12 Essential Tools for Your Startup Business
Updated April 2, 2020. While much of the content remains mostly the same, most of the tool recommendations have changed. When I first wrote this, I'd just begun my online business journey. Now I've been in the world of online entrepreneurship for almost 7 years.
If you're like me, you didn't go to business school. You don't have a background in finance, and your parents weren't entrepreneurs.
Want to listen? There's an audio version below
Also, if you're like me, you're building a business one step at a time. You're figuring things out along the way, getting many things right, and other things, well… they're “learning” experiences.
However, unlike me, you may have never worked for a Fortune 50 company. Maybe you haven't managed revenue in the tens of millions but would love to know how it's done.
Ok, I lied. Sorta. I did go to business school, but only for a semester during my freshman year at Baylor. Although I didn't graduate with a degree in business, I did get an education in the real world. While on IBM and Dell's dime, I spent five years learning how to do business on a national scale.
During my years at those companies, I learned about profit and loss. I spent my time figuring out how to sell to current customers and acquire new ones. My “Corporate Education” taught me the basics of how to run the businesses I'm building now.
If you happened to study biology, or art, or creative writing in school, and if you haven't had the benefits of Corporate training, don't worry. This post will provide you with some of the essential business tools the Pros use to build the foundations for their businesses, connect with their customers, increase sales, and scale their startups.
Some of the resources will help you get started, others will make you more efficient, and others still will help you communicate with your ever-growing team (if you choose to have one).
These essential business tools are in these 12 categories:
Client Relationship Mgt (CRM)
While you don't need every one of these tools when you start, having this list and using the tools below will help you scale your startup business.
When it comes to tools, think about efficiency. When working with people, think effective. Systems will help your business scale. Templates can help you get there faster.
These tools are in no particular order other than from beginner to intermediate and advanced.
The beginner tools are ones you need immediately. The intermediate tools will help you grow your site from hobby-blog to income-generating and can probably wait until after you've made your first dollar. The advanced tools are more for when you're ready to hire your first Virtual Assistant or add to your team.
Update: Instead of giving you 5-6 options, I've narrowed it down to one. This business tool combined with the web hosting tool below makes up the foundation for almost all of my businesses, and I use each almost exclusively.
Sharing your story through blogging and content marketing is one of the best ways to establish your online presence and build your brand online.
And WordPress is the best content management tool to use.
Technically, WordPress is a content management system. To put it another way, WordPress is a free, simple tool that lets you manage all of the content you put online. WordPress is the foundation on which your website is built.
By letting your readers and followers in on your journey, the struggles, the changes, and the highs and lows, you enlist people to your side of the ring. Your audience will be in the fight with you, and they'll be in your corner rooting for you.
Yes, there are millions of blogs out there. And, yes, it's a crowded market. But people still love to read. Though there is power in video marketing, which I use a lot, people are still reading. A lot.
If you create content that's authentic, (occasionally) vulnerable, courageous and with a knack for story-telling, you can change the world with your words.
Additionally, content marketing and blogging are great for SEO. It's great for teaching and sharing. I always recommend blogging to anyone who wants to effectively communicate a message around the world.
Want me to help you grow your blog in ? Then check out my free 30 Day Blog Transformation email course!
Writing is also therapeutic and a great way to organize your thoughts – two very good things for the busy mind of an entrepreneur.
If you're still not convinced blogging and content marketing are good for your startup business, read this.
I started blogging in 2012. I had nothing, and I knew almost nothing. Now,
three eight years later, I have thousands of readers, listeners, and followers in over 150 countries. You can do everything I've done (or your version of it) and it all starts with content marketing.
If you'd like more information about our Website/Content Management services, CLICK HERE.
While you can host your website on free services, owning your digital space is the best way to do it. If you own everything on your site, from header to footer, from the home page to the database, you have more control over your business.
The best web hosting service I've found is GreenGeeks.
After trying, testing, and using several web hosting companies over the last several years, I've chosen to use and recommend GreenGeeks. Whereas a lot of web hosts use older technology, GreenGeeks uses solid-state drives that can be added to and scaled with ease. They've got 24/7 chat support, which I've definitely used, and their team is very helpful.
