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Essential tips and tools for stocking your startup’s software stack

My name is Mohammad Keyhani and I’m an entrepreneurship professor at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

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I created a list of tools and resources for entrepreneurs on ZEEF and I was lucky to see it go viral and very well received in the ProductHunt community (nearly at 1k upvotes!)

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As an entrepreneurship educator I tend to agree with the notion that ideas are a dime a dozen.

What matters is actually getting the idea off the ground and launching a business. That’s the hard part. 

But the hard part is probably not as hard as you think. You only realize just how much easier it has become in the last few years when you learn about the variety of tools and resources that are available on the web to help you out. I think this is why people love pages like my ZEEF page (Entrepreneur Tools) or Startup Stack that provide a comprehensive list of such tools and resources. You take one look at this page and realize just how much you’re not alone; for so many aspects of your business you don’t have to do it yourself or start from scratch because there are so many things that can be automated.

Today’s best startups are taking advantage of these tools and they often refer to the set of tools they utilize as their “stack”. In this blog post I will provide you with tips on building your own software stack with some of my favorite tools featured on my ZEEF page!


 

1. Finding the right tools

While I have listed many other lists of tools on my ZEEF page, Siftery is among the very few I like better than my own. It helps you deal with a fundamental problem raised by lists like my ZEEF page: which tools to choose among many options? Siftery not only lists the tools, but also tells you which ones are used by other businesses. The companies on Siftery vary from well-known modern start-ups (like Uber, Airbnb, Evernote) to established companies (IBM, Google, Nike, etc.). Siftery also lets you see which tools are trending within the start-up community.

siftery

You can also input a few of the tools in your stack and Siftery will give you recommendations on other resources to consider given what similar successful companies have used. The main value is that seeing the list of respected companies that use a tool gives you confidence about its usefulness.

2. Prototyping

Many people without coding skills don’t realize that in order to turn their website or app idea into a full-fledged software product, they don’t have to do the programming themselves. They can take steps to build a prototype without coding, and use that prototype to communicate their idea to potential coders, designers, and even investors. In fact, even if they do have the skills to build a full product, it’s often better to start with a prototype, so that you can test the idea and receive feedback before committing too much time and resources. Here are some of my favorite tools that make the prototyping job much easier:

InVision

Making a simple prototype for a web or mobile application (iOS, Android, Apple Watch, Android Wear) can take no more than an hour with InVision. You can upload your designs for each web page or app screen you plan to use as Photoshop, Sketch or standard image files, to name a few.

invision

Once on your online InVision account, the pictures can be made part of your prototype by creating hotspots on the pictures and deciding where they link to. It also packs a good series of tools for collaboration, commenting and feedback mechanisms. Once your prototype is “finished” (a prototype should never be too finished), a user testing feature will gather live video and screen capture for feedback from potential customers.

Apart from being a great tool to use, InVision also has an exemplary business model. Jeremy Wells, graphic designer and web developer, attributes the success of InVision to how they respond to and integrate designers’ feedback. And the feedback has created a pretty impressive list of customers: Airbnb, Adobe, Uber, Adidas, LinkedIn, PayPal, to name a few, use InVision in their product development process.

Axure

Axure is also a great tool to create prototypes, especially if you are not experienced in graphic design. Instead of working on uploaded image files, Axure provides its own offline image creator which guides less advanced users on creating the visuals of different screens. Axure’s utility is in the ease of creating page designs out of the box. Finished projects can be published as HTML and Javascript files. It also provides basic collaboration software, although less advanced than InVision’s.

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Balsamiq

When focusing on User Experience, balsamiq is an amazing tool for wireframing. It is easy to plan app designs and has a variety of included guides, templates and symbols to help create a realistic basis for a prototype. The resource, which you can download or use online, is designed specifically to plan prototyping so everything looks and interacts like a rough sketch which can be easily changed.

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Lora Oehlberg, a computer science professor and expert on interaction design at the University of Calgary gave a talk to our ENTI 381 class in which she explained why balsamiq intentionally uses comic sans fonts and design elements that make your prototype look like an early draft. The idea behind this approach is actually very insightful: when people see drafts they are much more likely to give useful feedback and imagine future possibilities, whereas when they see a more complete prototype or near-finished product, they hesitate to suggest changes that would require major overhaul, and tend to exercise less imagination about how the product could be different. It’s a natural psychological tendency, people will give you less useful feedback the more they see you committed to a pre-existing path or vision.

In addition to the tools listed above, tools like PencilCase and MIT App Inventor allow you to go beyond just visual prototyping and actually create some of the programming logic as well.

