Ten Tools For Any Startup’s Toolkit

Two MBA buddies and I ran a fitness startup for about two and a half years before we shutdown. We completed the exploration stage, but ultimately decided the risk-versus-reward rubric did not paint an appetizing picture. We had built two functional proofs of what our product could have been and we were ready to take it to our alpha users, but ultimately, we decided to shutdown because of a few common mistakes that held us back.

What got us through those two and a half years is a variety of software and services that kept us moving forward. These are the top ten tools we used. Prices are in USD unless otherwise stated.

1. Trello

trello.com

What Does It Do

Trello is a Kanban board used for agile planning. The general idea is to have a backlog of tasks, a list of tasks in progress, and a list of tasks completed. In Trello, these tasks are captured on flash cards that can be dragged and dropped between columns. Columns are groupings of tasks. Typical columns in agile are: not started, in progress, and done. Users can create multiple boards (like a sales board, or technical dev board) for different purposes. At Spotfit, we had three or four boards running at once and added, completed, and updated tasks weekly on at least one or two.

What We Used It For

We used it for all our planning activities including sales, development, working with our vendors, etc. It kept us all on the same page as to where each of us were individually with any particular task. Trello recorded our work and kept us moving forward with the next logical step in the path we set out.

What It Needs to Work

Kanban boards generally need a scrum master or an agile coach to keep them organized and keep users aligned. It also helps to have clear targets to work toward so that the big goal can be broken down into the individual parts that need to happen.

What Does It Cost

Its free, online, and open to be shared with multiple users. Additional features are available at a cost and more enterprise-oriented products — Jira — are also available from Atlassian. Jira uses the same freemium model as Trello.

How Useful Was It

The most useful tool we used. Trello got us farther than we could have gotten alone and became the place that decisions, direction, and progress came to life. We didn’t have an office outside our home offices. Trello captured the virtual bricks and mortar that we laid.

2. Google Workspace

workspace.google.com

What Does It Do

Google Workspace is a collection of tools that cover a gamut of business functions including those that other tools on this list do. The core features we used were Google Drive, Gmail, and Google Meet. Drive we used for online storage, Gmail we used for domain email accounts (the most useful feature) and Meet we used as our online meeting tool. Most of the other tools: Docs, Jam board, Sheets, Slides, etc. had comparable tools that we preferred over Google’s offering.

What It Needs to Work

To make the most of Google Workspace, users need to be comfortable with bare bones tools and the organization needs to really want everything in one tidy spot. The Google versions are nice to have, but lo-fi versions of tools done better somewhere else. Gmail remains the killer app that got us on Workspace and if it weren’t for Dreamhost recommending using Gmail, the alternatives, even for email, from some other email services, probably would have won out.

What Does It Cost

We paid for three users about $30 per month. It was probably too much.

What We Used It For

We used it give our company authenticity and build an online presence with @spotfit.io email addresses.

How Useful Was It

The domain email addresses were extremely useful and critical in making us not look like absolute amateurs. At the same time Workspace itself was not critical. There were a lot of alternates and competitors that did a better job. We also already had most of the tools in Microsoft Office.

3. Mural

mural.co

What Does It Do

Mural is an online whiteboard similar to Google’s Jam Board, but with a variety of useful templates that set it apart from some of the other whiteboard apps we looked at. I had access to it through IBM so I knew my way around and we used the 30-day trial during some critical decision points near the end of our journey.

What We Used It For

We used it for online planning and collaboration. Our primary need was a framework to decide if we should continue pursuing our current path or if we should risk another financial spend and hire developers to build what we had. Using Mural we identified cheaper and higher uncertainty unknowns we had to answer first.

What It Needs to Work

Mural has great frameworks and templates that have step-by-step instructions and guidance. Granted we could have (1) Googled a framework and then (2) pasted into Jam Board and accomplished the same thing. Mural has polish and doesn’t need all those extra steps. We had framework and clear instructions and got at the task at hand: solving our business dilemma of identifying what was risky and unknown.

What Does It Cost

I used my IBM account to poke around, then signed us up for a 30-day trial. We used it for about two weeks of planning and discussion then let the account expire. Had we kept going as a business, we probably would have paid and incorporated it into our planning sessions along with Trello.