When you use GreenGeeks as your web host, (i.e. where your website is stored), you have total ownership over your website. When you own your site, as opposed to when you get free hosting, no one can tell you what you can or can't put on your site, because you own it.
When you own your website, no one can put an ad, a blog post, or any other piece of content without your approval.
You wouldn't open your own restaurant but give up control over the type of food you serve. So, why would you open an online business if you don't have full control over it?
Free hosting plans do just that – they let you rent most of the space, but not all of it. You can write blog posts and create your content, but oftentimes the header and/or sidebars are rented out to the highest bidder, and you're cut completely out.
While hosting may be your biggest up-front cost when you're first starting, it's a necessary investment to get your online business started properly. Even though you may have to pay for three years upfront to get your best hosting price, you shouldn't have to pay more than $4-6 per month when you get started.
Recommended Web Hosting Tool: GreenGeeks
Every business needs an email list of customers, prospective customers, and people who've purchased from them.
Everyone I talk to about email marketing says they wish they'd started building their email list earlier in their business. Learn from that advice.
Email marketing continues to be the most cost-effective way to communicate directly with your users, fans, audience members and customers.
Start capturing the email addresses of your visitors from day one. With free tools like MailChimp, you can embed/paste HTML code in a text widget placed on your sidebar and have a subscription form within minutes.
When you're first starting, attract subscribers with opt-in boxes with wording like “Join the Community” and “Stay Connected.” As you gain more experience and further refine your message, start adding opt-in boxes with tools and resource downloads.
If you're unsure about when you should transition to a paid email marketing service, read this comparison post.
Recommended Email Marketing Tool: ActiveCampaign
While email marketing is so awesome, we still can't ignore how prevalent social media is in our lives. Social media, like the internet, is here to stay! While 43% of my traffic comes from search engines, 23% still comes from social sites.
If you're not sharing your content on social media, you're missing the boat. If you're not making content people are interested in and want to share, you're missing out.
Even if you don't have any interest in LinkedIn, maybe your audience does. Maybe you don't have time for Twitter, but your readers do. With tools like Buffer and Hootsuite, you can create a sharable post and send it to multiple networks at the same time.
You can also connect your WordPress install so that it shares your new posts automatically. To enable sharing in your WordPress Settings > Sharing, and install the SumoMe Image Sharer Plugin. Your visitors won't necessarily share your content just because you make it easy to, but they definitely won't share it if you don't make it easy.
Another social media scheduling tool I picked up at the beginning of 2020 was Sociamonials. They had a deal with AppSumo, so I purchased their license with the intention of replacing Buffer, which I did. So far so good, although they might be a little expensive if you're not creating a lot of content or sharing lots of updates.
Your readers want to share content that makes them look smarter, cooler and empowered. If your content helps them feel that way, they'll be more likely to share it.
My best tip is to repurpose your content. If you've got a great piece of content, you should post it on more than one social site and in more than one location. Whenever I share on Instagram, I always share it to my Facebook profiles too – one piece of content posted to two places at once with the push of a button.
I never store my downloads and giveaways on my site. And you shouldn't either. First, there's no reason to. Second, hosting your files on your website will lower your page load speed, reduce SEO, and negatively impact your user's experience.
However, you still need to host your files somewhere. There are several reasons why I use a file hosting service for my businesses:
- If you make any changes or updates to your giveaway, you'll have to re-upload the file in the exact same location or risk broken links.
- If you store your ebooks, white papers, checklists, etc., on a service like Box, you don't have to worry about bandwidth issues due to a popular file being downloaded.
- Files shared by uploading to WordPress give unnecessary access to your other files in the same folder (not good for premium/paid downloadable items).
- With Box Sync, you can sync all of your files automatically to the cloud, which makes it easy to share file URLs from your desktop.
- If you have a podcast, you definitely want to use a file hosting service to avoid degraded website performance.
I wrote a post about how I create my own personal cloud and sync most of my files and data across any device. You can read that post here.
When you're looking to build your business, try to think about mobility first. Just the other day, I told a friend I don't use any tool or app that doesn't sync to every device I use. It's too much of a hassle to try to remember which device I saved my work too, so I make sure my files are accessible from anywhere.