3. Hosted Website Building

If your core product is not going to be a website and you just need a website to showcase your brand and products, again, your road to getting there has become much easier with the availability of awesome website building services in the past few years. These services not only take the hassle out of hosting your website, but also provide easy-to-use modular design tools and templates. A couple of my favorites that will take care of the basics for relatively cheap are Weebly and Wix.

More recently, I’ve been impressed by XPRS. A more high-tech tool is PageCloud that allows you to clone any other website as your starting point, and provides amazing flexibility with the drag-and-drop editing functionality, but it is also much more expensive.

While the above mentioned website builders have a generic host of capabilities, there are also a range of similar tools that focus more squarely on the landing page, which is what most startups need to showcase their products, features, pricing, etc. and get interested users to register or sign up for updates. A few tools I like in this category are LaunchRock, POP.co, and Landing.

launchrock

Because of their focus on product launches, some of these tools provide additional functionality specific to managing the launch process and acquiring users. Unbounce is another tool I like because it provides A/B testing functionality which is an essential part of the Lean Startup approach that I advocate and teach in my classes.

4. Email Management

Most entrepreneurs will realize early on that a lot of their time can be taken up with writing and answering emails. If you do this manually you will soon begin to wish there were tools for managing and automatizing some of this process. Fortunately, there are now a host of email management tools available that help you with managing mailing lists, composing mass customized emails that get people’s attention, tracking emails and conversations, as well as scheduling emails to be sent at specific times or after certain trigger events. I introduce a couple of email management tools here:

MailChimp

 Mailchimp has a large variety of templates that work very well for drag-and-drop enthusiasts. It is ideal for smaller businesses or non-coders who work well with the options available and can learn from the site’s many support videos and guides, but it does also offer the option to edit HTML on the emails. Pricing is also very suitable for smaller businesses: it is free if limited to under 12,000 emails per month. Integration with online stores like Shopify and Magento also help with product follow-ups and sending stock status notifications.

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Campaign Monitor

Campaign Monitor may be less user-friendly for the novice user, but it offers a lot more flexibility with coding, enables mass customized emails and mailing list management. The list of companies that use Campaign Monitor is impressive, including Adidas, Mercedes-Benz, SXSW, Buzzfeed, Sephora and Pizza Hut. Campaign Monitor interviewed the Director of Newsletters at Buzzfeed, Dan Oshinsky, last year to see how the emails had helped Buzzfeed reach explosive growth. It’s an interesting read that can be found here.

5. Group Collaboration and Project Management

It usually doesn’t take time for a startup to start needing tools to facilitate communication, collaborative work, and task allocation among team members. For such small teams, it’s easy to make the mistake of using overly elaborate project management software that will be nothing but overkill that slows you down rather than make your life easier. In recent years a slew of new tools has become available with the specific needs of small and agile teams in mind. Two in particular have become very popular:

Slack

Slack is an excellent resource for communication within a company. It offers a platform to message or share files with company members in different departments or as a whole. The site also has a very sophisticated search tool which relieves the pain of going through clunky emails. It offers integration with other major communication sites and tools (like Dropbox, Google Drive, Twitter, etc.) to basically offer a central archive for all internal communication.

Even when working with larger groups, Slack provides a much more usable alternative to email for internal communication. The Wall Street Journal and ABC News are examples of large companies which use Slack. A year and a half ago when Slack had 125,000 daily users (now it has 2.3 million), The Verge predicted that it would kill email in the workplace. Although Stewart Butterfield, Slack CEO, stated in an interview with Fortune Magazine that Slack will not kill email on an inter-company level, its exponential growth proves how the functionality of Slack is revolutionizing internal communication in business.

Trello

A good tool to combine with slack to add some task and project management functionality is Trello.

Trello’s platform is based on a list of cards which can be used to list tasks, show progress and track the workflow of a project.

trello

The main appeal of Trello is its simplicity and ease of use, but it does have more sophisticated add-ons you can choose like a calendar, voting options, card aging, etc. Trello is so simple, it can be adapted to a variety of uses, or even a Lifehack. It is used by companies like Google, PayPal, Tumblr and Adobe because the user really gets to choose how to use the product.

