Moving a business online that hasn't started as such can be a daunting task at first. Especially when you start exploring the huge ecosystem of online tools. Many of these tools are useful, but are often subscription-based, and subscriptions can quickly accumulate. Here, we will present some free alternatives that can be hosted on the hosting account that you are likely already paying for.
Part 1 - Use the resources you already have
Don't go out on a buying spree for different online services. In a time of crisis, many businesses face huge financial burdens. Explore the resources you already have at your disposal and evaluate if you can get more value from them.
Many businesses already have a hosting subscription. However, many of these websites are underutilized, and many are outdated. Websites are hosted online usually on a hosting account with a hosting provider or a web agency.
Use the hosting subscription you already have to move your business online, instead of paying for new services. Whether you purchased your hosting subscription directly with a web hosting company, or through a partnering agency, you are probably underutilizing it. Contact your provider or web agency to see how much resources you are using and what is the additional value you can extract from your current subscription.
Here are some ideas you can use your account for:
Create an online store
Too many websites are just simple business presentations. They often show information about a few services, contacts page, and about pages. This works fine for established local businesses, but the new reality we are facing with the COVID-19 pandemic requires more from the business online presence.
We will say this upfront - moving a business online isn't easy. The setup and configuration of an eCommerce store isn't a simple task, connecting it with your existing inventory system isn't easy either.
Difficult tasks shouldn't discourage you though. Nothing is easy at the moment. Still, quick solutions are needed for the affected businesses that want to survive.
In order to minimize the cost of creating an ecommerce site, free and open-source tools can be used. Some ecommerce software packages we can recommend are:
WordPress + WooCommerce
This is probably the most popular and powerful solution at the moment. There is a huge ecosystem of tools, tutorials, and resources around WooCommerce.
One of the best features of WooCommerce for new users is its first-run wizard. It helps you set up your basic store settings and products, and even users with no technical knowledge or experience should be able to set up a simple store in a matter of a few hours. Further customization and integration may need more expertise though, but there are many online agencies whose business is exactly that.
Find out more about WooCommerce at: https://woocommerce.com/
If you need help to install WooCommerce on your ICDSoft hosting account, just ping our support team, and they will gladly assist you.
OpenCart is a pioneer in the online shopping carts. It has seen some long-needed updates recently, which have made it a contender:
- Live Chat
Recently, a Formilla live chat Extension was developed, which allows you to easily integrate live chat functionality, visitor monitoring, and automation features.
- Online Bookings
Hotel bookings may be experiencing a downturn, but a booking system can be used for booking any type of service-oriented business - like an online course booking system for example. There is a plugin for that - Opencart Booking and Reservation system. It is a paid plugin, but if this is the cost of resuming business, it should be an acceptable one.
OpenCart can be easily installed via the ICDSoft Script Installer. For detailed instructions on performing manual installation, check our tutorial on installing OpenCart.
Magento, Zen Cart, osCommerce, PrestaShop, etc.
There are many more online systems that can be adapted to any business venture. For some other popular online shopping software systems, you can check the "eCommerce Software" page on our website.
Efficient team communication and collaboration
Running an online business requires efficient communication and tools.
Google is the major player here, thanks to the free tools they offer (Gmail, Calendar, Tasks, etc.). For personal use they may be all you need. When using them for business though, there are some drawbacks which you must take into account.
Free also means free of support
While Google operate in good faith, there are too many cases where an automatic system is triggered by some action and closes your account. This could bring your entire business down if you are using their free option - there would be nobody to call or ask for reinstating your account.
Just do a search for "Google locked my account". You will find many stories of people hopelessly trying to get back their accounts. In almost all cases, the locked-out people are using a free service provided by Google, for which, understandably, Google isn't offering live support.
If you are running an online business, you must be in contractual agreement with your email provider (preferably one where there was money exchange), in order to ensure the proper operation of this vital service, even during outages and incidents.
The paid Google services (GSuite) are a better choice for a business, but their price can soon become quite high. They start at $6/month per user. For 10 users, that would be over $60/month.
Your hosting provider probably already offers similar services
To avoid paying for your email separately, check if your hosting provider offers email service. Most do.
