Marketing Site Stack

If you have many (or any) engineers on your team, it’s really tempting to spend those engineering resources building out your marketing site. Don’t do it. Engineering resources are incredibly important and typically scarce, especially in early stage companies. It’s important to keep those focused on your critical path items.

I know this from experience. At my first two stratups, we spent a lot of engineering resources building our homepages. Part of this was a point of pride. We wanted a slick page. But the cost was that even minor changes ended up being a huge distraction. The engineering work compounded. For example, any time we wanted to update our Press page with a new article, we had to ask engineering. Then one of our engineers ended up building an admin page so we could manage our press page via a custom dashboard. If this sounds like overkill, you’re right.

At Blissfully we vowed not to make these mistakes. We decided early on not to spend ANY engineering time building or updating our marketing pages. We wanted to be able to make quick copy edits without needing any code. We also wanted a beautiful and consistent design. And of course, we needed powerful integrations and workflows.

What we were looking for in our marketing website + platform:

  • Great design – Marketing pages need to look great, and also be consistent with your brand guidelines and app.
  • Zero engineering – Ability to create and edit pages without needing engineering.
  • Powerful integrations – Leverage other great tools and seamlessly integrate into our core workflow.
  • Future proof – We wanted a foundation we could continue to build on and extend.

WordPress: Great foundation for Marketing Sites

We chose to build our marketing site on WordPress. It currently powers over 28% of all websites. That’s mind-boggling. It’s an incredibly mature platform that is improving at a solid clip. It has a huge ecosystem of integrations, extensions, designers, and developers.

I realize some folks love the simplicity of platforms like Squarespace and Wix. They are solid, somewhat flexible, and look great. The downside (and upside for some) is that they’re more limited, which might lead to a bigger migration later on.

The power and flexibility of WordPress can be overwhelming. So here’s a set of recommendations to get you started.

Powerful + Flexible Marketing Site Stack

Here’s a great marketing site stack built on WordPress to get you going.

Hosting: WP Engine

If you’re serious about your site, WP Engine is your best bet by far. They provide flexible plans, have terrific support, automatic regular backups that you can roll back to in one click, and great performance. WordPress.com is great for performance, but it’s incredibly limited in which themes and plugins it supports. And for heaven’s sake, do NOT use GoDaddy WordPress Hosting (or GoDaddy anything). Their DNS servers are garbage, support is awful, plans are cheap but leave out critical features, and they consistently try to upsell you crap. There are other WordPress hosts out there, but finding one requires navigating through an SEO wasteland.

Design: Site Origin

SiteOrigin has a set of amazing tools to help design and customize your WordPress site. Using these tools will give you a great combination of ease of use out of the gate, plus plenty of control and customization options.

  • Page Builder – This is the foundation for your WordPress site. It gives you an easy to use visual layout editor for pages and posts, for free. There are a few visual page layout options for WordPress, PageBuilder is probably the best. It doesn’t add too much bloat to the HTML, has great options to make sure your site is responsive (e.g. show/hide, stack order, width, etc.), and is always adding new features. PageBuilder gives you the best of both worlds – full control when you need it, but plenty of existing layout options to help you out.
  • Widgets Bundle – PageBuilder pairs with Widgets, a set of pre-built visual options that you can quickly build out and customize, like testimonials, counters, social media, etc.
  • CSS Editor – This completes the SiteOrigin mini stack with a slick CSS editor built into WordPress. It makes it easier to override the CSS, tracks changes over time, gives you some visual tools, and will make it a breeze for your front end folks or designers to take over and make your site pop.
  • Theme: Unwind – These SiteOrigin tools work best with the Unwind Theme. It has great options for a header and lets you easily customize pages by turning off the header, footer, or sidebar on a per page basis. It has some basic theme settings (e.g. font and color), and gets out of your way so your site design can come through. Many themes tend to be overly restrictive and hard to customize, not so with Unwind.

Forms + Workflow: Ninja Forms + Zapier

  • Ninja Forms – After spending what felt like weeks looking at different WordPress form plugins, we settled on Ninja Forms. It’s really powerful, easy to use, and has tons of great integrations. I’d recommend the Forms and Styles add-on to help you easily customize the look of the forms. And of course, the Zapier add-on to greatly extend the power fo what you can do with the form information. You should also install this amazing Ninja Forms Google Analytics plugin to automatically track your forms completions as Events in Google Analytics. Do this up front (I wish this were built into the base Ninja Forms), so you can easily set up Goals or measure other activities in GA.
  • Zapier – Zapier was the original API for everything to help you automate your workflows. They have connections for over 750 apps, including Ninja Forms. With Zapier you can send the information you collect in a form to all sorts of places, including CRMs for lead management (see below for details on a great lead workflow).

Analytics + SEO: Google Analytics and Yoast

  • Google Analytics – The gold standard for website analytics. The easiest way to set up Google Analytics is to use a plugin, like MonsterInsights, to quickly start tracking. You’ll just need your Google Analytics tracking id.
  • Yoast SEO – SEO is a long term strategy, but you might as well get started early on. The Yoast SEO plugin has a pretty good free tier and lots of SEO options to make sure your site has good hygiene, creating a good foundation to hopefully pay off over time as you build traffic and content.

Marketing and Chat: Intercom, Drift or Hubspot

You should be using a marketing platform to manage customer conversations, and probably to include live chat on your site so you can engage visitors in real time. WordPress makes it trivial to integrate into your favorite marketing/chat platform. We recommend Intercom, Drift, or Hubspot, each of which has WordPress plugins to make deployment onto your marketing site easy.

Our Site and Example Lead Workflow

We use this stack to create and manage our entire web presence, which you can see at Blissfully.com. In particular, our lead management workflow leverages this, with the addition of Clearbit, to easily enrich our leads and create a great workflow in Hubspot (our CRM).

We use a SINGLE email field when asking people to sign up for early access to reduce friction. Why ask for additional data fields (like name or company) when you can figure all that out with just an email. Then we use Zapier to send that email to Clearbit for enrichment (tons of great qualifying information like company size, revenue, etc.). Next use that enriched information, which comes just from the email, to create a complete Contact, matching Company, and Deal in Hubspot. From that point on, we manage the lead lifecycle in Hubspot which has great tools for automating emails, etc. And finally, we use Zapier’s notifications to send a Slack message to our team with the lead info and to send a welcome email to the original lead.

Without any engineering, we were able to create a powerful and scalable workflow.

Forget Shadow IT – Think Enlightened IT

Shadow IT: A Brief History

Enterprise IT was traditionally highly structured, expensive, and limited to a known set of hardware and software vendors. Every project would take a long time (months/years) to implement, typically requiring a lot of custom development to make it all work.

With this history, it’s no surprise that a company’s internal IT function strove to reduce variables. It was hard enough to get the solution you paid for to work well. And as long as employees were using desktop computers connected to the corporate network, keeping tight control and reducing variables was relatively straight forward.

As the consumer computer industry grew and accelerated by the rise of the Internet, we began to see a “consumerization” of IT. Employees started using laptops, on home networks and on the road. They started using their own computers and phones for “company” work. This created a massive headache for the traditional IT world that sought control and elimination of variables.

To manage this changing landscape, IT began its long fight against any non-sanctioned technology products. They even created a disparaging term for these unofficial products: “Shadow IT.” The traditional response to Shadow IT was to eliminate it and return control to the centralized process. An entire sweet of tools was built to help manage and control Shadow IT. Wikipedia lists out the typical “implications” of Shadow IT.