6. Workflow Automation

If you take the time to play around with it and learn how to use it, there is no question that one of the most powerful tools listed on Entrepreneur Tools is Zapier. This tool takes the idea of workflow automation found in tools like IFTTT (IF This Then That), and takes it to the next level. Zapier allows you to automate interaction between your most used apps. The site will connect with your accounts on any of its impressive list of 500+ supported applications (including Google services, MailChimp, Trello, Slack, Evernote, Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and create “zaps” or automated tasks between them to help them interact with one another.

task history

For example, it can turn form data from Eventbrite, Wufoo, SurveyMonkey or Typeform submissions into a Google Sheets form. It can add emails from your Paypal users or your Facebook page followers to your MailChimp list. It can automatically back up Evernote files or Gmail attachments on your Dropbox. It’s a very useful tool which helps avoid the unnecessary grunt work when managing interconnections between the tools in your stack. The possibilities are endless, and finding the best ones can even become a contest. Fortunately, Zapier has lots of examples and help material to get you started.

7. Freelancers

Last but not least, if you need customized software solutions or tweaks to your existing software, one the most cost-effective ways to do it is to assign the task to a freelancer. In fact, the freelancer economy is now so large and diverse, you can get anything from accountants and designers to musicians and writers from a host of marketplace websites for such services. I truly believe that one of the most important skills of the 21st century (that schools are not teaching us) is going to be learning how to take advantage of these freelancer markets. A couple of my favorites are:

Fiverr

For smaller or less specialized teams, Fiverr is a great resource which connects businesses with freelancers of all skills ranging from graphic design to getting featured to translation. It has more than 3 million independent services, with most basic ones like logo and letterhead design starting at $5 USD. I especially recommend Fiverr as the most cost-effective way to get an explainer video produced and edited for your website. For the more adventurous marketer, why not get a rap song for some virality?

fiverrr

Freelancer

Freelancer.com is useful for projects like software development, web design, SEO Marketing or app creation. It requires you to submit your exact needs for your project and freelancers will bid to be hired. You can find some great deals for larger projects if bidding goes your way and you only pay if fully satisfied with the job. Several entrepreneurs that have talked to me about their experience using freelancer.com have told me that they were able to get skilled programmers to complete jobs at a fraction of the regular price for such services.

freelancer


Examples from some of Calgary’s web entrepreneurs

In 2016, especially due to the sudden popularity of my ZEEF page, I have had the good fortune of meeting some local web entrepreneurs here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Naturally, I have asked them about their stacks and the tools they use for their business.

Wilson Hung, founder of FounderOrigins.com, a resource for entrepreneurial venture ideas, was also a guest lecturer in our ENTI 381 class at the University of Calgary this year, and he spoke to us about user acquisition and growth marketing strategies. He recently told me about the stack of tools he uses and how he discovered new ones through the Entrepreneur Tools ZEEF page:

qilson hung“I only have three websites on my browser’s bookmark bar, and one of them is Mohammad’s ZEEF page. With so much content available out there, it’s helpful to have everything summarized in one easy-to-read web page. My favorite discoveries so far are:

Groove’s Small Business Stack: I used this to get free trials for GetDrip (now I’m a paying customer), Boomerang, and Chatra.

SumoMe: As a result of this discovery, I’ve increased my email conversion rate from 2% to 5% on my blog.

StockSnap.io: My go-to website when looking for specific free stock photos.”

Sam Chow, founder of Hobblit.com, a platform for connecting experts (gurus) to people who want to learn from them, says:

“As a non-tech founder with a little bit of experience in everything, I found the “entrepreneur tools” resource to be invaluable. We started with this list as a means to guide us through the building of our start-up, hobblit.com.”

hobblit

The founder of Hobblit used Sharetribe to produce a minimum viable product (MVP). It allowed him to create a full-fledged online marketplace without any coding. Although it wasn’t the exact product he wanted to make, the prototype allowed him to recruit team members with programming skills that would help him create a custom platform. But they didn’t get straight into coding the product and instead started by mocking up the design with UXpin which, in Sam’s words, “allowed my non-designer self to communicate with the front-end developer.”

Mr. Chow describes some other elements of their software stack as well:

“We use Expensify to keep track of our expenses and Stripe to process our payments. MailChimp to handle our newsletters and Hootsuite for social media marketing. Also, F6S to apply for competitions and gain insight into other similar companies.”

Finally, my students and I were fortunate enough to have Dominique Fraser, founder of TeamFund.ca give our class an inspiring guest lecture recently. TeamFund is the first ever web service of its kind, connecting local vendors to people who want to use their products for fundraising campaigns.

For Dominique, being local, flexible pricing, and customer support were a factors in choosing some of her stack.

“I loved Wave as it’s based out of Toronto and it’s cloud. It’s free, but I have found a tremendous amount of value in paying for the upgrade for 30 days and having Wave essentially set me up and teach me about accounting. I tried to set things up on my own and it took probably about 50 hours of nonsense and frustration. Upgrading for $100 saved me probably 30–40 hours and then I was able to focus on sales. Great value-it’s hard to see that at first, but now when I can upgrade temporarily, I see it as an opportunity to save time. Support is bar-none when you are a startup. At first it seems that every app or software will solve all your problems, but it’s not the case.”

