by Jim Belosic
One of the greatest things about being a small business owner today is the number of apps that are available to help make running a business so much easier than it was just a few years ago. It used to be really difficult for many small businesses to compete, especially in the online space. Back in the day, circa 2008 or so, if you wanted a cool website, you’d have to shell out thousands of dollars to hire a designer/programmer. An e-commerce site could cost six figures! Then you’d need a bookkeeper, a point-of-sale provider, an attorney, and the list goes on.
Not any more.
Today you can build a website for free using WordPress, you can get an LLC set up for a couple hundred bucks with LegalZoom, and you can use QuickBooks for bookkeeping. If you have a good idea, and use the right tools, your chances of success are so much greater.
My philosophy is if someone has built an app that is going to make it easier for me to run my business, I’m going to use theirs rather than build my own. I don’t host my own website because there are companies that can do it better than I can. Our programmers didn’t create an email newsletter app because there is a company that does only that, and they do it really well.
ShortStack is a platform that my co-founder and I created to make it easy for businesses of any size to host Facebook contests (and, starting this month, embed contests and other apps directly onto their websites). There have always been companies that could fork over $20K or $50K to run a contest on Facebook or on a website, but that option was out of reach for most businesses.
The bottom line: why reinvent the wheel? There are so many great apps and platforms out there. Chances are very good that some of them will make it easier for you to run your business so you can focus on whatever it is that you do best.
Here are some of my favorites:
1. ShortStack – for Facebook contests, promotions and custom forms
Why I like it: Well, I’m biased, but I believe that our company’s platform is the best in this space because it allows businesses, agencies, and individuals to make the most of their Facebook presence and engage with fans in fun and unique ways. At my previous company we had clients who would pay us $20K to create an app for a single contest. But instead of searching for new clients with big budgets, and catering to five or ten of them at a time, I realized that I’d be better off having thousands of clients paying between $15 and $300 dollars a month for as many apps as they want.
We followed the WordPress model: Let’s create something that almost anyone can use. We have apps that allow businesses to collect data, put information behind “fan gates,” create forms, and so on. There is an amazing amount of customization ShortStack customers can implement without having mad programming skills themselves.
2. MailChimp – for DIY email-newsletter marketing
Why I like it: It’s really easy to use and the app has great templates and features like auto-responders. The folks behind MailChimp are also forward-thinking when it comes to responsive design and, most importantly, mobile viewing. People read more email on mobile devices than on their desktops or laptops, so mobile functionality is essential. We use MailChimp to send out newsletters and to send “welcome” and “getting started” information automatically to every new subscriber. The interface is also really fun and makes you want to use it.
Bonus: it’s free for up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails (per month).
3. Square – for accepting payment for goods and services (via credit or debit card) on your mobile device
Why I like it: In a word: convenience. When I used this app for the first time, I was blown away by how easy it was. I was at a triathlon and I wanted to buy a wetsuit that a vendor had on display in a tent. He pulled out his phone, swiped my credit card, that was it. No complicated cash register to hook up. I didn’t have to write a check or pay with cash. The shop owner was able to do all this away from his store, without electricity. For people who own food trucks, or sell jewelry at craft fairs, or even for consultants who provide onsite business services, it allows a business to be truly mobile. The device that you attach to your phone or tablet is free and the company charges 2.75 percent per swipe. Payments are deposited into a checking or savings account that you link to the Square app.
4. Geckoboard – for keeping track of data in real time
Why I like it: We can monitor social networks, sales, server uptime and a variety of other metrics. Geckboard integrate with a ton of platforms including Pinterest, Chargify, Etsy, Eventbrite, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few. The best part is that all the stats are in real time, so you can see spikes in your data and react quickly. We have a big TV in the office that is dedicated to displaying our Geckoboard all day long. Having it in the middle of the office allows the whole staff to see what’s happening. Geckoboard costs between $17 and $899 a month, depending on the number of dashboards and users.
5. Zendesk for customer support
Why I like it: It would be really difficult for my team of 12 to interact with our 220,000 users without Zendesk! When ShortStack was in its infancy, the decision to not offer phone support was technically not a decision at all. We couldn’t spare the manpower to answer the phone all day. Instead we had users submit “help” tickets via Zendesk and then we’d answer their questions as quickly as possible. The other customer-support option, using a call center, would be prohibitively expensive but the other issue is that “outsiders” wouldn’t be able to offer the same attention to detail that our in-house staff can. We’re also able to offer a nicely packaged solution to questions or issues, including screenshots, video tutorials, help docs, and detailed instructions that they can refer back to as needed. When users submit tickets, they can send screenshots and screencasts, which help us determine what the problem might be. This would be impossible to do over the phone. Zendesk costs between $24 and $99 a month (per user), depending on the features you want.
6. ClickTale – for customer experience analytics
ClickTale is a program that lets us see where our visitors go when they land on our website. We can literally see where a mouse moves and where they click — on a link, image or text track — in real time. This has helped us to see what parts of our site need to be redesigned in order to maximize conversion rates. ClickTale offers a free trial.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Marketing Zen blog.
Jim Belosic is the co-founder and CEO of Pancake Laboratories, a software company based in Reno, Nev. The company is best known for its flagship product, ShortStack, software that’s designed to help small business owners and designers create custom apps that harness the power of social media. ShortStack recently celebrated its second birthday; Pancake Laboratories has several new software products slated for release in 2013.