34 Must-Have Tools to Launch your Startup from Idea to Exit

Bizible CEO Aaron Bird

I’ve launched half a dozen or so startup products in my career and in the process I’ve picked up my list of favorite tools to make each step easier, faster, and cheaper.  Below are the sites and services I’ve had success with while launching startups.  Depending on your skills and experience, you won’t need them all, but I hope some of these tools can help expedite your path to success.

The Idea

You are going to need an idea.  We all know you’ll “pivot” 10 times before it’s over, so this idea doesn’t have to be (and won’t be) perfect, but you can’t start a company without one.  If you don’t have an idea, I’d argue you shouldn’t start a company. However, if you’re looking for one, Paul Graham has a great list, or for a Seattle view of the world Chris Devore has a great one too.

CoFounders

Idea: Check.  However, you aren’t going to build this on your own, so now you need a co-founder.  Attending Startup Weekend or digging around on Angel List are great places to find other entrepreneurs looking to start something great.  Note:  If you’re looking for a technical co-founder you may be SOL.

The Name Game

I hate this step.  I hate naming companies.  It’s an over constrained problem.  I’ve done it too many times and I never want to do it again.  However, it’s a necessary evil and here are the things you need to think about when naming:

  1. You want the .com for the name – I use GoDaddy for this.
  2. Make sure it’s not trademarked (for the function you are going to use it for).  Too many people forget about this step – The USPTO is your best resource here, it’s easy to do a quick search.
  3. You want the @ twitter handle – A simple twitter search will cover this.
  4. It needs to make sense for your market – There are some great posts from Mashable  and others that cover great processes to find a name that fits.

Site Design & Branding

You’re on a budget, so you can’t afford a design firm to do your branding (if you can afford one, I recommend TurnStyle).  Let’s assume the worst case scenario and you have no design chops in house.  For web site design and logo creation 99Designs is heaven sent using a simple process: 1) Post a project description 2) Dozens of designers work on your design 3) You give them feedback in real time, and 4) You pick the winner at the end.  They are my go-to for projects on a budget.  Logos start at $299 and custom site designs starting at $599, both in under a week!

Want to convert that site design to a WordPress theme?  PSD2Html is great perfect, they convert PSD (Photoshop files) into working sites on your favorite CMS at a very competitive price.

Development

We currently use GitHub for source control and bug/feature tracking, but we’ve also used JIRA’s suite in the past and love both of them.  JIRA has a very rich toolset including custom workflows, detailed reports, and project management tools baked in for Scrum or Kanban.  GitHub is much lighter weight and focused on source control.  You can’t go wrong with either one.

Marketing

This section could be five blog posts on its own, but I’ll briefly cover the stack we use.  We use SEOMoz for general keyword research, competitive analysis, and ranking tracking.  HubSpot is our solution of choice for marketing automation, inbound marketing, and blog/social integration.

We chose them over Marketo, Pardot, and others because they fit our needs and price point the best as a startup.   If you can’t afford a full blown marketing automation solution, you can piece something similar together with WordPress for CMS & blogging, WuFoo for form submissions, SEOMoz for SEO, MailChimp for email marketing, and Unbouce for landing pages.   We are in the process of moving our site from WordPress to HubSpot’s CMS.

If it weren’t for HubSpot, we would stay on WordPress with WPEngine as our host. They have great customer service and the web’s fastest WordPress hosting.  We are also in the process of kicking off a Pay Per Click (PPC) search campaign across Google, Bing, and Yahoo and we are going to use Trada to outsource the optimization of this campaign.  They have a marketplace of PPC optimizers where the best woman wins much like 99Designs for design.  For social outreach and influencer marketing we use a combination FollowerWonk (recently bought by SEOMoz), Linksy, and Contact Ready.  These tools help us identify and activate influencers, and push their followers into our sales funnel.  Last but not least, you need an affiliate program to complete your marketing plan and HasOffers is the hands down winner for price, service, and feature set.

Billing

You need to accept credit cards online and this can be a VERY painful process if you start down the wrong path.  I’ve been through this more times than I care to remember and by far the best solution is BrainTree.  You’ll be up and running processing credit cards in less than 15 minutes!  This sign up experience was mind blowing for me after having once spent 6 weeks getting approved for a merchant account.

Their API is very clean and they have done a ton of work to make PCI compliance super easy for you as a developer.  They support an end to end processing solution including the “payment gateway”, “merchant account”, recurring payments, discounting, free trials, multiple products/plans, etc  ALL for 2.9%.  Wow!  No one comes close to this level of value.