To learn about the email service provided with every ICDSoft account, check our site - https://www.icdsoft.com/en/hosting/email.
Email and calendars
Email is at the core of all online communication. Whether you are a VC-funded startup in Silicon Valley or a local grocery store, you are undoubtedly using email.
At ICDSoft, we are old-school. Most of the company's staff uses traditional desktop email, mostly the free Mozilla Thunderbird email client. It is cross-platform, has a variety of plugins, and is compatible with any standards-compliant provider.
Checking email on the go
For on-the-go email communication, the native email client of the mobile device is usually the best - for iPhone that would be the iPhone Mail app, and for Google-backed devices, that's the Gmail application, which supports POP3 and IMAP connections, as any other email client.
Email services by ICDSoft
ICDSoft provides a standards-compliant email service with ALL hosting accounts we offer. Advanced anti-spam and antivirus protection is included free of charge, and for those that prefer checking their email via their browser, there is a Webmail client available.
Most hosting providers offer email with their web hosting services, but it is often not used. Many businesses, when transitioning online, decide to keep their Gmail or Hotmail accounts. This isn't bad in our view - people know this address, and keeping it is a good idea.
To transition from using the free personal service offered by most major providers to a professional email hosting solution, we recommend the following:
- Configure forwarding rules at your existing email account to your account at ICDSoft (or at your current hosting provider). This will ensure that if, for some reason, you lose access to your Gmail, Hotmail, etc. account, you will have all your emails securely backed up with a company that recognizes you and provides 24/7 support.
- Start transitioning your company to use emails at your own domain, instead of the free email service. This not only makes your communication look more professional, but gives you the ability to move your email between providers, without changing your domain. When you own your domain name, you can point it to a new hosting provider in a matter of minutes. When the domain is owned by the provider, you are effectively locked down into their service.
This is one of the most effective collaboration suits at the moment. Nextcloud Hub provides encompassing tools that can provide value to almost any business. Some of the best features of Nextcloud Hub are:
Nextcloud started as a file sharing platform. Use it as your own Dropbox/Google Drive alternative. Share files, links and collaborate on files directly in the Nextcloud interface. User management, desktop syncing, and mobile apps are built-in and work seamlessly.
Nextcloud Hub Talk
One of the newer additions to the Nextcloud Hub collaboration suite is the Talk chat system. It includes text chat, but also video conferencing, audio group calls, screen sharing, and call logs. The only drawback of this system is that it uses WebRTC, which can become a little too heavy for very big video meetings. Still, we have tested it with up to 8 people, and we had no issues.
Nextcloud Calendar and Nextcloud Tasks
Calendars are essential for any business. Nextcloud Hub has a standards-compliant calendar implementation, which not only is very useful and supported in all calendaring applications you may already be using, but is quite eye-catching and feature-rich as well.
Furthermore, the integration with the Tasks app lets you see all your scheduled online meetings and tasks quickly and from a single location.
Also worth mentioning are the Nextcloud Draw.io, Nextcloud Flow, Nextcloud Mail, and the newly available Nextcloud Document Server (a complete office solution right in your browser) apps. Installing Nextcloud on your hosting account is easy, and with your testing installation you can play around to see which apps can fit into your existing workflow, and improve it.
Etherpad and EtherCalc
Etherpad is an odd application. We have been using it at ICDSoft for quite a few years now, and it has proven to be an indispensable tool in some of our workflows. It may be hard to understand at first, but such simple collaborative document editing software is wonderful when you need something fast, and something with little overhead. One of the most common use cases in our office is sharing a list of tasks that need to be done quickly and simultaneously by multiple team members. You just create the document, paste the task items, and everyone in the team just needs a link to the document to start working. No accounts, no logins, and no cumbersome interfaces to learn.
A demo version of Etherpad is available at Sandstorm.io.
EtherCalc is a free web spreadsheet software package. It allows you to save your data online and let people edit the same document at the same time. You can find more information at ethercalc.net, and you can test it for free at ethercalc.org.
These are just some of the free tools which you should be able to start using right away, without doing any additional investments.
You can find more awesome software that you can host on your existing hosting account at: