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.
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.
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:
- You want the .com for the name – I use GoDaddy for this.
- 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.
- You want the @ twitter handle – A simple twitter search will cover this.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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 email, linkedin, Google+, twitter, or his blog.