  • Wasted time
  • Inconsistent business logic
  • Inconsistent approach
  • Wasted investment
  • Inefficiencies
  • Higher risk of data loss or leaks
  • Barrier to enhancement
  • Organizational dysfunction
  • Effect on IT Departments

Notice a common thread; they are all negative. This is not an accident. And this pejorative attitude towards Shadow IT is pervasive to this day.

SaaS: Pandora’s Box for Shadow IT

While Shadow IT was a problem before SaaS, the proliferation of free, freemium, and inexpensive per-seat SaaS offerings resulted in a massive explosion in Shadow IT. This trend is exacerbated by shifting employee preferences. Employees are demanding to use their own devices (the massive BYOD trend). They are demanding better products that are as usable as the consumer software they’re used to. They are demanding to be able to work from anywhere. When employees are off the corporate network and hardware, traditional tools for managing and fighting Shadow IT (e.g. packet sniffing, computer agents) are rendered ineffective.

In fact, this desire for tight control has probably been counter-productive. As IT gets increasingly restrictive, employees simply go completely outside the view of traditional IT. This exacerbates Shadow IT, resulting in a much larger surface area of company tech usage and data sharing that is invisible to IT.

Inverting Shadow IT: Enlightened IT

The first step to effectively manage IT in today’s often SaaS first world is an inversion of the typical attitude towards Shadow IT. Instead of focusing exclusively on its negative effects, we should also focus on the many benefits of this new world:

  • Leveraging intelligence of the ENTIRE organization, not just IT / leadership
  • Encouraging more experimentation leads to new product discover and quicker org-wide adoption of new tools.
  • Organic adoption results in employees using the products they want
  • Better product discovery as decisions get pushed to “users”
  • Happier more productive employees

The way to do that is to invert the traditional attitude towards Shadow IT. To start with permission and restrict if needed, vs to start with restriction and approve in a centralized process. To require products be blacklisted to prevent usage, rather than wait for them to be whitelisted before allowing usage.

We call this approach Enlightened IT. And it’s a great way to encourage bottoms up innovation and adoption in an organization. It’s also a better strategic approach to minimize downside risk by actually seeing everything, and reducing blind spots.

How to effectively manage Enlightened IT

While it’s important to invert the traditional IT decision-making process, it’s even more important to do so in a smart, not reckless way. In addition to a new outlook, it requires a different set of tools.

To make this work, you need to be able to:

  • Easily capture accurate information on products that employees are using, especially when outside company networks or company owned computers
  • Discover product usage across the entire organization, not just traditional decision makers (everyone is a decision maker now)
  • Be able and willing to promote and expand products that are working well and making employees happier and more productive
  • Quickly find and address any security issues to minimize downside risk
  • Be easily able to kill what’s not working or what’s not up to security or compliance guidelines

With that in place, you can begin a simple analysis of products that are discovered across the organization. They should fall into one of four buckets:

  • Expand: Usage and adoption of products by teams and individuals can result in finding and choosing products that make the entire company happier and more productive. Products that meet both of these characteristics should be expanded to more users and teams, and even be brought into the core stack.
  • Allow: A more open policy allows for many more products that may not necessarily need to be expanded, but serve a particular function for a particular team, and can go on doing so in a self-supported way. Plenty of department specific tools, such as marketing lead enrichment, will fall under this bucket.
  • Research: This is the most important part of the Enlightened IT framework. Experimentation of new apps is great and should be allowed and encouraged, however, monitoring and research are still important. Products that have access to sensitive information, e.g. financial, contracts, PII (personally identifiable information), should be more closely vetted to make sure they meet your internal security requirements. After that initial research, you can choose to expand, allow, or restrict.
  • Restrict: Certain apps may always be restricted by your particular organization. Due either to industry specific compliance needs, particular team sensitivities, or proactive decisions to consolidate on certain tools. The appropriate framework is to think of these restricted apps as a specific “Blacklist.” The default for a new app is to be able to test it, but certain products can be blacklisted.

