The Best Software Tools to Run a Startup
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There’s never been a better time to start your own company, and the explosion of online tools has gone a long way toward reducing startup costs.
But they can also be a huge time suck, a deep rabbit hole that gets you lost in maximizing process at the expense of product.
We’ve been down a few rabbit holes launching NerdWallet, a media startup focused on finanical tools, to find the right software tools to get the job done. The process is ongoing -- we try, discard and try again. And while there are some amazing applications out there, we have also learned that sometimes a trusty spreadsheet can do the job rather than an online tool that over promises and under delivers.
When judging what software is right for your startup, think about these questions:
1. Does it meet our business needs? Don’t get more than you need. With the profusion of products, it’s easy to pick up a case of “tool-itus.” Keep tools to an absolute minimum to avoid death by a thousand pinpricks.
2. Does it save money and time? We generally think about using software tools in terms of time saved. If we are spending a lot of time working admin on a no-cost tool is that time really worth it’s “free cost?” It’s important to manage expenses, but ultimately, you have to grow the top line -- and spending a little cash on a better tool may be worth it in the long run.
3. Does it make employees’ jobs easier? Software tools are only as good as an employee’s adherence to using it. If they don’t use, or feel resentful using it, then it’s both hurting productivity and morale.
As a media startup, here are the products we’ve tried (some we’ve dropped, others we continue to use) but all have been essential in our learning curve and scaling needs. While these were specific for media, many (if not all) can be used at other types of companies.
Publishing tools. When starting out, content providers usually choose among one of the “Big Three” free content-management systems: Drupal, WordPress and Joomla. We chose WordPress, because of its off-the-shelf ease and ubiquitous presence. (The company powers one in every six webpages.)
With its dominance, WordPress has far more ways to customize your site with more than 31,000 plug-ins. That’s both good news and bad news: How do you sift through them all for what’s right for your site? It can be tricky.
To get a sense of which of the "Big Three" is right for your company, there is a great comparison tool on WebsiteSetup.org.
Project and product management. Keeping track of collaboration on various projects and product development becomes essential when you grow from more than a dozen employees. Fortunately, there are a number of project management tools out there.
We started with Trello, a project-management platform with a free option (can upgrade to "business class for $500"). It was easier to use when starting from scratch, but as we grew, we started bumping into problems with customizing it to our needs. After the engineering team began using Kanban Tool, the rest of the company began using it as well. We found its flexibility for the disparate areas of our business worth its nominal price: between $5 and $9 per user per month.
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Customer-relationship management. We use Salesforce, which can cost anywhere between $5 and $300 per user per month, to manage and track our customer relationships. To be honest, it was more software than we actually needed. While Salesforce has the flexibility to customize almost every single element of the system, the more options often increases complexity, rather than reducing it. For new users, it can be intimidating, and small startups rarely have the resources for comprehensive training right off the bat. This means that users self-select into those willing to invest to learn vs. those who revert to their original ways (read: manual) we were trying to move away from in the first place. That said, for larger, more complex companies, it may be worth the investment.
There are lighter weight and cheaper CRM tools that we could have used, among them Nimble, Streak -- a free tool which touts itself as “CRM inside Gmail” -- and Relate IQ, which will run you $49 to $99 per user per month and claims to build better “relationship intelligence.”
Our PR team is experimenting with Nimble (free for personal use and $15 per user per month for businesses), which aggregates contacts from Gmail and social-media accounts like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. Like our migration to project-management tool Kanban Tool, this highlights an effective way to pilot a new tool: Have one team use it and if it proves to be useful implement company wide.
Traffic acquisition and on-site analytics. The first step in most online businesses is getting traffic to your site in the first place. When you think about how traffic arrives at places, a common starting point is organic search traffic. SEMRush (a service that runs between $70 to $150 per month) and MOZ (one that will set you back $49 to $99 per month) are tools that both help to see how you rank for key search terms and how to better capture users. SEMrush is a SEO keyword search tool that helps to better capture organic search traffic. MOZ is not only great with SEO but also emulates Google’s domain-authority ranking and gives you a sense of what competitors are doing better than you.
Once the traffic arrives, you need to know what it’s actually doing there. Are they leaving because your signup form is too complex? Or abandoning their shopping carts because of expensive shipping charges?
Google Analytics is an obvious tool every online startup must master. It’s free, gives you a ton of insight and helps you figure out what is actually happening on your site.
There are a host of tools out there that help you to make better sense of people coming to your website. As KISSmetrics (a service costing between $150 and $500 per month) puts it: “Google Analytics tells you what’s happening. KISSmetrics tells you who’s doing it.” Which is a fair statement of what it does. It gives more insight at a personal user level of the behavior of users.