How Useful Was It

It was very useful at the time for the problem at hand, but overall it didn’t do anything a whiteboard and a meeting room couldn’t have given us. Mural really became required due to Covid and not being able to meet in person anymore to brainstorm and walk through the ideas.

4. Wordpress on Dreamhost

wordpress.com

dreamhost.com

What Does It Do

Wordpress is a blogging platform and the world’s most popular website builder. Dreamhost is a hosting service.

What We Used It For

We used Dreamhost and Wordpress to establish our online presence. We built a site and posted blogs on our progress. Site traffic was low, but it was a start. Later, we used Dreamhost Mysql database and the Wordpress site for our web-based proof of concept.

What It Needs to Work

While a fair amount of the Internet runs on Wordpress, it still needs a good design template or someone who has a knack for design to deal with. After that it takes some php and html skills to bring the site vision to life. Dreamhost is relatively easy to use website hosting service. I would still say it needs more technical acumen than something like WIX, but overall is not that hard to get a good grasp of the basics and post a Wordpress site.

What Does It Cost

Establishing the website cost about $150 for the domain registration with hosting for the year.

How Useful Was It

An online presence was required and Wordpress & Dreamhost were a simple enough solution. I think our familiarity with it (Aman and I both have Wordpress and php backgrounds) made it an easy choice. When it came to build out the proof of concept, having a php site made it easier to quickly start to build, but unfortunately in a world of mobile-first development, maybe not the right path.

5. Amazon AWS

aws.amazon.com

What Does It Do

Amazon AWS does a lot. I recently got certified as a Cloud Practitioner, and a large extent of the certification was just knowing what the products were and what they do. When we used Amazon for Spotfit, I didn’t particularly have a preference for Amazon over Google or Microsoft, but once we entered the ecosystem and we started using it, that preference grew rather quickly.

What We Used It For

We used a small Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) dedicated server for our rule engine running in Quarkus (basically a Java container; containers are packaged environments). We looked at using Amazon Lambda (which is a no-server compute service, meaning it just runs code in the cloud without requiring any server setup or configuration). We had used Lambda when we had built out the IoT solution. In our IoT architecture, the sensors broadcast to a Raspberry Pi which then posted the data to a Lambda stream that then updated an AWS postgres sql table that was queried by the mobile app.

What It Needs to Work

When getting into solutioning, expertise is required to both get the best price (knowing what the best options are) and making it work (knowing how to set it up). For example, we had a developer in Milan. Milan has an explicit exclusion that prevented the developer from connecting to the EC2. I had to dig through a few help files to find out what the problem was. While I wouldn’t say it was a huge issue (we got it fixed within a few hours), it is all but required to know how to navigate things like Stack Overflow and support files to gather the details of this landscape. As easy to get started as AWS is, it still a fair amount of technical skill to make it work.

What Does It Cost

Free. Amazon gave us a $300 credit through its startup program. Applying required a form filled out and within 72-hours we had the credit. I doubt we used more than a quarter of that $300.

How Useful Was It

Amazon AWS supported our build of both our IoT proof-of-concept and our rule-based software. It was very useful.

6. Canva

canva.com

What Does It Do

Canva is an online graphic design tool full of templates, formats, images, and options.

What We Used It For

We used it to format our whitepaper and our pitch deck. We had the content for both before we stumbled into Canva (on the recommendation of my marketing savvy wife who had been using it for her day job). After we entered the Canva world, there was no turning back. Everything we did, we tried to do it there because it gave us a unified sense of brand.

What It Needs to Work

Canva has lots of templates, but still requires an eye for design. We relied on the opinions of the professionals on the branding and while its a great tool, it still needs someone who knows the difference between what will look good and what will look killer.

What Does It Cost

Free. Notice a theme yet?

How Useful Was It

Canva brought our deck, our white paper, and our brand to the next level.

7. Bitrix24

bitrix24.com

What Does It Do

Bitrix24 is an online project management platform with a lot of bells and whistles like CRM built in.

What We Used It For

When we started talking about customers we started noticing gaps in our toolset. We tried to move to Bitrix24 to close those gaps. When we pivoted, we went back to the basics

What It Needs to Work

This tool more than any others really needs a strong product owner to push functionality. Because its reach is so broad across so many functions of a business, it’s important to have a product advocate to push the use of the tool even if a more attractive standalone tool is at hand.

What Does It Cost

Free.

