At one time or another, many startup founders will ask themselves any one of, if not all of, the following questions:
- “How much cash is in the bank?”
- “When will we reach break-even?”
- “How can we grow faster?”
Running a startup is often a harrowing journey.
Reid Hoffman, founder of Linkedin, says starting a company is like “jumping off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.”
These days, however, there is a litany of free software tools on the market aimed at making that assembly a little less suspenseful.
However, let’s be clear, it’s a crowded marketplace. (Especially when it comes to marketing technology.)
When time, and money, is short–where do you start?
Which tools are actually worth exploring?
Which ones deliver value without executing the old bait-and-switch when it comes to those additional, yet much-needed features.
Is there a way to shortcut comparing all of the different options in the interest of time?
The only shortcut is the insight and experience gathered from others.
From those that have been there before and seen the end of the movie.
That’s why we asked 32 startup leaders and consultants about the best free software tools they relied on in order to grow. Here is what they said.
If you run a startup agency or consultancy, check out our guide to software tools for agencies.
Once the hierarchy of decision-making expands beyond the founders, communication becomes even more critical.
However, if you stick only to email and desktop apps like Slack, you’ll become inundated with updates and little to no context included.
With the right tools, you’ll be able to organize this constant stream of messages, updates, and projects in order to stay productive and sane.
Antonio Grasso of Digital Business Innovation Srl shares, “We are a startup and we start using Google G Suite for all of our documents, emails, meetings and many other functions. It gives us the ability to read and write all the documents 24/7 on all devices without limitations and without the hassle to make backups.
For a startup, it is very important to focus on growth and be effective while writing a document or planning a meeting or creating a presentation.”
Al Tepper of TepFu adds, “It has a free collaborative office suite, storage, email and calendar in the cloud. It is at the core of my business. I’m honestly not sure how I’d run my business without it.
Ruby Rusine of Social Success Marketing recommends Google Keep due to the following reasons: “As a business owner, a tool that I find highly essential for productivity is a note-taking tool.
My requirements are super simple:
- It should be accessible and syncs across at least 3 to 4 devices.
- It should have a search feature within regardless what device I use.
- I can use it to collaborate with teammates.
I recently stumbled upon Google Keep when searching for a replacement for a popular note-taking tool I used. Google Keep meets all the above requirements for a note-taking tool, but on top of that, here are some of the features that make me like it more:
- Its ability to grab texts of screenshots and convert it into an editable document. If you, like me, love to take screenshots of ideas for inspiration, then you will love this tool.
- I can highlight a note that I am working on by pinning it, so it stays on top no matter how many pages (ideas) I dump in there.
- I can color code my notes based on our internal categories. For example, I use green for clients, yellow for my company and blue for personal notes.”
Vinish Garg of vhite recommends this tool due to the following reasons: “Team communication is much more effective with Slack. It has been a game-changer for our team to get rid of pain points of emails, to stay in sync for product and for a shared understanding of our work and progress.
And Darren Fiander of Cheshire Cat Marketing adds, “Communication is crucial within any company, especially for startups. At its core, Slack is a beefed-up instant messaging and collaboration system. Through a large library of integrations, Slack allows you to centralize all your notifications, from sales to marketing, human resources and much more, into a singular place where your startup can discuss and take action on each.”
Dashboard Reporting Software
Do you know which activities will help you hit your monthly goals? Dashboard tools should allow your team to easily track which tactics improve your metrics. Your dashboard tool should do more than sit on the wall on a TV display- it should drive weekly adjustments to your strategy.
Tim Brown at Hook Agency recommends this tool due to the following reasons: “Google Data Studio is an amazing tool for startups because it allows you to visually track all of your website metrics from Google Analytics, Google Search Console and even spreadsheets, and aggregate them into one dashboard.
There are tons of free templates for download, and it’s relatively intuitive to get started and plot out what you want to track most. I find it useful to have high-level traffic numbers, conversions, and I even add the trend-lines for sales conversations, and social media – via a separate KPI spreadsheet I have connected.
My absolute favorite feature is creating custom metrics that translate websites into conversions into estimated revenue via it’s ‘Scorecard’ feature. It’s so helpful to think of website contact submissions and phone-calls (tracked through something like CallRail) as estimated revenue – based on the average customer lifetime value of a client or customer – and the average closing ratio.”
Track metrics from 60+ sales, marketing and product management tools with a free Databox dashboard. Here’s an example of a pre-made Google Analytics report.
At an early stage, you probably only have time to develop one strong marketing channel. That could be organic, social, email or another channel.
