Thursday, February 28, 2008

Top 10 Tools for Entrepreneurs

Based on my Linkspank and prior experience, these are my top 10 tools that I would recommend to another entrepreneur without knowing anything about his or her business.

Here’s the countdown:

Tool #10: An all-in-one printer. Mine is an HP. The need for this is a vestige of the old fashioned world. But hey, you need to print stuff, fax stuff, and SCAN stuff. Scanning stuff is awesome. And it’s a great substitute for faxing things, especially if you don’t have a land line, because who needs that caveman stuff. Scan it, email it, and then you have a record as well.

Tool #9: An iPhone, Nokia N95, or Blackberry. They are not equal, but the tradeoffs among them are tough to settle depending on your needs. The ability to capture video with a N95 is pretty awesome. And taking pictures (and uploading them to Flickr or wherever!) tends to come in handy for guerrilla marketing, and solves the problem of owning a camera but never having it on hand. But my N95 randomly turns off, sometimes when I’m receiving a call. File that under the Bad Feature category. iPhones don’t have that feature. Using an iPhone puts you in a constant state of arousal, which is a I guess a plus and a minus. All three are needed because you need to be plugged in to the Matrix. People cite the addiction factor: have one and you can’t escape the internets. But I think if you have a little control it can be the opposite: having these puppies can enable you to stay away from your computer longer, because you can check in without booting up.

Tool #8: Google Docs. This online document and spreadsheet system is far from perfect. But Word increasingly blows chunks. Meanwhile, Google docs is pretty awesome when it comes to collaboration. You can edit the same doc simultaneously with someone else. And collaboration is really the essence of existence. All the fancy features of Word? You don’t need them, because you aren’t publishing anything with this tool (other tools for that on the way).

Tool #7: Constant Contact. I just signed up for this service yesterday so maybe I'm overly pumped about it. It’s so clearly the way to go if you have customers or people that you would like to email on any regular basis. It’s a reliable way of formatting sending HTML formatted messages, managing contact lists, being generally considered reputable by humans and spam filters, endearing yourself to readers with a quick unsubscribe option, and tracking the effectiveness of your communications.

Tool #6: Photoshop. This product is absurdly expensive, and absurdly difficult to learn. But I can’t even begin to fathom how anyone would get by without it. You should have Photoshop if any of the following are true: you have a logo; you have a website; you publish documents; you have schwag. Sure, you could have someone else take care of this stuff for you. But as CEO you are probably Head Marketer and these functions can be pretty core to it.

Tool #5. Your Blog. I don’t really like any of the blog services a TON, but Blogger has suited me ok. (Though composing and adding photos in here makes me want to kill myself.) Unless you have opened a business as an independent intelligence operative, you need a blog. Everyone’s holdup is wondering whether it’s really worth the effort. It is true that a LOT of people still don’t really know what a blog is, even when they visit one. (This is a blog by the way.) But here are a couple reasons why you must have one. First, marketing these days is complicated, and all the best ways of marketing are basically untrackable. You have to give up on being able to know exactly what the payoff is for all your actions. Instead, you figure out your strategy and go with the things that are in strategic alignment with it. So, if rapport with literate humans plays a role in your strategy, you write a blog. Second, writing shapes up our thinking, and it’s nice to have a clue about what we’re thinking.

Tool #4. Social Networks. Blah blah everyone talks about this. Some of the blog thinking applies here: it’s tough to measure the efficacy of all the things we do. But you should be on these puppies. Which ones depends on your business. I’ve used LinkedIn for job postings with some success. Probably every entrepreneur ever should be on MySpace and facebook. But it depends a bit on your business. E.g., if you’re a yoga teacher, you should be on Zaadz. Facebook is quite relevant to our user base and that’s why we have the best facebook app ever, enabling to join the Spank through facebook, login through facebook, and spank your facebook friends. Linkspank was recently written up as a way to be a part of the buzz.

Tool #3. Gmail. Email is pretty important, you know? Linkspank is an email-related business, so I have made it my business to use a variety of email solutions, including webmail, Outlook, Thunderbird, most of the stuff you know. It is no joke that Gmail is *head and shoulders* above the rest. Just the facts. It’s much much much faster, for one thing. After using Gmail, when I log into the other stuff I’m practically tearing my face off. And it wins on features, such as group chat (although that didn’t work for me today) and sending emails in the name of other email addresses, forwarding and on and on and on.

Tool #2. Air card. This is a device that you plug into your laptop, that enables you to be connected to the Internet wherever you get cell phone service. Really it's not a device so much as the service you get from your cell provider. Example: AT&T's. Ok, this one definitely does not apply to all entrepreneurs. But I refuse to bump it up or off the list. It is too sweet. Even with the advent of the iPhone, nothing beats actually being able to get on the computer and get on the Internet, basically whereever you are, and be able to be productive. The wifi network gets too slow somewhere or goes down: you switch to your air card. At the airport, you are productive at the terminal, and actually sending emails on the plane before the folks make you unplug. You are driving and get a phone call: there is a problem. You pull over to the side of the road and get online. Welcome to the world of entrepreneur ninjas and commandos. You have numchucks on your belt, submachine gun cartridges strapped across your chest, and an air card in your computer. One caveat: while these tend to offer slow but acceptible broadband in major metropolitan areas, the connection speed in more rural areas is unacceptible and you will be the slowest ninja ever.

Tool #1: The Human Ear. Ok, maybe this is super cheesy. But there is a pattern and a paradox in this list of tools and it all is summarized by my choice for the number one tool: the strangely shaped fleshy listening devices attached to your head. Here’s the pattern: basically every tool I’ve named here is a communication tool. Maybe everything boils down to communication. As a person, you process information; inside your company, you all collaborate; and on the outside, your company engages the world, markets to it, and learns from it. The trick is that all these tools are useless unless you are actually listening and processing. They just facilitate getting great information to your brain, but if your brain is encased in protective stone there is no point. Conversely, an inquisitive, exploratory attitude – that involves speaking with the primary purpose of getting other people to talk – can get you everywhere. Most specifically, to an ever-improving understanding of your customer. I’m always working on this and our recent beer & laptop event was an example that I would like to continue, to the extent that I can afford to buy other people beer instead of myself.

I mentioned a paradox, as well as a pattern. I think the paradox is that entrepreneurship, in distinction with other ways of spending your time professionally, is different most in that you have to be brave and willing to act. All these tools are about listening, learning, and thinking. If these tools had personalities, they would be cautious creatures, probably not entrepreneurs. So in that case, maybe your number one tool is your Fist. Nothing cheesy about a Fist.

And now, some runners-up for the list:

Pidgin – IM is a great communication tool, and Pidgin helps you chat with anyone without spending 20 minutes logging into everything or burdening your computer. Downsides: doesn’t stay connected perfectly, it’s ugly, and no group chat.

Jott – this thing transcribes your phone messages and sends text to you and other people. “note to self” kind of stuff. Makes you feel important. Huge drawback: transcription quality is not quite there.

Twitter – fits in the blog and social network category, and is useful for similar reasons.

Jawbone – you want to be able to have meetings on the phone, even if your changing your baby’s diaper or driving. This is part of why you want to be an entrepreneur, right? Jawbone helps you do that, by cancelling noise and giving you both hands free for unarmed combat. Downside: doesn’t work with my N95.

Firefox – for PC users, using Internet Explorer is like smoking – WHY???? with the distinction that using Explorer doesn’t even make you seem cool. The current version of IE takes about 10 second to load a tab. What exactly is happening during that time? I wonder this, for a good ten seconds, every time I open Internet Exporer or a new tab therein.