Changing the culture of an organization to encourage bottoms up adoptions and more permissionless innovation will require buy-in from various teams, especially IT. If you can make this change, and start leveraging the product intelligence across the entire organization, you’ll likely have happier, more productive employees, and less worry about Shadow IT.

Enter Blissfully – Turning Shadow IT into Enlightened IT in a SaaS-first World

Blissfully automatically detect all the tools in use in your organization, across devices, and across networks. This is increasingly necessary as work moves onto personal devices and non-office networks. Keeping pulse of what the organization is using is the critical first step to making sure you make the best choices, keep employees happy and productive, and minimize security risk. Check out Blissfully to see how we can help.

Startup SaaS Stack

Startups are built to solve specific problems. When starting out, we focus all our energies on solving that specific problem. Any effort spent on anything else is wasted.

Choosing your software tools is no different. Today’s tools are amazing, and it’s not worth over optimizing when starting out. The important thing is to quickly choose tools that won’t slow you down, and keep building.

Over the course of starting 3 companies over the last decade and advising dozens more, I’ve gotten a pretty good sense of the right tools for the job.

Key attributes for your software stack

The first question anyone needs to start with when picking the right set of tools is what you want to optimize around. There are inherent tradeoffs when choosing products, such as cost vs functionality, security vs speed, ease of use vs powerful integrations.

Here are the important attributes for early companies to optimize around:

  • Cost – no need to increase your burn prematurely in the early days
  • Speed – get up and running quickly so you can focus on building and learning.
  • Ease – you don’t want to waste time on set up, deployment or management of tools.
  • Flexibility – You need a solid foundation for future without worry lock-in
  • Integration – Your tools should work well with each other.
  • Productivity – the right tools can help your team be incredibly productive out of the gate.

The following recommendations optimize around these six attributes.

Quick Start Foundational Stack

Here’s a handful of critical apps you’ll need to get any organization up and running quickly and cost effectively.

  • G Suite – $5/mo for basic. Google’s G Suite provides an incredible value at $5/user/month for the basic tier. You get email, file sharing, an office suite, basic collaboration, and simple identity. It’s pretty much standard issue among early stage tech companies, and will give you plenty of room to grow into if you need more powerful features.
  • Quickbooks Online ~$40/mo – Quickbooks Online provides a great accounting foundation, and with its low price point and easy to use product it’s something you should definitely have on day one. It seamlessly integrates with Gusto and tons of other products, has a robust app developer ecosystem, and tons of freelancer accountants if you need additional help. And Quickbooks leaves you with tons of flexibility for the future, which you won’t get with accounting solutions that integrate services and software.
  • Gusto – $39 + 6/person – As soon as you’re ready to pay anyone, employees or contractors, you’ll need payroll (and probably benefits). Gusto provides both in a beautiful, easy to use platform with great integrations. You can enroll in health benefits with no minimum number of employees, sync full payroll data to Quickbooks, automatically pay state and federal taxes, and more. Gusto also has a basic set of document signing (e.g. Offer letter, Non-Solicit, Contracts) so you can have onboarding documents all in one place.
  • Hubspot CRM – There’s no perfect CRM, and you can spent lots of time looking for one. Salesforce is amazing and pretty much industry standard, but it’s expensive and requires 1 year commitment, which might be overkill at the start before you ramp up sales. That’s why we recommend Hubspot CRM. It’s free, easy to use, has some nice built in integrations plus other automation via Zapier, and tons of flexibility with easy to add custom fields. As you build up your sales and marketing efforts and automation, you can either continue to build on Hubspot or migrate to the CRM of choice.
  • Team Collaboration Stack
    • Even though G Suite offers team collaboration, that’s not an area where it excels, and it’s better to go with best of breed products across a few key categories. Especially since most products (including all three of these recommended ones) have robust free tiers so you can quickly adopt them.
    • Slack – Quickly becoming the standard team chat platform. It has a generous free tier, and tons of integrations which help your entire team easily keep a pulse on things.
    • Zoom – If you need any video or screen sharing, go with Zoom. It’s got a great free tier, terrific audio and video quality, support for tons of platforms, and a nice option for audio only so you don’t need a phone-only solution.
    • Trello – A really flexible, visual way to organize projects and tasks, from marketing to engineering and everything in between. It has a really generous free tier and will be powerful enough for your whole team for a while, even as you develop more complex workflows.

