IT Employment

Getting expensive software without buying it

A drawback to being an independent consultant is that you have to pay your own bills. If there's expensive software you need to use but you haven't bought it yet, read these cost-cutting tips.
 Editor's note: This article originally published on August 2, 2001. It has been updated by TechRepublic blogger Susan Harkins.

At the risk of sounding like a whiner, I'll tell you one of the few things I dislike about being a self-employed consultant: having to buy all my own stuff.

I understand now why it was so tough to get my requests into the budget when I was a regular employee. Some of the software packages I need for my work as a documentation contractor carry a price tag of $1,600 or higher, and even the less expensive ones add up quickly.

To worsen the financial sting, I may not get a project that requires a specific tool often enough to justify shelling out big bucks to learn the darn thing. And because I no longer work for someone else, I don't get to keep my skills up to date by going to training seminars on the company dime -- although I do need to list proficiency with these software tools on my resume and marketing copy.

Fortunately, I've found several methods for obtaining a copy of a new software package without having to pay for it. Usually, it's a demo or a trial version that either expires in a certain number of days or has a limited set of features; or it may be full-featured, but it won't allow me to save or print the work I do with it.

That's fine with me: My intention is not to avoid paying for the software. When I try to find free versions of software, I do so for one or more of the following reasons:

  • To learn the software so I can list it as a skill.
  • To demonstrate a great solution that a potential client might overlook.
  • To evaluate the software for an upcoming project and compare it to other applications.

Once I land the project that requires me to use that tool, then it's time to buy the software outright; my investment will pay for itself, and I'll have the latest version without having to upgrade from a copy I bought four years earlier and never used.

I'll share my methods with you in this article.

Look for online product demos

The most obvious way to find software is to find downloadable product demos. Look for these either at the Web site of the company that makes the software or at download sites such as Downloads.com (a CBS Interactive site) or Tucows or in TechRepublic's Software Downloads directory.

To help persuade users to upgrade to a new version, companies will often post a demo of that software that you can download for free, so keep current on the release dates for new versions and regularly check the download section of the company's site. Demos are usually 30-day trial versions and are rarely available for more than a few weeks.

Be sure to maximize your free use of whatever you download. Most often, such software will expire a certain number of days after you run the program's executable file, not after you download that file. If that's the case, don't launch the program until you're ready to devote time to learning or using the software. I have a small stack of CDs with trial versions that I'm not even going to install until I finish my current projects and have some spare time.

Find books that include a trial version on CD

Spend some time at the computer section of your local bookstore and look for how-to books that include a CD trial version of the software they're teaching. For instance, the books in Wiley Publishing's For Dummies series often include a demo version on CD.

If your goal is to learn the software, the book will also come in handy. Even if the book that has the CD doesn't meet your needs, buying two books -- one for the CD and another for the content -- is still less expensive than buying the software.

Keep an eye out for seminars that offer freebies

A similar but more expensive method is to watch for seminars and other training programs that provide some version of the software as part of the seminar. You're most likely to find this kind of freebie at seminars where a sales representative or trainer from that software company is speaking or teaching.

Although seminars can be expensive, remember that you can deduct from your business income all these expenses for books, seminar fees, and airfare or other transportation. Depending on the seminar's distance from your home, you may also be able to deduct your lodging. Plus, you learn new skills and get a great opportunity to network with other people in your field. Many of the people at training seminars may be in charge of departments that need some contract help, so be sure to go equipped with a stack of business cards.

Volunteer to be a beta tester

Find out if the software company uses volunteer beta testers. You get a free copy of the software, and you may even get some inside information about using the software via your correspondence with the company. Ask if you can get a discount on the release version when it becomes available.

Caution: Using beta software does come with inherent risks, so don't run it on a production system.

Contact the company directly

If none of the other methods work, try this: Contact the company directly (usually the sales department), explain your situation, and ask if you could obtain an evaluation copy. Most companies have these sorts of CDs handy, even if they don't normally hand them out to the public. If they don't have a trial version, ask if you can have a temporary license for a regular copy.

To help ensure success with this method, keep the following points in mind:

  • Make yourself sound like a businessperson, not a geek asking for a handout. Use your business name in your introduction and describe the services your company offers. In a subtle way, assure the company representative that you do indeed run a business. For example, you could suggest that the representative check out your company's Web site.
  • Make your case based on what's in it for the software company instead of why you need the software. I don't usually say, "I really need to add this skill to my resume." Instead, when applicable, I say something along these lines: "I have a client who's reluctant to consider using Software X because they aren't familiar with it, but I think it's the best solution for them. I'd rather not purchase the software outright until the client is willing to commit to using Software X and my services. Would it be possible for me to obtain a demo copy to help persuade this client to use your product?"

If you consistently put in a little research time to keep current with new releases and seminars, one of these methods is likely to eventually get you the software you want at little or no cost to you.

