When I wrote my last post I thought some people might be curious about the tools we are using to run Foliovision. As I started to write a short list it was quickly apparent that this is a subject of its own.
The list will mainly focus on online applications, as they are the primary tools in our kit. Online applications allow people to work from different computers and for new works to get up to speed more quickly. They are also wonderful for remote workers, of which we have always had a few.
What are we now using includes:
daniel tsang freshbooks
Live before Freshbooks was a misery. My own custom programmed filemaker database for accounting. The one plus was quick entry of data. But when we started to grow, getting everybody's hours for the month and importing it into the spreadsheet was an onerous task. Two days per month billing is now two hours. Actually not anymore, as there are enough employees and the projects are complex enough that I have to go over all the hours very carefully and it's probably four or five hours work to send out clean invoices. There's nothing worse than getting client complaints as someone from your team did a poor job of logging their work. But the extra time is more a question of scale than anything else. I am so happy with Freshbooks I could shout for joy, even if due to growth my account costs twice what it did when we started (which it should! - more employees means more revenues). The customer service is a joy. If you can still get Daniel on the telephone (1.866.303.6061), you will never get better customer service anywhere.
We are a cross-border company with clients in Canada, Austria and Slovakia and employees in all those countries plus Hungary and England. If Freshbooks will work for us it will work for you.
The backbone. Project management for people who want to get things done. Project management for people used to attractive Apple interfaces. Project management on which to build a company. 37signals has a less is more approach to software. Basecamp is a good poster child. It takes new employees about two hours to get up to speed on Basecamp. For clients, it can be more of an issue, as our clients are often the pre-tech generation and they don't necessarily want to take on a new online interface. But once they get it, they love the ability to collaborate with their whole team in a single online spot.
Handles Writeboards much better for external consultants than Basecamp. Basecamp requires that to access any Writeboard attached to a project, the collaborator must have access to the project. Not on! Kind of cute to be able to add so many different kinds of media to a sort of webpage so quickly. The least expensive account ($5/month) actually lets you do quite a bit with it. A useful enough online Swiss army knife that everybody should have one. That's a lot of $5/month.
- Highrise (trying not really totally committed: 8 November 2010 update: we moved to Relenta for our online database and emailing)
The best of the worst. It's an online address book from the 37signals crowd. This time they got the pricing so wrong it's almost laughable. I don't want to pay $50/month for a basic address book. It's supposed to be a CRM system. The CRM guys pricing is so wacko it makes even Highrise look like a good deal. In the end, a lot of what we might do in a CRM we've moved back to Backpack in custom projects. It's a little more cut and pasting but access remains integrated and there's no extra monthly fee.
CRM is a really tough nut to crack 37signals hasn't cracked it either. All my clients are absolutely miserable with all the solutions they have implemented. They spend thousands on troubleshooting and customisation and their applications still barely run. Maybe Google will come up with Google address book. One argument for using Highrise is that it isn't from Google (or worse Plaxo, people who come from a background of privacy violations) or eBay or Microsoft or any other major US corporation who might be inclined to automatically share all your data with whatever NSA. Talk about making creating a police state - your every contact is online.
Jason Fried is such a prickly chap, I just can't see him giving up data very easily. David Heinemeier Hansson, as a good Euro type, would oppose data surrender on principle. As he's the tech mastermind behind all the 37signals magic, he'd have to be in on it.
ugly but brilliant emailias
I went to the Arctic with the two guys running this service, Paul and Graham. We made an amazing film there. Paul was a programmer at Morgan Stanley at the time, helping them time the market. When he came back from the Arctic he wrote emailias. Emailias is butt ugly but it saves me from tens of thousands of spam per year. How? Every time you sign up for an online service, you create an emailias. Then you can monitor who is sending you spam. About one address goes bad per month (sold or stolen). At that point you can just cut off the address and move on with your life. At $20/year emailias is a steal. We use Emailias for the company as well now.Emailias no longer exists. It shut down without warning. We now use one of my own domains and cPanel. Much more secure: it's under our own control. It took literally years to recover from emailias going out of business without warning.
Alas, we no longer recommend Cartika Hosting but run our own dedicated servers now. We have not been able to find a host which is fast enough, affordable enough and competent enough to recommend. Rackspace is apparently very good but their rates are steep enough that it's highly you will lose money hosting with them (i.e. your income will be less than your expenses).
The best web hosting in the world. These guys take their work incredibly seriously. If you host with Cartika, your websites won't go down. And if they do, it will be your fault. And Cartika will do everything they can to get the sites back up again. Expect to be SMS'd or Skype'd or emailed before you even notice that your site is down or misbehaving. They actively monitor for security attacks.
