My favorite free tools for bootstrapping a startup
Updated: Jan 29, 2019
It’s been a while since I have posted a blog, and I have no excuse except for writer’s block is a real and frustrating thing. But, I’m back!
Siri and I are bootstrapping Reset, which not only means a lot of fun conversations about accounting best practices but also finding ways to leverage the most bang for our buck. And that usually means using free tools whenever possible. Luckily, in today’s world there are many, many options. Good news - options! Bad news - you have to sift through them.
I typically get asked what some of my favorite free (or nearly free) tools are by other bootstrapped entrepreneurs - and decided why not put it out there in the world for all to find.
And of course, if you have some that should be on here - please drop me a line here! I’m always looking for ways to improve our operations.
Needless to say, the following all of my own opinions and I haven’t been gifted anything to say nice things. Though I would really love some Mailchimp swag if you’re out there listening Mailchimp...
Task Management & Sanity Helpers
I will say this upfront - I don’t like task management software. I don’t like its notifications, I don’t like the text heavy, list-like interfaces, I just don’t like it.
But, it is necessary.
For both my and my founder’s sanity, I have had to get on the task management bandwagon in order to keep up with the hundreds of emails, calendar invites and everything else going on.
I am telling you all of this in order to say, it’s been a struggle but I am a better person for it and wholeheartedly recommend the options below for the other task management challenged folks here (should we make a club?).
Trello is everything you need it to be and more, and it is free like everything on this list. You can create visually appealing boards, and drag/drop tasks to your heart’s content. Best thing - your whole team can be on it and see everything in ONE PLACE. All of your tasks, to-dos, ideas and brainstorm sessions can be viewed by any team member, at any time.
No more sifting through endless emails to find the status of your latest project and annoying your cofounder via text for status updates. Our weekly meetings literally involve us going through our Trello boards.
Power-ups add integrations with other apps like JIRA, InVision, Zendesk or Calendars to your boards to make things even snazzier.
Unlimited team members, boards, tasks, etc
1 power-up per board
Attachments up to 10MB
Downside: The phrase “did you put it on Trello?” is constantly uttered by me, and probably annoys everyone more than I think it does.
This is a no-brainer, but it must be included. Collaboration is the key here - you can access all spreadsheets, docs, calendars and everything anywhere.
We do everything on Google Docs or Google Spreadsheets tied to our corporate gmail accounts. Our accounting functions are all in Google Sheets, our decks are in Google Slides - which is even more important considering one of us has a Mac and one of us has a PC. Have you tried sending a pitch deck back and forth between a Mac and a PC? It is a special level of formatting hell.
A note on corporate email
This is a question I also get on how to find a free corporate email option. Short answer - there isn’t really one that doesn’t function as just forwarding.
Our domain was purchased through Google along with our $5/month/per user corporate emails. I haven’t been able to find a full fledged (ie- not forwarding) email solution that is at a better price point than that. If you do, give a girl a shout!
Marketing & CRM
There are so many options in this space, that it overwhelms me - and every 3-4 months I panic that I must be missing some cool, new player in the space. But, I found that in terms of functionality, list size and automation power - these are the best free options.
Mailchimp is not only a delight to use, but constantly offers the best list size, automation and design capability for is $0 price tag. Did I mention automations though? Because every other provider I found out there requires you to pay some sort of fee, or severely limits your list size in order to do automations. We use email automations for drip campaigns so this was a game-changer.
Forever Free Plan
Contacts: Up to 5,000 in your contact list and 12,000 emails per month
Features: Automations, list management (tagging, rules) and full design capability
Integrations: Integrated with Squarespace, Wix and others.
Downsides: The embedded forms on the site are limited in design, and the Wix integration is not as good as Squarespace. The other downside is I wish our logo was as cute as theirs.
Hubspot CRM within the free version also has a ton of capability, but the big difference here is that automations are not a part of the free plan but part of the Marketing Professional Plan ($800/month).
If automations don’t matter to you, then this is a great option. The free version gives you Gmail/Outlook integration, chats, unlimited users and other great CRM tools. If your organization needs a sales CRM solution more than an email marketing solution, Hubspot is a better choice than Mailchimp.
Downsides: Automations are not free, interface is not as easy to use as Mailchimp.
This is an Instagram planning tool that I just found out about and have fallen in love with. It lets you visually plan posts in your feed and your profile grid view, including post scheduling and engagement monitoring. With so many Instagram and social planning tools out there, this one was the most visually appealing from a planning perspective and integrated easily with Instagram.
The free version covers 1 account, 30 monthly scheduled posts (feed only) and some stat monitoring.
Design & Creative
Canva is an online, collaboration-minded design application that lets you create anything from flyers, brand materials to social media posts. It is easy to use, has beautiful design capabilities and best of all - is very useful for collaboration and iteration.
I have the Adobe Suite but I use Canva because it is easy, and lets me collaborate with my founder when we are going through different creative versions.
Over 8000 templates, and two folders to organize
1GB of storage, ability to upload your own photos
*$9.95/month premium plan gives you ability to instantly resize and have team members. I’m only adding this because I think it is worth it if you really need that. The free version definitely lets you do loads of design work.
Downside: The free plan doesn’t let you do much collaboration with teammates unless you share logins, which I imagine is frowned upon. You also can’t have brand elements automatically loaded for ease of use.
Unsplash has thousands and thousands of beautiful photos by professional photographers, that you can use for free for your designs. And when I say beautiful, I mean stunning. No cheesy stock photos here.
From Unsplash “All photos published on Unsplash can be used for free. You can use them for commercial and noncommercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, although it is appreciated when possible.”
Downside: You will now see these photos and notice them in all of your beautiful, hipster Instagram ads.
Notable (Paid) Mention
In order to sign member agreements, we had to find a paid service that would allow for easy digital signatures, sending and compilation. From the options out there, this was best in terms of price point ($8/month), ease of use, customization and simplicity.
We are lucky to live in a time with so many quality free and freemium tools, and for that I am thankful as a startup founder. I hope this list has helped you maintain some sanity, maybe you will now go down a very deep rabbit hole of looking at beautiful Unsplash photos.
Side note - did you see the ones with the hipster pug? Those are my favorite.
I hope you enjoy these, and if you have any other suggestions which I need to check out please tell me so in the comments below!