April 29, 2010

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.
    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
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
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

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).