Are Free Tools Really Free?

I just read a great blog post on HubSpot about using Trello’s free tools to manage your relationships with contacts. While I don’t think that this is a substitute for a full-featured CRM like Salesforce, it’s a great example of how free tools can be hot-rodded to do the same things as “big business” users are doing with their expensive systems.

While I’m a big fan of free tools, there are some cautions to consider before using one.

Sometimes the free or cheap tools actually perform better than their costly counterparts – but aren’t scalable, or lack key functionality. Website builders like Squarespace and Wix make absolutely fantastic websites, but if you decide to abandon that platform (or the platform fails, as some do) you are stuck with some really hard-to-work-with HTML code. Excel creates great charts, but you can’t make them into EPS’s, and if you want to make beautiful graphs in a professional tool like Illustrator you need to jump through hoops.

These kinds of drawbacks are extremely frustrating to a freelancer who might use a more standard, professional set of tools, because it’s hard to explain the risks to someone who just wants a “really cool website, fast.”

There’s also a danger in using too many free tools. If you own your own small business, you’ll be tempted to adopt a free tool ‘because it’s there.’ But then, you either need to become an expert in using the tool yourself, or you need to find an expert in using it. Suddenly, you’re spending time on the tool or on a problem caused by having adopted the tool, instead of on running your business.

One freelancer reported that to succeed with one client, she needed to be an expert in MailChimp, Wix, and WordPress, Unbounce, and integrations between Unbounce, eBay and Amazon. Doubtless a large agency could have done this, but my client was exactly the type of client that these ‘free tools’ appeal to – a small client with a low budget, so by definition they weren’t hiring a large agency. She said, “I used to be concerned about scope creep – now I’m concerned about tool creep.”

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you hop on board with a new free tool:

  • What’s my plan for integrating this tool with the others I already use?
  • If it’s a design tool, how will I keep my branding on-point if my current designer can’t or won’t use it?
  • How much time is it going to take me to learn to use the tool?
  • Is it really going to solve my business problem or am I adopting it for the gee-whiz factor?
  • What is the risk of the tool “going away” in a few years or months, and if it does, how will that affect my business?
  • What happens when I exceed the terms of “free” – can I afford to pay for the tool?

A few of my favorite free tools are Box (I use it to store professional certificates, study materials, downloaded eBooks, etc.), Evernote (Recipes!) and Brainscape (I’ve been using its free flashcards to learn Finnish). What are yours, and what are the risks you think about when committing to a free tool? Please add your thoughts in the comments.

 

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Thoughts on Plagiarism

When I was in college, the administration took plagiarism extremely seriously. Any student who was proved to have copied another’s work was severely penalized. I don’t remember for sure, but I think the penalty was being “expunged” – worse than “expelled,” being “expunged” meant that the offender’s admission was revoked and all records of his having attended the school were destroyed. Being “expunged” sounded to me like being pulled out of a drain with a toilet plunger – you were the crappiest crap, so crappy that the college did not want you mixed in with their sewage.

In other words, plagiarism was such a gaspingly horrible sin that during  four years of college I never heard of a single person daring to plagiarize an academic paper.

There was one incident, relating to our student newspaper, that has stayed burned into my mind.

A student copied a piece word for word from the current edition of a popular weekly magazine  . . . and our student newspaper published the review. The offense was only talked about in hushed tones because it was considered so grave and was so embarrassing – primarily for the nature of the offense, but, as a footnote, how stupid it had been to copy something that could be so easily discovered. Rumor had it that only a personal connection between one of our paper’s editors and the publisher of the magazine had saved the student newspaper from being sued. The editor who had allowed the piece to be published walked around for weeks in a depressed fog and no one dared mention the student’s name, the incident, or the word “plagiarism” in his hearing.

As commentators here in the United States struggle either to be the cleverest in excoriating the Trump campaign for its error, or, on the other hand, to excuse or minimize the nature of the offense, we would do well to consider the impact of the public dialog on our younger generation.

Do we want students of today and tomorrow to feel it’s okay to plagiarize? Or do we want to retain the sense of shame and horror that my generation had, before a scandal was something that was erased in the next news cycle?