The 6 go-to tools we’ve recommended to over 150 startup founders

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Every entrepreneur needs a good toolkit, especially when you’re just starting out. Leveraging software is essential to getting your company off the ground, attracting customers, and (if all goes according to plan), scaling a successful business. But with the myriad free startup tools out there, how do you know which ones are helpful and which are just one more damn thing to download, install, and forget about?

Over the past couple of years, we’ve worked with more than 150 startup founders launching anything from brick-and-mortar businesses to online shops and mobile apps. We’ve experimented with tons of new software, plugins, web applications, and really any tool that promises to make our clients’ lives easier, even using our own company as a guinea pig to see what works and what doesn’t. After all that...let’s call it empirical research...we kind of know a thing or two about what should be in your entrepreneurial toolkit. And today, we’re sharing what we’ve learned with you.

Here are the six go-to tools we’ve recommended to over 150 early-stage startups, no matter their industry or technical skill.

1. Drift

If you’ve been to our website (and you’re reading this right now, so we’re assuming you have), you’ve actually seen Drift in action. Drift is a simple chat tool that makes it easy for you to talk to your website visitors and customers in real-time, from anywhere. The free plan is a great place to start for early-stage companies that don’t have tons of web traffic yet. Paid plans get you lots of extra features and integrations, but the free plan still integrates with Slack and sends you notifications (more on Slack below) so you don’t miss a conversation.

We recommend Drift because it shows online visitors that there are real humans behind your business, and ultimately, helps increase conversions. By engaging in real-time conversations, you’ll create a more personal experience and build a sense of trust. Pair that with the fact that you can answer questions in real-time, WHILE they’re on your site, and it becomes a powerful way to gain customers.

2. Trello

Chances are, your small (but mighty) startup team wears a lot of hats. If we asked you and your colleagues what you’re working on at any given moment, you’d probably list a million different things. In the craziness that is #StartupLife, it’s easy to either get so buried in the weeds that you lose track of your vision, or be so focused on the long-term strategy that nothing gets done.

Cue project management tools. We highly recommend Trello because of its easy-to-use visual nature (if you’re familiar with kanban systems, Trello follows that method). Your team can create boards for larger projects, departments, or goals; within each board you create “cards,” which can be assigned to one or multiple people, color coded, re-ordered, and moved through various steps until it’s marked complete. Within each card, you can also attach links, images, or files and set up email alerts for anyone who needs to follow its progress. We actually used Trello to create this very blog post. It was created as a card within our Blog board (part of a collection of boards that falls under our Marketing Department), and then moved through various stages and checkpoints (review, create graphics, post on social media, analyze).

3. Slack

If you’re in the startup world, you’ve probably heard of Slack...and we can’t recommend it enough. When you’re launching a business, have a thousand things on your to-do list, and move at warp speed, you need an easy way to communicate, brainstorm, and share files without clogging your inbox (according to Slack, users see an average 48.6% reduction in internal, yes please).

We use Slack internally and with all of our clients and it’s a lifesaver when it comes to collaboration and productivity. Think AOL Instant Messenger (remember the glory days?!) meets Skype, meets Dropbox, on steroids, with a cherry on top. Slack enables you to send direct messages, set up group chats, share and archive files, create notes, and even make voice and video calls. For example, a Launchpeer marketing client gets their own Slack channel where they can see and review logo revisions, get notified of media mentions, ask questions about ad campaigns, or just get quick updates on what’s happening that week.

4. Canva

Consistent branding is really important for early-stage startups ready to build their identity and create brand recognition. But how do you achieve that without paying a graphic designer? We recommend using Canva, a simple graphic design tool for non-designers. Canva has thousands of drag-and-drop templates for everything from business cards and pitch decks to Facebook covers and blog graphics (we actually used Canva for the blog graphic on this article, because #PracticeWhatYouPreach). They have hundreds of existing fonts, icons, and stock images, but we often upload our own to make our designs feel even more customized. The free plan allows you to add up to 10 collaborators, meaning you have one central place for team members to find and download all your company’s graphics.

5. Squarespace

Not every early-stage startup can pay for (or honestly, even needs) a fully customized, multiple page website. That said, a Facebook page isn’t gonna cut it. At the very least, you need a branded landing page that will help you collect leads. There are a ton of CMS and website builders out there, but we recommend Squarespace because their templates all offer a really simple, clean interface. Plus, they are super easy to use even for the most non-technical entrepreneur. Customization is all drag-and-drop, and you don’t have to input a bunch of code or install a million widgets to sync your site with your social media, Google Analytics, or domain hosting. If you’re just starting out, we recommend you set up a one-page Squarespace site with links to your social media and an opt-in section to collect visitors’ email addresses. You’ll look so legit, even MC Hammer will be jealous.

6. Mailchimp

Now that you’re getting sh*t done, chatting with visitors, and looking good online, you need an ongoing way to stay in touch with your current and potential customers. Mailchimp is our go-to for email marketing. You can use it for something as simple as collecting emails from your Squarespace landing page (and sending a nice thank you with more info about your company), or creating recurring, automated email marketing campaigns with company updates, free downloads, or special promotions. The free plan is great for early-stage startups that are still building a list -- you get up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails per month.

So there you have it: the six go-to tools that have played an essential role in launching over 150 early-stage startups. What tools does your company swear by? Have you used any of the ones on our list? Need help implementing them? We’d love to hear from you.

Allyson Sutton