These are the tools that we know, love, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend—many of them we use ourselves. Use them to propel your startup into success and growth.
Listen to COO of Palo Alto Software, Noah Parsons, share his favorite online tools on the fourth episode of The Bcast, Bplan’s official podcast (at 13:17):
Click here to subscribe to The Bcast on iTunes »
Table of contents:
- Accounting software
- Choosing a name
- Domain names and hosting
- Elevator pitches and pitch decks
- Logos and branding
- Stock photos and libraries
- Market research
- Survey tools
- Social media tools
- Project management software
- Launching and PR
- Help desk and customer service
- Payment systems
- Invoicing software
- Website building and shopping carts
- Funding platforms and solutions
- Human resources
- Legal help
- Content resources management
- Analytics tools
- Financial forecasting and dashboard
- Design tools
- Outsourcing work
- Landing pages and A/B testing
- Email marketing platforms
In the U.S., QuickBooks is hands-down the most popular accounting software out there. If you’re working with an accountant, chances are that they’ll ask you to use QuickBooks. We recommend the online version, but you can still buy the desktop version if that’s what you prefer.
Xero is an online-only accounting solution. While relatively popular in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K., they are less popular in the U.S. They’re still worth a look though if QuickBooks isn’t right for you.
If you’re a small, service-based business such as a photographer, consultant, or wedding coordinator, Freshbooks might be right for you. Freshbooks focuses on invoicing and you can easily allow your customers to pay you online. Technically, they’re not a full-fledged accounting solution, but they cover the basics if you don’t have to handle things like inventory.
Choosing a name
What’s great about NameCheckr is that in addition to automatically looking up available domain names associated with your chosen business name, it checks a ton of relevant social platforms, from Facebook to Youtube to see if the name is available there. That way you can get right on to your social media strategy!
Enter a word and Naminum uses prefixes, suffixes, and replaces letters within your keyword to generate a (huge) list of name suggestions. Didn’t find a satisfactory name? Try with a new word, transform the current one or generate random names for additional inspiration.
If you want real people to help you find a business name, check out BrandBucket to have your name and domain name crowdsourced.
Domain names and hosting
NameMesh: Part domain name suggestion tool and part domain name finder, NameMesh searches endless variants of your domain to find one that works for you.
Search across endless domain extensions, way beyond your standard .com. You’ll find good suggestions, but Domainr is more for finding a domain that will work for you once you’ve already settled on a company name.
BlueHost offers simple and affordable hosting that’s ideal for anything from WordPress to full-fledged web apps. Bluehost is an easy place to get online on a budget.
If BlueHost isn’t right for you, check out HostGator. The services and prices are fairly similar and they do have a visual website builder if that’s something you need.
NameCheap offers some of the lowest domain name registration prices. Despite being cheap, the services are solid and reliable.
Elevator pitches and pitch decks
Full disclosure, we’re the makers of LivePlan—but that just makes us more certain that it’s an essential startup tool. In this case, it’s the pitch feature that allows you to get all of your most important points down in one place, either as a one-page format or as a pitch deck that you can export to Powerpoint if you need a slide deck for a presentation.
If a highly visual look is right for your pitch deck, check out Haiku Deck. Their tool will help you create a beautiful pitch deck that’s sure to inspire.
If you’re looking to put a literal spin on your presentation and get away from PowerPoint, give Prezi a look.
Logos and branding
LogoGarden is a great free option for creating your own logo. If you’re looking for something quick, DIY, and no-cost, this is for you.
99designs: While much more than just a logo company, 99designs is a great resource where designers pitch you several ideas before you pay. If you know that you need someone from outside your company to design your logo, and you want a lot of options to choose from, this is a good option.
Like 99designs, Fiverr is a marketplace of designers, copywriters, programmers, and more. As their name suggests, there are plenty of people willing to do work for just five dollars. You will find more expensive options on the service, but this is a great place to start if you’re on a budget.
Stock photo libraries
Pixabay: Every content producer will need stock photography at some point, it’s just the nature of the game. Pixabay’s free, high-quality images are royalty-free so if you’re working on a tight budget, this is a great place to start. Be prepared to see your favorite image on other sites, though.
StockSnap.io is another useful free photo site. Images are high quality, but as with all image sites, the catalog can be a bit shallow.
If you’re ready to step up to a paid image library, we like Shutterstock. The catalog is big and grows every day. Prices are reasonable as well.
CensusViewer is a free tool that gives you access to U.S. Census data in an easy-to-use format that you can explore both visually on a map or in data reports for cities, counties, and entire states.
Consumer Expenditure Survey
If you want to know what people spend their money on, the Consumer Expenditure Survey is your source.
MyBestSegments: This tool from Nielsen helps you understand an area’s demographic and lifestyle habits.
If you need help finding a business location or want to see where your competition is, check out SizeUp. You can also compare your forecasted marketing and advertising budget against the competition.
Google Trends: Use Google Trends to discover what people are searching for and how search volume on important topics is changing over time.