Of course this means they aren't cheap. But a reasonable price ($50/month will get you started with 5 GB of space and unlimited websites within that space) keeps out the spammers and boneheads so that they are able to service the people who want reliable web hosting and are willing to pay something for it.
- Google Docs | Google Apps
What a great service! Live collaboration on serious documents for free. Google Docs is a $200 to $500/year value for free. If you have multiple sites and don't use Google Docs to prepare your company work, you are shooting yourself in the foot. Basic spreadsheets and decent enough word process for nought.
For privacy reasons, we avoid the email.
- Open Office
neo office desktop
It's not online but does work beautifully with Google docs. Sort of an offline client for Google docs when we need to get something up to presentation level (Google docs is a bit rough with images) or want to smooth the transition from Word to Google docs. You can install Open Office on as many computers and operating systems as you have for free. My experience under three different OS is that the install takes about two minutes and is troublefree. While I'm no great fan of Java interfaces on the Mac, I have to admit it's nice that this is the one truly crossplatform application. We use the Neo Office incarnation. Between Google Docs and Open Office, it's an end to the Microsoft tax. Thank you Scott McNealy!
- Google Calendar
Wow an online calendar which actually works. We've been waiting years for this one! We actually customised and installed a php calendar on an old server at one point. Never was easy enough to use to make it a big part of our lives. Moved back to paper. Google Calendard is what we've all been waiting for. Apple blew it with iCal by not making it easy to share and modify calendars online.
aodhan cullen statcounter
Statcounter used to be the best online stats program. We are in year four of the impending release of StatCounter pro. On the other hand, I know how to use Statcounter, it's relatively quick and stable. A great little Irish company run by a 20 year old (an ex-twenty year old - now 24). A bit too quick out of the gate and lagging now in the stretch but hopefully Aodhan will catch up with himself soon. I still like the easy to read reports and great client access system.
- Google Analytics (very passively, I hate the slow interface)
- PPC Assurance
These guys are promising to separate our PPC stats from our organic stats. They are also promsing to get our money back from Google for bogus clicks. Part one might work out. Part two has not worked out so far. BS answers from Google. Nice to have a monopoly. Based on current performance, PPC Assurance is too expensive for now. What is cool though is it sets up all this tracking automatically through the Google API. You are saving hours of time. There's some powerful medicine in here somewhere. More wonderful Canadians doing amazing things online (Freshbooks and Cartika are Toronto, PPC Assurance/Enquisite is Vancouver).
- SEOMoz Tools
We are paid members here. The tools aren't as good as we thought they would be or hoped, but the premium guides regularly updated along with the regular tips are worth it for us. Saves us a lot of forum time, sorting through disinformation. SEOmoz membership is only really worthwhile (it's expensive at $300/year) for a dedicated search shop. But if that's your case, then you should consider joining. The website is very fine as well. Browsing most of the site is free.
Great desktop clients available for what is a simple and effective and fast bookmarking service. We use it at the company as well to share and promote sites. SEO 101 tip - some links in an active delicious account will get your site indexed quickly for free.
Smugmug was a bit hokey for awhile, built on the foundation of the old Gallery. But the MacAskill family has kept pushing away at the code and now Smugmug is smooth and quite fast. There is a bit too much functionality in there for my tastes, but if you know what you are doing you can create very attractive galleries. Their prices can't be beat - from $40 for a standard account to $150 for a pro account - you get basically unlimited backup and storage of high res images (up to 8 MB per image). Unbelievable. On the high end account, you can build on your own domain or subdomain, allowing you to leave one day if you really want to.
- Foliopress WYSIWYG and Foliopress Images
The best for last. Like many web developers these days, we are using WordPress as the core for our sites. Over the last two years we've built our own frameworks, including page management and better admin sections. Finally we've completed the crown jewel, Foliopress WYSIWYG and Foliopress Images. It's what makes writing this post and adding attractive Google images ready thumbnails so easy. The best part is that Foliopress WYSIWYG is truly a drag and drop ready to go editing system with image management. No trolling through config files to be up and running at full efficiency.
I'm not the first person to write a post about the tools he or she uses in a web business. I've found these posts extremely helpful and probably discovered a number of the tools above via such posts. Here's some other good and thought provoking posts about online tools and running a web business (specifically focusing on the tools). Enjoy!
- Litmus: Tools We use to run our business
- WhyBasecampSux: An opposing point of view - also mostly true.
- GeektoLive: Essential tools for the placeless office
- FlyingSolo: Online Tools to help small business owners
- Cogniview: The Freelancer's Toolkit: 100 Web Apps
- How to Run Your Business Using Only Web Apps
- Nine Indispensable Online Tools for Your Web-Based Business
- The tools we use to run and build 37signals
- 11 Top New Web Apps of 2007