If ease of use and low cost are what you value, Highrise and Zoho CRM are worth considering as online CRM solutions for managing contacts and sales leads.

The parent companies of Highrise and Zoho CRM share similar backgrounds and evolutionary paths in bringing low-cost SaaS solutions to market for SMBs. Both companies began in the 1990s and reinvented themselves as SaaS business application providers in the mid-2000s.

37signals was founded as a web design company in 1999 and began developing web business applications in 2003. Highrise was released in 2007. Interestingly, the Ruby on Rails framework was developed by a 37signals developer and released as open source.

Highrise, for contact management, is one of four products in the 37signals small business productivity lineup, the others being Basecamp (project collaboration), Backpack (document sharing), and Campfire (chat). The focus of all these products is simplicity, clarity, ease of use, and low cost.

Zoho CRM also had roots in the mid 1990’s as AdventNet, a network management company, and rebranded itself as a low-cost SaaS business application company and changed its name to Zoho in 2009. Zoho CRM also is part of a larger suite of products that include Zoho Writer, Projects, Sheet, Show, Creator, Wiki, Planner, Suite, Notebook, Chat, Meeting, and Mail.

Overall, Zoho CRM is a richer, more full-featured product, and while less expensive than other online CRM products, is not as inexpensive as Highrise.

Highrise is a more bare-bones CRM offering, lacking features such as reporting capability and easy customization. However, it is Highrise’s extreme sparseness and simplicity that users value most in the product—even finding its lack of features a blessing.

As one user said, “In a world where the number of features is what drives sales, Highrise is an anomaly. It cannot compete with Salesforce.com, Microsoft CRM, or other complex systems on features. What Highrise does have is usability.” This user also found Highrise’s lack of customization a benefit because, he said, “I don’t want to get lost in the system.”

Likewise, another user remarked that “Highrise is simple and that is a huge strength that appeals. You will not spend hours configuring Highrise like you can in Salesforce…”

Said another, “Ease of setup and use cannot be beat. I have sold and installed ACT!, Salesforce, and SugarCRM to mention a few. Nothing compares to Highrise for me.”

Zoho CRM aims more in the middle, providing simplicity and ease of use, but also a more full-featured CRM system whose appeal is as an alternative to products like Saleforce.com at a lower price point.

Zoho CRM users value the level of functionality it provides at lower cost.  As one user noted, “After reviewing a number of options, we chose ZOHO CRM based upon the ‘function for price’ equation.” Similarly, another user remarked that Zoho CRM strikes “a perfect balance between the small monthly fee and the features it does provide.” Said another user, “Zoho CRM offers all the power you need without having to pay for a bunch of features and bells and whistles that you won’t use anyway.”

Zoho CRM users also like the customization the solution allows, as well as the ability to integrate with other tools using the Zoho CRM API.  But low cost is the criteria users tend to value across the board. As one user said, “Zoho CRM gets the job done well and on the cheap.” Likewise, said another user, “We switched to Zoho CRM from Salesforce.com due to cost, Zoho CRM being cheaper.”

Zoho CRM is priced at $12 per month per user for its Professional Edition and $25 per user per month for its Enterprise Edition. Zoho offers a free edition for up to three users. Zoho also offers a Mobile Edition for $3 per user per month. Zoho requires no contract and offers a 15-day free trial. The storage limits are 500MB, 250MB and 100MB, respectively, for the Premium, Professional, and Free editions, and extra storage can be bought for $4 per GB per month.

Highrise pricing ranges from $24 for Basic, for up to six users, for $49 for Plus, for up to 15 users, to  $99 for Premium, for up to 40 users. Basic is limited to 10 deals, 10,000 contacts, and 5GB storage. Plus and Premium have unlimited deals and 20,000 and 30,000 contacts, respectively. Plus gives you 15 GB of storage and Premium 30 GB.  Highrise requires no contract and offers a 30-day free trial.

Do the math and you’ll see that Highrise is the lowest-cost solution: Six users for $24 for Highrise vs. $72 for Zoho CRM Professional; 15 users for $49 with Highrise vs. $180 for Zoho CRM Professional.

Bottom Line: Highrise and Zoho CRM are low-cost, easy-to-use online CRM solutions. If you want the simplest solution at the most rock-bottom price, then Highrise is for you. If you want more functionality, akin to what higher-end CRM systems offer but at lower cost, then Zoho CRM is your choice. Both these vendors offer free trials, so you can assess which one best meets your needs and budget and choose accordingly.