Just a few years ago, if you had an idea for a new business, one of the first things you'd probably invest in was a website. In order to have a functional site, you'd have to shell out thousands of dollars to hire a designer and a programmer. Next on the list would be a bookkeeper and an attorney, and .... before you'd opened your doors, you'd invested thousands more dollars. If you were building an e-commerce site, that number could run into the six figures.
Not anymore. Today, it's possible to build a unique website for next to nothing using WordPress or SquareSpace, get an LLC set up for a couple hundred bucks with LegalZoom, and use QuickBooks for bookkeeping. E-commerce sites can use Shopify for a few dollars and, from there, the biggest challenge becomes sorting through the hundreds of software applications that will make your day-to-day operations easier.
I've never been one to waste time reinventing the wheel, so if someone has already built a product that's going to make it easier for me to run my business, I'm going to use theirs rather than build my own. I don't host my own website because there are companies that can do it better than I can. Our programmers didn't create an email newsletter app because there are a few companies that do only that, and they do it really well.
There are so many great applications and platforms out there, and chances are very good that some of them will make it easier for you to run your business so you can focus on whatever it is that you do best. I file the ones on this list in the sales and marketing category because they help me keep track of everything from customer satisfaction--which is directly tied to our success--to email conversions.
1. Geckoboard--a real-time KPI-monitoring dashboard
How to use it: to monitor social networks, sales, server uptime, and a variety of other metrics. Geckoboard integrates with dozens of platforms including Pinterest, Chargify, Etsy, Eventbrite, Facebook, and Twitter. The best part is that all the stats are in real time, so you can see spikes in your data and react quickly. At ShortStack, we have a big TV in the office that is dedicated to displaying our data all day long. Having it in the middle of the office allows the whole staff to see what's happening with signups, website, and blog visits, etc. Geckoboard costs between $17 (1 user/1 dashboard) and $359 a month (20 users/unlimited dashboards); enterprise pricing for 50 users is by request.
2. Help Scout--for customer support
How to use it: for technical support. Companies that have thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of customers have a few options when it comes to customer support but online support is the most cost-effective. Phone support is expensive and the other issue is that "outsiders" might not be able to offer the same attention to detail about your product or service that an in-house staff can. With online support you're able to offer nicely packaged solutions to questions or other issues, including screenshots, video tutorials, help docs, and detailed instructions that users can refer back to as needed. When users submit support tickets via email, they can send screenshots and screencasts that help the support team determine what the problem might be. This would be impossible to do over the phone. Help Scout offers a free trial; paid plans are $15/user per month.
How to use it: to create sleek and beautiful surveys that you can use to learn more about who your users are, what kinds of businesses they run, and to gauge user interest in new features. From the user's perspective, GetFeedback's polls seem almost gamelike: Survey creators have the option to use all sorts of visual elements, including photos and sliders, that make the surveys fun to take. The information you can get from the surveys though, is seriously helpful. For instance, you might be really excited about a new feature but when you ask your users what they think about it, you might learn that they don't care about it. The data you gather can serve as a good reminder that it's not a good idea to run a business on gut instinct alone. GetFeedback's plans range from free to $120/month (billed annually).
4. MailChimp--for DIY email-newsletter marketing
How to use it: for email marketing. MailChimp offers great templates and features like auto-responders, but the best thing about the platform is that it's so easy to use. The folks behind MailChimp are also forward-thinking when it comes to responsive design, and that includes the mobile experience. People read more email on mobile devices than on their desktops or laptops, so mobile functionality is essential. You can use MailChimp to send out newsletters, and to send "welcome" and "getting started" information automatically to every new subscriber. The interface is also really fun and makes you want to use it. MailChimp is free for up to 2,000 subscribers/12,000 emails (per month). Pricing is based on size of list and email frequency.
5. ClickTale--for customer experience analytics
How to use it: to monitor user habits on your website. ClickTale is a program that lets us see where your visitors go when they land on your website. You can see where a mouse moves and where users click--on a link, image or text track--in real time. This can help you see what parts of your site need to be redesigned in order to maximize conversion rates. ClickTale offers a free trial.
6. Square--for payment
How to use it: to collect payment. Confession: I don't use Square as a business owner, but I have used it many times as a customer. And if I happened to be in a business where I needed a point-of-sale tool, Square--or Stripe--would be the way I'd go. Most people have probably seen Square when they've ordered from a food truck, or been to an event like a craft fair. But I've been seeing more and more retail businesses switching to Square because it seems to be more cost-effective than typical credit-card processing machines. (Of course there are exceptions.)
I have a few other favorites, but these are the ones that I use the most these days. Do you have any others you think I should check out?