Set Aside Fear of Free Business Tools

We now live in an interconnected world, thanks to the Internet. We’re able to reach out and communicate with one another anywhere in the world. We can conduct businesses online and there’s no need to wait days to receive a reply, or a payment. Thanks to mobile gadgets and phones, we can work and play on the go. Also, we now have the freedom to interact with the world wherever we are and it has opened up incredible opportunities.

But the Internet does pose some dangers. It can eat you alive, if you let it. People use it to steal money from you without you knowing it. The Internet opened many new doors for those who make a living out of stealing valuable information from individuals and companies alike. Now that we’ve entered the age of information, there are many who will be after yours, especially if they think they can make a profit from it. Privacy is now a top priority for almost everyone and keeping information safe from leaks is crucial. For some, however, the most effective way to protect valuable information is by not sharing anything at all.

For an individual, distancing yourself online from time to time can be a healthy exercise. Try limiting what you share on social networking sites to keep private information safe. Learn to keep your online circles small and private, to keep your updates only to yourself and the people they know and trust. You may even opt for a total online detox where you go “off-the-grid” for days and reset your online activities from time to time.

This is fairly reasonable and acceptable for some people to do since you really want to keep your private information private. However, this shouldn’t be the case for those who want to enter into any business online. There was an article from a known business site stating that if you use or subscribe to free business tools, your competitors could have access to your secrets. The main premise of the article was that if the product or service is free, it’s highly likely that you are actually the REAL product for whoever’s offering it. It cautions against the possibility of having your information sold to the highest bidder, so instead of having a competitive edge, you become part of the ‘big data’ that actually gives your competitors a boost.

The primary examples given are Google’s free services and Facebook’s new Workplace service. These are the biggest names in tech today and it is alarming to know that they have millions of users’ information that they can just sell off to anyone who can afford them. All your sensitive information that has passed through these services, including confidential email exchanges, earnings report on online sheets, team chats, and more belong to Google and Facebook.

Most free services thrive by selling advertising, and Google and Facebook are no exceptions. The more users sign up for their free service, the more data and information can be sold to advertisers. By signing up to these free services, you’re opening yourself to more targeted ads on different platforms, whether you like it or not. Google, for example, crawls for data and information to catalog and rank web pages for better search results. That’s why they’re also capable of crawling your data on other services like Gmail and Google Drive, which you probably use to store sensitive business data.

Facebook, on the other hand, uses your activities as a basis for the ads they show while you’re browsing their platform. The pages you “like” and subscribe to all contribute to determining which ads you’ll ultimately see. Facebook even crawls your browsing activity, so the pattern of websites you visit will influence the ads on your Facebook account.

Think about this scenario: you always go with paid and expensive business tools because you believe your information is safer this way. But you still use Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest for free advertisement, you use Google’s Gmail and Docs, and Sheets for your email and online documentation, and you use LinkedIn to scout for manpower and potential business partners.

You think you’ve kept vital business information under wraps because you only use paid tools, but by using these Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts, among others, you’ve already given free access to anyone who wants to harvest your sensitive information. All your online activities leave breadcrumbs for anyone to follow and piece together.

An Associated Press investigation uncovered a good example of this kind of information gathering. The study found that a lot of Google Services on both Android and iOS devices store your location data, even if you’ve already turned off the option to do so. Apps like Google Maps record your location over time and this allows them to create a timeline of your daily movements without you knowing it. Even when you pause the “Location History” feature, some Google Apps automatically store location data merely by opening them or letting them run in the background.

And that’s just raw, unfiltered data. Imagine if someone actually had the motivation to use these numbers for something other than storing them. This is what Uber did when they proudly posted on their blog about “Rides of Glory,” or the rides taken after one night stands. The post has been taken down, but ironically, the Internet doesn’t forget. Imagine having that cache of “one night stand data” leaked to the public; it could be used to blackmail former customers.

So why would you still be willing to sign up for a free service?

Businesses miss out on a lot of opportunities because they choose to shut themselves off from the online world.

Privacy is indeed a concern for those who do business online, but that shouldn’t deter you from exploring ways to improve your business. Don’t spend money every time you need new tools for your business just because you think they’re safer. There are cheaper, even free alternatives online, and they work just fine and are safe and secure. You simply need to know what to look for, and where.

