By Sean P Aune

10 Essential Online Tools for Your Startup

By Sean P Aune

Finding the tools you need when you first start a new business can be difficult, but luckily there are more and more web applications to ease some of that pain. You can take care of just about any challenge from designing your logo to even answering the phone … yes, via the Web. No longer are you shackled by what your locale offers you when you have the entire world at your fingertips.

We’ve gathered up 10 of what we feel are the most essential tools for your business to use when you’re first getting started online.

99Designs: Choosing a designer for your logo, site, stationery, Twitter background and so on can be an extremely scary prospect. No matter how much someone may recommend a designer, if your personalities don’t gel, then the work will show that. With 99Designs you post a design brief, how much you are willing to pay for the final design, and then designers begin submitting their entries to you. Once you pick a winner, they get the prize money and you get a piece of work you own all rights to. It’s a much easier way of finding a designer that fits with your needs. (Disclosure: 99Designs is owned by the people behind SitePoint.com.)


Amazon Web Services: Hosting and bandwidth costs are a quick way to run up bills for your company, but with Amazon Web Services (AWS), you get several solutions that are all pay-as-you-go. The best known of the services is the S3 storage service which allows you to host images off-site for minimal fees, hence why companies like Twitter use it to hose all of their users’ avatars. There are a wealth of tools in AWS that would fit a great many needs when you look through them all.

Dropbox: In the early days of a startup, you may be bouncing around on trips, between your home and office, multiple computers and so on. Dropbox allows you to sync certain folders across your laptops, desktops, mobile devices and the Dropbox site so that you always have access to your files no matter where you are. This will save you the trouble of emailing files, moving them via thumb drives and so on. Very handy when you are always on the move.

Gmail: There may be other free email options out there, but you’ll find that most people will quickly point to Gmail as the best option due to its reliability, features and name cache. You’ll also get the ability to have VoIP and video chat capabilities via the built in Chat system which can also reduce your costs.

If you want to use your own domain name, that is also possible with Google Apps which comes in multiple flavors depending on your needs, but you will lose a few enhancements of the main Gmail service. This will also give you access to Google Docs under your own domain.

Google Docs: Another Google application that can make your life a lot easier, especially if your employees are spread out over multiple locations in the opening days of your venture. Google Docs will allow you to create word processor documents, spreadsheets, forms and presentations that can be shared between as many employees as you like. You can grant read or edit access, and if they are editing, multiple employees can work on one document at once with color-coded cursors so you know who is working on what. Great for long distance meetings.

Skype: Is there anyone left on the Earth who isn’t aware of Skype? Well, if you happen to be that one person, you can use this VoIP solution to have free Skype-to-Skype calls, set up local phone numbers in multiple countries that all ring through to one account, answer your calls from anywhere in the world that you have a Web connection, hold conference calls, route calls through to certain cell phones and so on. Basically you can handle all of your phone needs through this service for free or minimal fees. You can also add in video conferencing and you have just about everything you need for real-time communication.

Twitter: Not having a Twitter account these days is like forgetting to put a sign on the front of your business location. You can use it for promotion, connecting with vendors, networking with others in your similar space and, well, pretty much anything you can think of. Not having one would be stunning in this day and age.

UserVoice: Today customers want to have a say in what your company is doing and where it’s going. This is especially important in the social media space and web apps, and UserVoice is all about filling that void for you. The system allows you to ask your customers/users what features or services they would like to see you add, and then they can vote on them so that you know exactly where your customers would most like you to concentrate your energy.

WordPress: Blogs are still an essential communication platform for companies to communicate with their customers/users. While there are multiple blogging platform options out there, a self-hosted WordPress blog is pretty much the industry standard at this point due to the number plugins, developers and themes that are floating around the Web for the system.

