8 Technology services (on the cheap) that your startup can't live without

The surge of technology services companies on the web continues to drive down the cost and complexity of doing business as a startup. But finding the right companies to partner with, store your data with, and entrust the uptime of your business to can be intimidating. How does a startup know when it should turn to online tools, web sites, and "software as a service" solutions? Here are three signs you should be in search of a hosted solution:

  1. It's not your core competence. Unless you're an IT shop, you should be mucking about with your servers and network as little as possible. Unless you're an email service provider, you should leave email to the experts. Unless you're a hosting company, you should consider letting someone else manage your online video assets.
  2. It yields to economies of scale. While you can't justify all the time it'd take to really polish your collaboration tools, someone else is making the time because the benefits can be shared across thousands of their clients. While you can't build relationships with all the major browser vendors, you can find testing companies who have done it on your behalf.
  3. It streamlines your business and delights your customers. Business intelligence, customer support, presentations and collaboration are all areas you could live without, but with so many great solutions available at bargain prices, there's no excuse to not arm your employees and customers with a professional experience, even in your small startup.

To help you get started finding the right tools for your business, here are a few worth recommending:

1. Google Apps (for Business IT)

Google Apps is hardly an unknown on this list. But many new startups still insist on running their own mail servers, calendaring solutions, chat solutions, etc. If there's one thing a new business shouldn't need to worry about, it's reliable email communication. Google isn't your only choice, but it's a leader in the space, and has an interface with which your employees are likely already familiar. For $50 per user per year, it's a steal even if you just use email, but go ahead and take advantage of the other included features a la carte as the need arises. Also, lesser known is that Google has built a whole ecosystem of other applications into Google Apps, check out the Google Apps Marketplace to explore their impressive list of partnerships.

Google Apps Bonus: Mobile Integration

Gmail app (for Android) – you can categorize incoming emails with labels, archive emails you don't need anymore but still keep them 1 keyword search away for reference.

Google Contacts (on Android) - being synced with Facebook, Gmail contacts, and Google profiles it allows you to always have multiple forms of contact (email, phone numbers, addresses, Facebook messages, etc.) with everyone you have ever had contact with in the past. It also includes profile photos and descriptions of people. This allows you to freshen up on peoples’ names and faces before and during networking events.

Google Calendar Widget - being an Android widget, it always shows a list of meetings and reminders coming up for the given day. No clicking needed it is just right there on your phone's desktop.

2. Vertical Response (for Email Marketing)

Not only don't you need the burden of running your own internal mail, startups also shouldn't shoulder the hassle of outbound customer email. Not only do you have to build a lot of software infrastructure to effectively author and measure marketing campaign emails, but to ensure high deliverability of those campaigns, you'd need a full-time staff helping to whitelist your IP addresses with major ISPs and email vendors. Who has time for that? VerticalResponse has the software and the staff, is a veteran player in the space, and stacks up favorably against competitors like the gorilla ConstantContact and newbie MailChimp on price, support, features, and deliverability. They even have an integrated app in the Google Apps Marketplace, worth checking out. One more note, not all outbound emails are campaign-based promotional mails. For those one-off transactional emails (password resets, new message notifications, etc.), check out SendGrid, a hosted SMTP service that's quickly gaining popularity with hot web startups.

3. Lighthouse (for Issue Tracking)

If the thought of dedicated bug tracking software makes you cringe, check out Lighthouse, self-described as "Beautifully Simple Issue Tracking". You can host open source projects completely free, and monthly prices for commercial projects are quite reasonable. Small businesses might also want to check out more from the team behind Lighthouse, entp consulting.

4. Get Satisfaction (for Customer Support)

While you might look at Lighthouse's sister app Tender for a behind-the-scenes customer support management system, the current king in the world of online social customer support is Get Satisfaction. It's just not support, it's a community for your customers. You get a slick online forum where your users can offer suggestions, complain of problems, or give praise. And they can help each other solve problems, lowering your support costs while improving good will with your growing user base. Check out their nice integration tools with your product, including their available widgets where customers can leave feedback right from your site.

5. Seesmic (for Twitter)  

Seesmic allows you to keep up with your user-base and community that is activity on Twitter. Keep up with feature request, technical support, or just keep in contact with them. Its UI allows you to easily follow conversations on Twitter about your product. Also allows you to keep up-to-date with news from other companies who are doing cool things in your market space.

6. Adobe Connect (for Web Conferencing)

Everyone knows the advantages of web-conferencing: convenience, saving money on travel costs, a richer meeting experience than a phone call alone can provide, etc. But most of us still don't do more than a handful of web-conferencing sessions a month (if that). Perhaps Adobe Connect will be the right solution to get your startup on the band-wagon. Officially it's "Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro", but don't be fooled by its poor branding. It's a slick tool (born as Macromedia Breeze, Adobe took it over in their 2005 acquisition), easy to use, with a simple plugin for the meeting host, and a native Flash interface for guests to participate. Adobe provides a custom URL for your startup so its easy for employees and partners to remember how to join a conference, and you get all the fixins: screen sharing, session recording, participant chat, and more. Adobe Connect is the dark-horse in this space, still less well-known than alternatives like WebEx and GoToMeeting, but gets high-marks for features and usability.

7. Dropbox (for File Sharing)

Dropbox is just about the most elegant central file-sharing system available, although that elegance belies its power. Dropbox seamlessly syncs a specified "Dropbox" folder across any machines running the software and logged into a Dropbox account (free for up to 2GB of storage, very affordable after that). This is handy for individuals who keep more than one machine, but always want access to their important working documents, and an added benefit is that old versions of documents can be restored through the simple Dropbox web interface to any prior version; automatic versioned backups without any extra work! Dropbox also allows you to share folders with other Dropbox users, so a startup can keep shared folders to aid collaboration on presentations, documentation, investor pitches, and spreadsheets. Finally, you can make Dropbox folders public, and provide download links to any content within them, which makes Dropbox a potential replacement for dedicated download services like Drop.io and You Send It

8. Amazon Web Services (for Cloud Infrastructure)

Hopefully, AWS (Amazon Web Services) needs no introduction. Amazon has rocketed to the top of the nouveau-cloud-hosting scene in the past four years. However, many startups are still unclear on how and when to use these services. First, don't forget that AWS offers a variety of cloud infrastructure solutions, including not only the well-known S3 ("disk space in the sky") and EC2 ("computing power in the sky"), but also payment services, queueing services, and more than one database solution. At the time of this writing, the relevant Wikipedia page lists 19 available services under the AWS umbrella. If you aren't familiar with the breadth of the offering, it's worth a refresher. Second, consider how your business would be architected differently to take advantage of what these cloud services are good at. Mapping traditional hosting onto the cloud may not be your most cost-effective or headache free path. Cloud-based hosting isn't a silver bullet, but used wisely it can position a growing startup with a powerful, scalable, and inexpensive alternative to traditional capex infrastructure.

What else would you add or recommend?

This blog post is a collaborative effort between Will Koffel (CTO, Sermo) and Michael Sheeley (Co-Founder, FitnessKeeper).