I love technology and gadgets, so tools for creating, running and growing an online business have long been an obsession of mine. Below, you’ll find my recommended stacks for various purposes and stages of your business. What is a stack? It’s a set of tools that you need, all for the same purpose and all chosen to work well with each other.
This is everything you need to even be admitted to the game of online business. Before you’ve got this set up, don’t even think of doing anything else.
WPX Hosting is our number 1 recommendation for hosting because it’s scalable and affordable. It’s not the cheapest solution. BUT: it’s still very affordable and it’s orders of magnitude better than the typical budget hosting solutions. Start with WPX hosting and you’ll have a blazing fast website, extremely good customer service, free SSL and solid security features. The value you get here is second to none.
I built my very first website with WordPress, built dozens of WordPress sites since and have never looked back. What makes WordPress so powerful isn’t just that it’s free and open source, but that it’s also the most widely used and supported content management system you can use. With themes and plugins, you can customize your WordPress site to your needs. And most importantly: your own WordPress installation on your hosting account means you have full control and ownership of your content.
Google Analytics can be a pain in the ass. By default, it gives you some useful information, a lot of completely useless information and a simply overwhelming amount of options. It takes a lot of learning, before you really get good use out of this tool. That said, it is by far the most sophisticated analytics tool you can use for free and it’s very widely supported and integrated. You won’t fall in love with Google Analytics right away, but use it from the start. It will pay off, eventually.
Once you have a website set up, one of the most important steps is to put some lead generation in place. Here’s what you need to start building an audience in the form of a mailing list. Plus, further tools that will help you create a conversion focused website.
ActiveCampaign is one of countless email marketing and marketing automation tools available. Ultimately, it sets itself apart from competitors mainly through it’s superior A/B testing features. It also has the most powerful follow-up automation builders in the business.
The point of this page is not to promote my own products, but for lead generation it’s just inevitable. If you’re using WordPress, Thrive Leads is the best list building plugin, hands down. It gives you every opt-in form type you can think of, tons of templates and the ability to split test everything. And on the topic of building your mailing list, I don’t know what I’d do without the Thrive Architect plugin for building landing pages, either.
A/B testing is one of the best tools in an online marketer’s arsenal. Google Optimize is the best solution that’s available for free, but it can be frustratingly complicated and slow to use. Result: you don’t use it as much as you should. As a solution for this problem, we created the Thrive Optimize plugin for WordPress, which makes it a breeze to run split tests on your langing pages.
Many new webinar platforms have come and gone, but GoToWebinar is still my top recommendation. The reason is simple: reliability. I’ve tested many other webinar services and I’ve had connectivity issues, quality issues and other problems with all of them, at a far greater rate than I ever have with GoToWebinar.
Tools that make you and your marketing team better at research and at creating effective marketing material.
AdEspresso is a must-have as soon as you’re spending more than $500/month on Facebook and/or AdWords ads. This tool will help you create many ads quickly, test them all against each other and easily narrow your ad set down to the variations that work best. It doesn’t do many things that you can’t theoretically also do with the Power Editor, but it’s much faster and more convenient.
BuzzSumo is a great market research tool. Enter any domain and it will show you the most socially shared content on that website. Enter any keyword and it will show you the most shared content (across all websites) on that topic. It also reveals the top influencers who shared specific posts. These features help you gain a good understanding of what’s popular in your market and who potential influencers are that you can reach out to.
SEO hasn’t been a major part of my marketing strategy in the past few years, but the one SEO tool I still use is ahrefs. It gives you a complete diagnostic view of how your site is performing in search. And it gives you the same complete view of any competitor website you care to know about.
These are the tools you need to get work done online, efficiently and effectively.
To operate with some semblance of productivity and security online, you need a password manager. And the one we recommend is LastPass. If you aren’t already using a password manager, you’re probably using the same few passwords on many different websites or you’ve notes or spreadsheets with all your passwords written down. Both of those are terrible for your online security. A password manager will fix this security problem and also make your life a lot easier.
Specification documents, SOPs (standard operating procedures), strategy and planning documents and any other business related document you can think of belongs on Google Drive. Drive is also where you can store all other files related to a business or project. Use it with the desktop app to sync your Drive folders with local files and you’ll always have your business critical files at your fingertips, on any device, anywhere. Even if you are a solopreneur, I recommend using Google Drive, because once you start working with people, it is simply the best environment for keeping files in sync and working on documents collaboratively.
If you’re starting our solo, Trello is just one of many tools you can use to manage your tasks and projects. How useful it is for a single user depends on the kind of work you do and how you use it. But as soon as you start working in a team, no matter how small, Trello really starts to shine. It’s free to use, highly customizable and very, very useful
These tools will help you set up a value based business, in which you sell digital products, services or memberships to your customers.
You know how you know Stripe is a leading solution for online payment processing? Because every other online payment processor is desperately trying to be like Stripe. Stripe is a great, fairly priced and widely supported solution for accepting credit card payments on your website.
SendOwl does some of the most boring, but also most important stuff for your business. Namely: invoices and EU VAT tax compliance. It also does some cool stuff like letting you accept Apple Pay and Bitcoin payments and adding a one-click upsell feature. Another important aspect to SendOwl is that it has reasonable pricing, whereas most other VAT compliance solutions are priced for the enterprise (i.e. stupidly expensive). Another great advantage: SendOwl automatically creates a simple affiliate program for your products.
