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All of the big successful online business have at least one thing in common – they use really strong tools to support their various business functions and decision-making processes. These would range from analytics tools to inform their marketing decisions through to operations dashboards to keep the technology team up to date with the “health” of the website. In the past you would need to either build these tools in house or find an enterprise software vendor that could provide them – both options requiring very deep pockets.

Thankfully over the past few years more and more of the kinds of tools only the big players had are becoming available as affordable SaaS (Software as a Service) products. It’s kind of like trickle down economics, except it works.

So what kinds of tools should you be using for your startup or smaller online business? If you’re operating on a smaller scale, you’re going to be both budget and time constrained, so it’s good to know where to focus both your dollars and your attention to get the biggest effect.

Exactly what those tools are will vary from business to business, but I just wanted to share with you some of the tools we chose to use at our early stage social film review startup Goodfilms and why we think they’re important.

For us, and very likely for you, the biggest problem to deal with is uncertainty. You’ll be uncertain as to who your customers are, uncertain as to whether your product addresses their needs, and uncertain of if you can keep up with your user growth.

Analytics

If you aren’t using some kind of analytics tool to measure traffic to your website and the results of your marketing campaigns, you need to start doing so right now. Good analytics give you insight into how people arrive at your product, how they use it, and with the best ones, who they are.

The big and expensive analytics tools can answer just about any question you have about your product use and marketing. The smaller and cheaper options all have made tradeoffs about what they can report on and how, so you need to know what the important questions for your business are, and pick the tool(s) that can answer them.

Start with Google Analytics as a base, then if you’ve got specific questions you still can’t answer, look to more specific products. As we’re a very design centric company, we use Crazy Egg a lot to visualise how all of our new designs are actually used.

Once you’ve found that audience, and you know what works with them, you’ll be able to dive into other reporting software for specific tasks such as email lists, A/B testing and impact management.

Customer Relationship Management

The best way to figure out if you’re actually serving your customers needs is to speak to them. A lot of startups shy away from this, because it’s really easy to drown in email, and doubly so when you’ve got a team collaborating on external communications.

This is the kind of problem sales teams have been dealing with for a long time, and the class of tool that was invented to solve it are called Customer Relationship Management tools. If you’re a founder with a technical background, there’s a good chance you’ve never used a CRM tool before and don’t quite see the point.

They’re all designed to add structure around the customer development process, and communication with your customers is generally the number one thing they focus on. In the past, these tools, and the structures they put on your business were quite heavyweight and expensive. That meant you had two choices, big tools combined with big process, or email hell.

Thankfully there are lots of lightweight CRM tools out there now. We use Highrise because it was the tool that gave us a good amount of structure around our contacts and emails, but didn’t overburden our workflow. Not yet ready to take a leap like that? Consider doing small-scale CRM in a spreadsheet, where you can add and remove columns or rows as needed. But be wary of investing too much time into it before jumping ship to a larger, more robust system.

Operations Dashboards

Being aware of what your web application was doing 24/7 is another area that had a large product gap in the past. You used to either be a big player with an elaborate production monitoring system hooked up, or a small fry with, well, nothing.

Now there are a lot of good, reasonably priced options for your tech team to have really good insight into what your app is doing. Better knowledge of what your app does now leads to better planning for what your app will need to do in the future.

NewRelic is our tool of choice as Ruby developers. It is a bit on the expensive side, but it shows us everything we need to know to stay on top of our traffic growth. Scout is an excellent alternative, especially if you’re budget constrained.

You don’t have to be one of the big guys to operate like one of them. The democratization of software has made mobile, cloud-based and analytics opportunities more readily available for companies of all sizes. These are the tools of mass creation, now it’s up to you to actually use them.

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