your customers and prospects, and this can cost sales and make you look unprofessional.

Contact Relationship Management software allows you to store all interactions with every contact your business has - whether they are customers, prospects or suppliers. Sent and received emails are stored against each contact record, as are letters that are sent, and the details of all phone calls. This means that whenever you have to deal with someone, you can pull up records of all your history with them. You can also schedule phone calls, tasks, attach documents and organise contacts into groups.

Act! 6.0 from Sage/Best is the most popular of these packages. It also allows you to follow sales opportunities through the pipeline, and is ideal for producing sales forecasts.

There are a number of add-ons that make it even more useful. It can link to Sage accounting (in the UK), and Quicken (in the US), and also to third party help-desk software. So when your salesperson next receives a call from your number one customer, the details  are available at the press of a button.

Vendor: Sage (UK), Act (US)
RRP: 129, $229.95, per user
Alternative products: Maximizer, Goldmine

2. Paint Shop Pro

Paintshop. Edit bitmap and vector graphics
Small businesses often need to manipulate graphics - for flyers, business cards, brochures, web sites - in fact most forms of advertising and promotion. Professional graphic designers will only consider two packages for their work: Adobe Photoshop, for photographs and bitmap graphics, and Adobe Illustrator for vector graphics. They may be okay for the pros, but most businesses don't have the money to invest in these products, regardless of how powerful they are.

Aside from photo image manipulation, Paint Shop also offers a range of vector graphics tools. (Vectors, unlike bitmaps, are represented as formulae rather than pixels, so they can be resized without loss of resolution). While the features may not be as good as Illustrator's, you're effectively getting the best of Photoshop and Illustrator combined, but at a fraction of the cost.

Jasc was acquired by Corel on 29 October 2004

Vendor: Jasc
RRP: US$119 download, $129 boxed per user
Alternative products: Corel's own products; Ulead Photoimpact

3. Cashbook Complete

Cashbook. Graphing sales
It isn't pretty, but Acclaim's Cashbook packs a lot of punch into its US$120 price tag. There are plenty of good accounting packages aimed at businesses with 1-10 staff, but Cashbook leads the pack with its time sheet, expenses and project billing module. It can calculate your VAT/GST, and the Report Wizard allows you to generate a variety of reports with ease.

It won't suit everyone, but is ideal for businesses that are based on projects or jobs (trades and consulting). On the downside, there is no payroll functionality, and it doesn't really integrate with anything else.

Vendor: Acclaim Software
RRP: NZ$240, no user limit per license.
Alternative products: Quickbooks, MYOB, Simply Accounting

4. Project Kickstart

Project Kickstart Brainstorming Projects
Getting a project plan off the ground can be a huge challenge. Faced with a blank sheet and a tough assignment, even getting started can be quite daunting. Project Kickstart changes all of this. It provides a wizard to get you going, and you can call on a library of phases and tasks to help out.

One of the best features is that you can call on "Similar Projects" to help you plan the one at hand. You also get to allocate resources and plan for obstacles. A Gantt chart can be used to set start and finish dates and shift tasks as required.

Finally, the project can be integrated with a number of tools, including other project management software for further refinement if required. The great thing about Project Kickstart is that you can generate a pretty detailed plan with a minimum of effort, as it forces you to focus on the tasks at hand, and provides tips along the way.

Project Kickstart won't write your plan for you, but helps create order from the chaos

Vendor: Experience in Software
RRP: US$129.00, volume discounts available.
Alternative products: None that we know of.

5. Zone Alarm

Zone Alarm. Setting PC security
As small businesses move to broadband access, they open themselves up to all sorts of security risks from advanced hackers and script kiddies. The way to protect your computers is to use a firewall. While large corporates tend to have dedicated firewall servers, they don't offer protection to notebooks used outside of the office. And managing dedicated firewalls are often beyond the technical capabilities of small businesses.

Zone Labs offer two main editons of Zone Alarm for the individual PC. The basic edition is free for individual and non-profit users. The Pro version also has privacy protection, and blocks cookies, banner and pop-up advertisements. It also provides functionality for cleaning your Internet cache.

Vender: Zone Labs
RRP: Zone Alarm Standard: free for individual and non-profit use; Zone Alarm Pro: $49.95.
Alternative Products: Norton Personal Firewall, Black Ice Defender

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