As business people, we have to evaluate the ROI (Return On Investment) of everything, even free stuff. It seems like everything these days is free – free apps, free trials, free versions, even doing-it-yourself is free – but is it really free?
We work with numerous businesses that have outgrown their single outsourced IT guy and one of their complaints is the inefficiencies of the IT guy’s recommendations, especially the free stuff. How could free be so bad?
Types of Free(dom)
- Ads – Many websites with free tools and good content are littered with ads that make it difficult to read the content or get to the tools you want to use without being forced to watch a 30-second commercial.
- Shallow Functionality – Apps love this tactic; they offer you a free version of the application with limited capabilities so it doesn’t do everything you want unless you upgrade to the full version. They even tease you by showing all the features, but they gray out the premium features.
- Loss Leader – Some applications, like Adobe Reader, are useful and I refer to these programs as “gateway drugs” because you need to upgrade to get more resources. Loss leaders are different than software that grays out the “good stuff” because Adobe Reader is a standalone application that works without additional upgrades.
- Trial Period – This one is a two-sided sword. It is great to try a program before you buy it and I highly recommend doing that if you’re sincerely considering purchasing something. Some people love free so they constantly use free trials, create new accounts with different email addresses, and switch to different tools to use their free trials.
In most cases, you get what you pay for because free has too many headaches and wastes a lot of time in my opinion. When evaluating a company’s workstations, I look for computers to have less than three free applications (Acrobat Reader, Chrome, and Java) because the more free programs I see, the more problems I expect in supporting that company.
Expenses From the Freebies
- Mo’ Apps, Mo’ Logins – Because that free app is limited in its functionality, you need to use multiple apps which is inefficient and time is money.
- Complicated Reporting – Since the plethora of free apps in your toolkit don’t communicate with each other, reporting is difficult, not as comprehensive as you’d like, and very time consuming.
- Frequent Switching – If you regularly use up trial periods and switch to a different tool, you’ll find a steep learning curve and the cost of converting adds up to more than purchasing the tool outright.
- No Automation – We’ve seen a consolidation of applications and an increase in connectors between multiples applications like Zapier, and free versions usually do not have the “hooks” or APIs to allow it to talk to other applications which forces you to manually enter and export data.
- No Updates – Many developers do not update the free versions of their software, which can be a huge cyber security risk.
- No Support – Besides not updating the program, developers do not support free users (some have limited support for trial users).
- No One to Blame – When you aren’t paying for something it is hard to complain about it, so you have no one to point your finger at when things go wrong.
- Cost of Maintenance – The cost for your IT team to support these freebies adds up because there is no standardization, no updates, no support, no automation, and the cost to switch tools is a time burden.
The biggest challenges with free is the inefficiencies and it is the difference between being proactive and preventing problems, and being reactive and troubleshooting the problems. In business, you want to avoid problems, not just correct them as they appear because each problem means there is a delay and a cost associated with it.
I’m not saying these free resources aren’t useful. Some of them like Acrobat Reader, Google Analytics, and Java are great, but they lead into other things like your web browser (e.g. Chrome) defaulting to Google as your preferred search engine instead of Bing. I’m saying that you have to look at the total cost of ownership to evaluate the ROI and in the vast majority of cases, free has a more expensive ROI.
Keep in mind, “There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.”