MemberMouse is the membership product we use for Thrive Themes. It integrates with PayPal, Stripe and other payment processors and gives you a lot of flexiblity in creating products, membership levels and protecting posts, pages and more. We’ve had our fair share of issues with this product, but the same is true for every other membership plugin I’ve ever used…
Freshdesk is a solid, affordable helpdesk system. When you start getting a good number of customers, you’ll soon outgrow your email inbox as a tool for customers support. When that time comes, I recommend Freshdesk as the next step up.
Here are some indispensably useful tools for when you start working with a small team (whether remote or on location). What stays the same is my recommendation for Trello – it’s equally useful for small teams and for solo work.
Whatever you do, don’t use email for communication in teams. Trying to keep up with email threads that multiple people are involved in is a surefire way to go crazy. Slack is one of many team messaging services and it has gained a lot of popularity. For our team, it’s been the best, most efficient way to keep communication flowing (even with many on the team working remotely).
As soon as you start working with people, you start needing contracts. Whether that’s contracts for employees or freelancers, non-disclosure agreements or anything else where you need legal documents. HelloSign is an easy solution for legally binding, digital signatures. That means you don’t have to send paper mail back and forth with remote team members. Since HelloSign also has a free plan, I recommend using it starting with your very first hire.
If you’re managing a team of marketers, writers or anything other than developers, Trello is your tool. But if you’re managing a software development team and you need to track versions, branches, bugs and more, I recommend you start using Jira. It’s a very customizable project management tool made specifically for software development and it can accommodate even large teams and complex workflows.
CoSchedule is a content marketing calendar for teams. If you have 3 or more people writing content for your blog, it’s worth trying CoSchedule, to organize who publishes what and when. CoSchedule also has a very useful social media posting feature, which can replace some standalone social media tools.
InVision is an app for design teamwork. Your designers upload their work to InVision and anyone else on the team can easily add comments and give feedback. InVision can also be used to string together several designs into simple prototypes. In short, InVision is much, much better than emailing designs back and forth until you arrive at the final version.
Books aren’t as sexy as the latest new app that promises to run your business for you. In practice, though, I’ve gotten far more value out of the books I’ve read than out of all the tools I’ve ever used, combined. It’s insane how much value you can get for a fistful of dollars, from books. Here are what I consider the cream of the crop, when it comes to books that will make you a more effective entrepreneur and leader:
Nathan Furr, Paul Ahlstrom
This is a book about how to validate an idea first and then scale it to a successful business. This is an idea featured in many books, but this is the one where I think it’s described in the clearest, most actionable way.
The classic read on creating a minimum viable product and improving your product in small iterations. Definitely overlaps with “Nail It Then Scale It”, but they are both worth reading, to get a full understanding of the lean approach.
Clayton M. Christensen Et Al.
This is a book about how to think about product creation and innovation. It provides a frame for how to think of what role your business plays in your customer’s life. Highly strategic and very valuable.
This book is a little verbose, but the concept it teaches is extremely valuable. It goes exceedingly well with the “customer first” and rapid implementation ideas we preach here. Follow this system and your chances of success rise significantly.
I recommend this book because it will help you make better decisions about how to price your products and because it will train you to look for high leverage ways to grow your business. It’s more strategic than practical, but useful nonetheless.
This is a book that is only useful once you’ve gained some traction in your business and you’re growing your team. When you reach this point, Good to Great will be inspiring and will change the way you think about scaling.
This book will take you from knowing nothing about conversion optimization to having a deep, practical knowledge on the topic. If you only read one book about optimization and testing, this should be the one.
Communicating with your customers and prospects is a hugely important business activity. This book gives you a great framework for reaching out to and interviewing people, to learn how to build better products.
This books explores an elusively rare kind of CEO and leader: the kind who is so influential, they define an entire industry. Although we may never reach such a level of success, what we can learn from these leaders is immensely valuable
The following books aren’t directly about entrepreneurship, but they will help you cultivate the mindset, habits and character traits that will make you more effective, more productive and better overall.
Anders Ericsson, Robert Pool
Becoming a successful entrepreneur relies in large part on building entrepreneurial skills. On getting good at the right stuff. Peak will give you a clear plan for developing a high level of skill at anything you choose.
This book and “Peak” are a one-two punch of personal development and skill building. If you find yourself resisting the notion that you can build the skills needed to succeed, Mindset will provide definitive proof that you can.
The more stressed, anxious and unhappy you are, the less effective you will be. And entrepreneurs are especially prone to stress, anxiety and burnout. That’s why I recommend this book – the best one on the science of happiness that I know of.
The age of distraction that we live in has opened up a great opportunity for people to stand out from the crowd, by working differently. This book makes one important point, elaborately. Adopting a habit of deep work is crucial to success, I believe.
Chip & Dan Heath
Changing your own habit is hard. Changing habits and patterns of behavior in an organization or team is even harder. This book provides insight into why and what you can do to switch to better behaviors, effectively.
I’ve found that a lot of the work I’ve done as an entrepreneur and CEO has involved various forms of non-fiction writing. This book is the definitive guide to this kind of writing. And you know you can trust the author, because it’s incredibly well written.