Musings of a twenty-something entrepreneur.
Jun
18

Part of being an entrepreneur means taking on a variety of tasks, including strategy, data analysis, design, people-management, task management, presentations, and communication, to simplify and put it generally.

My advice: fight with tools.

The list below includes the major tools I use to plan, brainstorm, develop, and analyze. Not only will can they save you time, but many of them will help you improve the quality of your work and maximize your ability to innovate and execute.

In future posts, I’ll cover some particular aspects of those that deserve more time, such as creating models and efficiently using Excel. But for now, spending a few hours upgrading the tools at your disposal will start paying off immediately.

Sometimes people get in a tuss about affiliate links, and understandably so. Its disingenuous to link to stuff that’s junk or that you can’t vouch for. As I said above, these  are the tools I actually use, so if you decide to purchase one, might as well let the seller pay me a commission. I mean, I won’t say no if they want to hand me money! But I would link to them anyways, which is the main point.

Now, back to the matter at hand. I’ve grouped each tool into four categories, along with explanations: Communication & Collaboration, Creation & Design, Website Essentials, and Productivity.


Communication & Collaboration


Dropbox: The easiest way to share documents among a group of people. Dropbox installs a folder on your computer called “My Dropbox”. Within that folder, you can create subfolders for each project you’re working on and save the files you want to share there. After you share this folder with your collaborators, the files in that folder are automatically updated on everyone’s computer when someone edits them. Dropbox automatically saves former versions of the file in case someone screws something up. Bbest of all its free.

Skype

Skype: I almost forgot to include this because its so obvious, but Skype is the easiest and cheapest way to talk with others. You can host group chats, one-on-one video chats, and recently Skype added Screen Sharing, which allows you to show someone else what’s on your computer screen. Great for going through presentations, getting technical help with something, or demonstrating a problem you’re experiencing while testing out a product. A must-have.

Creation & Design


Kanvus Graphic Design Pen

Kanvus Graphic Design Pen: If you’re trying to sketch out ideas in any program, using a mouse and keyboard is clumsy and unnatural. When I get design drafts, the easiest way to mark them up is to have a Graphic Design pen. And while design is not an exact science, it is a fragile one. Spending the $60 on this has already paid off.

Moleskine Large Ruled Notebook

Moleskine Notebook

Moleskine Notebook: I’m not convinced that pen and paper can ever be replaced, and Moleskine Notebooks, besides getting you labeled a pretentious liberal yuppie, are a great tool for on-the-go note-taking, sketching, and brainstorming. I keep two: a pocket-sized one that’s always on me and perfect for note-taking, and a medium-sized notebook that’s more appropriate for outlining and sketching on a larger scale. In my experience, just having a Moleskine on me encourages me to use it and be productive in downtime when all I’ve got is a pen. my notebook, and my noggin.

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop: Paint is great for quick edits to images, but if you need to do anything semi-serious you need to use Photoshop. Once you understand the basics, its quite easy to create some powerful effects. Overall, I’d say this is the fourth most important tool I use. I own over 40 domains, and at least 10 of them are active. However, only about six are in need of legitimate graphic design work, and the rest just need something passable. Being able to navigate Photoshop has saved me at least a few hundred dollars. Dedicate five hours to learning it, and you can be certain it will pay off.

Paint Windows 7 icon.png

Microsoft Paint

Microsoft Paint: A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. Paint makes it easy to mark up design documents, which is especially important if you’re working with someone for whom English isn’t their first language, as often happens when you outsource. Photoshop is nice for anything more advanced than including some text and shapes, but anything less and Paint is simply the quicker and easier alternative. Below I’ve included an example of a markup that I did using Paint and the Graphic Design pen from above (Also, Paint is the easiest program to use with the graphic pen.)

Markup Using Paint and a Graphic Pen

Notepad

Notepad: The easiest way to take notes and save them for later. I keep a file called “Random” on my desktop and usually have it open, which makes it easy to jot down ideas or copy/paste blurbs for use later. A lot of people recommend Evernote, which is nice because it aggregates notes from multiple devices, but since I mainly use my laptop I don’t find it necessary.

Balsamiq

Balsamiq: Balsamic was made for the web entrepreneur. Its basically a program that allows you to easily make mockups of websites. If you’re developing the idea for a website and need to communicate it with designers and programmers, then typing out a long spec document can only help so much. Again, a picture can be worth a thousand words.  Balsamiq helps you to crystallize the general layout, functions, and features of a website. I’m just starting to use it, but when I found it the voice inside my head cried “Eureka!”.

SimpleMind X

SimpleMind X: SimpleMind is a mind mapping program that is a great tool for brainstorming. Mind maps are surprisingly simple and powerful; they allow you to quickly brainstorm and create unstructured outlines. For example, I start with “Birthday party”, and the boxes that are connected I call “Guest list”, “Entertainment”, “Food”, and “Possible Locations”. Under “Possible locations”, maybe I put “bar”, “house”, and “restaurant”, etc. If you can force yourself to sit down for 15 minutes per day and brainstorm using MindMaps, you’ll really do yourself a favor, especially if you’re juggling multiple priorites at once (which I know you are). You can get a free 30 day trial on the website, give it a shot. SimpleMind costs $35, but there’s also a free mind mapping program called FreeMind that I haven’t tried.

Camtasia Studio

Camtasia: At some point, probably in a pitch to potential investors, you’ll need to show off your product. Camtasia is a fantastic and easy program that will make a video recording of your screen. Its intuitive to use, has loads of useful features, and is perfect for creating product demos. You can also use it to record an entire Powerpoint presentation which you can then post on a website. Pretty neat!

