I bootstrapped two startups, ImportGenius.com and Flexport.com. We grew ImportGenius to 50 employees, 1M monthly uniques and almost 5,000 active paying enterprise subscribers without raising any outside funding. Flexport is still very early stage but promises to improve lots of customers’ lives in the $2.3 trillion global logistics industry .
Below are a few of my favorite tools for building a startup even if, like me, you don’t have anything approaching a degree in computer science. Please leave feedback and additional tools you’ve discovered in the comments.
And if you find any of it useful, please share it widely to help more people escape the tyranny of depending on large faceless institutions for their daily bread.
Also remember that new top level domains like .app are coming early next year, so there will be a lot more options. Still though, you want the .com if at all possible.
Register your domain for $0.50 by Googling 0.50 domain registration. Add your preferred registrar’s name to the search to get their best price. Don’t buy anything else, we’ll set up hosting, email, etc in a bit.
For phones, if you’re really truly broke, just use Google Voice.
Building Your Site:
Strikingly gives you a very professional online presence within an hour of deciding to start your project. Even if its just a placeholder to help you sell the vision to other people you want to work with, this service is so easy and the sites look so good that you might as well start here.
Bitnami makes it really easy for a non-technical founder to set up and install install software on an Amazon Web Services (AWS) instance including WordPress (for your web site), Magento (for your online store), SugarCRM (to track sales leads and orders), and Discourse (to create a forum). Your bill will be ~$40/month until you start getting real traffic.
If you’re running an online store, you’re probably going to want to use either WooCommerce (super simple, cheap and looks good out of the box), Shopify (simple, looks good but charges you hefty transaction fees on every sale) or Magento (quite robust but will probably need customization from a designer and/or programmer). Do your own research before deciding. If you know or find other good ways to run an e-commerce site, please comment and I’ll update this section.
After you’ve set up your placeholder web site, sign up for Google Apps to get email, calendars and a shared drive for your company for $50/year per user. First user should be free. You’ll want to have your website set up already so you can verify that you own the domain. They will walk you through editing the necessary records to make mail.yourdomain.com work.
If you’re running an online store, I’d also look into companies like Volusion that combine their subscription e-commerce platform with a fulfillment center, so it can be quite hands off for the entrepreneur. Sounds like a dream actually but I’m sure you pay for it.
CrateJoy.com makes it easy to create a subscription e-commerce service. They give you a gorgeous e-commerce site, plus great tools for accepting payments, communicating with customers, printing shipping labels and fulfilling orders. There is no better way to manage your subscription ecommerce business. It’s still in private alpha mode. Tell them Ryan from Flexport sent you to move up near the top of the waiting list!
If you’re importing products from overseas, Flexport is an online customs brokerage that can help you save money on customs clearances. If you’re thinking about buying from a supplier overseas, you may want to check out their shipping data on ImportGenius.com. I already told you I started these companies so you know I am conflicted.
Discourse gives you a gorgeous forum. Continuously feed it with content about your target market and it could become a nice piece of your content marketing machine. Bitnami makes it really easy to install this software.
Want to build something more sophisticated than an off-the-shelf wordpress or Magento site? Good. Off-the-shelf tools are good for testing hypotheses and building some momentum, but you’ll need to hire a developer and a designer if you want to make something special. Below are some tools for hiring and working with technical talent.
Find designers on Behance or Dribbble. Review their portfolios and then hire them for reasonable rates. It’s amazing how much better good design can make you feel about your business. And when you feel good about your business, you want to work hard to make it successful.
Angel List is emerging as the best place to find programming talent. Odesk and Craigslist are decent places to find programmers as well, though you’ll need an industrial strength sieve to weed out the unqualified applicants.
Get your web site up to tell your story and build out some basic startup infrastructure before you start recruiting coders. The good ones have many options of what to work and you’ll need to convince them that your project is rocketship with a higher calling they’ve been looking for.
It’s hard to evaluate technical talent when you are not a coder. Make friends with coders and get them to help.
Use a drawing tool like Balsamiq or Google Drawings to generate wireframes to help your programmers and designers understand your vision. Google Drawings is free and does everything you need once you get over a few quirks.
Tip: In Google Drawings it’s often hard to select the item you want. You’ll need to right click, choose “Order” and then “send to back” to allow the layer you want to control to float to the top.
Use Pivotal Tracker, Asana, Jira, Trello or similar task management software to write user stories to unambiguously explain to your developers what you want your users to see when when they use your site. Study up on the product owner role in Scrum and Agile development so you understand what your responsibilities are.
Swiftly.com – Get simple design changes made in under an hour. Perfect for tweaking images, font styles and other simple design changes. This way you don’t have to keep relying on the same expensive, difficult to engage designer you convinced to do your site every time you want to make a simple change.
BigStockPhoto.com is cheaper than istockphoto.com and most of the other stock imagerysites I’ve looked at. But its worth spending $100+ for a homepage image that will last you a while, so look around till you find one. And please, let the designer you choose pick their own photos. Great design doesn’t start from cheap stock imagery. Ask them to find a few examples at different price points if you’re concerned about cost.
Optimizely lets you run experiments where you show different versions of your site to certain visitors. You can track your conversion rate and engagement metrics to see which version performs best, and gradually weed out the low performers. This process never ends, as each low performing page you replace should ideally be replaced with one that outperforms the remaining versions. If not, it too will be disregarded. Darwin’s natural selection is a powerful force to harness for your web site. Get those cycles running as quickly and efficiently as possible in your favor.
Qualaroo – Great survey tool that lets you ask targeted questions to your users through an unobtrusive chat box. Check out growthhackers.com for an example of how this is used. Note: Don’t get sucked into GrowthHackers just yet, we still have a few more tricks just for importers to share with you!