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17 comments
JasonKB
JasonKB

There is a halfway option between trialware and full retail. You could sign-up for a non-education program at recognized institution and get a student card. Student prices on most major software products are very low and much more affordable that full price. Depending on your local laws it could still written-off a business expense if you are an independent.

rsgedaly
rsgedaly

It seems endemic to the information development / technical documentation field: you buy your own tools. Do any of you have clients who buy you the Adobe Tech Comm Suite (Adobe FrameMaker? 9, RoboHelp? 8, Adobe Captivate? 4, Photoshop? CS4, and Acrobat? 9 Pro)? Fortunately, I can get the upgrade for about $950 thru July.

sysdev
sysdev

If you are a consultant and a product is required, that is the responsibility of the client. You can help the client do it correctly, and even install and test it, but the client pays for it and keeps it. I have been a consultant for over 30 years and if I had been required to purchase all of the software which became 'required' after starting a project, I would have had to pay literally millions of dollars. If the client needs it, the client pays for it. It is your responsibility to make certain that it is the correct product, that it actually is required and that it functions properly. It is the clients responsibility to pay for it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That software development tools should be free or very low cost. Even for companies that charge for their software, it's far more important to get developers on board than it is to try to squeeze every nickel you can out of them. Open source competes for their attention at no cost to them, so they're much more likely to consider your solution if it doesn't break their bank -- even if the cost to the end user might be higher. Even Microsoft has recognized the validity of this line of thinking by offering VS Express.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

1. Your business has to be less than three years old -- OK, I guess I could shut down and start over under a different name... but... 2. It's still Visual Studio and .NET -- meaning it's closed, slow, heavy, and ugly. Yes, I do a lot of development with MS products, but it wouldn't be my first choice.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

I did some SORTa consulting when I moved ot the Island, I was retained by a client of my former employer as they had just implemented fibre at major locations and had upgraded all others to a VoIp PBx system that really needed proper management. I got them to buy me a high end PC, all the software, lease my car and pay fo rmy calls. A pretty good gig, then they wanted to retain me as a consultant for a few years which i turned down and decided to get a job instead. Having been in sales and business development for 25 years, the running joke about consultants is that they are just unemployed salesmen, so I picked up a new role and started making more coin without the headaches. Now my part time jobs and freelance work don't have to pay the bills anymore.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I don't think he's talking about business software, and even then, we have to know how to use it ourselves. How can we recommend and implement a product we're not familiar with?

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Just about any program you can name can be downloaded for free these days, perhaps not to the developers liking but free all the same. ;)

ssharkins
ssharkins

And then there's folks like me -- not only do I use software in a development environment, I also help others learn how to use it via the publishing industry. You'd think they'd be a line at my front door... :) No... just looked... no line.

LarryD4
LarryD4

Ironically, game developers always give away their development tools for free. It makes the game more popular and increases the online communities interest as another custom game mod comes out. In the Corp, business side their are to many companies who are afraid that they would release to much of their secrets to be commercially competitive. Its a valid concern in the world of big business, but who wants to find out that their was a simple tool to do the job. After you built your own tool to get it done.

Marty R. Milette
Marty R. Milette

As a development environment, there simply is no Open Source 'equivalent' period. Lots of different bits and pieces -- but no single, coherent, fully-integrated environment so intimately related to the operating system, libraries (.net framework, etc.), SQL server and pretty much everything else. If someone is billing out at $500 to $1,000 per day -- the cost of the full version of VS is PEANUTS compared to the increase in productivity. Of course -- that's for the MS environments - for the F/OSS environments -- back to the bits and pieces...

Marty R. Milette
Marty R. Milette

...if your business is more than three years old and still running -- you should be able to afford to buy your own tools. As for the tools being slow, bulky, etc. -- this is the price of having all the 'goodies' such as intellisense and seamless integration between ALL the Microsoft products. If I were developing code for a non-Microsoft environment -- I'd probably use some of the many open source tools as well. However, if you ARE developing FOR a Microsoft environment -- such as MOSS, .NET and SQL Server -- having seen the alternatives, I'd still put my money on Visual Studio. Intelligent (language and environment-aware) tools with solid integration is a very GOOD thing. You also have to give credit where credit is due -- the fact that Microsoft DOES have programs like this clearly demonstrates their willingness to help the small, independent developer. Another place where Microsoft is not given credit is in their variable pricing model for professional certification exams and training materials. Having lived in Russia, I benefited directly by paying $25 per exam when the USA was charging $125 per exam and Europe even more. A few years back, they did double the price to $50, but it is still less than 1/3 of what the richer countries pay. How many of YOUR suppliers offer discounts of this level to people from countries that simply don't have the same salaries or earning power? And last, but not least, MSDN is now included FREE as a benefit of the Microsoft Certified Trainer program. What better than to put the latest and most advanced tools directly into the hands of those who will eventually need to teach them? Lots of really excellent programs, but you won't hear anything about them from those on the ABM side.

santeewelding
santeewelding

That the exuberance I seek from you does not rest on coin alone. Let's hope you know how to rub sticks to make fire when it comes to all of us, and that you still know the kind to rub that generates exuberance.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I don't find VS to be a productivity enhancer, except as a debugger. The editor is too slow and has too few features. I prefer editing with vim and building at the command line, even for .NET projects.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

If you mean I am shallow towards business, I am not at all when it comes to fair play. As far as being a have instead of a have not, money makes the world go around. As far as what I need to enjoy life, money is secondary in most ways, but still key when it comes to recreation. I merely seek to have enough to do whatever my heart desires when I am not actually at work. Other than that, I couldn't care less how much I had put away. As far as buying expensive software, if it is for work, the boss or client buys it. if i want it for personal skills progression, I'll download it. If I then need to use that new skill as work, the company can buy a copy. So technically I use these downloads almost as a student, for my own betterment and increased personal value. Regardlesss though, I don't seek anyone's approval of what I do in my life.

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