We’re a two-man software consultancy that started up, from scratch and with bootstrap funding, in the spring of 2014. Like most businesses, and indeed many business people, we’ve used an array of different software products in the course of starting up and keeping going over the last 18 months. I thought it would be useful to share with you the highlights – software that helps us do our business and has proven to be more than an install-use-once-then-delete experience for us. Poorer products that have been tried and discarded have not been mentioned – hopefully this list will help someone make some shortcuts to finding the right piece of software to do a job for them.

I debated what to call this article. Some of the tools I mention are cloud-based services, either accessed through a browser or via an app. Some tools are apps that live on the computer itself. Some are just very useful websites that I find myself going back to, time and time again. However, all have the same thing in common: the service they provide is either free or low cost, and using it has made an appreciable difference to the business.

 

Before I start on the software, we use Macs and they are an amazing bit of kit (this coming from someone who has always had a Windows machine during his working life). We both have Macbook Pros, which whilst expensive to purchase, have boosted our productive substantially, making the investment worthwhile. The solid state hard drive means start-up times are very quick, and there’s enough RAM and processor capacity to run OS X (the native operating system), a Windows Virtual Machine (VM) and a Linux VM simultaneously; something we need to do on a regular basis.

Anyway, here’s the list. It’s roughly in the order of how important I consider them to be (most important first).

Google Calendar. Does everything we need. We can share our diaries, send meeting requests, automatically and wirelessly sync across devices.

Google Tasks. The best way, for me personally, to work out what I’m supposed to be doing in the next hour / day / week. The Google webpage itself isn’t very feature-rich, but what makes this powerful are the third party apps for mobile which integrate with Google Tasks – I would recommend Tasks Free for Android, or GoTasks for iOS (works well on both iPhone and iPad).

Microsoft Office. We tried Open Office, and the native Mac spreadsheet and word processor apps. Whilst they’re very good, they’re just different enough from Word and Excel to mean that you’re constantly searching for the way you did everything in Office. Office 365, paying monthly (so you get the upgrades when they come out and the payments are spread) is very good value for money.

Skype. Essential for free video calls and instant messaging. Amazing technology, amazing that it’s free! It’s also worth considering purchasing extra minutes to call landlines – eg to join conference calls.

Tweetdeck. I manage three twitter accounts. I can’t read all of the tweets fed into those accounts, all of the time. But there are tweets from certain people I don’t want to miss. Tweetdeck can show me those without swamping me if my twitter time is limited.

Really Simple Systems for our CRM. The free version allows you to add accounts, opportunities and generally manage your pipeline – it’s simple, but good enough for purposes.

Virtualbox. We use this on the Mac to run virtual machines for Windows and Linux. The Mac hardware can take running both at the same time – so you can switch between the two VMs and the native Mac in the blink of an eye. With the Mac’s solid state drive, start-up times are super-quick too (c 5-10 secs).

Dropbox. Similar to Google Drive, but integrates nicely with most mobile devices, so is ideal for getting photos off the phone and into the laptop.

Password Safe. Stores your passwords safely, in one place, on your computer. The passwords are encrypted on the disk. Bruce Schneier helped to design it, which gives me a warm feeling it’s doing a good job of storing this information securely – well better anyway than having my logon credentials in a text file. We store work passwords in a password safe and share it on a regular basis.

Linkedin. This is the de facto online networking tool. People use it in different ways – some are squeamish about connecting unless they know the other person well; others try to connect without even meeting in the hope that something will come of a virtual relationship. If nothing else, it’s a great way to stay in touch with people – you never know when an old colleague will become your next customer.

Joomla. We wrote our website ourselves, using Joomla which provides both content management capability (CMS), and also an ecosystem of bolt-ons, templates, plug-ins etc. Many people use Wordpress which has a large following but Joomla is what we were familiar with and does the job in a pretty intuitive manner. The Akeeba backup module and the RS Joomla security module are essential in my view; to stop you getting hacked, and to help you recover if you are.

Google Analytics. Hooks easily into our website and provides plenty of stats on visits. It also hooks into Mailchimp (see below), showing how email marketing campaigns have been received.

Evernote. Perfect for taking notes during lectures, on whatever device is to hand, which then automatically syncs back to your account.

Draw.io. Gives Visio-style functionality for drawing diagrams – but amazingly works in the browser! Great for drawing flowcharts for designing intricate software algorithms…Firefox. The browser of choice, although I’m happy to use Chrome on my Android phone. A nice feature is the sync-ing of bookmarks and recently visited sites across different devices.

Pocket. Allows you to store links to web pages for reading later.

Mailchimp. The de facto standard for email marketing shots, newsletters etc. Lots of features and free to get going.

 

If you’re thinking of starting up, some of these cost effective options can seriously boost your productivity.

 

In future, I’ll be publishing a similar list of free or nearly-free apps to help software developers.

 

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