I recently had a conversation with someone who is starting a social enterprise to connect corporate sponsors with the social networks of activists, athletes, musicians and others. He was asking me for advice on learning to code so that he could start to build his site.
I recommended that he learn the fundamentals of coding so that he could find a great technical co-founder and that he test the idea without building the whole concept. Through the conversation, I ended up sharing a list of tools that I thought might help him get started. With the hope that they may be helpful to others as well, here are my favorite start-up tools. And of course, please share your favorites in the comment section below.
TO TEST AN IDEA
LaunchRock is a free landing-page software tool that allows anyone to create a page that offers something of value and captures the e-mails of those who are interested. It’s easy to run Google Ads to your LaunchRock page and see how many people sign up. For an e-commerce site, a 10 percent conversion rate is generally considered good enough to warrant the build out of a product.
Optimizely is an inexpensive A/B testing tool that connects to LaunchRock and other sites to test copy, feature sets and user experiences. Early on, we learned the value of testing various Web options and the huge impact it can have.
FOR USER FEEDBACK
Once you’ve tested an idea and built your minimally viable product, it’s important to get as much feedback as you can from the people in your target market. Early on, my technical co-founder, Kevin, and I would go to Whole Foods during lunch and ask people if they would test-drive what we had built. Getting direct feedback from our target market was instrumental in understanding how to optimize the shopping experience on Fashioning Change. The following tools are also great for early customer feedback.
Fashioning Change was featured on Beta List, a site that introduces select start-ups in Beta to a community of early adopters. As a result, we were able to gain feedback that helped us find bugs and fix our user interface. By analyzing the feedback, we were able to optimize the entire Fashioning Change experience.
I love understanding how people receive and perceive information. I recognize that it’s one thing to think you understand why someone does something and a very different thing to test cause and effect and check your understanding against hard data. And that’s why I love Survey.io. It’s a free tool that helps you create surveys and collect quantitative and qualitative data. Depending on the purpose of the survey, you can check it against site analytics and use it to form assumptions that can be used to set up a battery of tests that help you improve the user experience. Survey.io gives you lots of information, and it takes less than a minute to create a survey.
Zopim is a real-time customer-support tool that we’ve found to be extremely flexible to use. It has an online dashboard and a plug-in for Gmail so that you can provide support through Google Chat. The plug-in allows you to see where people are coming from to visit your site. Thanks to Zopim, I’ve chatted with Fashioning Change visitors from all over the world. What’s really awesome is that if you have Gchat on your phone, you can even provide customer support when you’re on the go. This can be a little overwhelming at times, but the level of attention we have been able to give people get through Zopim has resulted in lots of word-of-mouth referrals. One time, I was providing normal customer support and discovered that the “person” I was talking with was actually an M.B.A. class at the University of California, San Diego, that had Fashioning Change projected on the wall! The benefits of real-time customer support and feedback can be amazing if approached correctly.
We learned about Inspectlet from our friends at Mogl, a company that helps you earn cash back when you eat out and donates a meal when you use the app. They raved about Inspectlet, and we understand why — the tool allows you to generate heat maps of what people are clicking on and viewing. On our site, we learned that some people wanted to click on things that didn’t link anywhere and that others were not clicking on things we wanted them to click on. The tool is extremely inexpensive but priceless.
Recently acquired by Evernote, Skitch is a free app that helps you capture, edit and mark up your screen captures and images with shapes and comments. Our use of Skitch has made it the unofficial language of Fashioning Change. We use it to support our product-development process. It helps expedite communication and reduce the number of misunderstandings. When we’re on deadline, Skitch becomes as important to us as air. No joke.
MailChimp’s interface is simple to use, and it allows you to segment lists, test e-mails, and analyze analytics. Free for up to 2,000 subscribers, MailChimp is a must for any beginning e-mail list. It’s also a great platform to customize. Rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars on a service like Sailthru, we were able to hack and customize it to our needs.
Unlike MailChimp, SendGrid is a transactional e-mail delivery service that makes it easy to make sure e-mails are delivered. We tell it what to send to whom, and SendGrid makes sure it gets there.
As the brains behind Fashioning Change’s lines of code, Kevin has no problem diving into the server logs to review a user’s or a set of users’ interactions with the site. For me, and for the other nontechnical members of the team, diving into the server logs is not so easy, but KissMetrics allows us to define reports that generate an easy-to-understand graphic on the data funnels of any subset of users we want to learn about — without having to dive into server logs. It’s a great tool to understand the paths people take on your site. And KissMetrics also offers one of my favorite blogs.
Similarly, Crazy Egg allows you to generate easy-to-understand charts that show where people are clicking on your site.
Google Analytics is a free and great tool to begin measuring the success of your advertising and the functionality of your site. It gives you insight to what is working, what is not, and where you should focus your attention.
Understanding search engine optimization is hard, in part because there are so many things to look at. SEOMoz highlights your important S.E.O. attributes and tracks their success over time (and it, too, has a great blog).
Trello is a free and easy-to-use project-management tool that is great for managing nontechnical teams.
Pivotal Tracker is a collaborative tool that helps your engineering team manage project timelines, keep track of project iterations, fix bugs and enhance the accuracy of project timelines.
We have yet to find a great tool to manage product timelines for both our technical team and nontechnical team, which is why we use an internalGoogle Wiki. The Wiki gives us the free form we need to manage overlapping tasks, and it doesn’t cost anything.
I love meeting with people, and without Skype, there would be a hole in my heart. While there is no replacement for meeting in person, Skype is an awesome tool to use when that is not an option. I find it most fun to use when I am talking to someone who has never used it before. It has allowed me to meet our designers regardless of where they are in the world. I use the screen-share function to get feedback on product that isn’t live to the public yet. I’ve also used Skype to create video interviews that highlight the stories of our designers.
Rapportive is a plug-in for Gmail that gives you information on who is e-mailing you. It provides a list of all of the social networks associated with the person e-mailing you. Used creatively, it can figure out the e-mail of someone you want to reach. Additionally, if you want to learn more about someone copied on an e-mail, you can do so by highlighting the address and Rapportive will populate information linked to the e-mail (I assure you that I am not a stalker — just creatively resourceful).
I highly recommend the tools above to anyone in the very early start-up stages. As we grow, we recognize that there are always new resources we can use. Steve Blank, godfather of the lean start-up movement, has a great list of other resources that we drew from in putting together this post: Startup Tools.
I hope this list is helpful, but I am sure there are many other useful tools out there. Are there any that you have found invaluable to your company? Please share.