All this tax-day stuff got me thinking something rather obvious: I hate paying bills. But some are better than others.
In writing last week’s piece, “Biz dev buys the pizza,” I gave thanks to a lot of the people who have helped build the Proximate platform into its current beta stage. It was a fun piece to write – who doesn’t like telling war stories? Though it occurred to me that some of the best help we’ve gotten thus far wasn’t only from those who have lent their time and effort, but also the products and services that have been really force-multipliers to the effort we’ve put in. There’s no doubt that it’s a lot easier to launch a concept and to get to those itty-bitty hints of “scale” – as we’re starting to see in our private beta – with good service providers who have your back.
I think for those who are a few months behind us on the startup curve some recommendations might be helpful. Every startup needs to manage its cash runway carefully, and there’s a (wise) tendency to go without where you can. But here’s a list of six products and services that I don’t mind getting bills from – because they do a great job. I’m probably not recommending anything you haven’t seen before – some of these are obvious choices that I’ve gravitated to because of startup-world received wisdom. But thinking of it as a cross-functional stack that works well for at least one startup might help in your purchasing decisions.
Heroku - if you’re on the technical side, there’s no real need to recommend this to you, but for those of us who haven’t previously launched a web app, Heroku is freakin’ magic. It’s literally a one-liner console command to deploy a Rails/Node/Django/etc. app, and the platform plays really well with many of the other services on this list. Plus, assuming you’re doing this whole startup thing with an eye towards Lean methodology, you’ll be starting small/slow and re-evaluating constantly as results come in, and Heroku is perfect for that use case. It’s free for low-traffic apps (we didn’t pay a dime for our first two months) and deploys quickly so you can patch bugs responsively.
New Relic - another big advantage of Heroku is that it’s really a gateway service to dozens of how-did-I-live-without-this plugins. One that everyone should try is New Relic. It’s a way to take a highly detailed, retrospective look at your application’s performance logs so that you can fix urgent problems and improve lagging pages. If you’re non-technical, this is going to make you infinitely less annoying to your developer. I now understand how annoying and unrealistic I was to say “Something went wrong!1! Check the logs!!one!” – Heroku logs can’t trace retroactively very far, and tell you functionally nothing compared to New Relic. Now you won’t just get an email from a pissed-off customer; New Relic will let you know first, and can show you the line out of your entire code base that was tripping everything up. It’s night and day. Worth the $75+/month you’ll pay.
Stripe - I rave about Stripe so frequently that friends have begun to think I’m on the payroll (I wish I was on any payroll…). But after the debacle with PayPal that I detailed in my last post, YC darling Stripe saved the day by taking the time-consuming, painful, and generally awful process of getting set up to take credit card payments and making it less of all those bad things. As a matter of fact, its API is so clean that it actually makes developers smile, and if you’ve ever seen us implementing something new that’s saying something. But what really sets Stripe apart isn’t the easy setup – it’s that you’re able to securely take payments on your website (not redirecting to PayPal’s site, messing up your branding), for exactly the same price as PayPal (2.9% + 30¢). And you can do it immediately, as opposed to waiting several weeks for PayPal’s (capricious) approval. These are touches your customers might not notice, but that can mean everything to a small startup like ours.
LaunchEffect - No matter what your project is, a launch page is a great way to capture interest and follow up later – whether it be beta invites or client relationships. LaunchRock is well known and respected, but if you’re looking for a bit more control over look and feel and are comfortable with WordPress, LaunchEffect has been our choice. It’s allowed our biz dev to create a launch page exactly matching the look and feel of our web app, without burdening developer time. There’s a free version, but upgrading to the paid version was worth it for us; the integration with our other favorite services Google Analytics and MailChimp is key, and $65 for a product that I’ve used to set up 4-5 launch pages is a heck of a bargain.
Pivotal Tracker - At one level, managing a development team of two (where I represent one-half) seems like it shouldn’t require a highly structured project management tool. Submitting requests generally means tapping someone on the shoulder. However, I’d argue that it’s even more essential for our team, given that we often work asynchronous hours across several locations. As I’ve grown into my PM duties, I’ve migrated between several tools, and loved working with Asana (whose keyboard shortcuts are fabulous). But Pivotal Tracker is the “default” option for so many startups for a reason – it’s actually less flexible, and the structure that it imparts on PMs keeps me reasonable about the speed we can crank out improvements. $7/month is worth it for us, even with so many good free options out there.
InDinero - another Y Combinator company, InDinero is the “Mint for Startups.” When I’m spending my day split between literally every functional area at Proximate, I often don’t have time to manually keep track of our receipts as they come in. InDinero links to our bank account and does this automagically, and the dynamic graphs, balance sheet, and P+L statements are great to check on my iPhone app once in a while (“Hey cool! We’re not broke!”). While it was great to show our team that we just passed break-even on a shiny graph, where InDinero totally saved me hours (and an audit) was tax time. If you’re the unfortunate one tasked with doing your returns next year, remember this tool.
So, I guess what I’m really trying to say to each of these services is: thanks. They work quite well for us and all have free versions you should check out before paying.
What did I miss? Let me know in the comments.