Big Ass Fans sells its wares—from residential ceiling fans, including the stylish Haiku to behemoth industrial models—in more than 80 countries. One secret that's helped the Lexington, Ky.–based company keep costs lean since it started up in 1999 has been its use of free business tools to heighten efficiency with far-flung clients. To make sure it tackles paperwork for international shipments properly, the staff relies heavily on a free hotline on Export.gov, dialing the U.S. Commercial Service at 1-800-USA-TRADE for live help. And though the company's now 445-person team includes a number of folks who are bilingual, employees often rely on Google Translate to look up salutations in languages that employees don't speak, to build bridges with clients from other cultures. "It adds a little personalization," said Paul Lauritzen, vice president of international business. (As you might guess, the company tends to avoid translating its own name.)
If you work with clients overseas, you probably already know about tools like Skype for free international calling, Dropbox for easy file sharing, Google Hangouts for digital group conversations, and Google Voice to make sure that phone calls follow clients to whatever phone they're using. But there are plenty of other freebies to add to your international arsenal. Here are eight that are popular with the start-up crowd.
—By Elaine Pofeldt, Special to CNBC.com
Looking to set up an overseas conference call quickly? Globafy makes it very easy. The Copenhagen, Denmark–based firm lets users of its free audio-conference service jump on a conference call without having to sign up, register for a conference line or reserve time. All users need to do is select any eight-digit conference number, share it with participants, and then each use a local Globafy conference number in their countries to dial in. By using phone lines, not an Internet-based web conferencing or videoconferencing service, the company avoids the choppy call quality that plagues some free conferencing services.
Currently, Globafy lists free conference lines in more than 50 countries; others can use the nearest number. It also offers a paid premium version of the service, where users in more than 100 countries can get a customized conference line with the company's name, along with features such as the ability to record meetings. Globafy says it is able to offer the free lines because of partnerships with telcos that provide high-capacity phone numbers and welcome use of their networks.
Sending a document to a distant country by fax—as some clients may still prefer—can cost you a bundle if you don't have a fax machine and need to rely on a local office-supply store that charges you by the page. Even Internet services that convert faxes to email attachments aren't free, typically requiring you to pay monthly fees. Amy Metherell, a virtual assistant based in New Cumberland, Pa., near Harrisburg, who frequently does international work in her business, has found a way around this. She relies on CamScanner, a free app for smartphones that lets her scan documents from the phone and turn them into PDFs and JPEGs to email to business contacts straight from the device. "I love using it," said Metherell. "They come out surprisingly well."
Her tip: Make sure to scan the documents in natural light to avoid a shadowy appearance.
When business coach and consultant Dan Johnston wants to reach clients while traveling, he often relies on WhatsApp, a free smartphone app (by some measures, the most popular app in the world) that lets people exchange messages without SMS charges. Launched in Silicon Valley by two Yahoo! veterans, the service relies on the same Internet data plan the phone owner uses for email and web browsing. "It works flawlessly internationally," Johnston said. He is a fan of the chat feature, which allows group chats and lets him record a voice message and send it to contacts; messages appear on the app much like a traditional text message, except recipients can play them. He finds that recording them is often speedier than texting back and forth—and more personal.
"When you're away from your home market, there's a risk of losing relationships and having them weaken," he said. "I've used them to maintain important business relationships." Johnston, who is from Vancouver, Canada, but now runs his "locationless" business virtually, said he's found WhatsApp to be very popular with his overseas contacts, more than in North America. "Everywhere I've traveled, people have it—outside of the U.S. and Canada," he said on a call from Germany.
Time zone mix-ups can easily derail international calls. Metherell avoids the hassles of rescheduling by relying on ScheduleOnce, a desktop and mobile appointment-booking service that offers a free basic plan. "A lot of my clients are already using it," she said. Signing up entitles users to a free "MeetMe page," where they can mark the times they are available for meetings—connecting it to their existing digital calendar without showing the rest of the calendar to their contacts. They can send a link to this page to contacts to let them select a time and, if they desire, to give that time final approval. Once that is done, the service sends a confirmation email. Metherell likes the fact that users can select their time zone, and the tool converts their calendar for those in other parts of the world. "It makes it really easy to avoid any kinds of errors," she said.
Another speedy way to find a meeting time is to use the meeting planning feature on WorldTimeServer.com. It lets you see the time of day it would be for up to five far-flung participants in a meeting.
No one wants to bombard international clients with emails when they've retired for the night, but it's easy to forget about sending a note during their business hours if you save them in your drafts file to fire off later. It's easy to avoid this if you use the Boomerang for Gmail app. Johnston relies on it to time his emails to arrive during appropriate business hours, no matter what time he writes them. "Say it's 8 a.m. in Germany and I want to send a client in New York an email. Rather than have it mix into their inbox and get lost in the overnight emails, I can schedule it to send at 5 p.m. German time or 11 a.m. for my client," he said. To check on international time zones quickly when using Boomerang, you can use the site timeanddate.com.
Signing contracts quickly with folks in a distant office can mean a lot of paperwork flying back and forth. Adobe EchoSign lets you sign a document digitally, send it to the other signer for a countersignature, and then get a copy automatically emailed to both of you. There's a free version of EchoSign available to companies that sign just a few documents a month, with paid upgrades available. The free account isn't practical for sizable firms, since it allows only a single user, but if you're running a small operation, it can speed the usual routine of printing out documents and faxing them back or digitally signing documents, scanning them and emailing them manually.
If you sell products overseas, it's your responsibility to avoid sending them to countries where the U.S. government has trade restrictions, such as Iran or Syria, or to parties on lists of known or suspected terrorists. One of the quickest ways to find out if you're allowed to ship to somewhere or to a particular individual is to use the free "Screen for denied parties" tool from UPS TradeAbility International Tools. You simply need to indicate your intended recipient's name or company name—or use the pull-down menu to choose a country—to find out about any restrictions. "This has become important in the post-9/11 environment," said Big Ass Fans' Lauritzen.
Kyle Willis, who serves clients as far away as South Africa from his three-year-old Seattle social media firm No to the Quo, used to pay for QuickBooks, which let him access his accounting software anywhere he had web access. Then he found out about the free version of cloud-based Wave Accounting and switched his firm over 10 months ago. "They've taken the best of QuickBooks or Freshbooks for invoicing and the beauty of Mint for your accounting," he said.
He loves the iOS app, which lets him take a photo of receipts from meetings with clients while he's out and load them to his account so the expenses get logged automatically. He's so happy with the service that he pays extra to use it to manage his payroll at the business, which has three employees and six-figure revenue. "They're continually rolling out new features," he said.