When you're starting your own company, there are so many things you need to think about. So many aspects and angles.
You have an idea, a product, a talent, but more often than not, financing in the early stages isn't high. You need to design, or built a prototype, you want a web site, social media pages, marketing, accounting, plus you need to track everything and make sure you're on budget and meeting your goals.
With so many things to consider, it's easy for things to fall between the cracks, or even worse, to get manager burnout.
I've learned that the difference between having the right tools or not can make such a difference in the final outcome. This is true not just in the business world. I'm an amateur baker. I love baking and still have so much to learn. But one thing that has become very clear over the years, and that is that having the right tools is a huge leap towards making your cake look as professional as possible.
And as with cake, such is the case with taking your first steps in building your business.
There are many apps out there than can help you boost your business and give you a more professional look. Many of them have a free starter package that is enough for those first steps. While not every app is suitable for everyone, and while not everyone will need every app out there, here's a compilation of apps I recommend based on their use over the past four years (some more recently than others).
Apps for initial design
This app is great for initial layout of wireframes and design. It's also ideal for collaboration between the UX/UI teams, the programmers and any decision makers and stake holders.
The designer or UX professional can upload JPG, PSD or Sketch files for you to review and approve. You have the option to write comments on the design itself as well as create linked hotspots to emulate the flow of your design.
The tool enables you to share your design with others and receive their feedback. You can share the entire project or specific screens.
Once approved, you can use the inspect tool to review the layout for coding. Assuming you've uploaded a PSD or Sketch file, InVision will give you the spacing, CSS, font details and color coding information you need for programing
The app is free with one active prototype. Prices increase as your company and its needs grow.
I have an appreciation for good graphics, but I am far from a graphic designer.
Then again, hiring a good, high quality graphic designer can be expensive. Canva gives you the opportunity to create a logo, a business card, company stationary, social media graphics and so much more. You can create an entire branding kit. They have so many templates to start you off, plus you can select from a ton of free graphics, layouts and elements to create your own unique look and feel.
For social media, there are also so many options to create banners, infographics and so much more.
It's easy to use and very intuitive. Plus, their output options are endless, including a printing service. This Australian based company will deliver almost anywhere.
The free plan has many (many!) options and is enough for the average beginner. If you upgrade you get even more.
In the past, you had to have programming knowledge and probably in more than one language, in order to build a site that had high functionality and benefits for your users.
Today, that is a thing of the past. There are a few simple to use site builders out there.
One of them is Wix.
This WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) easy to use application enables you to build your site at the highest standards. Including online chat bot, email automations, connectivity to a database and so much more.
Of course, you also have the option to add coding and scripting where you want it.
You have hundreds of templates, images and graphics to choose from, plus the ability to edit and personalize your site to your standards and design. They have SEO and GDPR compliancy options built in. You can connect your Google Analytics tracking code and of course a personal domain. Obviously, they have the option for eCommerce as well.
Wix offers to create a logo and design your site based on some basic questions they ask you. It's a great feature, but I was pretty underwhelmed by their suggestions. Then again, it's not so easy to create a good design without in-depth knowledge of your client, so it's an A for effort.
Their payment structure is modular. Building a site is free. Hooking it up to your domain, adding a bot, email automations, Google Analytics and more is extra. You decide what you want to pay for. Their basic package is pretty low, and they have a 50% off offer for a limited time when you start building.
PLUS: Wix offers coding and full development structure. So if you want to grow, code, and even build an admin panel - this is the tool for you.
User engagement and marketing apps
Landing pages are an important marketing tool, as are sticky bars and pop ups (though to be honest, I hate both with a vengeance).
There are a few players in this market. When looking for the right app, I came across two main apps that fit the bill. The first was ClickFunnels and the second was Unbounce. There are probably more out there, but these were the two that seemed to give me what I was looking for.
To be honest, what tipped it for me was the free editor to play with before committing. Yes, ClickFunnels has a free trial, but I wanted the option to play with the tool without giving any of my data (I guess I'm a privacy freak as well).