You should be able to connect your marketing efforts to sales or signups at a later date. When you decide on a marketing channel, you should see a clear pathway towards improvement in one of those metrics. Fortunately, most of the tools listed below have strong integrations. Or, they can be tracked within Google Analytics, which can then be integrated with other tools.
Vladimer Botsvadze at Botsvadze Global Digital Marketing Solutions recommends this tool due to the following reasons: “Instagram presents a unique opportunity for brands to connect with their customers in a meaningful way. Instagram is the fastest-growing social media site with 800 million users. 59% of internet users between ages of 18 and 29 have an Instagram account. There are 25 million businesses on the platform.
Brands on Instagram enjoy regular engagement with 3%-6% of their total followers. Engagements on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook can be less than 0.1%. 36% of marketers use Instagram, compared to 93% of marketers who use Facebook.
You should focus your campaign on achieving one or two goals from your following. Showcase for your products and services, build your community, increase awareness of your brand, showcase company culture, advertise to potential customers and update the account with company news.”
Kaushal Soni of Soni recommends this tool due to the following reasons: “If you want to learn about your website or want to know about your competitor’s website, then SEMrush comes in handy.
To start, you have to do is enter a URL and run a search. After that, you will be provided with a variety of data, all of which can be used to boost your SEO efforts to the next level.
First, you can start by reviewing the backlinks data. This is good if you want to know how a competitor is performing.
After that, move on to the “top organic keywords”. This show the top keywords of competitors and you can move forward from there.”
PRO TIP: How to Track the Right Metrics for Your SaaS Company
It’s not easy to know which KPIs to track for sales, marketing, and customer success in a SaaS company. There are many possibilities, and so much to do! Why not start with the basic metrics that determine the health of your company?
- Sales (Gross) Volume: How much revenue did your sales team bring in this month, this quarter, or this year?
- MRR Growth: How fast are you growing revenues from recurring subscriptions?
- Customers: How many customers do you have right now?
- Customer Churn Rate: What’s your customer churn rate, and how much revenue have you lost to churn?
If you want to track these in Stripe, you can do it easily by building a plug-and-play dashboard that takes your Stripe customer data and automatically visualizes the right metrics to allow you to monitor your SaaS revenue performance at a glance.
You can easily set it up in just a few clicks – no coding required.
To set up this Stripe dashboard, follow these 3 simple steps:
Step 1: Get the template
Step 2: Connect your Stripe account with Databox.
Step 3: Watch your dashboard populate in seconds.
Sara Johnson at Digital Marketing and Designs For You recommends this tool due to the following reasons: “HootSuite allows you to manage your social media accounts on one platform. The thing I like best about HootSuite is that it offers an account option that is free. The free plan offers more than enough tools for a small business that is just starting their social media marketing journey.
You can post, get analytics about your content, and plan your social media strategy from one location. The free option offers up to 3 social media accounts, which is more than enough to start as you don’t need to be on every social media platform. Startups need to make sure that they plan and schedule their social media posts and Hootsuite allows them to schedule up to 30 posts in advance.
Also, you can link 2 RSS feeds, various apps including MailChimp, YouTube, Dropbox, and many other tools. Hootsuite also offers free social media courses and online support. As your startup grows, you have the option to upgrade your account, integrate more accounts and more ways to customize and manage your social media content.”
Eden Gray of Click Intelligence shares, “One of the best features is the Domain Authority (DA) score. The Domain Authority is a search engine ranking score that predicts how a site will rank on a search engine results page. The Domain Authority is calculated by incorporating several important metrics. These include, but are not limited to:
- Linking root domains.
- The total number of links.
- MozRank – the link equity of internal and external links.
- MozTrust – the quality of the sites that link back to your site. The more trustworthy the source of the link, the greater the score.
The Domain Authority scores each website on a scale of 1-100. The higher the score, the more expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness is associated with a site.
A great benefit of Moz.com is that it uses algorithms to do the hard work for you. Consider a site that ranks highly in MozRank, but combines a low MozTrust score; the indication is that the site is spammy, and the Domain Authority will reflect this. It will save you the time and effort to consider each metric’s relationship against one another.
You can access Moz for a free thirty-day trial to see how it works, and if you’re happy with what they offer, you can subscribe to a payment plan to continue to access this wealth of digital metric knowledge.”
Lloyd Knowlton of KPS Digital Marketing recommends TubeBuddy because: “TubeBuddy streamlines your workflow whilst uploading videos to YouTube and steers new “YouTubers” in the right direction to ensure their videos are found and watched by as many potential customers on YouTube.
