Tools can both help and hinder professionals in any industry.
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When helping, tools are a means of organizing, planning, executing, sharing, and—possibly—automating some or all of your work. But when hindering, tools can easily become distractions from doing the hard work of growing your business. For instance, I've known many first-time entrepreneurs rush to sign up for a host of online systems (and begin paying for them!) without a coherent business model and go-to-market plan in place. I've also personally witnessed companies—including a few of my own—struggle with “tool switching,” which is when a person or team opts to change from one tool to a competitor for reasons that are usually of marginal, if any, value. The costs—direct costs as well as in-direct opportunity costs—can be severe and risk being crippling in the early days of upstart businesses when working capital is usually limited, everyone's time is stretched razor thin, and forward momentum is just beginning.
Don't get me wrong—I love tools as much as the next professional who nerds out about their craft and industry. That nerd-love is a big reason why it's so easy to rush into over tooling your business. To avoid a fools-rush-in situation, remember this: tools are tools, not solutions. It's which tools you use along with when and how you use them that ultimately generates value. For instance, just because a lot of folks are flocking to the latest project management software that, okay, looks better than the one you're using doesn't mean that taking time to re-platform all your projects over to a new system and start paying twice as much is a wise decision. In six months when your business is larger with greater and different forms of project demands? Maybe. Today, probably not.
So please—before we proceed—think judiciously about what tools are truly important for your business to function at this moment in its lifecycle. Those tools, and only those tools, are the ones you should be choosing to invest time, energy, and money into. It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: never—ever!—spend money on tools you do not need. Just because someone else loves and recommends a tool—including us here at SPI—doesn't mean it's right for your business at this moment, or ever.
Speaking of us, we have spent years experimenting with dozens upon dozens of different tools across a range of business functions. Our tooling experiments were—and remain—concentrated on online software tools that support a digital-first business model, because that's true for us. Most tools are okay. Some really stink. And a precious few are exceptional. The latter have become interwoven into our operations. Simply put, we could not operate SPI without these systems.
I offer up our experience with these tools in the hope that they will help inform your thinking and decision making about which tools may be most useful for your business. At the very least, I hope our tool categories help narrow and direct your focus into different functional areas that you might not have thought about before when it comes to tooling.
Okay, let’s delve into the 15 essential systems and tools we use to run SPI.
1. Gusto—Gusto is a fantastic platform for payroll and extended capabilities like benefits management and paid time off (PTO) tracking. We use it for all of those services and for making certain vendor payments to take advantage of its automatic 1099 paperwork processing come end of year tax time.
2. Guideline—We’re proud to offer a 401(k) investment benefit to our team, managed via Guideline. It connects directly with Gusto so that appropriate deductions are withheld from the team’s respective paychecks per whatever selections they’ve made.
3. Proprietary data models—We conduct our business planning forecasts, cash flow management, and related finance data modeling in a collection of proprietary Google Sheets. For forecasting explicitly, consider Dryrun.com, though we don’t use it.
4. Stripe—Stripe is a go-to payment processor that powers some of the best platforms on the planet, including our friends at Teachable. We use native Stripe to handle processing of payments for any of our subscription programs.
5. Harvest and FreshBooks—The internet is rife with systems for invoice processing. We’ve used many across our team’s collective experience online. Harvest and FreshBooks are two solid options to consider among the many.
6. PayPal—PayPal remains an element of our financial operations despite the many pesky quirks that drive online entrepreneurs like us batty. Mostly, we use PayPal as a vessel to receive funds and limit it heavily in terms of making outbound payments.
7. Monday.com—Monday.com has become our system of record for work. That’s a fancy way of saying it’s our go-to project management platform that all managers use. It’s a delight thanks to its intuitive user experience and comfortable views. Best of all, at least to me, there are roll-up views that allow me to see all projects visually mapped together.
8. CoSchedule—We use CoSchedule as our central content marketing calendar and production platform. In it, we’ve structured an automated workflow of tasks for the different pieces of content that we regularly produce and publish. Everything is tracked and easily malleable to our content needs. And it integrates directly with WordPress.
9. Slack—I doubt that Slack needs any introduction. It’s the powerhouse platform adored by companies of all shapes and sizes for collaborative communications. We have our Slack workspace carefully architected with a variety of channels, each with a specific purpose. We’ve also developed helpful Slack guidelines to ensure that our affinity for using Slack doesn’t overtake our sensibilities for doing the actual work that matters.
10. G Suite—G Suite is Google’s business offering for its suite of collaboration tools including Gmail, Drive, and Calendar. Of the full G Suite, we primarily use just those three.
11. Dropbox—Dropbox remains our go-to cloud-based storage system. In fact, we just completed a large digital asset migration from a legacy Dropbox account to a new one. Business Dropbox accounts come with Dropbox Paper, which I have to say is also a good document platform. We dabble with it but still rely heavily on Google Docs for documents.
12. ConvertKit—ConvertKit is the best email marketing system in existence today. The intention that was put into designing the database for easy and meaningful segmentation is masterful. The drag-and-drop sequence builder is a gem. The available integrations with other key platforms is seamless. There's so much to love.
13. RightMessage—One of our newer platforms of note, RightMessage is quickly becoming a permanent fixture in our marketing efforts thanks to its ability to personalize content and copy within an existing landing page based on known user data. RightMessage also has other products in its portfolio such as RightBar that we’re currently using.
14. Teachable—If you plan to create and publish online courses, then you need to consider Teachable. We have found it to be the best platform in its category thanks to its ease of use on the creator side, intuitive user experience on the student side, two-day payouts (Stripe only, not PayPal), and a host of other awesome capabilities.
15. Buzzsprout—AskPat is hosted on Buzzsprout, a truly wonderful podcasting platform well suited to service a vast array of podcasters from first timers to established folks. We love the tech as well as the team, who continue to inspire us with their genuine fandom for the industry as well as their commitment to innovation.
Operating and growing a multifaceted online business is no slam dunk. Thankfully, these systems take a good amount of the pressure off. We streamline anywhere we can, and we automate whenever possible. For example, a fair amount of our planned email publications are configured in ConvertKit. And many of our back office processes, like payroll, are fully automated thanks to Gusto. Additionally, we boost our productivity through our communication systems, which are pretty good out of the box but also require a fair amount of intentional custom structure within them (e.g. your Slack channel information architecture [iA]) as well as disciplined usage through our own norms and rules.
Truthfully, we don't use a single one of these tools in a plain vanilla form. We've worked hard to structure, integrate, and otherwise equip these tools to meet our company's unique needs as well as our team's unique dynamics. The same will be necessary for you, your team, and your business because, as I said, tools are not solutions.
It's also worth emphasizing that you should enjoy the experimentation process with tools. Looking under the hood of new tools is a great way to challenge your thinking about how you're running your business. You may discover ways of doing things that you would never have considered before if you hadn't looked. Such testing is relatively easy these days, especially with regard to software tools. In many cases, you can sign up for free to give those systems a solid test run. Need more time for your trial? Just contact those companies and ask. In our experience, we've found that most are very willing to extend free trials if you're expressing genuine interest in them.
Equipping yourself with tools is an empowering moment. Enjoy the process. Proceed with caution. Make good decisions. Be ruthless in your testing. And always put your business needs first. Do that and you'll be in a good spot to discover a set of tools that become essential for you.