10 Essential Tools for a Startup Entrepreneur
We’ve not been going long at Wonderlabs, but I’ve been co-running a digital agency for 7 years now and it’s taken a long time to fine tune our processes and get the right tools to make day-to-day life easy, because I’ll tell you straight up: running your own business isn’t easy.
I’ve compiled a list of tools that I wish somebody had told me earlier or that I’d had access to when starting out. Here goes (in no particular order):
Whether you’re running a digital agency or whether you’re a new tech startup, you’re going to need to manage your books. If you’re a small team and want to save on accounting fees, or if you want a tighter grip on what’s going in and out of the bank account, then Xero is an excellent solution for small businesses. The best bit about it is that it connects to your business bank account and imports your transactions, ready for you to reconcile.
- Easy to use – I’m no expert when it comes to the financials, but it makes sense right from the off and has some great video tutorials if needed.
- Time saver – As Xero begins to recognise regular transactions that you’re making, it starts automating a lot of processes, which saves you a tonne of time.
- Keeps you in control – When running a startup, I like to have meticulous control over everything that’s going on when it comes to the numbers. You need to be on top of it as invoicing, forecasting, cash flow and payroll can quickly spiral out of control. Even if you have a bookkeeper, I recommend joint managing the books, so you’re always in the know where you stand financially. This allows you to set financial oriented goals for you and your team.
- Cloud and Mobile based – A huge advantage over some of the prehistoric software out there is that all your accounts are cloud based and can be accessed anywhere. There’s a really tidy app for it as well, which allows you to reconcile and process invoices and bills on the go.
- Time consuming setup – As much as Xero saves you time, if you’re already at least a year into running your startup in can be quite a task to move everything into Xero. However, if your business already uses other software like Sage or Quickbooks there’s a handy import feature that allows you to pull in your existing data. There’s still a fair amount of setup time however. But once it’s done, it’s soooo worth it.
Prices range from £9/month to £25/month depending on the plan that you’re on. Lower plans include limitations on how many reconciliations, invoices and bills you can process in a month. For most small businesses, the £20/month Starter plan should be sufficient.
Asana was created by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz in 2011 after securing $9million investment funding. So how bad can it be, right? At the core, Asana allows you to create tasks and assign them to people in your team. You can also assign the tasks to a specific project or client and add descriptions, subtasks and due dates. The features go a lot deeper than that, but using these basic tools, you can really boost productivity in your company.
- Quick and easy to use – It’s lightweight, quick to pick up with no learning required. A 15 minute meeting with the team was enough to explain what it was and how everyone should use it. Asana even provide a video and slideshow presentation to show your team.
- Makes your team more efficient – Before Asana, our team would verbally assign each other tasks, which would often be forgotten. Or we would email each other, which can easily be ignored. With Asana, all of your tasks are clearly presented and it keeps your mind organised, so you don’t get the feeling that ‘you know there’s something else you’re supposed to be doing right now, but can’t quite remember it’.
- Rewarding – There’s something about having a to-do list and wanting to get through it. It’s very satisfying ticking off completed tasks and then looking back at your completed tasks to remind yourself how productive you’ve been that day.
- Integration – Syncs nicely with Google Calendar and Outlook Calendar so that your tasks appear everywhere.
- Can’t specify times on due dates – If a task needs to be completed by a specific time, you can’t specify this. You can only specify the date. This means you have to specify the time in the description of the task, which is a bit annoying, especially if the task is a meeting that has a specific time.
- Can’t have multiple assignees – Sometimes you want to assign multiple people to one task, which isn’t possible yet. This means you have to create multiple copies of the same task and assign them individually to people.
Asana has a scalable pricing plan that depends on the number of people in your organisation. It’s completely free up until the first 15 members of your organisation, which is excellent for any small business. It can rocket up to $800 for organisations with 100 members. That shouldn’t be a problem to pay once your business reaches that size though!
If you need to put together professional looking and written contracts for your clients in order to lock them into a deal, then look no further than Docracy. Docracy is a superb cloud-based contract system that allows you to send online contracts to your clients for signing. Both yourself and the client can sign online using your mouse or by typing your name. There’s email correspondence throughout the process if there are any changes to the contract and/or when someone signs. There’s a load of readymade contracts that are completely legally binding and written by professional lawyers. The good thing is that they’re easy to understand, with little equivocation, so clients are more likely to sign them as everything is transparent. We used to have solicitors put together our contracts, that were unnecessarily cumbersome, awkward to read, expensive and generally complete overkill for the level of services we were offering. Docracy has been an absolute revelation for our business and our peace of mind.
