It has never been easier (or cheaper) to start a business.
Ignoring any costs associated with what you “do” (like a camera if you’re a photographer) you can start, and run, a business for free.
I’m not suggesting you rely entirely on free business tools, but there are a lot of free tools out there and I must admit I was surprised at how many free business tools I use or have used. Many of these have a paid version too (some of them I now pay for).
I do use a lot of paid tools too. I spend a lot to ensure my business runs smoothly. But let’s talk about the free ones.
It’s not a business unless you’re being paid. So let’s start there.
I bank with Starling. Because it is very good, gives me exactly what I need and is free. Oh and the fact it pings my phone when someone pays me (take joy in the small pleasures of life!) I don’t pay any fees. I don’t pay anything when clients pay me (everything is by electronic transfer) or when I make payments. I absolutely love Starling and recommend them regularly. I used to use one of the High Street banks and had to pay. But now I bank with Starling for free.
Stripe, PayPal and GoCardless are other free business tools for receiving payments. These are not technically free as they take a small commission but they don’t have any monthly fee. I use all three.
Stripe and PayPal are similar in that you can add them to your website and take payment for goods and services online. Clients pay by credit or debit card, or in the case of PayPal their balance. Stripe takes a smaller commission than PayPal, but some clients prefer to use PayPal as their details are stored, you can use your balance and sometimes they can spread their payments so I do use both.
GoCardless allows you to take direct debits which is great for any ongoing service. Almost all clients on my website hosting and maintenance package are set up on GoCardless. I still invoice them (I actually have this automated so I have only needed to set it up once and it automatically sends an invoice each quarter). This saves me a huge amount of time manually sending invoices and chasing payment.
If you are interested in trying GoCardless I have a affiliate link (which you can find here) which gives you £100 if you sign up before 17 June and collect £500 in payments before 15 Oct. I must admit I love it for regular payments.
There are loads of free tools you can use for marketing your business.
Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest and TikTok are all free. I’m not suggesting you use them all (I’m not on TikTok and no longer use Twitter) but whichever you use you don’t have to pay.
My current primary social media platform is Instagram. Like any social media platform, it does take time and effort to generate business (you can read my post How to get sales through Instagram with a small following). But it is free and it does work. And I no longer use any paid for scheduling tools either. I schedule any Instagram (or Facebook) posts in the Meta business suite, which is also free. I have given up on scheduling reels with it because I found it glitchy but it works for “ordinary” posts and carousels. And when I get back to posting on LinkedIn (which I will) I plan to use their own scheduling tool too.
Personally I think the best free tool though is telling everyone you know (or maybe not quite everyone, but almost everyone). And asking them if they know anyone who might need your product/services. To be clear, you’re not asking your friends, family or colleagues to buy from you (although they may) but if they know anyone. Ask them to pass your details on. This is the power of a network and it is one of the best ways to get clients.
In a similar way it doesn’t cost anything to talk to others and let them know what you do. I was talking to a client the other day and she had just got her first piece of work with a corporate client. When I asked her how she had done it, she replied that she talks to anyone and everyone and tells them about her business. It was one of those conversations that got her the corporate job.
3. Design Tools
Good design is important. Design tools used to be costly and require skills that most small business owners don’t have.
Then Canva came along and changed everything. I do now pay for Canva pro but for many years I used the free version.
I love Canva. It allows you to be your own graphic designer. You can create logos, social media post graphics and graphics for your website. All for free. You can use your own images or Canva’s own (the pro version is worthwhile just to have access to more free stock images but the free version does have some). Best of all it is quick and easy to use.
There are many other free stock photography websites. I like (and have used) pexels, pixabay and unsplash. I am a little wary of using too many stock photos as invariably you see the same ones everywhere. I prefer to use my own – either those I have taken myself on my phone or from branding photo shoots. But stock photos are good mixed in with your own.
For free fonts I mainly use and recommend Google. Google has over 1,000 free fonts you can use. The great thing about Google fonts is they are designed to be web-friendly so they always show properly on a website, whichever browser it is viewed on. It’s also very clear that you can use them freely so you don’t need to worry about licences. And given the number of fonts there are available you can usually find the right one.
I sometimes use Font Squirrel for other free fonts, but I really prefer Google.
I wouldn’t advise having a free website as these usually have funny domain names (which looks unprofessional and is hard for others to remember). And it doesn’t cost much to buy a website domain. You’ll also need your website hosted somewhere, again this is not free if you use your own domain but it isn’t a huge expense (I use Siteground for all my client websites and my own).
There are many free website tools that I use though.
WordPress is free. It can be installed and used on a website completely for free. The free version (which doesn’t come with website hosting) is actually better than the paid version (which does come with hosting – there are many better website hosts, I use and recommend Siteground). All the websites I build for clients are built using the free version of WordPress (wordpress.org).
There are also free themes (you need to use a theme with wordpress). I have always paid for a theme (I use Divi by Elegant Themes), but you can use a free one.
If you want to run a shop on WordPress you can use WooCommerce which is also free. It is what I use and always have done. It is “good enough” out of the box but best combined with some other plugins to make it function more smoothly.
Plugins are the add-ons to WordPress to do more things (a bit like apps on your phone). I use lots of free ones (and a few paid ones too). Some of my favourite free plugins are:
- PixelYourSite for adding Facebook and other pixels
- Pretty Links for creating short, easy to remember links (like for any affiliate codes – it is easier to remember and direct others to https://beyondthekitchentable.co.uk/hosting than the long affiliate link Siteground have given me)
- Siteground Optimiser for some of the more techie optimisations I do on a website as this works well with my hosting
- Siteground Security which logs logins and limits logins again this works well with my hosting
- Smash Balloons for adding social media feeds to websites (I’m not a great fan of doing this but if I do add them this is the plugin I use)
- Yoast SEO for reminding me of good SEO practice when it comes to writing blog posts
5. Research Tools
I don’t know everything (my teens would probably say I don’t know anything) so I often need to look things up.
When I do I will usually use Google, another free business tool. What would we do without search engines like Google? Sometimes I may search on youTube. I’m not the greatest youTube fan but sometimes I will sit and browse a few videos – mainly on website stuff.
For other knowledge I will listen to podcasts. I listen to podcasts as I’m dog walking or doing the laundry. Yes, I listen to a lot!
I might browse Pinterest if I am looking for inspiration, especially for design. I have boards of branding boards, fonts and websites I like and use them when I am lacking inspiration.
I used to use Google Analytics to see data about visitors to my website (or client websites). This kind of information is incredibly helpful to see which marketing channels are getting traffic to your website and which pages people are visiting. So you know where to focus your energy. I have recently switched to Fathom, which is a paid service but much better for what I need in my opinion (certainly compared to Google Analytics 4 which will be the only option from July)
Google Search Console is another free business tool I use sometimes to see what people are searching for on a website and clicking on. And you can also see whether Google has indexed the pages you want it to index.
6. Other Free Business Tools
I use Toggl to track the time I spend working for clients. I must admit I am pretty rubbish at tracking how I spend my time. I usually forget to turn Toggl on unless I am doing some work which is chargeable on a time basis.
And of course there are now AI tools. So I use ChatGPT, currently mainly just for some help with ideas for blog posts and social media posts. I’m expecting my use of AI tools to increase!
That’s a lot of free business tools that I use.
I would like to add that there are many things that I would pay for rather than use free versions. So I pay for my email system, website hosting and theme, and other tools that make my business run more smoothly. That allows me to focus where I need to.