The Startup Stack: How do you run an agile company using only freely available tools?
Starting a business is no picnic.
It’s an exciting, high-risk undertaking, and you’re brave for wanting to do it. We’ve done it multiple times, and it often feels like the learning curve is an endless, near-vertical series of small mistakes, course-corrections and gradual improvements.
That’s a good thing, and the day it stops being challenging is the day to do something different. We’ve learnt a few things along the way about how to run a lean, agile company built for the demands of the digital age.
Ever heard the expression: “A tradesman is only as good as his tools”?
We’ve assembled a killer arsenal of digital tools to support our workflow, running everything from our bank account to our development process. It’s taken a lot of experimentation to perfect this suite, and hopefully a rundown will be of use to anyone — whether starting a new enterprise or trying to supercharge a live project.
All of these are available for free or very little money, and are, in our opinion, the best tools to manage a modern startup. Just as our developers have a preferred stack of languages and platforms they harness to build amazing digital products, we bring you what we’ve dubbed our “Startup Stack”.
1. The Fundamentals
Google Drive is god. Create a new account for your company and start saving everything important in there. Make folders for the different parts of the business — legal, financials, branding, website, images, clients, ideas etc — and store everything religiously.
Set it up natively on all your devices, so as you work on files they autosave to the cloud. That way you’ll never be without the latest version of a file, and you can access them whenever and wherever you need them.
Add your whole team to the account and boom, you have a company intranet that works better than what you’ll find in most big companies.
For bonus points, use Google Docs, Sheets & Slides within the Drive ecosystem. These are stripped-down, free versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint that you access through your browser and integrate with Drive. In this case “stripped-down” simply means that features left over from Windows ’95 have been removed and the UI is designed with sentient humans in mind.
The functionality is all there with the added benefit that it’s in the cloud, so live, cross-platform collaboration is easy. That means multiple people can be working on a spreadsheet on different devices, watching each other’s changes happen in real-time.
We produce everything from simple documents to complex, design-heavy presentations using these tools. Being able to work on it in a truly collaborative way (literally collaborating on the same thing at the same time) saves us time, reduces confusion and produces great work.
It’s all free, and sharing with external people — clients, temporary team members, investors — is easy. So it’s perfect for agile, fast-moving teams like ours (and yours).
Slack allows teams to chat via channels — e.g. “#BigProject”, “#Inspiration”, “#CatMemes”. It sounds like a simple idea, but it totally changes how you share information and ideas when compared to internal email. It means everyone can keep track of a project, throwing ideas into the mix is easy, and there’s a simple chat to read back through rather than a convoluted email thread where everyone’s lost the will to live.
The instant message format also means people tend to share information in small manageable chunks rather than wasting time composing long emails to say effectively the same thing. It makes sharing frictionless and conversational, which is exactly what we want. Remember when people stopped writing long texts and started sending each sentence/thought/emoji as a separate message? It’s basically that.
Also the search function actually works. (Yes, that was aimed at you Apple Mail).
For external communication you’ll need email addresses (obviously). We host our email on Google G Suite, which is as reliable as Gmail but allows you to use your own domains. It’s scalable, encrypted and, most importantly, is pretty much never going to be down. If Google fails then chances are the end of the world is soon to follow, at which point you won’t need your work email anyway.
While most of our conversations happen over personal mobiles, Skype and Hangouts, it still pays to have an office line. We use Yay, a VoIP (“voice over internet protocol”) service which gives us a London landline number but allows us to pick up calls on the move and avoids having to manage a landline. You also have more control over ringtones, which is frankly a must.
You need to understand the money. As a wise man once said: “revenue is vanity, profit is sanity, cash is reality”, which we second wholeheartedly. Whatever enterprise you’re pursuing, remember that it’s a business, and businesses need to make money.
Get Xero straight away. Even if you’re just starting out, it’s an essential tool for running your finances. We use it for our all of bookkeeping tasks: invoicing, expenses, salaries, taxes, year-end accounts, etc., and to analyse our progress: balance sheet, profit and loss, cash flow statement, customer analysis etc. This is indispensible information, and will help you make smart, information-driven decisions.
The best part is that if you’re willing to get your hands dirty, it’ll actually teach you the basics of accounting. Yes, you’re going to need qualified accountants at some point, but the more you can learn yourself the better. Think of it as learning the rules of the game.
The basic mechanism of Xero is a feed of your account transactions, which you then match to invoices and expenses. This creates perfectly balanced accounts (indicated by a big satisfying tick when you’ve done them all), from which detailed financial reports can be generated and other financial assets accounted for.
If you don’t know the difference between an asset and a liability or what a cash flow statement looks like, chances are you’ll miss something important when it really matters. It’s as important as anything else you do for your business.
And as strange as it might sound, accounting is fun. It’s a numbers puzzle, and very satisfying when you get it right. Seeing your business’s finances develop is like raising a child. It’s scary to begin with, but deeply satisfying and something to be proud of (assuming you don’t screw it/them up).
You’ll need a bank account. There aren’t many non-excruciating banking experiences out there, but we use Barclays and they’re actually quite good. Their app is well built, they’re helpful and their fees are fine (£6.50 per month if you were wondering). The main draw is that they aren’t the other legacy banks, which are, in general, abysmally bad and will be a drag on your workflow. Time is important, don’t waste it navigating Kafkaesque banking systems.
We use Monzo for expenses and overseas spending, as their beautiful interface makes tracking and accounting for it all a breeze. Not only is it a pleasure to use, it’s also a great example of product and service design that anyone who cares about fintech and the future of banking should try out. We love them!
Tide gets an honourable mention here, as while we don’t yet use them they seem to be the Monzo of business banking. A 5 minute setup, no monthly fees and custom integrations for small business is a fairly convincing pitch. Let us know how you get on with them and maybe we’ll join you.
Expensify is an easy way to keep track of receipts for when the VAT monster comes knocking. Compliance requirements increase when you get registered, so it’s good practice to store all receipts from day one. It scans and analyses pictures of receipts, which then get neatly categorised and are (crucially) a legally admissible record. So until they’re replaced with pure digital versions, snap the little papery fellows then chuck them away.
4. Project Management
With close competition from Trello and Jira, Asana is our project management weapon of choice. When things start getting complicated (which is inevitable) you’re going to need a way of efficiently and collaboratively managing tasks, team members and deadlines.
Asana allows you to create projects, add tasks and assign them to team members. It’s simple, intuitive and, like Slack, speeds up your workflow compared to trying to manage tasks over email.
Those are the basics. There’s a lot more we could talk about, but if you’re starting out that should be enough to get you started off on the right foot. The tools are just the beginning, it’s how you apply them that will determine your level of success. Hopefully this has given you some insight into how we run our business, and how you can create your own killer stack of tools, platforms and cloud-based products for yours.
If you want to find out more about us, our process and the work we do, we’d love to hear from you at email@example.com.