Best Low or No-Cost Small-Business Apps

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- As much as software giants like Microsoft ( MSFT), Google ( GOOG), Intuit ( INTU) and ( CRM) like to play the role of small-business trailblazer, the fact is, it's the little fella that stirs up most of the dust in cutting-edge small-biz applications.

For everything from basic collaboration software to the newest transcription tools, I've found business software from smaller companies, when done right, offer better technology, more targeted products and nice value.

You will need to keep your due-diligence hat securely in place: Smaller companies are, well, small. They can disappear overnight. But with a bit of planning and chatting up your vendors -- don't be afraid to walk if they even hint at not being able to service your needs -- even micro firms consisting of just a few people can add to your bottom line.

Here are my five favorite low or no-cost small-business apps from small businesses.

1. Expensify, free to start, $5 per submitter per month after three submitters.

San Fransisco-based Expensify has a neat trick: an app that automatically sucks expense information out of credit cards, random spending and other online ledgers. It then creates dead-easy reports that can be shared with your bean counters or, better yet, kicked directly into both QuickBook and Freshbooks. And while Expensify is seriously slick, this code often does not know its own strength: expenses flow in real time, so keeping closing dates and accruals straight takes discipline. But, still, live petty-cash reports?! I mean, wooooh.

2. MerchantCircle, free to start, search optimization and other services begin at $5 per month.

Can there be any worse job than getting your dumb Web site a decent search ranking? Name, address, contact info for Google, Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo ( YHOO). Please. Enter Mountian View, Calif.-based MerchantCircle. The company provides a one-stop Web shop that helps the big search engines find you. Keyed off your company's phone number, the software offers a series of forms that tag your business and creates a decent-looking Web site. Do a bit of blogging, offer some coupons and -- voila -- you should see your search rank improve. It's pretty impressive.

3. Evernote, free to start, premium services at $5 per month.

Attention, online-document-collaboration-phobes: You no longer need to live in fear. If you hate e-mailing attached static documents, give Evernote a try. Though not nearly as powerful as uber-collab tools like Google Apps, Mountain View, Calif.-based Evernote makes it super easy to share common documents. Honestly, there really is no reason not to give it a try.

4. Gwabbit, $19.95.

Having just entered the Million Contact Club, I spend waaaaay too much time sticking in name, address and cellphone data into my Outlook contacts. Meet Carmel Valley, Calif.-based Gwabbit: the automated name and address data app. The code finds, encodes and sticks contact info directly into Outlook. It can take some getting used to, and the info needs to be proofed, for sure. But never having to type in a fax number again? How great is that?

5. Cogi, starts at $5 per month.

Here's a tantallzing idea: never take another note during a conference call. Starting at about $5 a month, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Cogi creates a centralized transcription of any phone call. Like all transcription services, you will want to proofread these suckers. And there are legalities for recording calls in most states. But, still, Cogi is a handy solution for staying on top of complex conversations. Surprisingly nifty.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.