Whether you want to travel the world and work from anywhere, or not, having the option is nice. Hosting and backing up your files to the cloud makes it possible.
If you want to backup your business in the safest, most secure way, you can find my guide here. For digital note keeping, I now use Microsoft OneNote.
If you think you'd like to sell a product or service someday, you need a sales funnel. Sales funnels help you to convert prospects into buyers.
Think of your website, and your business, as an actual storefront with people walking by.
First, people notice the sign in the window; they're interested.
Second, they come inside and try a sample or browse your shelves of what you have to sell; they're involved.
Third, they spend their hard-earned cash on what you have to offer; they're invested.
If this sounds a little weird to you, it's ok. Let me explain.
It's not that you'll have to start going in for the “hard sell,” it's not that at all. But, a sales funnel will help you progress readers from casual observers to clients who've purchased from you.
To create your online sales funnels, you'll need one or more landing pages.
Part 1: The first page or part typically helps you filter people out; it grabs the attention of the right kind of buyers and encourages everybody else to leave.
Part 2: The middle page or part talks to people who are more than interested and who are deciding on whether or not they want to get involved with you, your business, or your products.
Part 3: The final page or part (if you're using a single landing page) is designed to get people to commit or invest, in your product.
The simplest way to create your sales funnel is to use the landing page sets and templates created by ThriveThemes. Just install their templates and change the text to match your products.
Recommended Sales Funnel Tool: ThriveThemes Landing Pages
Update: Within a year after initially posting this, WordPress' parent company, Automattic, purchased WooCommerce. After doing so, they made the WooCommerce + Stripe addon free. Because of this change, that e-commerce solution just makes sense, and it's now what I recommend.
To be a business, you need sales. To make sales, you need a product and a way to accept payment for that product.
Regarding software, you need something displaying your items on the front end and managing the storing and distribution of files on the back-end. Your cart, products, subscriptions, etc., are the front-end. Your payment processors, file distribution, and inventory management are the back-end.
Combine your front-end payment software with a file hosting site like Box on the back-end, and all of your transactions are handled off of your site and the transaction is secured by someone else. And, when you use WooCommerce, you can track your sales via a graphical dashboard inside of your WordPress Dashboard.
After Automattic purchased WooCommerce, I started using that software combination to manage most of my stores. However, if I want to set up single-item sales or subscription services, I use ThriveCart Pro. ThriveCart integrates perfectly with ActiveCampaign, allowing me to add/remove tags, start/stop automation, and even subscribe/unsubscribe users, so those tools work together really well.
These plugins handle almost every aspect of selling your products. They'll display them on a page, allow customers to add them to the cart (front-end), process payment and deliver your digital products to your customers (back-end).
NOTE: Buying and selling online is what allows us to work from anywhere. Every tool you use should make the process simple and fluid for both you and your customers. They should also scale with your business.
In order to grow your business, you have to know where your customers are, how they find out about you, how they arrive on your doorstep, and what they do when they get there.
You can see if you're getting search engine traffic or if more of your visitors come from social media sites. Knowing how people are finding your business is helpful because that information tells you where to focus.
If 75% of your social traffic comes from Facebook, you know your audience is on Facebook. You can use that information to help you manage your time, your ad spending, and where you should be the most active.
Conversely, if you know only 5% of your traffic is coming from LinkedIn, you probably shouldn't be spending too much time there. Other tools can even tell you when your audience is online and active.
By the way, it's more cost-effective to reach your audience where they are than to try to build an audience somewhere else.
Traffic analytics can tell you the most popular pages and posts on your site. They can tell you which pages receive the most traffic so you can leverage additional opt-in forms and know what to write about in the future.
Heat map analytics can show you mouse clicks, track how far users scroll down your page, and where users hover their mouse icon on sales pages.
Sometimes the best way to learn about your customers is to just ask (Tweet that!)
Tools like WPForms (although technically form software) can be used as analytics tools to tell you about your customers.
Surveys are also a great, and straightforward, way to understand your audience. Just asking your readers and listeners about their interests is a very simple way to learn how to help them achieve their goals.
In the fall of 2019, using the Surveys Add-on for WPForms, I created a contest for my business, CigarScore.com. I first asked users to nominate their favorite business, then I asked them to vote for the finalists a month later.