Once I found that this tool had everything I wanted, it was just a matter of time before we fell in love.
The app comes with many templates to choose from, depending on what you are marketing and what your strategy is. All design is drag and drop, though you do have the options to add some scripting and coding if you want.
You can set different pop ups and stickies for different pages. And you can have an exit pop up as well. In addition, you have the option to add dynamic text to a page, that enables you to build one page for various products. We even managed to transfer dynamic text to a URL and button (using a community hack). Yes, Unbounce has a great community for idea exchange and tips and tricks (plus, as mentioned, some great hacks, like adding your favicon to the browser tab).
There are still some improvements they can make to their layout functions, but all in all, I managed to create everything I wanted fairly easily. Working with our copywriter and designer we managed to bang out some great pages that had huge turnover rates on desktop and on mobile.
Unbounce also comes with the option to integrate with some of your favorite tools such as Mailchimp, ActiveCampaign, Zapier and so many more.
Their in-app reporting leaves something to be desired. I'm hoping they improve that in the future, but integration with Google Analytics is very simple and that's a big plus.
Price wise they're not cheap. Their essential package is enough if you don't want to segment your visitors based on where they came from or what their status is. But if you want better segmentation, you're better off buying the premium package that has better tracking.
Of all the tools and apps in this list, Intercom
is the one that took me the longest to decide to work with. Not because it's not good or lacks options, simply because there are so many chat bot apps to select from.
Our strategy was to use the bot for motivation and functionality and not necessarily for marketing. Most chat bots are actually built with marketing in mind. We wanted the option to present the user with bot conversations based on their activity on our site. Intercom has a great user interface you can use to define your audience based on attributes and site usage. We integrated with Zapier to pass the attributes based on user data in our database. You can also define a time-frame for a bot, and goals for each conversation.
Intercom actually has two different types of bots. The first is a straight forward chat. The second is a multi-level chat with different paths you define for the user. This enable you to customize the user's chat experience based on their answers, thus giving your users a better experience.
Intercom gives you great statistics about your conversations, including path percentages and goal completions.
Intercom also has features like a product tour (which is great as a tutorial for more complex sites or products) and an answer base, where you can upload answers to frequently asked questions. One of the features I really liked about Intercom, was their built-in ability to differentiate between registered users and visitors (you can even pass your own site user ID directly to the Intercom database from within your site code). They also have the option to differentiate between active users, leads, users that are slipping away, and in-active users. These distinctions give you the option to personalize the conversations you give to each user based on their status and engagement level.
There is a lot more to write about Intercom. From their integration and email options, push and pull messages, in-app and offline bots, to their great tutorials and support, and online and offline built-in responses. The best I can suggest is that you check them out!
Another great thing about Intercom is their pricing plan. As you've probably understood by now, I like it when I can play with an app for free. And Intercom gives you that option. When you've decided what you need, they have a modular pricing plan. Add what you need, and pay for just that. As your product expands, you can expand your plan.
When I started looking for an email automation provider, I had little to no budget. At the time, I started working with Mailchimp. It was an up and coming star. They had email automations and campaigns, as well as landing pages and many other great features. For my needs, the free package was enough. And then they changed their pricing plan. All of a sudden, those basic automations were at a cost.
If I was going to pay for an email marketing and automation tool, it was time to do some research to find the best one out there. As I've mentioned before, we were looking to do more than just email marketing, we wanted to add automation for motivation as well.
That's when I came across ActiveCampaign. This tool has more than I needed. We used this tool to create standalone campaigns but that's the easy part. ActiveCampaign enables you to build automations for sending out emails and even for sending site message (though this feature is still in its early stages). The automations are so easy to use and enable setting goals and scoring for users. You can segment your users based on various fields you define, based on attributes, based on site usage and so much more. Each automation has multiple options for if/then paths and looping options or sending to another automation.