Website Essentials


Google Analytics

Google Analytics: Free and powerful, Google Analytics does all the gruntwork in tracking website visitors. Its easy to install, and its intuitive interface helps you determine how many visitors you had, where those visitors come from, what content they viewed, and for how long and when they viewed it. It also has a lot of advanced features, which allow you track events or create custom goals that it measures. If you have any website, you need Analytics.

Bluehost.com

BlueHost: BlueHost is awesome. It is by far the easiest way to buy a domain and get a website going ASAP. For beginners, if you buy a website domain (www.jessemaddox.com), you still have to host it somewhere. Bluehost costs $7 a month, and you can host unlimited domains on it. Basically, if you own 10 domain names and host them separately, you have to pay ~$7/month for *each* domain. With Bluehost, you just have to  pay for one domain, and Bluehost will hold the rest of them for free.


Adobe Dreamweaver

Adobe Dreamweaver: The main advantage of Dreamweaver is that it has powerful editing options, and is really useful for making changes to static pages that you don’t alter too often. It takes a little work to become familiar with it (maybe 10-20 hours), but once you do it gives you a new level of control over the webpages you own. Its a must if you use Dreamtemplate.com, described below, but even if not its absolutely a great tool to have in your arsenal. However, if you’re only the most basic of web users (e.g. you don’t know what FTP is), you should start with start somewhere else (like WordPress) and work your way up to Dreamweaver.

DreamTemplate.com

DreamTemplate: At first, I thought DreamTemplate was a scam. It just had the air of a scam site, with ads all over it and promising thousands website designs for a year for a one-time $70 payment. But they offered a 60-day money back guarantee and so I took them at their word. If you are a serial entrepreneur, you probably end up buying a lot of domains as placeholders. Pretty early on you need to get something up there for when you start to develop content. There are a ton of pretty decent websites you can download here. But you need to be able to set the site up yourself, so you need to have some familiarity with hosting a website. Or, you could just buck up and teach yourself! The template for this site I actually bought on ThemeForest, but I did use Dreamtemplate for VentureJ.com, the holding company I set up. Also, the “O” in Onwardly came from one of the logos they have available for free once you’re a member. 

Productivity



Microsoft-Excel-2007-Logo.png exel image by moh_anto

Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel: I’m constantly surprised by how poor many would-be entrepreneurs’ Excel skills are. If you’re serious about being an entrepreneur, you need to become comfortable modeling and doing data analysis in Excel.  If there was only one tool that I had to recommend, Excel would be it. That’s because it is so vital to so many tasks you’ve got do. Whether its crunching some numbers to prove a point in your business plan, analyzing user data to adjust your marketing, or planning cash flow to ensure the nightmare doesn’t happen (being OOC- out of cash!). Excel is such a huge topic that I won’t got into it more here, but expect a lot more tips and tricks from me in the future, as I consider it one of my specialties and is something that I really enjoy working with.

HootSuite.com

Hootesuite: Let’s face it. For startups, Social Media is a must. It isn’t the be all and end all of marketing, but it certainly is an important complement. Hootsuite allows you to simultaneously manage the social media profiles of multiple projects on networks like Facebook, Twiiter, LinkedIn, and more. You can do this all from one place, and its free. I wish they had a desktop application, but I’ll settle for what they’ve got.

Google Apps

Google Apps: Google Apps is basically the way you install Gmail, Google Docs, and other Google Products for your company. So instead of going to gmail.com, you go to yourcompany.com, but you are still using Google products as the backbone of your online presence. It costs around $50 per year, but is a complete solution for email and other back-end functions for a startup or even large corporations. Really, Gmail is the best email application out there, and this is how you get it for your company.

Microsoft Office

MailMerge: Mail Merge isn’t a product per se, but its a crucial tool for contacting large groups of people. It all comes down to the difference between “Dear Valued Customer, ” and “Dear John,”. But it goes further than that, and allows you to personalize your emails in all types of ways. You can also use it to create a lot of Word documents quickly, perhaps with the “To:” address changed in each. There are several services that use mail merge, but in my opinion the easiest is to use Microsoft’s built-in version. To use it, you need Excel, Word, and Outlook installed, and the email address you want to send it from must be active within Outlook. To give an example of how powerful Mail Merge can be, suppose I have an Excel file with School Name, Principal First Name, Principal Email, and Number of Students in it. Using Mail Merge, I could send an email personalized like this to each person in the file (with customized fields in bold): “Dear Henry, I saw that you’re the Principal of Calhoun Elementary, and I was hoping to get a chance to speak with you about a product I’m selling that can help your school save $30 per student. Since Calhoun Elementary has 500 students, this means your school could save up to $15000 every school year…. Its obvious how that is more effective than just a bland form email, and its only one of the many powerful applications of mail merge. This is another topic thatrequires further treatment, so I’ll return to it in a future post.

So, what’s missing from this list?

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About jesse:

"I move Onward, the only direction. Can't be scared to fail- searching perfection... Loiterers should be arrested!" -Jay Z Find out more about me at www.JesseMaddox.com

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15 Responses to “Fight With Tools: Useful Instruments for the Web Entrepreneur”

 
  1. Nat says:

    For managing your to-do list check out: http://www.rememberthemilk.com

    Some neat features:
    – you can sort tasks and assign due-dates with reminders.
    – It keeps a log of your ‘completed tasks’ so you can look back over everything you have accomplished and feel good about it (also easier for those of us who have to type up a weekly report on what we have accomplished that week).
    – You can share task-folders with you business partners, colleagues, family, etc. E.g. From my computer, I could task my business partner to send me his expense sheet, and the ask would appear in his task list)
    – It can sync with your smartphone.

    Thanks for the helpful tips!

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