- Quick and user friendly – Quickly store templated contracts and insert placeholders within them, so that you just enter the name of the client once and it’ll auto-fill the necessary placeholders throughout the contract with the client’s name. What took us 30mins-60mins per contract before, now takes about 5mins.
- Secure more deals – Docracy makes your company look super professional as most clients won’t be used to digital cloud contracts. It shows your clients that you’re on top of the latest technology and trends. This, coupled with the transparent and clear language in the contract, instills trust and confidence in you, making the client more likely to sign the deal.
- Eco-friendly – Going digital with your contracts means going paperless and doing your bit for the environment. Can’t go wrong there!
- Slow site speed – Not really a biggie. Just knitpicking. The site load times are just marginally slower than you want them to be.
Outrageously, this service is completely free! The FAQ mentions that there’ll be some premium features coming soon. At the moment it does everything you need it to and saves you loads of time and money.
If you’re not already using Google Drive, then you seriously should be. It’s basically an online version of popular office based applications such as Excel, Word and Powerpoint. In many ways, it’s actually more powerful, but the real bonus comes in the fact that it’s cloud-based, meaning accessible from anywhere as well as integrating great sharing features that allows collaborative editing within documents in real time. We use it for writing content, timesheets, mapping out websites for clients, scheduling, low-level forecasting and much more.
- Cloud-based – Access all of your documents anywhere. You can even make documents available offline so they’re always available. Editing that report on the morning commute is now more than possible.
- It’s Google! – With it being a Google product you know you’re not only getting a quality product, but it’s constantly being improved with new features and better performance.
- Collaborative editing – Being able to share and work on a single document between co-workers and clients really is invaluable as opposed to emailing a single document to each other, which is slow and creates duplicates, which becomes confusing.
- Secure – Gone are the days of losing files because of crashes or failed physical media. All your documents auto save after every iteration to a document. You can also revert to previous versions should you wish.
- Missing features from the desktop version – Every now and then, there’s an advanced feature that isn’t available in Google Drive. Not often though. They’re usually added pretty swiftly when they are missing. I wouldn’t write a dissertation in Google Drive as I don’t think I’d be satisfied with the formatting options. But for everything else, it’s more than good enough.
Google isn’t going to charge you, is it! That’s right, Google Drive is free. However, if you start using a lot of your cloud storage for your documents, then you can pay for more. The first 15GB is free. I’m a heavy user of Google Drive and have been since the early days of ‘Google Docs’, and I still haven’t used more than my 1% allocation. Google Drive cloud storage pricing can rise up to $799.99/month for the maximum 16TB.
I think music is a great addition to any vibrant office atmosphere (or any atmosphere for that matter). Nothing keeps spirits up in the office like a good Spotify playlist. Crucial for getting through the day and keeping people in the zone. Remember though, not everyone’s taste is your taste. Mix it up!
- Collaborative playlists – Create a company playlist that everyone can add tunes into.
- Friday playlist – We make a specific playlists for Fridays, which goes down well as it reminds everyone to be excited for the weekend and tends to give everyone that little boost they need at the end of the week.
- Interrupting phone calls – Make sure you turn it down when the phone rings!
- License required – In order to legally play music in the workplace, you will require a music license. It’s worth checking out PRS for Music to find out more as you don’t want to get stung for this.
Spotify is free but contains ads after every few songs. I recommend paying the £9.99/month for the premium service. Not only are you exempt from embarrassing ad interruptions in the office, but you’re able to to listen to your music offline and on mobile devices (without the annoying shuffle mode that’s available on the free subscription). It also offers high-quality audio bit-rate versions of your favourite music. Prices for the license vary depending on the business and I’d recommend giving PRS for Music a call.
Mentor Services is a service provided by RBS that is basically a full HR department on call whenever you need. New employee starting? No problem. Not sure on the latest health and safety requirements for your workplace? Easy. You can call them any time and know that you’re in good hands for any employment law and HR queries. These are the less thrilling aspects of running your own business. Let someone else take care of it so you can concentrate on the fun stuff, or at least the things that you’re actually good at.
- Peace of mind – It’s comforting knowing that the business you’re running is fully compliant with all national laws and if any issues arise (which they do), you have somewhere to turn to.
- Fixed long term contract – The contract isn’t the most flexible. Once you’re signed up, you’re in for the year. Not really a bad thing as it’s something you should always have available. It’s just a big commitment in cost for a small business. Which brings us onto the next bit…
The price for the year is £878.40 which is then split over 12 months and works out at £73.20 per month. A little steep, considering you only use it every so often, but when you do, it’s invaluable.