Sales

Your product is live, your sales funnel is filling up from your marketing and advertising efforts and you are ready for a sales tool.  We use SalesForce and love it, but if you are on a budget, I can also recommend ZoHo for a very similar feature set at a fraction of the cost.  ZoHo’s feature set usually trails SalesForce by about 18 months. Before moving to SalesForce, we tried InfusionSoft and it didn’t work out for us.

We do live product demos during the sales process and we use JoinMe for screen sharing and conference calling.  Customers can join a screen share right from the browser with no downloads, which makes it better than many of the alternatives.  The price is also very competitive.  Rapportive, ContactReady and HubSpot are great tools to gain better insight into your sales prospects’ social profiles before engaging with them.  This helps to pre-qualify your leads and gives you something to use to help build rapport (“We both went to USCB” or “I’m also in a Kickball league”)

Recruiting

Revenue is taking off, there are no more hours left in the day, so now you need to hire more help.  Since you’re a startup founder, you are always recruiting (even when you aren’t).  However, this often times isn’t enough.  I refuse to use recruiters, as we just can’t afford them.  For recruiting I recommend CodeFellows and the following network mining process using LinkedIn:

  1. Search for the skills you are looking for.  You will try many variations (“ruby developer”, “developer”, “javascript developer”, “front end dev” …) Limit this by geography if you aren’t offering a relocation package.
  2. Find profiles that look like a good fit and are 2-3 connections away.  Note that I diligently keep my LinkedIn social graph up to date with people I meet so I can use LinkedIn for this exact purpose.
  3. Call/Email the common connection and ask them if the person is a good fit for the role and if they will give you an intro.

Support

We use SnapEngage to engage the users on our site with chat.  SnapEngage is great becuase you can use your existing chat programs like Skype or GChat and have your site visitors ping you directly there.  We currently us ZenDesk for the support ticketing system, knowledge base, and FAQ.  We’ve also used UserVoice in the past and would recommend them as well.

Scheduling

Entrepreneurs are constantly meeting with people – sales prospects, investors, customers, recruiting, etc.  Without help scheduling and organizing these meetings can be a huge pain and time sink.  I use ScheduleOnce to solve this problem and it’s amazing.  I can send someone a direct link to my schedule and they can find a time that works for both of us and book time with me directly from the site.  I use this daily and can’t live without it.

These are the tools I use and love, what have I missed?  What your favorite tools for getting the job done?

Aaron Bird is the founder and CEO of Bizible, a Seattle based marketing analytics company helping businesses and marketers close the loop between online marketing and “offline” sales.  Contact him via emaillinkedin, Google+twitter, or his blog.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jmacduff Jeff MacDuff

    Great Post, we use allot of these same tools at Buddy. We also use:

    - Pingdom.com — uptime monitoring of system
    - Unfuddle.com – great simple bug tracking system
    - Zendesk — great helpdesk software
    - Offfice365 – exchange hosting
    - Namecheap — domain reg
    - Rackspace/Colo/Azure/Aws – server hosting

    Choosing the right tools as you start out and build the company is really important, work smarter not harder :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.a.bird Aaron Bird

      Thanks! Yeah, I forgot about site monitoring (we use uptimerobot.com), cloud hosting (AWS & Azure) and Email (Google Apps, but I want to switch to Office 365).

  • Exit missing?

    Where is the part about an exit?

    • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.a.bird Aaron Bird

      I’m still looking for the magic exit tool, it has got to be around here somewhere. Let me know if you find it : )

      The general idea was that you need to succeed to exit and hopefully these tools can help you succeed.

  • http://twitter.com/aroyal Andrew Royal

    Very helpful post, Aaron. Lots of things we’re currently trying to figure out at ILLUMAGEAR. Curious if you evaluated Google Checkout/Merchant versus BrainTree and if there was a tipping point in decision as it was pretty easy to setup esp since we too use Google Apps. At scale, Google’s rates drop but BrainTree’s look to stay flat at 2.9% + .30.

    Would also be very interested if anyone has gone through the decision-making process for storefront (e.g. shopify, amazon, etc.) and fulfillment options…

    • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.a.bird Aaron Bird

      Andrew,

      Thanks for the comment. We didn’t look at Google Checkout. I have looked at it in the past and it seemed to require a Google account for the buyer(not sure if that is still the case). We are a SaaS company and we wanted easy recurring payments, this was feature that most processors don’t have. We don’t have a storefront, so I don’t know about that.

      • http://twitter.com/aroyal Andrew Royal

        Good point Yes, I think GC requires buyers have an account.

  • AdamB

    so I started and existed too, but only once (per each) and not an expert. you mentioned the .com issue. my thing is that I am done with the invented words…I love the simplicity of Nest and Path, etc. So…if not a .com, a .co or .mobi are really a blow? I mean I know and love the default simplicity of .com…but all is gone, nothing left. What are your thoughts?

    • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.a.bird Aaron Bird

      Yeah, I agree about the simplicity of names like Path and not wanting to make up a name. This one is tough and the main reason I hate the over constrained name game – all reasonable .com names are taken. It seems like .co is taking off, I like that and would like to see more domain extensions on display by successful companies to help validate their use.

      We are B2B and I believe (I could be wrong), that you want a .com name for a B2B business for validation.

      One middle ground I have seen (I believe fellow TechStars company tred.com did this): Find a name you like (like tred.com) that is taken but not commercially used. Register tredsite.com or tredapp.com, etc. Once you have revenue coming in (or raise some money), buy the tred.com domain and switch.

      I’ve also heard of companies “leasing” domain names until they can afford to buy them (or they fail). This is an OK option as well.

      I wish their were laws against sitting on domain names. If you aren’t putting it to commercial use, you shouldn’t be allowed to sit on it.

      • Adam Benzion

        Cool. Parking domains, should be treated like a TM, 12 months to use or abandon. Great post, your feedback makes sense. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Cwcsand Christopher William Crawley

    if its world beating idea why would i want to exit?
    another stupid editorial GJ

  • Paul_Owen

    This is a great time to be a startup. We use eVoice for transcribed voicemail w PBX-like features ($20/mo). We use Office365 for Exchange ($4/mo pp), but am interested if paid Gmail is better.

    • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.a.bird Aaron Bird

      Thanks for tip. We are looking for a voicemail transcribing, PBX-like solution right now, I’ll check out eVoice. We use Google Apps, but I want to switch to Office365 b/c document editing and management in G Apps is horrible. The web versions of Office are so much better. I do love Priority Inbox in GMail though, I’m not sure I can live without it.

  • kory

    i am sorry but i cant believe you guys are promoting 99designs. or PSD to HTML services. these services provide shitty work. or they are devaluing designers and developers. but mostly really shitty work.

    • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.a.bird Aaron Bird

      Kory,

      Thanks for the comment. No doubt that you get what you pay for. However, if you are bootstrapping a startup, “cheap, but done” is often times your only option. If you have no design skills in house and only have $5,000 to get a product live, you can’t spend all of it on a web site and logo design. I also plugged Turnstyle (who I have worked with in the past) as a design shop that does great work at a higher price point.

      99Designs & PSD2Html definitely have their place in the founder’s quiver of tools when you are in the early (and cheap) stages.

  • Brent

    Really informative article. Thanks!

  • Lars Helgeson

    Hi Aaron,

    You really built an exhaustive list here of applications that a small business can use to get going. They are all good in their own right, and I think any business could be successful with them.

    Our company, GreenRope, was founded on the idea that all of these separate software solutions would eventually cause confusion, data loss, and inconsistent branding. Imagine how hard it must be for an entrepreneur to manage a Hubspot, SalesForce, Zendesk, BrainTree, ScheduleOnce, etc. Not just from the cost per month for each SaaS vendor, but from the time it must take to try to integrate it all.

    Do you effectively integrate all of those packages together? Maybe, but your monthly cost for just the subscriptions must run well north of $500/month. Even the cheaper versions you recommended are over $300/month, and that doesn’t count the cost of labor to cobble them all together. Most startups can’t afford all the APIs and keeping them all tied together, since after all, software companies are all known for changing their APIs on a regular basis, and we know who absorbs the development costs when they change – their customers.

    As a startup ourselves once, we saw this problem and set out to find a better way. GreenRope was built to save companies over 80% of total cost of ownership, and we hold to that. Integration is the future, and there is a way that doesn’t require a company to buy all of the different vendors you recommend.

    I’m sure you’re very happy with all of the software packages you use, but it may be helpful for you to mention some more affordable, integrated solutions that startups, small, and mid-sized businesses can benefit from.

  • http://twitter.com/Pistachio Laura Fitton

    Thanks for the inclusion! As a former startup founder, it means a lot to see HubSpot in your toolset!

    Warmly,
    Laura

  • http://biznik.com Lara Feltin

    Awesome list. I’m a non-technical founder so I’ve got two more to add that I use for communicating with our development team.

    Balsamiq.com — a simple cloud-based wireframing tool. It’s not Omnigraffle, but it’s cheaper and so easy to use you can put an intern on it immediately.

    Notable — (Notableapp.com by Zurb) — cloud collaboration tool for tracking interface feedback.

  • http://twitter.com/jimjansen Jim Jansen

    Great post!

  • http://www.spark-labs.co/ Spark Labs

    Very helpful and simple list thank you Aaron. It summarizes the big steps that a growing startup experiences. For a more detailed list, we gathered a few 1 300 links following kind of the same approach on this page: http://www.spark-labs.co/startup-tools-and-resources