7 Essential Resources and Tips for Building Your Startup's Software Stack
Greetings to the vibrant ZEEF community! My name is Mohammad Keyhani and I’m an entrepreneurship professor at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary. I created a list of tools and resources for entrepreneurs on ZEEF and I was lucky to see it go viral and very well received in the ProductHunt community.
As an entrepreneurship educator I tend to agree with the notion that ideas are a dime a dozen. What matters is actually getting the idea off the ground and launching a business. That's the hard part. But the hard part is probably not as hard as you think. You only realize just how much easier it has become in the last few years when you learn about the variety of tools and resources that are available on the web to help you out. I think this is why people love pages like my ZEEF page (Entrepreneur Tools) or Startup Stack that provide a comprehensive list of such tools and resources. You take one look at this page and realize just how much you're not alone; for so many aspects of your business you don't have to do it yourself or start from scratch because there are so many things that can be automated. Today's best startups are taking advantage of these tools and they often refer to the set of tools they utilize as their "stack".
I recommend you visit at least a couple of the online tools under every category of the Entrepreneur Tools page to get a good picture of their landscape. But I understand that looking through the more than 1000 links on Entrepreneur Tools and figuring out which ones are best for you can be a daunting and confusing task. So here I will provide a few tips on building your own software stack with some of my favorite tools.
While I have listed many other lists of tools on my ZEEF page, Siftery is among the very few I like better than my own. It helps you deal with a fundamental problem raised by lists like my ZEEF page: which tools to choose among many options? Siftery not only lists the tools, but also tells you which ones are used by other businesses. The companies on Siftery vary from well-known modern start-ups (like Uber, Airbnb, Evernote) to established companies (IBM, Google, Nike, etc.). Siftery also lets you see which tools are trending within the start-up community.
You can also input a few of the tools in your stack and Siftery will give you recommendations on other resources to consider given what similar successful companies have used. The biggest value is that analyzing the list of respected companies can reassure you of how to use the tools to bring positive results.
Many people without coding skills don’t realize that in order to turn their website or app idea into a full-fledged software product, they don’t have to do the programming themselves. They can take steps to build a prototype without coding, and use that prototype to communicate their idea to potential coders, designers, and even investors. In fact, even if they do have the skills to build a full product, it’s often better to start with a prototype, so that you can test the idea and receive feedback before committing too much time and resources. Here are some of my favorite tools that make the prototyping job much easier:
Making a simple prototype for a web or mobile application (iOS, Android, Apple Watch, Android Wear) can take no more than an hour with InVision. You can upload your designs for each web page or app screen you plan to use as Photoshop, Sketch or standard image files, to name a few. Once on your online InVision account, the pictures can be made part of your prototype by creating hotspots on the pictures and deciding where they link to. It also packs a good series of tools for collaboration, commenting and feedback mechanisms. Once your prototype is “finished” (a prototype should never be too finished), a user testing feature will gather live video and screen capture for feedback from potential customers.
Apart from being a great tool to use, InVision also has an exemplary business model. Jeremy Wells, graphic designer and web developer, attributes the success of InVision to how they respond to and integrate designers’ feedback. And the feedback has created a pretty impressive list of customers: Airbnb, Adobe, Uber, Adidas, LinkedIn, PayPal, to name a few, use InVision in their product development process.
When focusing on User Experience, balsamiq is an amazing tool for wireframing. It is easy to use to plan app designs and has a variety of included guides, templates and symbols to help create a realistic basis for a prototype. The resource, which you can download or use online, is designed specifically to plan prototyping so everything looks and interacts like a rough sketch which can be easily changed.
Lora Oehlberg, a computer science professor and expert on interaction design at the University of Calgary gave a talk to our ENTI 381 class in which she explained why balsamiq intentionally uses comic sans fonts and design elements that make your prototype look like an early draft. The idea behind this approach is actually very insightful: when people see drafts they are much more likely to give useful feedback and imagine future possibilities, whereas when they see a more complete prototype or near-finished product, they hesitate to suggest changes that would require major overhaul, and tend to exercise less imagination about how the product could be different. It’s a natural psychological tendency, people will give you less useful feedback the more they see you committed to a pre-existing path or vision.
If your core product is not going to be a website and you just need a website to showcase your brand and products, again, your road to getting there has become much easier with the availability of awesome website building services in the past few years. These services not only take the hassle out of hosting your website, but also provide easy-to-use modular design tools and templates. A couple of my favorites that will take care of the basics for relatively cheap are Weebly and Wix. More recently, I’ve been impressed by XPRS. A more high-tech tool is PageCloud that allows you to clone any other website as your starting point, and provides amazing flexibility with the drag-and-drop editing functionality, but it is also much more expensive.
While the above mentioned website builders have a generic host of capabilities, there are also a range of similar tools that focus more squarely on the landing page, which is what most startups need to showcase their products, features, pricing, etc. and get interested users to register or sign up for updates. A few tools I like in this category are LaunchRock, POP.co, and Landingi. Because of their focus on product launches, some of these tools provide additional functionality specific to managing the launch process and acquiring users. Unbounce is another tool I like because it provides A/B testing functionality which is an essential part of the Lean Startup approach that I advocate and teach in my classes.
Most entrepreneurs will realize early on that a lot of their time can be taken up with writing and answering emails. If you do this manually you will soon begin to wish there were tools for managing and automatizing some of this process. Fortunately, there are now a host of email management tools available that help you with managing mailing lists, composing mass customized emails that get people’s attention, tracking emails and conversations, as well as scheduling emails to be sent at specific times or after certain trigger events. I introduce a couple of email management tools here:
MailChimp has a large variety of templates that work very well for drag-and-drop enthusiasts. It is ideal for smaller businesses or non-coders who work well with the options available and can learn from the site’s many support videos and guides, but it does also offer the option to edit HTML on the emails. Pricing is also very suitable for smaller businesses: it is free if limited to under 12,000 emails per month. Integration with online stores like Shopify and Magento also help with product follow-ups and sending stock status notifications.
Campaign Monitor may be less user-friendly for the novice user, but it offers a lot more flexibility with coding, enables mass customized emails and mailing list management. The list of companies that use Campaign Monitor is impressive, including Adidas, Mercedes-Benz, SXSW, Buzzfeed, Sephora and Pizza Hut. Campaign Monitor interviewed the Director of Newsletters at Buzzfeed, Dan Oshinsky, last year to see how the emails had helped Buzzfeed reach explosive growth. It’s an interesting read that can be found here.
It usually doesn’t take time for a startup to start needing tools to facilitate communication, collaborative work, and task allocation among team members. For such small teams, it’s easy to make the mistake of using overly elaborate project management software that will be nothing but overkill that slows you down rather than make your life easier. In recent years a slew of new tools has become available with the specific needs of small and agile teams in mind. Two in particular have become very popular:
Slack is an excellent resource for communication within a company. It offers a platform to message or share files with company members in different departments or as a whole. The site also has a very sophisticated search tool which relieves the pain of going through clunky emails. It offers integration with other major communication sites and tools (like Dropbox, Google Drive, Twitter, etc.) to basically offer a central archive for all internal communication.
Even when working with larger groups, Slack provides a much more usable alternative to email for internal communication. The Wall Street Journal and ABC News are examples of large companies which use Slack. A year and a half ago when Slack had 125,000 daily users (now it has 2.3 million), The Verge predicted that it would kill email in the workplace. Although Stewart Butterfield, Slack CEO, stated in an interview with Fortune Magazine that Slack will not kill email on an inter-company level, its exponential growth proves how the functionality of Slack is revolutionizing internal communication in business.
A good tool to combine with slack to add some task and project management functionality is Trello. Trello’s platform is based on a list of cards which can be used to list tasks, show progress and track the workflow of a project. The main appeal of Trello is its simplicity and ease of use, but it does have more sophisticated add-ons you can choose like a calendar, voting options, card aging, etc. Trello is so simple, it can be adapted to a variety of uses, or even a Lifehack.. It is used by companies like Google, PayPal, Tumblr and Adobe because the user really gets to choose how to use the product.
If you take the time to play around with it and learn how to use it, there is no question that one of the most powerful tools listed on Entrepreneur Tools is Zapier. This tool takes the idea of workflow automation found in tools like IFTTT (IF This Then That), and takes it to the next level. Zapier allows you to automate interaction between your most used apps. The site will connect with your accounts on any of its impressive list of 500+ supported applications (including Google services, MailChimp, Trello, Slack, Evernote, Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and create “zaps” or automated tasks between them to help them interact with one another.
For example, it can turn form data from Eventbrite, Wufoo, SurveyMonkey or Typeform submissions into a Google Sheets form. It can add emails from your Paypal users or your Facebook page followers to your MailChimp list. It can automatically back up Evernote files or Gmail attachments on your Dropbox. It’s a very useful tool which helps avoid the unnecessary grunt work when managing interconnections between the tools in your stack. The possibilities are endless, and finding the best ones can even become a contest. Fortunately, Zapier has lots of examples and help material to get you started.