The rest of TeamFund’s stack includes Wix for website building, Wufoo for creating and managing forms, and Zapier for triggering automatic operations with form entries. She uses Campaign Monitor for auto responding to emails, which costs her “one penny per email.” Guru.com and Fiverr.com are tools she uses to help source out freelancers, and she has recently started using Canva.com for design/art and Facebook posts.

canva

“I also use Vcita, which is a customer engagement software. You can view it when you visit my site and it pops up at the bottom right of the screen. This helps my users schedule time for discussion or face to face meet up.”


I end this blog post by extending a warm thank you to the ZEEF team for building a great platform and for inviting me to write here. I hope readers will find the material useful, and I know that many of them will know of better and newer tools that would be awesome for entrepreneurs and startups. One of the beauties of a ZEEF page is the ability to accept and curate suggested links by others, so if you know of any tools you think should be included on Entrepreneur Tools, you know where to find it!

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Note: Iman Tajadod contributed to this article while working as a research assistant at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

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7 Essential Resources & Tips to Get Started with Growth Hacking (The future of marketing)

Hey I´m Chris Out, the curator of the ZEEF Growth Hacking page and partner of Rockboost, the Dutch Growth Hacking Agency.

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In this blog post I’ve compiled a collection of 7 essential resources & tips (taken from my ZEEF page) to get you started with Growth Hacking. Growth Hacking is becoming coined as the future of marketing as the experimental approach throws away the old marketing textbook ethos and instead focuses on testing everything, basing decisions on data and growing exponentially.

Whether you work for a startup, have your own fashion blog or looking for inspiration, take your time to look through my essential hand-picked resources and tips to make a difference to your future growth strategies.

Resource 1 — What is Growth Hacking?

With all the buzz about growth hacking it is easy to assume it’s a fad, but it is key to the future of marketing. Marketing has been too focused on push means and assumptions, rather than on developing a product customers love and testing what works and doesn’t. As a growth hacker, I base decisions on what the data shows that works and test everything. However, you cannot randomly start testing and measuring a bunch of things; measuring should be done in a structural and focused manner. This is where the so-called ‘One Metric that Matters’ (OMTM) comes in.

Resource 2 — One Metric that Matters

What drives your business? What is key to your business’ growth? This should be your (OMTM): the one specific metric you use to focus the growth of your company. Most companies focus on many, many key performance indicators at the same time. You just need one: OMTM, and all the other KPIs you measure must align with it. This helps you to measure and focus on what you growth needs. In the end it will feel like a blessing: everything you do is focused on what you want to achieve. Your employees should constantly challenge each other as to whether what they are doing will bring them closer to this key goal. This will help you realize how much of what you momentarily do does not contribute to your growth, and thus, is a waste of your time. No idea what your OMTM is or should be? Check out these examples and this explanation of how to define it.

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Resource 3 — Product/Market Fit

Once you know your OMTM, you can focus on another key aspect of growth hacking: Product/Market Fit (PMF). PMF is if 40% of your customers would be very disappointed if they could no longer use your product. To achieve this, you need to constantly improve your product based on your clients’ needs. Your job is not to push a mediocre product with 100% of its features (based on assumptions), but to develop features based on your customers’ feedback and interests. Do this, and you will build a product people want, rather than trying to make people want your product.

(I´ve added a nice gift for you at the bottom on behalf of Rockboost, keep on reading!)

 

Resource 4 — What is all this traction about?

For traction (evidence of market demand) to happen , you need to interact with your customer. You communicate with your customers through your traction channels. The Traction book highlights 19 traction channels. The idea is that you focus on the 3 most important channels for your business based on what works for you, and on the stage your business is in. This should be related to your OMTM: will these channels help you achieve your overarching goal?

Resource 5 — AARRR Metrics

In order to achieve your goal, you need to measure all parts of the funnel. Traditional marketing tends to focus too much on the top of the funnel. In Pirate Metrics (AARRR, get it?) there are five steps that are all key to success: Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral and Revenue. Activation and Retention are the result of PMF, whilst Acquisition and Referral are part of your traction channels. Finally, Revenue is most likely to relate to your OMTM, but its end result is fueled by your performance in the 4 previous metrics. So now you know how it all fits together, now it is time to improve it.