You can’t go wrong with these tools. This stack will cover your core operational needs, quickly, cheaply, with a ton of flexibility going forward.

Software Startup Stack

If you’re building a software product, you’ll need a set of additional tools to help build, measure, iterate and support your product. These additional tools are still evaluated on the initial set of six attributes, with an expanded set of functionality.

  • Product + Engineering
    • If you’re building software products you’ll need a set of tools. This should be pretty obvious, but just in case here’s a set of recommended tools.
    • Design: Sketch + InvisionApp. Sketch is quickly overtaking becoming the standard design tool with an amazing vector/bitmap hybrid model and an affordable price point ($100 single fee plus optional $69/year ongoing for udpates). It also has great integrations with tools like InVision, which helps you easily collaborate and share feedback on early designs and prototypes.
    • Analytics: Mixpanel + Google Analytics + Segment. You’ll want to have analytics up and running right from the start. Even if you’re not analyzing it, it’s helpful to begin establishing a baseline. Google Analytics is the standard to measure site traffic and general activity, however it doesn’t give you great in product insights unless you customize it and send lots of events. For deeper product analysis, Mixpanel is terrific, and offers lots of helpful tools right out of the gate. Finally, Segment offers a single multi-plexers so you can write tracking code once and have it automatically integrate with current or future analytics tools. All three have free tiers and work well together.
    • Coding: Github. The standard for code management.
    • Hosting: AWS. It’s a monster for a reason – tons of developer friendly products, quick iteration, and really affordable prices make AWS a no brainer.
    • Payments: Stripe. Incredibly easy to integrate, easy to manage, and powerful to customize beyond.
  • Support: Intercom. Early on you don’t need a full scale ticketing system to respond to customer and bugs. Intercom lets you easily integrate to your website and app, allows you to quickly emails or in app messages to anyone, and provides flexibility down the line if you want to add functionality.
  • Key Ops Tools
    • EShares – If you’re venture backed you’ll likely be issuing options. Managing these yourself is a huge pain, and will most likely end up costing you more in the future with legal bills to clean up the mess you made. Save yourself all this trouble and use EShares. You get options and cap table management, ability to do paperwork for financings (great if you’ve got lots of angels in a round), and very affordable 409a valuations. An absolute no brained (don’t worry about the price, you’ll certainly save money over the long term by using it).
    • Bill.com – If you’re anything like me you hate paper and get all flustered when someone asks you to send them a check. People still use checks?! Here’s where bill.com comes in super handy. You can forward along PDF invoices (e.g. from your lawyers), and they’ll automatically parse it, prepare a payment, and with a tap or click you can have that paid. It starts at $39 but if it saves you writing a few checks a month or missing payments, it’ll be worth it.
    • Zapier – This one is a bit of a bonus but will likely be a huge time saver. Zapier lets you do integrations and automations with over 750 products. They have a decent free plan and cheap premium offerings, and will likely pay for itself with 1 good integration you set up. Helpful for all sorts of things, saves you engineering time, and will make it easier to switch tools down the road if you need by not calcifying any processes too early.

Advanced Startup: Audit and Compliance Ready

SOC 2 audits are becoming increasingly common for SaaS companies. If you’re planning on doing one, or simply want to get ahead of the game, you can adopt a few additional tools that will make your life easier down the road. Setting them up early will save time and likely make it easier to iterate on your processes while you’re smaller.