By creating this contest, I not only helped to promote small business and increase user engagement, but I grew my email list by almost 1000 people.
First off, automation is not a bad word. Automation does not mean you're not supposed to serve your customers. And, automation doesn't automatically mean what you do or what you produce is junk.
I automate everything I can. If you're repeating a task on a regular basis, you need to automate that task. Using a computer to automate the things a computer can do allows you to focus on the things only a human can do.
You should automate processes.
You should not automate human connection and interaction.
Creating systems will allow your business to scale and grow. (Tweet that!)
I automate scheduling with Calendly, social sharing with IFTTT and Buffer (now with Sociamonials). I automate emails with ActiveCampaign's autoresponders. I automate payment subscriptions with ThriveCart.
Anything that can be handled by software should be automated. (Tweet that!)
If I can save 30 minutes a week by automating a task, that's an extra thirty minutes I can spend with my wife, creating resources for my mastermind members, or relaxing.
NOTE: Saving 30 minutes a week adds an entire DAY to your year! (30 x 52 = 1560 minutes = 26 hours)
Tools like IFTTT and Zapier connect two tools, allowing them to communicate with one another.
Solopreneurs, like I used to be, rarely need collaboration tools. At least not in the beginning. Business owners with teams, however, need a way to collaborate and communicate with their partners, employees, and team members.
If you ever plan on contracting a Virtual Assistant, or VA, you'll need a way to communicate with them and track their work. If you plan on hiring someone and adding them to your team as your startup business grows, the principle is the same.
The bottom line is, you need to be able to communicate with all members of your team.
Online collaboration tools allow you to use the power of the internet to communicate with people all over the world.
One of the benefits of using a collaboration tool is that you make it easy to give and receive feedback for ideas. You can propose a new project or pitch a new idea, and your teammates around the globe can critique them.
One of the ways I use collaboration tools in my business is to communicate with my spouse. We can keep track of work that needs to be done, track progress and growth, as well as add items to a task list.
The more you have on your plate, the more organized you'll need to become to stay on top of it all.
If you're not quite ready to implement collaboration software in your startup business, you can still get a head start by syncing your documents and files to the cloud via one of the file hosting tools mentioned above. That way, if you need to send a document, you can paste a file URL into your favorite messaging app.
If you're selling products, offering services, or providing something that could piss somebody off, you should consider a “Terms and Conditions” page. You can see my terms page at https://www.ellorywells.com/terms/.
If you're doing affiliate marketing, you're required by the Federal Trade Commission to have an Affiliate Disclosure. You can copy/paste mine from the bottom of today's blog post.
No need to tell your visitors that your opinions are your own. That's pointless. We already know your opinions are your own, and saying so won't prevent you from getting fired anyway.
If you're forming your business, you might try Legal Zoom. Several of my clients have used their service and have had no problems.
For on-going legal counsel, I've been using BizCounsel.
Client Relationship Management (CRM)
The more you know about your clients and customers the better off you'll be. If you've ever heard of or been scared off by terms like “Big Data,” this is part of that.
While it's not as scary as it seems, CRM can be complex. However, CRM is simply knowing about your current and future customers. Combine your CRM with your analytics (see above) and you'll know who your customers are, where they come from, and what they do whenever they visit your site.
A good CRM tool will help you track people as they move from “interested in your business” to people who “have bought something from your business.” To put it another way, your CRM can tell you how many people are interested, how many are involved, and how many are invested.
NOTE: With ActiveCampaign‘s site-tracking tools, you can tag people based on interest whenever they visit a specific page on your site or add a product to their shopping cart.
If part of your business includes creating quotes and proposals, you need a CRM tool. If you're working with accounts with more than one employee, you need a CRM tool. If you've got more than one person on your team, you need a CRM tool.
Do you need all of these tools before you can get started?
No. Absolutely not!
But, if you're generating any revenue at all, you should consider using at least one tool from every category.
Knowing the tools that can help you scale your startup business is part of the struggle every entrepreneur and business owner faces. Now you should have everything you need to get your business started, and, most likely for a lower cost than you expected!
No more excuses to hold you back. Go do something awesome!
Question: What's your favorite business-related tool?