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 ~$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 + Invision. 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: JAMF Now and JAMF Pro, with JAMF Now 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
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