Should you need to poll a group for business purposes, SurveyMonkey is free and reliable. Simply build the survey and send it out to your audience.
Google Consumer Surveys: You don’t need to have a contact list to send out a survey. With Google Surveys, you can target users from around the web and get instant feedback on your business idea.
Whether you need a simple form or a survey, TypeForm does it beautifully. It’s especially good on mobile.
Qualaroo makes it easy to do small polls and surveys right on your website.
Social media tools
Buffer makes social sharing an easy one-stop-shop: you can plan your social posts ahead, and post to multiple accounts from Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Google+ and more, all at once. Plus, you can give multiple employees access so everyone doesn’t have to deal with signing in to each platform individually.
Hootsuite is perfect for people who are really active on social media and managing multiple accounts. It puts everything in one place with an easy to follow user interface, works with Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, and WordPress, and has incorporated analytics so you can stay on top of your metrics.
Project management software
Trello works well for workflows that have a clear process, so you can organize tasks into different boards, create lists on the boards, and assign cards describing each task to the appropriate colleague. It’s also suitable to an environment where you need to create and maintain lists of ideas.
If you don’t need giant charts, but want a dead-simple interface that anyone can use with no training, then Basecamp is for you. Simplicity, unlimited users, and centralization of all your project assets are winners for Basecamp.
If you need more power than Basecamp and are willing to pay more, Asana is worth a look. It’s not nearly as affordable as Basecamp, but there is a free plan for small teams that might be all you need as you get your business off the ground. The folks over at Sticker Mule have a great guide on how they use Asana if you need some help getting started.
Launching and PR
HARO: Otherwise known as “Help a Reporter Out,” HARO is a great resource to find reporters who are covering every topic you can think of. If a reporter needs a source, they’ll post here. Simply respond and you could get yourself some free press.
Pr.co allows you to outsource creating a press room for your web site. Write your press release, distribute them via email, and create an easy-to-update press room for your company.
Pressfarm is a platform to help you find journalists to write about your startup.
Help desk and customer service
Outpost is a shared inbox tool that makes it easier for your team to collaborate on email, without stepping on anyone’s toes. It works with Gmail, Outlook 365 and many other email providers.
If you’re a Salesforce customer, using Desk.com is a no-brainer since it’s a Salesforce company. You can try for free, but there’s no perpetually free plan as of this writing.
ZenDesk: While not the cheapest, ZenDesk has a deep feature set and offers integrations into many other systems.
If you’re building a web site or mobile app and plan to accept payments, Stripe is a great place to start. They’re built from the ground up to be developer-friendly and simple. Stripe is used by companies big and small, so you’ll be in good company.
A PayPal company, Braintree was built with an extreme focus on customer service. They’ll help you every step of the way and enable your company to accept different forms of payment from all over the world.
If accepting credit cards in person is what you need for your business, check out Square‘s line of mobile phone card readers and POS systems.
For companies that focus on offering services to their customers and need a robust invoicing solution, Freshbooks is a great choice. Not only can you issue professional invoices, but you can accept payment online, capture expenses, and track your time.
QuickBooks Payments: If you’re already using QuickBooks as your accounting solution for your business, using QuickBooks payments is a helpful integration, since it keeps all your accounts receiveable in one ecosystem.
An alternative to Freshbooks, Ballpark offers a similar set of features. One stand-out feature is their “projects” tool that allows you to track time and set budgets for, well, projects.
Website building and shopping carts
With a huge template gallery and simple online editor, Wix is a great place to start if all you need is a simple, static web site. The upper price tiers also offer shopping cart functionality for an all-in-one solution.
Shopify: Shopify sets itself apart from other site builders in that it’s focused on selling online. If you don’t need to sell online and just need a “brochure” site, Shopify isn’t for you.
Squarespace‘s focus is on beautiful design. Your subscription includes access to a huge image gallery, a logo creator, and much more. Like others, you can sell online with Squarespace as well.
Chargify: If you’re setting up a subscription business and don’t want the hassle of building a billing tool, check out Chargify. They’ll handle the recurring payments and allow you to offer all kinds of subscription options to your customers.
Funding platforms and solutions
Entrepreneurs can post a free business profile on Gust and share it with investors around the world. Gust is great for startups that are looking for angel investment and potentially a venture capital investment.
Similar to Gust, startups can post their company on AngelList and solicit investment from potential investors. AngelList also offers job boards and other tools to help startups get up and running.
You really can’t go wrong with Zenefits’ free HR software platform. That’s right, it’s free. They make their money by administering your benefits and payroll, should you choose to do that—it’s not required.
If you need to simplify all of the employee paperwork and files, then check out Kin. Kin helps you onboard new hires, centralizes all of their files, and tracks time off and working hours.
TSheets integrates with Quickbooks. It has a GPS time tracker and easily tracks times including breaks and lunches.
Lattice allows personal and team goal tracking, performance reviews, employee feedback, 1 on 1s, and many features beneficial to both managers and teams.
