Bootstrapping a new business or startup company from scratch is tough. It often involves working long into the evening after the day job is done, and doing a lot of work with no revenue or cash to show for it.
After you’ve got those first customers or raised money things get a little easier and you can afford to modestly invest in tools, technologies and services to help you grow. But until that happens (or even after if your looking to make your precious cash go further) you need to be able to do a lot of things established businesses do – but on a shoestring budget.
Having taken our own startup business avancert.com through this phase ourselves we’ve learned a few things and found a few sites and services on the way.
Lesson number one – if you’re not based in the US a good portion of the web based tools you read about on startup and technology blog sites like TechCrunch.com probably won’t work as advertised for you. For example, using online payment gateway titan Paypal falls short if you’re trying to make subscription type billing work properly outside the US or UK. Even startup directory and community Angel.co is problematic – our location is listed as ‘Australia’ because ‘New Zealand’ just isn’t an available option.
Lesson two – do you really need an office? We’ve achieved a lot virtually by working from home, coffee shops, online conference and meeting software, airline lounges and even the public library. Make use of web based tools and then use a virtual serviced office package to get the street address you want and access to meeting and conference facilities when you need them. If you’re really short on cash even a simple post office box can often do the trick.
Next, there are a number of basic services and software items you’ll need to utilize to run your business. Fortunately the days of having to buy shrink wrapped packages are behind us – and you can now find ‘pay per usage’ web based equivalents for almost anything. Many of these tools have free trials or modest low usage pricing affordable for those who are bootstrapping.
We’ve listed some of our favorites (again with those of us outside the US in mind) below:
Xero - for accounting purposes it’s just hard to beat. Xero allows those with even only basic accounting skills to do most day to day accounting activities using only a web browser. For more complicated things, it can be linked directly to your bank and advisors or accountants can be given access. The savings compared to using traditional shrink-wrapped products or accountants is well worth the starting $19 USD per month fee alone.
RepositoryHosting.com - for those startups in the “weightless economy”, cutting code, managing software versions and multiple developers at the same time can get complicated. Repositoryhosting provides web based source code control and project management systems, accessible with most development tools over the internet. Whilst there are a few such providers – its hard to beat the $6 USD per month fee these guys charge.
Google Apps – every business needs basic email services. Again there are plenty of options out there but our consistent favorite is Google Apps. Its free for up to ten users, doesn’t require software to be installed and has just the right amount of features without being top-heavy for most small to medium enterprises. As an added bonus, there are an increasing number of 3rd party applications pre-integrated via the Apps Marketplace. These range from diagramming right through to project management tools and include Xero above.
Dropbox – For distributed teams or just plain old sharing of files dropbox does a great job of making the process easy. A folder appears on your computer or device, and anything you put in it appears in that same folder on any other device it has been shared with over the internet. Kind of like the corporate server or “shared drive” of yesteryear – only without the cabling, server and the pony tail wearing IT guy.
MyDivert.com – Allows you to ditch the traditional telephone line and set up phone numbers in a wide range of cities and countries both inside and outside your home country. Calls can be made using a free VOIP (Voice over IP) client software on your computer, a physical VOIP phone, or even connected to your skype account. Pricing starts from a few dollars a month per number. There a number of similar alternative services available (such as 2talk in New Zealand), so shop around.
Vend – For more traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ type businesses, Vend is a great option for getting your point of sales up and running without the usual hassles. Continuing the theme when compared with traditional shrink wrapped products, its also easy to use, totally web based (but still works if internet goes offline) and starts at only $39 USD per month. Pair it with the likes of Xero and Shopify and you have a fairly complete online and offline retail eco-system.
We found both Join.me and GotoMeeting great for hosting online meetings and customer demonstrations, with free/reasonable monthly subscription options that won’t break the bank. Likewise, the combo of youtube or vimeo with screencast-o-matic.com to record your own low cost product demos works well.
As startup’s grow they also need to hire staff, although are unlikely to be able to fund recruiters or human resources staff. In this space options tend to be more localized with a ‘do it yourself’ approach using paid job adverts placed on local job boards and online payroll companies worth a look to lessen the administrative burden.
Here we’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention our own product, Avancert.com With the basic account allowing up to five free video interviews a month – it saves time during the hiring and helps uncover ‘hidden’ candidates a traditional resume formats can’t.For technology startups you can also roll your own skills and capabilities exams and tests to ensure candidates can backup their resume claims.
For easy management of content and your website open source tools Joomla and WordPress are both worth a look. Most major ISP’s provide automated setup of these tools, with paid and free graphic design templates, themes and additional functionality plugins readily available on the internet. Whilst there is a lot overlap between the two, WordPress tends to be more focused on blogging where Joomla is targeted at more generic web content management usage.
Getting exposure online for your product or service without spending advertising dollars is getting increasingly difficult and relies heavily on search engine ranking and online customer engagement. Both Joomla and WordPress include plug-ins to help with this, and combined with sparing targeted use of advertising or blogging can be quite effective. In a nutshell, if you haven’t got advertising dollars to spend you need to be active in related industry online communities, twitter, pinterest, facebook and linked in as a minimum.
For online payment, we think this is an area that needs improvement. Typically there are strong local options (like DPS in New Zealand) although these often require the additional complexity of signing up with a merchant account at a local bank which takes time. Unfortunately for more global options – if you live outside the US most of the major online payment gateways present their challenges if they support your country at all.
We’ve found 2Checkout to be slightly easier for management of subscription payments outside of the US. Another easier option might be simply to integrate with Xero, which allows invoices to be paid via paypal. Recently there has also been a number of billing and subscription services making an appearance. Although worth a look, most seem to be either expensive (adding more charges on top of existing payment gateways) or US centric.
So there you have it. That’s our pick of online applications and services for startups looking to get up and running on a shoestring budget. No doubt we’ve missed a few – if we have we’d love to hear from you.