Building a startup is hard. Really hard. The last thing you want to do is make it harder. Through the trials and tribulations I've undergone in launching my startup, I've discovered several gems that are indispensable. If you're trying to launch a startup, here are the tools you need.
Every founder needs to keep an eye on the startup scene and cutting-edge tools that are being released. I've found competitors, partners, ideas, strategies, tips, and friends via HackerNews. For technologists, it's the best community on the web, period.
- Use ihackernews on your mobile phone.
I wasted a lot of time on designs for EffectCheck before I finally admitted that designing a full website from scratch is a full time job. I wanted to focus on developing an awesome emotional impact analysis engine, not worry about divs and gradients. Theme Forest has tons of awesome themes that you can customize, and at around $15, the price is right!
- Search for "CSS3" to find the highest quality site templates.
Once you have a site template, you need a logo. This is another area where I tried and failed to come up with something at first. For around $300, you can run a week-long design contest for your logo. I got over 100 submissions and lots of great candidate images.
- Provide LOTS of constant feedback. The artists on the site don't really seem to have a passion for your logo, so you need to guide them well.
- Make it blind the last couple of days to prevent copy-cats from flooding in. This also helps encourage the original artists to continue working on your logo.
- Support email is slow. Talk to them on twitter if you have a problem. I tried the email route first, and after 24 hours of no response, I tweeted my complaint-- within 1 hour I had my problem resolved.
- Ask the artists to see lots of color variations. It's trivial for them to change colors and it helps you get a feel for which color schemes you might like on your site.
- Get lots of opinions. Run polls and send links out to friends. Everyone thinks differently; the responses I got from my friends and family varied drastically and helped me decide on a logo. However, be conscious that this is your startup-- so the logo has to look good to you above all else.
- Beware of publicly announcing your polls. I made the mistake of tweeting my poll and got a lot of random people with questionable intentions voting. I'm pretty sure some of them were friends of one of the artists and trying to help him win.
Photoshop and ShutterStock
Even after buying a template and outsourcing your logo design, you will still need some basic skills in Photoshop to get a full website pushed. The most important skill I've found is the ability to take a stock photo and cut it up well. ShutterStock has some great photos at great prices-- I recommend signing up for the cheaper package that lets you have a dozen "medium-sized" downloadable images, since medium usually means 1000x700 or better which is more than enough for site images. The images for the four sliders on the EffectCheck homepage are derived from images on ShutterStock.
- Use the magic wand tool to drastically cut down the time to cut images.
- If you're cutting up an image that has a white background, add a new layer and make it a dark color so you can better see the edges of your image. When you save the image, just uncheck that layer.
- Blur the edges of photos just slightly to remove jaggies and make the image look smoother on your page.
Git and Github
This almost goes without saying these days, but Git is the clear winner in the battle of the source control versioning systems. Playing off of this, Github has become a social coding explosion-- I've even had a project forked!
- Committing lots of open source code to Github is also a great way to boost your startup's network effect among developers.
As I mentioned in my previous post, my startup is built on .NET and deployed on AppHarbor. My deployment takes seconds, it's hosted on EC2, and it incidentally includes a free private git repo!
- If you add non-code files to your project, make sure their properties are set to "content", otherwise they won't be copied to your server instance
- Check out the new service hooks -- pretty awesome!
When you need to add that extra polish to your site, JQuery UI is there. I used it in several places for the EffectCheck editor that our clients use, but also to create the tabbed locations on the contact page.
- When debugging AJAX calls, it helps to use a plugin like prettyPrint that will dump the JSON result contents to a pretty-printed table.
I've asked about 30 questions on StackOverflow since I started working on EffectCheck, but it feels like 300. In fact, if you add in the number of times I found a SO link via Google or started asking a question but found the answer on StackOverflow's similar questions panel, it probably is close to that many. I really believe StackOverflow is one of the most important sites to emerge on the internet in the last five years. It's drastically increased my productivity and knowledge in ways I never thought possible.
- Do not be afraid to ask a question. You usually will get an answer within 30 minutes even for tough questions that you've been struggling with for days.
- With that in mind, do not let your questions linger unanswered. Every question you ask should either be marked as answered by someone else or self-answered.
Blogging with WordPress
You need marketing. It may seem like if you build it, they will come-- but they won't. Having an interesting blog and pushing it on social media sites is a good first step. There are lots of choices for blogging engines, but I've found WordPress to be the best.
- Use SEO-friendly links with words from the article title in the URL.
- Push social media sites like reddit, Digg, etc. Have a group of friends that will give you a couple upvotes for the initial kick needed to attract the attention of people watching the new stories feed.
- When you are about to hit the front page on a major site, make sure you have a caching plug-in like WP Super Cache setup so you don't get DDoS'd.
Google Apps for Business to Host Email
The free hosting services Google provides for email are great. You can setup groups, create users, and tons of other things all in seconds, plus you get the convenient Gmail web interface.
- Setup a group for your sales and development teams (even if they're both just your and your co-founder). It adds an air of legitimacy, especially if your startup is focused on B2B sales.
Postmark for Transactional Emails
If you ever need some way to send emails automatically, like to confirm new user accounts or customer purchases, you have a few options. I like Postmark over Sendgrid or Amazon, though I am hearing a lot of buzz about MailGun. The jury is still out on which app is the best, but EffectCheck uses Postmark and it works great for us!
- If you're in B2B sales like EffectCheck, try having a contact form on your site and have Postmark email your sales team whenever someone submits a new entry.
You need a great text editor. There are too many text files in the world that have a special syntax you need highlighted and whatever comes with your OS is probably not nearly as awesome as Sublime Text. You can even use it for free, though it's more than worth the small fee to buy it!
- The auto-complete functionality (ctrl+space on Windows) is particularly nifty, especially if you're coding in a dynamic language like Ruby.
- There's lots of plug-ins available, so don't stop at just the defaults.
That's just a taste of some of the great tools that are out there to help you launch your startup. As I progress, I'm sure I'll find loads more awesome tools worth writing about. Until then, back to hacking together an awesome startup!