It ensures all that time creating video content to promote your startup is worthwhile!
TubeBuddy offers a great free version plus you can upgrade to the Pro version for just $4.50 per month if you have less than 1000 subscribers.
We think TubeBuddy is great to:
- Research the best rags to use in your videos.
- Respond to comments quickly
- Design Video Thumbnails
- Optimize YouTube cards & End Cards
- Save so much time.”
Luke Fitzgerald of Wolfgang Digital recommends WooRank because: “The free version of WooRank is an excellent SEO tool for inserting your business’ web address and getting an overview of your site’s performance in organic search results.
The tool will give you a score out of 100 and list a wide range of issues affecting your site including technical errors, keyword suggestions, content improvements, page load speed tips and an overview of social performance.
The paid version naturally unlocks more granular insights. But even on the free version, this is a must-have tool in your digital marketing arsenal!”
Emma Knightly of Digital Marketing Institute recommends Make My Persona (Hubspot) because: “The tool allows you to input what you know about your customer, put a ‘face’ to the persona to humanize them, and export a full bio and rundown of each of your customer personas.
This will enable you to create highly focused and emotional marketing strategies centered around the needs of your customer – not around you and your product. You can better choose digital marketing channels and advertising audience targets, and create more appealing ad copy.”
Mari Johnsen of Golden Way Media Inc recommends GA, “We recommend Google Analytics and Google Search Console to small businesses for their online marketing campaigns. These tools save them money and give them some insights on their campaign performance.”
Malaika Nicholas of Ladder Digital uses Sniply and shares, “Sniply is a fantastic tool that allows you to add a call-to-action prompt to every link you share and drive traffic to your website or blog. Sniply also generates shortened links for easy social sharing.
When someone clicks your Sniply link, they’ll see the content you’ve shared, with your call to action prompt at the bottom or top of your screen.
Most importantly, Sniply’s built-in analytics platform allows you to monitor link clicks, conversion rates, traffic sources, and more.”
Daniel Burstein of MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute shares, “Content Experiments lets you conduct A/B testing (or split testing) on your website. It’s not the only tool that does this on websites. And there are tools that allow you to test in other places as well. For example, many email service providers (ESPs) have A/B testing tools built right in.
A challenge I’ve found with startups is that they are so passionate about their products. This is essential of course to get through all the obstacles a startup must endure, from long hours to financial difficulties to endless pitching for funding.
However, it presents a major blind spot: The customer does not share your passion. For example, I did some marketing and copywriting consulting work with a startup earlier in my career. And right when I was coming on to help, one of the folks told me, “If you’re going to be working on this, you have to come at it with the belief that we have an industry-leading product that will rock the world.” And I replied, “No. I have to come at with the attitude of, ‘who gives a crap about your little company?’ Because that’s what the customer thinks.” The customer does not wake up in the morning excited about your startup. They are inundated with marketing messages and products, and could care less.
With A/B split testing, you don’t have to assume the customer is as passionate as you. You don’t have to ask the customer or a startup what they think about your product (polite approval or hypothetical interest is very different than real consumer action). You can test their responses in real-world situations. And you can learn from customers’ behavior. Much like the lean startup mentality, A/B split testing allows you to create a hypothesis, and then run experiments to either validate or invalidate that hypothesis.”
Clemens Rychlik of Bourbon Creative says, “Yoast is a simple but effective tool that helps companies optimize search engine performance and boost organic traffic to their website.
Startups launching new products or services often struggle to attract attention in the noisy digital environment. Since they frequently run on tight budgets, competing in paid ads spending on search engines, social media and other digital channels can present challenges. Therefore, focusing on growing organic traffic through content marketing and SEO is typically a more efficient and budget-friendly option.
When considering the SEO approach, Yoast is an invaluable tool for four reasons:
- It’s easy to install, especially if you run your website or blog on WordPress
- It’s very user friendly, meaning even entrepreneurs without IT or digital marketing backgrounds can start optimizing their content for search engines immediately.
- It’s constantly updated according to shifts in Google’s algorithm meaning
- It offers a free version that covers most basic startup needs
Thanks to Yoast, startups can ensure their content is keyword optimized, easy to read and more engaging on social media. It allows users to add specific meta descriptions, SEO titles and slugs and avoid any duplicated content issues. Yoast enables startups to implement crucial SEO best practices and boost organic traffic to websites.”
