squarespace

Online Business Tools You Need Right Now

online tools you need right now

Pssst... my solopreneurs and startups out there will appreciate that many of these brilliant tools offer free & scalable subscription plans. With that, let's dive in...

The administrative services available to entrepreneurs at the moment are straight up amazing! Who would have believed that getting contracts signed could be a snap or that invoicing could be so painless? And depending upon the size of your clientele, many of these may be used for free with paid subscriptions available as your business grows. What I appreciate most about these services is that they minimize the time spent "running" your business and maximize the client-focused time. Think: invoicing, scheduling, whipping up agreements, etc. If it's something you loathe doing, there's almost surely an app for that.

Whether you're just getting serious about your side hustle or are a seasoned pro in your field, there's an online tool in here that will take the energy drain out of those tedious (but essential) administrative tasks. (Note: this list is far from complete and is really a snapshot of what I'm loving and/or using at the moment. If you have a service you suggest or would like to me review, please send me a note!)

MANAGE CONTRACTS LIKE A BOSS

Two services come to mind here:

Agree.com is brilliant if you're in a creative service industry (or other field) and have no clue what to put in your Terms & Conditions etc. or how to construct a project agreement. With a simple interface and easy checkbox style form fields you can have a legally binding agreement ready to send to your client in no time. Advantages: brilliant interface & pre-built (but editable) service descriptions & fine print. Drawbacks: it asks for specific start dates and payment amounts, which you may or may not want to include in this document. Still, this is a service I adore and can't wait to use for future contracts to eliminate process redundancy. Free subscription plan available.

Already have your agreements drafted or want more flexibility? Hellosign.com takes all of the pain out of gathering e-signatures and allows anyone anywhere (including multiple people) to quickly sign any document online. Free subscription available.

BILLING & INVOICING

Harvest is an oldie but a goodie in this arena. I have been using them since they were in beta and I still adore their ease of use. This app earns bonus points for being able to send gentle reminders to clients about past due invoices. You can customize your documents by uploading your logo and change the look & feel to suit your preferences. Built-in reporting makes it easy to track your billing, project expenses and time. I use it for invoicing only, but power users will love the accounting features and at-a-glance data this service offers. Free trial available.

Invoicely is another great services that takes the sting out of asking for those hard-earned Benjamins. Like the other tools, this one offers a free level of use with limited features. I love that this service makes it easy to bill in any currency, a growing need for businesses of all sizes. This service earns points for its focus on invoicing. If you don't need the fluff of a more robust app, this is your ticket to easy billing. 

EMAIL MARKETING

Oh, email. How we loathe (but need) thee! I've had a long history of designing email marketing for clients. The complexities of determining what messaging flow to send to your audience is enough to make your head spin. After many (many) dalliances with various email services I'm surprised to say that MailChimp's paid subscription is far and away the best.

First, let's put it out there that their monkey-infused marketing was a turnoff for me. But try as I might I could not get away from services and apps that integrated flawlessly with MailChimp. That primate branding was everywhere I looked.

Finally, I bucked up and splashed out the $10 per month for the Business level subscription. **Update: the $10 upgrade features are now absolutely free in MailChimp** Oh. My. Goodness. What a difference ten dollars made in my life. They've done the complex thinking behind those "what happens next" diagrams we've been whiteboarding all these years. Even without design savvy & coding skills, MailChimp can help you achieve the customer marketing you are lacking. If you DO have coding skills and design savvy, the possibilities with this service are nearly limitless.

Where it shines? MailChimp isn't kidding around when it comes to the industry standards of email marketing compliance. Visitors or customers who visit your site to shop or just snap up that free newsletter will be asked to confirm their opt-in via email. Compliance with email marketing is key, and not following standards to the letter will get your blacklisted. MailChimp makes this a no brainer and does the heavy lifting for you. While a double opt-in and captcha tests might seem tedious (they are), employing their use keeps your marketing lists clean and gives you a sense of confidence that your audience WANTS to hear from you. Also, it handles the dirty work of cleaning your list by handling unsubscribes like a boss and removing bounced emails from your list. Go, chimp, go!

I love this system so much that I doubled down on the service and decided to master those automated workflows everyone covets so much. (For those interested, email marketing integration is now a part of most of my packages and it's one of the key features clients ask for) If you can get past the chimp logo (I finally have) this is the solution to your opt-in marketing woes.

ONLINE SCHEDULING

While I don't presently use online scheduling apps, I've invested considerable time researching various tools for clients and implementing them into their web sites. Many options exist, but not all play well with web site integration. Here are a few popular options that do:

Acuity is pretty slick, especially if you're looking to offer real-time online scheduling for your clients via a clean interface. If you are a coach, a physician, a consultant or even just a designer opening yourself up to more leads, this services offers a try it for free option. More robust business can take it a step further and allow clients to make payments online as well.