How Useful Was It

We reverted to Trello to simplify our tasks post pivot. Pre pivot, Bitrix24 was in the process of supplanting our Trello boards, but because we went back to basics and because the content in Bitrix24 no longer applied, we abandoned it. More than the tool not being useful, we as a team were not ready to use the tool.

8. Slack

slack.com

What Does It Do

Slack is a shared chat program that stores and organizes conversations.

What We Used It For

We talked to our developers in Slack. As we looked to grow and bring in additional people, we would have moved from Whatsapp to Slack.

What It Needs to Work

When there was only three of us, Whatsapp was enough to get all our discussions handled. When we were adding more bodies, we needed Slack.

What Does It Cost

Free.

How Useful Was It

We never got past the three of us. Like Bitrix24, we weren’t ready for the tool.

9. Upwork

upwork.com

What Does It Do

Upwork provides ad hoc resources, be it developers, project managers, or designers.

What We Used It For

We used it to find the team to build our IoT solution, get some consulting on AI, and build our rule engine.

What It Needs to Work

Upwork does not solve the business problems every project can have like unclear requirements and scope creep. It felt great to say we’re ready to build; it was another thing to start that conversation with builders (agencies, individuals, and consultants) and explain the vision to them.

What Does It Cost

Resource rates vary. Upwork takes a cut of the transaction.

How Useful Was It

We tried some other platforms and reached out to local agencies. Locals were very expensive and other platforms were not nearly as appealing in either their resources or overall polish.

10. Microsoft Access and Caspio

microsoft.com

caspio.com

What Does It Do

Microsoft Office does decks, spreadsheets and documents. Included in Office is Microsoft Access, a standalone database management application. What Access does is allow users to build out relational tables, forms, and reports. Caspio is an online no-code database management application (basically an online version of Access).

What We Used It For

Access, for all its questionable idiosyncracies, is a great tool to prototype a database. We looked at Caspio (caspio.com) and Zoho Creator (zoho.com) for the same task, but Access was free, familiar, and available. I had a strong preference to Caspio over Zoho, but in the end decided that neither was what we needed at the time. What we needed was a tool to cheaply prototype and that was Microsoft Access.

What It Needs to Work

As opposed to Caspio and Zoho, Access was never going to be a commercial-grade solution, just a starting point. It also has a pretty steep learning curve if a user is not familiar with it. It also meant building the same thing twice: once in Access and again in Mysql. In retrospect, maybe Caspio would have made that part simpler, but Access did have an export to Mysql feature we used regularly. With a product like Caspio, we wouldn’t have had this additional step. Additionally the learning curve in Caspio prevented us from hitting the ground running. With Access — I’ve built way too many Access databases — we moved quickly. Caspio, in contrast, had a whole learning how this tool can work and how can we work better using this tool. With Access, we could brute force our preconceptions into the tool to make what we thought we needed as opposed to what may have been a more modern solution.

What Does It Cost

Office cost about $100. Caspio is about $100/month.

How Useful Was It

Microsoft Office is very useful although alternatives abound. I wonder what we would have done differently with Caspio, but the cost and commitment to an unfamiliar tool held us back. Had we been more familiar with Caspio, I think we might have been better served and gone in a direction that may have sped our development up or made our product less dependent on things like Wordpress and php. Inevitably these proofs would have been replaced with a more commercially viable product whereas Caspio could have been used for a longer-term solution.

Honorable Mention: Buildfire

buildfire.com

What Does It Do

Buildfire is a template-based app builder allowing for a quick turnaround on launching an app. It has its limitations in functionality, but as a go-to-market solution, it offers just enough to get a business into the mobile ecosystem.

What We Used It For

When looking at getting our proof of concept into devices and off the desktop, we looked at and met with Buildfire. Unfortunately, the complexity of our design meant we really would be building a custom solution in Buildfire’s ecosystem, not a bad choice, but also not a financially viable one. In most cases, native apps remain the way to go.

What It Needs to Work

The app has to be relatively simple without any APIs our connections. A series of static pages detailing a company or a product is probably Buildfire’s best use case. Pages and design is basically drag and drop and Buildfire has a series of templates. Again users need an eye for design to make it work.

What Does It Cost

About $5000 for a basic barebones app.

How Useful Was It

It was good knowledge, but not very useful.

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