Last but not least, if you need customized software solutions or tweaks to your existing software, one the most cost-effective ways to do it is to assign the task to a freelancer. In fact, the freelancer economy is now so large and diverse, you can get anything from accountants and designers to musicians and writers from a host of marketplace websites for such services. I truly believe that one of the most important skills of the 21st century (that schools are not teaching us) is going to be learning how to take advantage of these freelancer markets. A couple of my favorites are:
For smaller or less specialized teams, Fiverr is a great resource which connects businesses with freelancers of all skills ranging from graphic design to getting featured to translation. It has more than 3 million independent services, with most basic ones like logo and letterhead design starting at $5 USD. I especially recommend Fiverr as the most cost-effective way to get an explainer video produced and edited for your website. For the more adventurous marketer, why not get a rap song for some virality?
Freelancer.com is useful for projects like software development, web design, SEO Marketing or app creation. It requires you to submit your exact needs for your project and freelancers will bid to be hired. You can find some great deals for larger projects if bidding goes your way and you only pay if fully satisfied with the job. Several entrepreneurs that have talked to me about their experience using freelancer.com have told me that they were able to get skilled programmers to complete jobs at a fraction of the regular price for such services.
In 2016, especially due to the sudden popularity of my ZEEF page, I have had the good fortune of meeting some local web entrepreneurs here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Naturally, I have asked them about their stacks and the tools they use for their business.
Wilson Hung, founder of FounderOrigins.com, a resource for entrepreneurial venture ideas, was also a guest lecturer in our ENTI 381 class at the University of Calgary this year, and he spoke to us about user acquisition and growth marketing strategies. He recently told me about the stack of tools he uses and how he discovered new ones through the Entrepreneur Tools ZEEF page: "I only have three websites on my browser's bookmark bar, and one of them is Mohammad's ZEEF page. With so much content available out there, it's helpful to have everything summarized in one easy-to-read web page. My favorite discoveries so far are:
- SumoMe: As a result of this discovery, I've increased my email conversion rate from 2% to 5% on my blog.
- StockSnap.io: My go-to website when looking for specific free stock photos."
Sam Chow, founder of Hobblit.com, a platform for connecting experts (gurus) to people who want to learn from them, says: "As a non-tech founder with a little bit of experience in everything, I found the “entrepreneur tools” resource to be invaluable. We started with this list as a means to guide us through the building of our start-up, hobblit.com." The founder of Hobblit used Sharetribe to produce a minimum viable product (MVP). It allowed him to create a full-fledged online marketplace without any coding. Although it wasn't the exact product he wanted to make, the prototype allowed him to recruit team members with programming skills that would help him create a custom platform. But they didn't get straight into coding the product and instead started by mocking up the design with UXpin which, in Sam's words, "allowed my non-designer self to communicate with the front-end developer."
Mr. Chow describes some other elements of their software stack as well: "We use Expensify to keep track of our expenses and Stripe to process our payments. MailChimp to handle our newsletters and Hootsuite for social media marketing. Also, F6S to apply for competitions and gain insight into other similar companies."
Finally, my students and I were fortunate enough to have Dominique Fraser, founder of TeamFund.ca give our class an inspiring guest lecture recently. TeamFund is the first ever web service of its kind, connecting local vendors to people who want to use their products for fundraising campaigns.
For Dominique, being local, flexible pricing, and customer support were a factors in choosing some of her stack. "I loved Wave as it’s based out of Toronto and it’s cloud. It’s free, but I have found a tremendous amount of value in paying for the upgrade for 30 days and having Wave essentially set me up and teach me about accounting. I tried to set things up on my own and it took probably about 50 hours of nonsense and frustration. Upgrading for $100 saved me probably 30-40 hours and then I was able to focus on sales. Great value-it’s hard to see that at first, but now when I can upgrade temporarily, I see it as an opportunity to save time. Support is bar-none when you are a startup. At first it seems that every app or software will solve all your problems, but it’s not the case."
The rest of TeamFund's stack includes Wix for website building, Wufoo for creating and managing forms, and Zapier for triggering automatic operations with form entries. She uses Campaign Monitor for auto responding to emails, which costs her "one penny per email." Guru.com and Fiverr.com are tools she uses to help source out freelancers, and she has recently started using Canva.com for design/art and Facebook posts. "I also use Vcita, which is a customer engagement software. You can view it when you visit my site and it pops up at the bottom right of the screen. This helps my users schedule time for discussion or face to face meet up."
I end this blog post by extending a warm thank you to the ZEEF team for building a great platform and for inviting me to write here. I hope readers will find the material useful, and I know that many of them will know of better and newer tools that would be awesome for entrepreneurs and startups. One of the beauties of a ZEEF page is the ability to accept and curate suggested links by others, so if you know of any tools you think should be included on Entrepreneur Tools, you know where to find it!