Building the emails is simple and give you a wide range of options including conditional text and formatting in the same email. Integration with the site is easy using a simple script on your site, or using webhooks or other integrations such as Zapier. ActiveCampaign also has a built-in integration with many tools, such as Unbouce, so that when a user submits a form on your landing page, their user on ActiveCampaign is automatically update. This enables you to automatically enter them into an automation. Leaving you more time for coffee 😊
ActiveCampaign is actually built for marketing purposes, and as such they have their own CRM and built-in marketing pipelines. Your potential customers move from one stage to the next based on their activity or if you manually move them. You can define the different steps and send yourself notifications automatically at any stage. You can define a team and set up different mailing lists for different purposes.
The thing I love most about ActiveCampaign is their community. It's more than just a place for exchanging ideas. They have an entire site set up just for feature requests. You can vote on the various options and add ideas of your own. My experience shows that they listen to what their customers ask for. Features I've requested, that got voted up by many other users, have been implemented. And ActiveCampaign employees interact with the users.
As I mentioned above, the site messaging is still taking its first steps. The design is limited, and there is no option for dynamic text. But I know improvements are on their to-do list.
The pricing for ActiveCampaign is steep. This is by no means the cheapest tool out there. And you can probably get some basic functionality from other tools I've listed. But this is by far one of the best tools on this list.
If you're just starting off, you may think you don't need this tool. However, Zapier is the up and coming newcomer on the block (though it's not so new). It has capabilities that will blow your mind. Ok, maybe I went too far. But not that far.
Integrating between different applications has never been easier. You don't need to know a line of code. Zapier enables you to define cause and effect. For example, if someone sends you a message on Facebook Messenger, you can automatically define responses to be sent from your page based on different variables. Or if you find a great article, you can add it to a never ending list for later reading.
But that's just the small stuff.
You can trigger a Zap based on changes in different apps, such as a change to specific cells in a Google Sheet, or a post or Facebook Messenger message. Zaps can connect to your database or any other data source. This tool enables you to create flows, update your users, send messages and emails and so much more.
Pricing for Zapier is based on the number of Zaps you have and the number tasks run per payment period. The free plan is great for just testing it out (5 Zaps, 100 tasks a month). But be warned, it's addictive.
Google Analytics is a free web analytics service that allows you to analyze in-depth detail about performance of your website. Using GA will help you gain insights to how your site is used and how your marketing campaigns are performing. The tool is a specialty in itself, but even as a beginner, I managed to learn more than just page views and average session duration. You can track your user's paths and event performance, plus compare your spending vs earnings.
One of the things that I learned the hard way, was the importance of defining what you want to know (KPIs, goals) before you write even one line of code.
The more you know in advance, the easier it is to integrate into your site.
Even if you don't know exactly which events you'll want to track, it's never too late, but may require some workarounds (and the help of Google Tag Manager)
As with other Google products, Google Analytics is free. As your business grows and you want more details, the cost for Analytics 360 (the premium pack) is pretty expensive ($150,000 a year). But if you're at that stage, you're probably not reading this article 😉.
This, by far, is one of my favorite apps. Our database had so much valuable data to organize and learn from, but it was SQL based. I dabble in SQL, but am far from fluent. Plus, we had data from our landing pages and general funnel and of course from Google Analytics.
Analytics Canvas is a great app to gather all your tracking information and outputting it in various formats. With the help of building blocks, you gather database information and cross reference with landing page, AWS servers, Google Analytics info and more.
Setting up daily, monthly or even hourly reports has never been easier.
This tool also helped up build some of our more complicated funnels that were based on user performance on our site.
Output formats include not just Excel and Google Sheets, but also Google Data Studio (another great tool in the making) as well as delivery options such as email and Dropbox or Google Drive files.
The app has the option for cloud or server based use, and of course, local usage.
The price is a bit on the higher end of the spectrum compared to all the other tools in this article, but I think this is one of the smarter investments you can make. They have a free trial for you to play around with. I highly recommend it.