Resource 6 — Optimization

Key to growth hacking is continuous improvement. The only way to do this is through testing: seeing what works and what does not. Through A/B Tests you can see how a small change can make a significant improvement. For example, what happens if you send a newsletter in the morning compared to the afternoon? If there is data that can back this hypothesis that morning newsletters perform better, it would be foolish not to test this. If you do not measure and test, you might as well be throwing away your money, because you will have no idea as to where your money is going to.

optimization

Resource 7 — Quick wins

Now the scariest part of course is starting, but it does not have to be. That is why we have included 29 growth hack quick wins as one of our key articles to read. These are easy growth hacks you can start using today to grow your firm and achieve your OMTM.

Conclusion

Don’t make the mistake of not taking the time to learn about growth hacking before your competitors do. These seven resources show you what growth hacking is and how to focus through OMTM. Through applying PMF you can learn who your target market is and how to make a product they love. This beloved product can be communicated to prospects through your traction channels. Look at the AARRR metrics and take time to see how you can optimize your testing. Finally, take a look at some key growth hacks you can easily start implementing today.

Hungry for more? Explore our ZEEF page (and others on the site), because there are still tonnes of growth hacking information to uncover. For readers of our guest ZEEF post, we are giving away our online growth hacking e-course for free, that will explain how you can use these steps for your company growth in more depth.

Unlock your free e-course here!

 

 

growth hacking up

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Upvote these proposals for new features

ZEEF wouldn’t evolve in the right direction if we didn’t listen to our user’s feedback. We have been collecting many ideas and now is time for you to decide which ones should we take into account. Have a look at our forum and upvote your favorite proposals for new features.

Long lists appear contracted by default on a ZEEF page, showing just the first 8 links. Some of you have requested to be able to show these lists opened. So what about enable the curator to decide which lists appear contracted/ expanded in the page? Upvote

Screenshot block contracted uservoice 

You would be able to select and delete more than one link at once. This little adjust would be especially handy for large pages. Upvote

3. Page Sectioning

Being able to add subcategories in a page in order to better organize the different lists. Upvote

4. Horizontal widget

Customize your widget in a horizontal format. This way it can be easily adapted to any kind of website. Upvote

Horizontal widget

Users and visitors would be able to upvote/ downvote links inside a list. We can open a discussion in this matter. Would you consider their votes to re-arrange your own ranking, or would you rather see them on a separate ranking? Upvote

Upvoting

6. Organize lists using a grid on edit mode

This could be a quick sketch of a very simple way to organize lists while you edit your page. If you have any other suggestion about how a grid can look like, don’t hesitate to comment on this post. Upvote

ejemplo grid

7. Personalized emails/newsletters from the curator to their followers

As a curator, you care about helping other people find filtered information about the topic you like the most. Every week, the ZEEF Team sends an email with your updates to all your followers. Why not sending a personal message instead? You would have the chance to explain the new links you added, why you changed a ranking, or ask for feedback in a more personal way. Upvote

 

If you have more ideas don’t hesitate to add them to our forum or reach us through our Feedback button in ZEEF.com. Let’s improve ZEEF together!

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4 Tips to gain traffic in ZEEF

Once your ZEEF page is published, it is time to share it with the world. There are multiple channels, many different audiences to reach and many formulas to attract potential visitors.

Consequently, it is not always easy to figure out what’s the most effective way to share your content. Besides our Sharing Guide, we would love to lend you an extra hand! Here are 4 simple tips that have proved to be useful for us and some of our top curators to gain more visibility:

1. Mention the Twitter accounts of the users/companies that appear on your list

 They will be likely to retweet it to their followers. Give Twitter a try it!

2. Post your page in Facebook groups about the topic

It’s one of the easiest and most direct ways to share your page. Everyone appreciates useful information, don’t hesitate to explore Facebook in search of the perfect group to contribute to.

 

There are endless Communities about a large range of topics in Google + , therefore you can easily find your target audience. Besides, linking your page in one of these groups helps to rank higher on Google Search.

4. Embed a list on your blog

It is also a great idea to suggest other bloggers to include it on their websites as a Widget.

These steps are a good way to start receiving traffic in your page. Everyone will appreciate that you share your quality content. For instance, Backpacking Europe gained hundreds of views after being shared in Facebook groups and Google+ Communities about traveling.

As a concrete example, look what a great start had CryEngine by Arjan Pronk right after shared with the 2000+ members of CryEngine Developers Facebook group. Even not being a large group, the page received attention and this was clearly reflected in its statistics. It is very easy to measure your performance, just have a quick look at Top Traffic Sources in Dashboard> Statistics. This way you can ponder which media is the most adequate to share your page.

Remember to choose relevant communities and be natural, sharing is caring! If you’d like to learn more about how to showcase your page in Social Media, check out our Sharing Guide.

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