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Grow Your Business Technology

Microsoft 365 Business vs. Free SMB Apps: Do You Really Have to Pay?

Microsoft 365
Credit: Allmy

With more free SaaS products available than ever before, plenty of small business owners are forgoing traditional software packages in favor of free a la carte apps and services. Microsoft 365 Business is the latest incarnation of Microsoft's all-in-one small business SaaS package, and it aims to include every feature a small business owner could need for running a business. With a starting cost of $20 per user per month, the cloud service is affordable enough for most small businesses, and since the max number of users is 300, it's a service that can grow with your business.

However, Microsoft isn't the only game in town. There are lots of free services with similar features to Microsoft 365 Business, and by using them in tandem, you can avoid paying anything for business software and sidestep the oft-confusing world of Microsoft business products.

If you're on the fence about going for a paid subscription to Microsoft 365 Business or taking the free app route, here's a breakdown.

The most obvious benefit to opting for Microsoft 365 Business is the ability to unify all your SMB solutions in one place, complete with an admin dashboard and light mobile device management features. The flagship solution for small and midsize businesses also includes a host of apps that easily integrate with other Microsoft products. However, some SMBs may need third-party apps or services that are not included with its base subscription.

The apps exclusive to the Microsoft 365 Business package are accessible through the Business Center, and they cover a lot of ground. Microsoft Connections, Microsoft's answer to SMB email marketing needs, offers handy features like the built-in referral tracker and easy syncing with QuickBooks. Other outstanding apps include Microsoft Bookings, which is built for businesses that offer appointment-based services; Microsoft Invoicing, which integrates with both QuickBooks and PayPal; and Microsoft Teams, a messaging and collaboration tool.

Seamless integration with other Microsoft products as well as major third-party software is a definite selling point for Microsoft 365 Business, but the sheer number of features and options may be overwhelming to some. There are more than 15 features and apps within Microsoft 365 Business. The constant shifting of feature names and ongoing addition of new apps and features can mean more time managing software solutions and training staff, especially for SMBs that only use a few of the features.

[Read related article: Microsoft 365 Business: Surprising Features Baked In]

A lot of the functionality Microsoft offers SMB users is available from free apps. While these apps won't all sync together, and you'll have to forgo the advantages of an admin dashboard, they can save you money and time. Since free apps are intended for users without IT staff, many of these solutions are quick to get up and running. Plus, as more businesses adopt solutions like these, third-party integrations will become more common.

Mailchimp is an email marketing service that offers businesses the ability to foster and grow subscription lists through newsletters and other types of marketing emails. Using Mailchimp, SMBs can target customers based on behaviors, preferences or purchase history, as well as build ad campaigns in Google, Facebook and Instagram. There's also a mobile app, so you can monitor and manage your email marketing from anywhere.

The email templates and Google Analytics reports make Mailchimp popular with small business owners. It may be used with free email services like Gmail, but there are some limitations.

One of our favorite free alternatives to Microsoft Bookings is Setmore, a free appointment management program that allows SMBs to book customer appointments and send automated reminders. Setmore works for both Windows and Mac users and can be downloaded and used on either iOS or Android. Like Bookings, Setmore integrates with Facebook so customers can book appointments directly from your business's Facebook page. It also syncs with Outlook, so you can link events between Setmore and your Outlook Calendar. The basic version of Setmore is free, but there's a premium option available for $25 per month. The paid plan includes the ability to send text reminders, two-way calendar syncing and online payments.

Invoice Generator is an easy-to-use online tool for quick invoice customization. You can change and adjust invoices to create a professional one for free, and they can be printed or sent as PDFs. Invoice Generator also offers a tracking service, so you can view when a customer has opened your invoice online. However, if your business issues lots of invoices, we recommend biting the bullet and paying for a subscription to QuickBooks, which will offer you the ability to create and send invoices, automatically track them, and process payments.

[Read related article: QuickBooks Online – The Best Software for Business Accounting]

While it started as strictly a consumer product, G Suite has grown into a highly functional tool set that many businesses rely on. If you want to skip out on the Microsoft family of products, it's your best bet. G Suite comprises Google Docs, Sheets, Drive, Calendar, Hangouts and Email. Between Google Docs and Google Drive, you can accomplish much of what you would in Word and SharePoint. Google Calendar integrates with lots of third-party apps and is nearly as effective as Outlook Calendar for business use, like scheduling meetings and creating shared calendars. Hangouts is an excellent chat service (with built-in video chat capabilities) that performs as well as any Microsoft chat/collaboration services. The biggest weakness in G Suite is Google Sheets, which is fine for basic tasks but can't compete with Excel when it comes to higher-level calculations, exporting to other formats or complex tables.

The free versions of these programs can help your business, and if you don't think you'll use most of the features Microsoft 365 Business offers, free a la carte apps might be the best option for you. On the other hand, if you're already a Microsoft subscriber and you want to unify all your business solutions in one place, Microsoft 365 Business is a great option.

Additional reporting by Matt D'Angelo.

Mona Bushnell

Mona Bushnell is a New York City-based Staff Writer for Business.com and Business News Daily. She has a B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College and has previously worked as an IT Technician, a Copywriter, a Software Administrator, a Scheduling Manager and an Editorial Writer. Mona began freelance writing full-time in 2014 and joined the Business.com team in 2017.