When I started building my first business then years ago, I was doing everything manually, from scratch, and by hand. It was a tedious process that made growth go quite slowly. Over the years, as I’ve built a number of additional businesses both locally and online, in several different industries, I’ve discovered many tools that allow every part of the process to be completed much more efficiently and effectively.
Most of the tools outlined below are free web applications. That is, they are free software programs that can be accessed online, from any computer. This allows me to work from anywhere, on any computer, and minimizes storage space. (The only storage space required is for creating backup files.)
Organization & Planning
List making on steroids! Imagine combining a file tree system with task lists, with filing cards… and then turning it into the simplest, most flexible tool ever. Trello is the ultimate organization system for all those ideas that are floating around in your head. I use it to create structured to-do lists, content schedules, and even business plans!
Schedule reminders, appointments, tasks, or outline projects. Aside from being very easy to use and flexible, the wonderful thing about Google Calendar is that it integrates with just about everything.
You can link it to Trello to schedule your to-do list items, and they’ll show up on your calendar. You can share it with employees or coworkers. You can have it display on your website (and you can control which events display publicly and which ones only you can see. You can integrate it with your client scheduling software and have the appointments automatically added.
The options are really endless!
This basic word processor gets the job done, easily integrates with a variety of services, and automatically stores everything in the cloud. Share your documents with peers via email, and they can edit (if you allow them to), comment, and share with others.
Documents can also be downloaded to your desktop in a variety of file forms.
The hub spot of several different Google applications (Docs, Forms, Sheets, and more), Google Drive is a cloud storage system with file trees, editing options, and sharing capabilities. It’s all your Google tools gathered together in one place.
Design & Branding
Canva is the tool that took me from being TERRIBLE at graphic design to actually being able to figure out what I wanted things to look like.
Similar to an ultra-simplified version of adobe illustrator, Canva is essentially a drag and drop graphic design tool. I use it to create graphics for blog posts, images for ads, sidebar content, worksheets, short guides, checklists… really anything that I want to look visually appealing.
A huge catalog of completely free, high-quality stock photos. These images are available for any use, including commercial. I use them on websites, mockups, backgrounds, illustrations… Anywhere that I need some visual punch.
This is Google’s web-application version of Powerpoint — but I’ve never given a “Powerpoint presentation” in my life. Instead, I use this tool to create guides, workbooks, and anything else that I want to customize the look of and then download as a pdf.
I use Slides in similar ways to how I use Canva, but Slides is better for creating simpler documents that are more text heavy. These two programs can mostly be used interchangeably, but Canva is more friendly for graphic design, whereas Slides is more flexible for sharing, saving, converting (between different file types and sizes).
How did I originally get started in web design? By DIYing the website for a dozen different companies I started! When you’re bootstrapping, you do everything yourself — there’s definitely not a budget for hiring a designer when you don’t even know if your company will make a dime.
My first several websites were a huge struggle and the results were hardly attractive. However, as I’ve created more and more websites, I’ve not only learned a lot about design and coding, but I’ve also discovered several tools that make creating websites so much easier, and really possible for anyone.
When you create a website, all of the files have to be stored somewhere, and that “somewhere” is called a server. There are many different hosting companies (servers) available, but I’ve been with Bluehost from the start. They are affordable and they’ve always gotten the job done well.
Once you have purchased a domain name and hosting, the next step is to have a platform to build your site on. WordPress.org is the most widely used “content management system.” Basically, it keeps all of the files required to run your website organized so that you can easily find and edit them as necessary.
WordPress is popular for many good reasons. It is free, easy to use, and many, many applications (called plugins) have been created for it, so there are lots of options for customization.
Themes are templates to build your website with so that you don’t have to code everything from scratch. Thrive offers premium (paid) themes that are beautiful and provide many features.
However, Thrive’s real gem is their “Page Builder Plugin.” This tool allows you to build web pages visually, “drag and drop” style. That means you don’t EVER have to touch the code if you don’t want to. Instead, you just drag elements around on the page to make them look (and function) how you want them to.
While coding knowledge is still very helpful for making your website look and function EXACTLY how you want, Thrive is an invaluable tool for any layperson wanting to DIY their website. Beautiful results can be had with minimal time and very little experience.
Google forms are customizable surveys and polls that can be used in many different ways, however, I appreciate them most for how I can easily integrate them into a website as a contact form, application form, or quiz. While there are many programs available that offer these same functions, if you already have a Google account then it’s simply much easier to use Forms, which you already have access to and which works great.
Marketing & Advertising
I’ve put up billboards, signs around town, handed out business cards, advertised on Amazon, Facebook, and Google, mailed postcards, and posted ads on Craigslist. At the end of the day, here are the services I would recommend to anyone.
Convertkit is my preferred email service for growing and managing my email list. They make everything extremely simple, provide amazing customer service, and charge a quite reasonable price. I’ve tried a number of different email marketing services, and Convertkit is by far the easiest to use and most effective!
For most businesses, Facebook ads absolutely give the most bang for the buck. Why? Because Facebook has so much info on the demographics of their millions of users, you can have your ads shown to your exact target audience, and not waste money showing your ads to people who won’t buy.
Facebook ads are “Pay-Per-Click” (there are other options available as well, but this is what most people use), which means you only pay when someone actually clicks on your ad and visits your page or website. Not only does this give you extreme control over how much you’re spending, but it also means that you can know exactly how much your ads are costing.
Facebook also offers “tracking pixels,” which allow you to track where your visitors go on your website after they click on your ad — because, ultimately, you really care about how many sales your ads are driving, not just if people are visiting.
Facebook has two advertising tools: the basic “Advert Manager” and the more advanced “Power Editor.” Either is great, but the Power Editor certainly gives more control and options.
Another Pay-Per-Click advertising option, these are the ads you see at the top of the search results (and sidebar) when you Google something.
Unlike FB ads, with Google Adwords, you are targeting specific search terms, not demographics. So, your ad might be seen by anyone, but only if they search for exactly what you specify. Of course, you still only pay if people actually click on the ads.
Vistaprint is my go-to source for any printing needs I have in my businesses. Are they always absolutely the cheapest? No. Do they provide the very highest, most beautiful designs? No. But they do a very good job at a competitive price, and they make designing and ordering promo materials very easy. The time I save by using just one company that I trust (rather than shopping around), is well worth it.
Just a note, Vistaprint almost always offers major sales (40% – 50% off is very common, sometimes the discount is even greater). Their “regular” prices are very inflated, so I only recommend buying from them when there’s a sale going on (if there isn’t one now, there probably will be next week).
The most common things I order time after time are: business cards, brochures, promo postcards, and banners.
Research & Learning
There are dozens of blogs that I love reading to learn more about only business strategy, marketing, branding, and more. However, it can be difficult to remember which blogs are my favorite and where I can find them. Feedly is a blog feed “aggregator,” which basically means that it turns all those random blogs into one giant blog that is organized by topic. Whenever I discover a new blog that I want to read more of in the future, I simply add it in Feedly and then see new posts in my feed as they are published.
You can scroll through the posts of all the blogs you follow like a news feed, and if you find one that is particularly interesting, you can save, email, or share it on social.