Excel and Google Sheets
These are well known tools, I know. Far be it for me to give these tools a grade or even a basic description. And yet, I add them to this list because they are so great for analyzing and reporting.
Yes, I'm an Excel sheet junky.
Give me data, give me a table or a chart, and I'm a pretty happy camper.
While there are a ton of similarities between the Microsoft version and the Google version, I can't say which I prefer more. I lean towards the Microsoft version only because I've been using it since it came out. I still remember the camera function (it was well hidden but very useful, and today is obsolete due to better query functions).
Placing data in tables, sorting them, filtering them and then manipulating the data gives me a rush. And if I manage to figure out some VBA or Google script to automate manipulations (using some basic knowledge and the wonderful Stack Overflow), I'm high for the day.
Creating charts for reporting is much easier than ever before. Add to that color coding and conditional formatting, and you've got yourself a report for any investor or board of directors.
One benefit Google Sheets has is that integration (using Zapier, Segment or any other tool) is seamless and easy (more than OneDrive). For complex funnels this is the way to go. Then again, for reporting via email that doesn't require going online to view the file, Microsoft Excel is more suitable.
In short, a combination of both is probably best. But it all depends on what your needs are. The price is key here. If you're a Microsoft user and have Excel installed, you're probably used to it and may want to stay there. But if you want to save some cash, Google Sheets is the way to go. It's totally free.
Project management and development tools
Small companies seem to think they can manage their projects using a notebook or a spreadsheet.
But as you grow, there will be repetitive tasks and making sure nothing falls between the cracks becomes a task of its own.
Using a project management tool such as Asana can help keep track of everything that needs to be done for each client.
Templates can be used for projects, meeting agendas, business plans and even importing an existing worksheet.
Each project can be separated into sections with a list in each section.
You get to see the entire project at a glance and also go in deeper if I want.
Asana gives you free use of the product with limited features. It's enough for most starting businesses. As you scale up, their pricing plans include forms, Gantt view and automations.
There are a multitude of project management tools available today. Asana, Monday.com, Slack and many more. Each has its uniqueness and give you something a bit different.
We tried using Asana but we needed something that could also manage and track our development bugs. Since we were using Bitbucket for our coding, finding another Atlassian tool was just a matter of time.
Jira gave us the perfect structure to manage our projects, development and content. We built epics and stories. Based on those we added tasks, uploaded documents and defined a timeline and versions. Once development started, we added bugs, and then more bugs. Using sprints, we could manage our progress closer still.
The more I used Jira, the more I wanted to use the app. I managed task and bug assignment and timelines for sprints and versions. I set priorities and defined versions. I knew where my product was at any given time and I knew who was working on what and how long it would take them (and how long it took them when done).
We did intensive product and security testing with Applause (highly recommended, btw). We had two-way integration for bugs and automatic uploading of all documents.
Jira has the option to create a different board for each project or product. You can create a different development path for tasks (and sub-tasks), stories, epics and bugs. Each user can transfer their tasks or bugs to the next stage and reassign it as needed. Jira has a wide range of reports to help you manage your project. You can also export your tasks. I used the Excel option and knew what my product status was at any given time. This made reporting to the business team easier and more efficient.
While Jira doesn't have a built-in Gantt option (for now), there are some great extensions that support this and I think they're working on it. Atlassian has a great community and are constantly improving their products.
Pricing wise, Atlassian is amazing. Jira is free for initial 10 users. The bigger your team, and the more features you need, the more you'll need to pay.
This list is far from all encompassing. The number of tools out there keeps growing, seemingly by the minute. But I've used the tools listed here and based on my experience, they're great for starting, and even established companies.
Not sure which tool is right for you? Try them out. Play with them. You'll be surprised how quickly you're life will become easier. Leaving you even more time for coffee (have another cup on me).
For more about Irit visit her website: day-by-day.biz