Joshua Hobson of Statement recommends Hotjar, “As a Shopify Plus eCommerce agency, it’s important to us that our clients’ online stores are as optimized for conversions as possible. We use tools such as Hotjar to analyze the user experience of eCommerce sites and understand where customers may drop out of the conversion funnel. Being able to see heatmaps, user recordings and other analytics from Hotjar allows us to make recommendations to improve the experience on-site and ultimately generate more sales for our clients.
Zoltan Laczo of ClickFactory recommends Google Tag Manager:
“The “best” marketing technology stack is different for every startup as each company has different goals, marketing strategy, target audiences, customer journeys, marketing processes, data process flows.
As a bare minimum, each startup should have:
- analytics tool to track metrics, measure KPIs and campaign performance.
- A CRM
- A Marketing Automation tool to segment users and effectively communicate on multiple channels (email, social, push)
Additionally, you may also want to include social engagement, ad delivery, content, SEO and productivity tools.
Adding other services to your site, including but not limited to AdWords Conversion Tracking and Remarketing, Google Analytics, Facebook Conversion Tracking is absolutely simple.
You can use tags for all sorts of purposes, including scroll tracking, tracking form submissions, remarketing, or tracking how people arrive at your site. GTM can be also used to track specific events like file downloads, clicks on email addresses, clicks on certain links, or items being removed from a shopping cart.
Moreover, GTM makes it easier to implement some of the more complicated Google Analytics features, such as User ID tracking, Custom Dimensions, Cross-Domain, and Enhanced E-commerce.”
When your company is at an early stage, you probably don’t have a big sales pipeline to track. However, you still need to stay on top of the small number of active deals. A free CRM is a great way to add a simple tool to your stack that will scale alongside your company.
Jonathan Aufray of Growth Hackers shares, “First, I’d like to say it’s very difficult for me to only choose 1 tool to recommend to startups. Indeed, when we work with startups on a daily basis, we use so many tools. There are great tools for automation, email marketing, social media, etc…
But, if I had to choose 1 free tool to recommend, I tell startups to try YAMM. This is a Chrome extension that connects to your Gmail account. Thanks to it, you’ll be able to manage your inbox and also send bulk messages with a delivery rate that is close to 100% (Because your emails will be sent from your Gmail account).
This is not all. YAMM will allow you to personalize your emails with ease and will track if your emails are being opened. With YAMM, you can create campaigns directly from your Gmail. What’s incredible is that YAMM is free and even the paid version is (very) affordable ($2/month).”
David Denning of Jumpanzee shares: “We absolutely could not operate our business without Hubspot! Hubspot has a lot of features, but the most important one for us is its Customer Relationship Management (CRM).
It helps us keep track of all of our customers/prospects/vendors/etc., all of our call/email/meeting history, assign tasks to our team (such as to follow up on a certain date), and tracks & log our emails by integrating with Gmail. There are other features we plan to use (still free) such as their deal tracker to keep track of what’s in your pipeline and some of their marketing tools.”
As soon as you start adding more tools to your organization, you will see that team members spend more time on manual data entry. You set up the tools to save them time, and instead, they just redistribute that time into data entry!
A workflow automation tool can eliminate these tedious tasks using “if this, then that” logic. So, for example, if a new support ticket is logged in your support system, you can automatically update your CRM without asking your support team to update all records at the end of the day.
Stuart Dixon of Provance shares: “When starting out your new company, time resources are often one of the most challenging aspects. Enter Zapier! Zapier is an online automation tool that connects your favorite apps, such as Gmail, Slack, MailChimp, and over 1000 more! By connecting your apps, you can automate literally 1000s of tasks that before were laborious and time-consuming. Now tasks that you’d had to remember to do are now being done automatically which is a huge benefit to any start-up company in any industry.”
Finance and Insurance tools
For a startup, focusing on the financial balance is critical. If your want your startup to grow, you have to know and record where the money is coming from, where is it going, how will the business perform in the coming months, and more. And that can’t be done with pen and paper.
Embroker is a digital tool for calculating startup insurance costs that allows founders to apply their proprietary data (sourced from more than 2,000 startups that purchased insurance through their platform) to their company’s revenue and funding data in order to calculate how much they would have to pay for vital coverages.
Choosing The Right Startup Tools For Your Situation
You won’t need all of the tools listed above.
(In fact, if you did, you’d likely find yourself back where you started–searching for answers and ways to increase productivity.)
Instead, think in multiples of 10.
Which tools will you need to acquire and retain your first 10 customers?
Your first 100 customers?
What about your first 1000 customers?
Pete Caputa, CEO at Databox, shared his thoughts on how to organize your strategy according to those limitations on the Ground Up podcast (the official Databox podcast). You can learn more about setting the right strategy for each stage of your business here.