So you’re ready to expand but you’re worried about the increase in costs to the company. A great solution is to research apprenticeship schemes available in your area. All you need to do is find a college that is running a scheme, send off job descriptions to them and they’ll present you with loads of candidates suitable to the role. These are all 16-21 year olds, who are eager to go straight into employment and pursue a career in the digital industry. We’ve found some very talented apprentices at a much lower cost than experienced full time employees. Apprentices work normal working hours Monday-Thurs and study at the college on Fridays.
- Low costs – Depending on the age of the candidate, monthly wages range between £300-£400.
- Rebate available – After your apprentice has served at least 3 months employment at your company, the government will reward you with a £1500 rebate, which reduces costs even further.
- Train them your way – By employing young, enthusiastic apprentices, you can mould them your own way to fit your company values and culture. This puts them in a prime position to be taken on a full time employment basis once the apprenticeship ends after a year.
- Course guidelines – There can be some pretty nonsensical guidelines that you need to adhere to in order for your apprentice to pass their modules. Ordinarily, this isn’t a problem and allows you to broaden activities and skills that you make available to the apprentice. However, the framework for the course is extremely outdated and is like a timewarp back to GCSE textbooks.
£300-£400/month depending on age with £1500 rebate available after 3 months employment.
The mother of all software suites. Anybody who’s anybody in digital will be familiar with the Adobe Creative Cloud suite of services including popular applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, AfterEffects and Premiere. There are alternatives but these software applications really have become the industry standard.
- Affordable – Since the Adobe suite became available in the cloud, it has become a lot more affordable with a monthly subscription being the preferred model as opposed to shelling out thousands for every new version that’s released.
- Support – With applications like Photoshop and Illustrator being commonplace in pretty much every workplace, there’s no end to tutorials and courses available online to learn new techniques and methods.
- Powerful – For graphic, web, UX and UI design there’s no end to what you can produce in the graphics applications. Also, AfterEffects has really been elevated to another level through VideoCopilot tutorials and presets, meaning you don’t have to be an expert to produce some stunning 3D visuals, renders and motion graphics.
- Outdated features – With the importance of responsive design nowadays, Photoshop is getting a little left behind in terms of accommodating the flexibility required to produce great responsive design previews. This article sums up how Photoshop is becoming redundant for modern day web design. There are other alternatives worth investigating like Adobe Reflow, however, it seems that a lot of the responsibility in RWD is falling on the developer due to time constraints in the design process.
- Heavy – I’m still waiting for a lightweight browser version of the creative suite, much like what Google Drive has done for the Office suite. Obviously the features may seem a bit advanced for a browser at this stage, but possibly in future we’ll see this happen. There’s already a good attempt made as a Chrome extension in Pixlr, so it’s definitely possible.
If you want all the Adobe applications, prices start at £17.58/month with an annual commitment or you can go on a rolling contract and be billed monthly at £70.32. Discount is available for existing members.
In most cases, to produce beautiful designs you need great assets. There’s nothing comparable to creating your own assets, whether you use a photographer or illustrator. However, this isn’t always possible, which is where Shutterstock saves the day. You can get some pretty good assets on Shutterstock, even if it is only for preview purposes. A monthly subscription is infinitely better value than purchasing assets on a pay as you go basis. You can elevate your designs to the next level by using carefully-chosen (non-stock-looking) quality assets.
- Choice – There are literally millions of images to choose from that all come in super high resolution. There’s also a growing collection of videos available which will really supercharge your designs.
- Time-saving – Where Shutterstock comes into its own is the amount of time it saves you on smaller assets such as icons and infographics. There’s a wide selection of vectors that would ordinarily take you hours to put together yourself. There are loads of collections of icons and graphics, meaning you can get consistency with the style of the assets.
Photos too stocky – It’s very hard with any stock imagery site to provide you with photo assets that don’t look like they’re from a stock site. Shutterstock needs to have more amateur style photography to give a more authentic look and feel to your designs where necessary.
Rather than paying $49 for 5 downloads on demand, I recommend $249/month which gets you 25 downloads a day, which should be more than enough. We have a team of designers who attack it throughout the day and we’re yet to run out. Be warned though, this subscription only allows for 1 user to be logged in at a time and so you’ll be forever trolling each other by kicking your co-workers out of the site. There’s a $471 discount when paying for the year upfront if your cash flow allows it.
Although not necessary a tool per sé, this is probably the most important weapon in your startup arsenal. All of the above tools will help make your life easier when starting out, but there’s no substitute for getting your head down and actually being productive.
Just be sure to create an environment that’s going to make you and your colleagues happy. The whole point you started your own business was because you didn’t want to conform to somebody elses values, culture and service offerings, right? The happier you are at work, the more likely you are to produce great work. I digress. I feel this final paragraph is worth a blog article in itself. One for next time maybe. Enjoy the journey. Feel free to leave comments below with suggestions of other tools that could help other small businesses.