  • App Security and single sign on: Okta. Okta isn’t a password manager, it’s an identity and authentication manager. This replaces insecurely sharing passwords, or requiring employees to memorize various difficult passwords. Instead, you integrate your company applications to a single provider that handles secure authentication. In addition to the authentication, you’ll get all sorts of reporting on login frequency, locations, etc, which is helpful when hardening your internal processes and getting ready for a security audit. Okta is the current leader in the space, has lots of integrations, and a mature mobile offering. G Suite does offer some of this functionality but for a limited subset of products.

  • MDM: Google’s G Suite MDM. Assuming you’re already using G Suite (per recommended foundational stack), you can use the integrated (thus free) MDM. This will have most of what you need especially to prepare for audits, and works on iOS and Android. With a relatively simple installation you can require all employees to register their mobile devices before accessing sensitive company email and data on their phones. Depending on the configuration and phone ownership, you can set permissions to be able to remote wipe the entire device, or just sensitive company information (e.g. if phones are employee owned). This MDM reduces your exposure if devices are lost, and also adds a layer of security for signing onto email and file sharing from mobiles.

  • Computer Asset and Policy Management: JAMF. JAMF provides 2 tiers of products, the basic one starting at $2/device/month. For this, you get a centralized asset tracking for all your Macs, plus ability to enforce key security requirements like password lock, screenshare activation timing, and hard disk encryption, all of which should be defaults across the entire organization. These policies and the proof that you’re enforcing them will be helpful come audit tim. Note, JAMF is Mac only. In general Macs are more powerful, easier to maintain, last longer, easier to support, and less prone to security issues, so your best bet is to standardize on Macs early on, and JAMF will make it even easier to manage.
  • HRIS: BambooHR. HR Information Systems (HRIS) were previously reserved for large enterprises. Recently more user friendly and affordable products have come out to help small and medium businesses. These systems track employee onboarding, key paperwork, policies, and other HR workflow. Using dedicated software for these workflows (vs homegrown spreadsheets or docs) will make your life easier, solidify your processes, and help you prepare for any audits. You probably won’t need to adopt an HRIS until you’re growing or have a required compliance, but it won’t hurt to start earlier. BambooHR is a great HRIS. It’s affordable, plays relatively well with other systems, and has tons of functionality built in including applicant tracking, onboarding checklists, document signing, and more. There are a few drawbacks (integration with Gusto isn’t as nice as it could be, UI could be refreshed), but it’s a lot of bang for your buck.
  • Documentation: Quip. A key part of security and compliance is documenting your internal processes. This documentation should be a living and breathing part of your organization. Therefore it needs to be easy to create, edit, share, and navigate. Quip is a great product on all of those fronts, way better than using Google Docs (way too brittle for this type of documentation) or Google Sites / Wikis (way too much friction to ensure smooth usage/updates).

See how your stack stacks up

If you want to instantly track which tools you’re already using, see how you stack up against others, and get customized insights, sign up for early access to Blissfully.

Introducing Blissfully

SaaS is eating the world

Over the last ten years we’ve seen dramatic changes in how businesses use technology to run their business, due to a move to cloud enabled software subscriptions. This new age of SaaS won because it delivered better products, improved usability, more choices, lower costs, and easier deployment. It also led to an explosion in the number of SaaS vendors across the entire technology stack, from core products like email and security, to increasingly specific domain tools to optimize marketing, sales, product development, engineering, and nearly every function.
Continue reading “Introducing Blissfully”

Business IT Security – Overview

IT security is absolutely critical to any organization, especially as more and more activity and communication happens online via leading SaaS products, and not just behind the company firewall. Managing security is always a delicate balance between cost, convenience, and protection. Small businesses often avoid or delay implementing stronger security, and while it often works because they’re not directly attacked, security by obscurity is a faulty tactic.

Here we’ll review some best practices and relative tradeoffs, and initial recommendations to help make businesses more secure.

Continue reading “Business IT Security – Overview”