Workable: Workable has all the tools you need to post new job openings and manage your candidates. If you need to streamline your hiring process, then check them out.
From incorporating your business to getting contracts and other legal documents, RocketLawyer has all of the basics covered. RocketLawyer encourages you to subscribe to their service, so if you don’t have ongoing legal needs, be sure to cancel your subscription when you’re done.
Unlike RocketLawyer, LegalZoom focuses on offering its services a-la-carte. Find the legal form or service you need, and get straight-forward pricing for that document. They serve all common business legal needs, so you can’t go too far wrong with LegalZoom.
Avvo has a great Q&A forum where you can ask any legal question and get answers from attorneys for free, pages and pages of legal guides written by lawyers, a lawyer directory with ratings, consumer reviews, and profiles for 97% of the attorneys in the U.S.
Nolo is a fantastic, trusted resource for their free and informative legal information; their website is chock full of accurate and helpful information on everything from bankruptcy to divorce to patents. In addition, they sell products such as books, kits, and forms for things like making your will, starting a nonprofit, and making the right tax deductions.
Content resource management (CRM)
Infusionsoft: In addition to all of the standard CRM features, Infusionsoft brings marketing and sales automation to small businesses, to help automate communications and standardize tasks. Infusionsoft also integrates an online shopping cart so you can manage your business from one software suite.
You can get started with HubSpot’s CRM for free. It’s easy to use, yet has all of the powerful CRM features you expect. Its Sidekick add-on for email is excellent and you can easily track deals and an entire sales process.
The de-facto standard for web analytics is Google Analytics. It’s free, powerful, and more than enough for even a seasoned online marketing team.
HotJar is a great tool for generating heatmaps on your sites so you have insight into where visitors click and how far down the page they scroll on your website.
OptinMonster is great for generating attractive pop-ups for lead generation and even adds that show on exit on your site, making the most of your site’s traffic.
If you need more than pageview data, use a tool like Mixpanel to track the actions people take on your site, or in your app.
Financial forecasting and financial dashboard
If you need to write a business plan, build a budget, or forecast your sales and cash flow, look no further than LivePlan. Once you’ve set your financial goals, you can connect QuickBooks and track your progress toward your goals.
Canva is one of our favorite online image editors. You can edit photographs easily, but you can also create all kinds of visuals from posters to business cards to book covers. The basic version is free and you can upgrade to the “work” edition if you need more.
Piktochart: Create infographics the easy way. What we love about Piktochart is that it’s easy to use, free, and looks professional—kind of the best of all worlds in terms of creating your own infographics.
If you need an easy way to create images for social media, check out Pablo. It’s simple and can create images that will work on all social networks.
Formerly known as Elance and Odesk, Upwork is a marketplace of freelancers from around the world that will do nearly anything you need, from sales and marketing, to design and web development. Use their powerful filters to find a freelancer and Upwork will facilitate payment and all the other details of managing a contract freelancer.
TaskRabbit is unusual but really useful when you need people to quickly do a task that isn’t really freelancing per se; more like a handyman or Jack or Jill-of-all-trades. For example, if your business is throwing an event, you can hire a group of highly-rated people on TaskRabbit to set up, serve, and clean up without having to deal with a full-scale catering company.
99designs: If you have a design task, from a book cover to product packaging, to a logo, 99designs can get designers to compete for your work. You’ll get multiple designs and then you pick the ones you like.
Fiverr: Similar to 99designs, but with a focus on cost savings, Fiverr can connect you with designers, developers, and more to get your outsourced work done—cheap.
Landing pages and A/B testing
If you need a landing page quickly, check out LeadPages. You can quickly build landing pages and pop-ups with no coding required.
Part page builder and part A/B testing tool, Unbounce lets you design landing pages and then easily test one version against another to find the best combination.
Visual Website Optimizer
With no coding required, Visual Website Optimizer makes it easy to test changes to your website and figure out which version does the best. Reporting is easy and you’ll get the majority of the features you need at a reasonable price.
Convert is a great tool for AB testing changes on your website to validate ideas for tactics to increase clicks, conversion, and traffic through your pages.
Email marketing platforms
MailChimp is the easy choice here. Unless you have a very sophisticated marketing automation campaign that you need to run, MailChimp does a great job helping you build and send newsletters and virtually any other kind of campaign. The automation tools are solid, too, and will be more than enough for most businesses.
If saving money is your number one objective, check out Sendy. Sendy uses Amazon’s Simple Email Service platform to send emails on the cheap. It’s not the most full-featured tool, but it does the trick if you want to send email as inexpensively as possible.
For more enterprise-level functionality but with small business ease-of-use, check out HubSpot. It’s an all-in-one marketing automation and inbound marketing platform, but you can use just their email service if you want.
As an alternative to MailChimp, check out Aweber. It offers great pricing and a deep feature set. A major difference from MailChimp is their customer support; while MailChimp only supports you via email, Aweber will pick up the phone.