Instead of fearing what might happen, think about what you could be missing out when you are not taking advantage of these free business tools. First and foremost, can you afford to pay for a product that offers the same set of features as the one you’re using now for free? If your answer is yes, then great. You can completely take care of your business because your budget is big enough to pay for a similar product or service. But what if you’re still looking to find a foothold in a very competitive industry, and every dollar saved could be devoted to other vital aspects of your business?

The ones who stand to gain more from these free business tools are start-ups and small businesses. Their limited budgets also limit their capabilities to compete on the same playing field as larger companies, so having access to these free tools is a blessing. In a highly competitive industry, one simple tool can make or break a business. It gives an edge over competitors, or at the very least, provides a fighting chance to thrive alongside more established companies. If you hesitate even for a bit, your competitors could easily overtake and kill your business completely. Your fear of having your business information compromised can easily backfire and lead to your demise.

Not everyone is like Google or Facebook.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against fearing the use of business tools because of privacy breaches is the fact that not everyone is like Google or Facebook. These two have millions of users; that’s why they’re really bound to be targeted by those who are looking to make a profit from their data. A dedicated few can find ways to work around their security and gather data discreetly.

The Cambridge Analytical scandal, the biggest privacy leak that hit Facebook recently, relied on user data to sway election results, propagate false information, and other villainous acts you’d think were only possible in movies. It wasn’t masterminded by Facebook, but by Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy firm. It affected up to 87 million users, mostly in the United States. They created a Facebook application, which enticed users to “allow” them to access their data. But Facebook wasn’t totally faultless—the security that they had in place at the time was lacking, which led to the exploitation.

The point is, with millions of users, companies like Google and Facebook should have scaled up the security to protect their data and their users. All companies that create small business tools are vastly smaller compared to these two. They cater to a specific niche, so their target audience is quite small compared that of Google and Facebook. This allows them to focus on business aspects that matter, like security and data encryption. Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they’re not well-protected.

There are many ways to safeguard your information even when you’re using free business tools.

The key to successfully using these free business tools without having your information compromised is diligence. When you’re signing up for a free service, carefully check if that service would really deliver its promise instead of just tracking your data. Go through every detail on their pages, check out forums and online communities for any information about them. Since you’re subscribing to a free service, it’s your responsibility to research them and see if there are any red flags of which you should be aware.

Instead of totally boycotting free business tools because of your fear about privacy breaches, you can opt to simply be more guarded with your personal or business information. For example, you can try out a free service first using fictional data. Use a fake business name, input generated records, and completely try the free service or tool without divulging any vital information. Set a trial period to see if the product really delivers what you need for your business.

Credibility Matters

Online, many are equally suspicious. Nobody trusts anybody because the Internet gives a blanket of anonymity that anyone can exploit for their benefit. Whether you’re an individual looking for opportunities, or a business entity searching for clients or partners, you can’t just do your business online without gaining others’ trust first.

If you trust want to conduct business online, you need to establish your credibility. For a small business, the only way to do that is by being transparent, showing your potential customers that you are a real entity, and that you have real products and services to offer.

To further illustrate this matter, imagine someone going to a job interview with nothing to offer but his name. No CV, no academic records, no job experiences—just a name and the expressed interest in the opening. You wouldn’t even think twice about hiring this person, would you? You probably wouldn’t even offer an interview without a proper resumé. Without any proof of his educational background and work experience, you won’t know if he is the right fit for the job or just trolling for any opportunity that comes along. It would be foolish to hire someone like that.

Now, apply that to doing business online and you begin see how important transparency and credibility are. At the very least, you need potential business partners and customers to know what you’re capable of and that you’re reliable and responsible. They need verifiable information about you to convince them to spend their money or trust you with their business.

It can be shocking that some people don’t understand that they’re already disclosing a lot of information through social media and productivity tools. You, however, can use this to your advantage and make it more beneficial for your business. It’s okay to disclose your information online if you know exactly where and how it will be used. This is perfect for small businesses that don’t have a trust base yet. They can build a position of trust by signing up for a business tool or platform that can connect them with potential clients and other businesses.

Don’t let your fear keep you from finding better ways to make your business more successful. The Internet can be a scary, dangerous place, but it can also help your business improve and steer you toward success. Free business tools may pose a risk to your business information, but on the other hand, they could save you a lot of money and give you a fighting chance to survive and thrive in a highly competitive environment. It’s up to you to research, review, and try out different tools for your business. Think of the opportunities you could miss when you completely shut yourself off from the idea of using free business tools.

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