Zendesk: Depending on the type of startup you’re building, customer service may be essential to keeping your users/customers happy. Zendesk allows you to set up a customer help desk that integrates with the look and feel of your site, and allows you to do it all through your own domain so your customers never know its a third-party application you are using. You can also use it with your favorite applications such as Campfire and Salesforce.

What are some of the tools you have found most useful when launching your latest project?

  • James

    Great post.

    Congratulations on your disclosure. Too many magazines and blog posts have blatent advertisements for their own or others products but try to hide it.

  • NickSR

    Great list but could you perhaps add as 10.1 one of my favorites now – ‘Posterous’.

    The guys at posterous.com – who are neighbours of the Twitter crew – have developed an amazing app that easily posts files/images/videos and generally updates you blogs/Twitter/Facebook in a flash simply via an email.

    Really quick with inbuilt URL shortener makes this a really useful tool when you are churning out hand selected choice content.

    *Major hat tip* to Posterous.com

  • Jdawg2k

    Great list. I use many of these options already for my business.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose the reason you don’t have a site specific to crowdsourcing web development and programming is because your reader base would destroy you. But hey, screw the designers, let’s start a site that devalues design.

  • chillybin

    i use all of these, and have tested zendesk, it looks pretty good so far

  • TedMorrison

    I *REALLY* like Dropbox…which is Mac-friendly also…yeeeeah!

    Tested Zendesk but went with the help desk software by Web Help Desk. I like the UI better in Zen but we needed to track some inventory, so we went with Web Help Desk. Couldn’t be happier!

    Gmail is a bit slow through IMAP…BUT I don’t worry about loosing any emails!!! :)

    Twitter….I *DESPISE* the concept….but…effective.

    My 2cents :) Thanks for the list, I’m going to look into the Amazon bit in more detail. THX!

  • terrydunn

    I think design contests are a great way of getting design work done. And while searching youtube, I’ve found a useful video from the Sue and Steve show giving you some tips on how to run a successful design contest. You can find it on my blog at ‘http://www.webdesignability.com’.

  • What about Google analytics?

  • I really think that Zendesk looks like a powerful addition to any online business. Thanks for putting that up.

  • @LeapGo — I’d have to agree — I’d have analytics in this list for sure.

  • Rob V

    Looks like you guys missed out on http://brandstackc.com definitely a must for startups looking for a solid identity.

  • Andy

    I always enjoy learning what other people think about Amazon Web Services and how they use them. Check out my very own tool CloudBerry Explorer that helps to
    manage S3 on Windows . It is a freeware. http://cloudberrylab.com/

  • Kris


    You know, it is that sort of attitude that keeps a lot of good designers very poor. It is a bad practice. Any designers out there that use these sites, don’t. There is plenty of work out there if you look.

    God it pisses me off.

  • Mark

    Where are the analytics tools ? That is surely a must. I’d also recommend mashup seo/code/analytics applications. For example, a report on sitepoint : Sitepoint.com Analytics Report

  • Chris

    I’m afraid I agree with the last post. Design competitions are great if you want a designer who doesn’t value their own work. Great if you don’t want the designer to research what will be effective for your Market and most of the time not even bother to find out who your target Market is. Do your business a favour. Look at some designers portfolios find one you like and approach the designer and work together to find the right solution for your business

  • Great if you don’t want the designer to research what will be effective for your Market and most of the time not even bother to find out who your target Market is.

    I agree with you there…

    I don’t design but I’m a partner at a design studio and have been involved in identity development. When we do an ID for a new client and especially a startup in a niche field, we spend lots of time doing R&D before we even see anything sketched up. That’s the difference between hiring a designer and using a McLogo solution.

  • W2ttsy

    for development houses, i recommend the atlassian product range. Especially since they are running the $10 starter licences on their best products. How any company works without JIRA or confluence is beyond me.

  • Jerome

    Great article. You may wish also to consider PMP HQ http://www.pmphq.com which helps SMBs keep track of their projects, tasks and budgets and eventually get things done on time and on budget.

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