Olark.com offers the easiest and cheapest live chat to add to your site. When you need multiple agents you’ll want to switch to LivePerson or another more professional grade solution. Hipchat is getting a lot of buzz in the tech business.
UserVoice.com offers the best customer support app, along with really nice tools for collecting feedback from your users and maintaining your company’s knowledge base. At Flexport we try to channel as much of our customer communication as we can through their platform. It helps us stay organized, responsive and data-driven, while ensuring no customer service requests slip through the cracks.
Tip: I would not host a knowledgebase on UserVoice.com. That is valuable content that should be on your own domain. When Google indexes those articles and sends them search traffic, you don’t want those visitors on the uservoice site, you want them to land on your site where they can sign up!
MailChimp, Constant Contact- e-mail newsletter software, good for building your mailing lists. Don’t try to use them for spam though they will shut you down. Not that I would know anything about that.
EasyPost offers a simple to integrate API to let you print shipping labels and fulfill orders from your e-commerce store. One quick integration lets you print labels from a half dozen carriers. Disclosure: I invested.
SlideShare lets you embed powerpoint presentations into your site. These are kinda lame these days but sometimes your sales team just insists on having them there. It’s not that much trouble so you should probably just do it to be nice if someone on your team asks for it.
Google Analytics – Set up goals so you can track your conversion rate. Segment those results by traffic source and landing page. Determine the ROI of your various campaigns, including paid search marketing and content marketing efforts.
MixPanel – If you’re building a web app you want to get actionable insights on your users behavior. MixPanel seems to be leading this area, though they are getting a run from their money from awesome competitors like Heap Analytics, New Relic and others.
CloudApp automatically uploads screenshots you take and copies a link to your clipboard, so the next time you use the paste function, you’ll be sharing the screenshot with your team. This is simply the best way to show developers and designers what you’re talking about. DropBox just copied this feature wholesale yet somehow it doesn’t work, when I share the dropbox links the other people can’t see it. I suppose they will get it right at some point, meantime Cloud just works the way it should.
On the Mac, QuickTime now has screencasting software built in. This lets you create little videos to explain the steps that go into recreating a bug. Drag the file onto the little CloudApp icon at the top of the screen to upload it and get a link to instantly share the file with others.
Appsumo – Check back frequently to find great deals on small business apps. They recently ran a special for 3 Swiftly.com credits for $15. We bought 20 of those deals for Flexport, so we’ll be keeping their designers busy with new tweaks we want to test.
Sales Success Tools
SugarCRM is a free CRM that I swear is just as powerful as Salesforce, and since Bitnami makes it super easy to install on your own AWS instance, its totally free and easy to get started. I’m sure there are better CRMs out there (RelateIQ is one I admire) but I’m against spending money unless something is dramatically better than what you have.
FreeConferenceCall.com does what you’d expect.
Clerky makes it painless to incorporate your business in an investor-friendly fashion, so you won’t have to redo everything if you decide to raise money or issue stock options to employees down the road. Do yourself a favor and don’t incorporate till you’ve found at least one person to pay you for something. Legal entities are a pain in the ass to keep track of so make sure you’re going to follow through on your new project before you create one.
Xero is like Mint.com for businesses: Link your bank account, categorize each transactions, and create rules to auto-categorize similar transactions in the future. You get all the financial statements you’ll probably ever need. Having good accounting can reduce background stress in your life and Xero is soooo much easier than Quickbooks.
If you’re stocking inventory for an e-commerce operation, I notice that Xero’s app store has a bunch of inventory add-ons. Be sure to check what other add-ons they have so you can tie as many of your core business functions directly into your accounting as possible.
Advsor offers back-office services including having a CPA review your accounting statements quarterly and may help with tax filings too. I haven’t used them yet but I see more and more venture backed startups turning to them, so if you start making money and have a budget, take a closer look.
Meldium is a great way to securely store passwords for your team.
When you start making some coin, sign up for AnyPerk to show your employees your appreciation, build your company culture and get ahead in the war for talent.
GrowthHackers.com – When you’re not sure what to work on just go here and find some ideasa for how to drive traffic, increase conversions, boost retention or more.
SEOMoz – Great resource for learning everything to do with search engine optimization.
Treehouse – Web design and programming courses
This week in startups – Great podcast on startups from the one and only @jason
Open View Blog – Solid blog about online business from a VC fund.
Twitter – Curate your own news by following entrepreneurs, investors, scientists and other thought leaders
SamuraiSchool – Take responsibility for your own education with this little side project of mine where I share some of my favorite educational content from around the web.
I won’t bother with book recommendations because I know you already have a bunch of great books on your shelf that you never read. Make time. The difference between who you are today and who you‘ll be in 5 years will be almost entirely ascribed to the books that you read. I haven’t read less than 30 books in a year for the past 8 years. The world’s smartest people have taken the time to share their very best ideas, and the moment you read them, they become are your ideas too. If you ever need something to be grateful for, this wonderful fact is there for you to meditate on.
I put this last because you should get an office only when you are profitable and have an urgent need for more face-to-face collaboration or otherwise need to get out of your house.
EarthClassMail.com – get a Park Avenue street address where you can accept mail for ~$50 / month. You probably don’t need to waste money on this either but if it’s really important that you not give away your home address and a PO Box just won’t do, then go for it.
Regus.com – virtual offices, gives you a physical presence in 450 cities around the world. Too expensive lately though, you’re better off with one of the new breeds of co-working spaces emerging all over the place if you really desperately need a more professional work environment. Otherwise work from home or a cafe where you might talk to other human beings every now and then.