Calendly is (in my opinion) more suited to the small business looking to reduce those tedious "when can you chat?" email threads. With a simple interface and easy integration tools, this is a service many of my clients love using and adding (via embedded code) into their web site.

EASY ONLINE PAYMENTS

We've tracked your time, signed your contracts and organized your invoices. Now let's collect the hard-earned cash you've earned! Many options abound, but I have a favorite. I occasionally use PayPal invoices when working with international clients, since it converts currency for them (typically showing them the invoice in their currency of choice), but I really have a love/hate relationship with the service. It just never feels professional to send clients links to a PayPal invoice. However, know that this option is there for you.

That said, I've moved on to Stripe payments integrated into my site, setting up products as digital services. Now I send my clients a private link (password protected, if desired) where they can make project payments online via credit card in a SSL encrypted online environment. No need for my clients to visit PayPal, no need for them to leave my site, no need to try to figure out the always less-than-intuitive PayPal interface. No icky feeling (sorry PayPal). Not only can I accept major cards online via my branded site (thank you, Squarespace!), thanks to the Stripe smartphone app I can also sit at a cafe with a client and accept payments over coffee. This makes it a win for clients across the pond and just down the street. The app literally could not make it easier to keep the revenue-receiving side of your business humming. Which brings me to my next topic...

ONLINE BANKING

A few years ago I opened a Simple account and life has literally been better ever since. The "big bank" behind this online bank is BBVA and they run this purely online service the way all banks should be run. My Stripe payments are deposited into my Simple account immediately and I incur no monthly or yearly fees with this account. Via my Simple debit Visa I make all of my business purchases and keep my accounting clean. Their gloriously easy-to-use site and app make it a breeze to see all transactions. And if I have any questions (as I occasionally do) their support team is not only helpful but lightening fast with in-app messaging.

I cannot imagine my life without Simple. Note: At the moment they only offer personal accounts, so my business-only use of my account is a bit off-label. But this system works for me since I keep the funds and expenses strictly business. My accounting is simplified with monthly statements, searchable transactions and more. My client payment flow is integrated (hello, Stripe!) and painless. Most importantly, I am smitten by their excellent customer service. Five stars all the way for this lovely banking option.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

None of these will revolutionize your life, but they will make running the back-end of your business a breeze. If administrative efficiencies can give you a few extra hours a day to do actual revenue-generating work by minimizing or automating the soul-draining tasks vital to your workflow, I consider that a major win.

Take some time to give these a try (all of them offer free trials or free plans) and try them on for size. Remember, what works for one business may not work for another. The point of all of these is to be less burdened by the "work" of running a business and enjoy more time flexing your God-given talents and wowing clients.

QUESTIONS OR IDEAS?

If there are tools you would like to me try or review, please send me a note or book a call using the button below! I love discovering new tools and I adore meeting new readers all the time. Don't be shy, say hello!

{Hawaiian palm elements above via}

SHOPIFY VS. SQUARESPACE COMMERCE. WHICH IS RIGHT FOR YOUR BUSINESS?

Shopify vs. Squarespace Commerce

This is the top question I'm asked by clients. My simple answer is this: it depends. In this post I'll weigh out some of the major the differences and strong points of each platform...

First, let's help by outlining the similarities. Both ecommerce solutions have made launching a storefront of any variety relatively easy. Squarespace and Shopify both offer complete solutions: the ecommerce development platform, the hosting solution and the site development tools. Both are hosted solutions, meaning you have no software to install, no security updates to concern yourself with and no special hosting type to secure. Squarespace and Shopify both take care of the secure checkout, the data encryption and the credit card transaction flawlessly. One stop shopping, if you will.

With both, you can get a store up and running fairly quickly and accept major credit cards (and/or paypal) with quickly. That said, each platform offers strengths in certain areas, weaknesses in others and it helps to know which one might be best for your bright idea.

FOR THE LOVE OF SHOPIFY

If you're aiming to develop a product catalog the size of Horchow, Shopbop or Nordstrom (think: thousands of SKUs) Shopify is clearly the way to go. This is because Shopify is an ecommerce solution first and foremost, and a site design/blog solution second. Ecommerce is its core offering and it is what Shopify does best. Your admin panel centers around customer data, order details and store management. If your focus is to built a world-class online shopping experience with many products, I encourage you to take a look at Shopify. Many of your favorite brands have arrived at this conclusion and entrust their online commerce to Shopify. Tesla, Budweiser, Redbull & Kylie Cosmetics (yes, that Kylie) are just a few examples of major companies who have established serious digital footprints online and are leveraging Shopify to power their online sales.

Another strength of Shopify is its massive list of third-party integrations. Building an on-demand t-shirt business? Shopify is the solution to automate that process. They integrate beautifully with Printful, Gooten and other on-demand print services. (Note: Much has changed since this post first published. Now Printful now integrates with Squarespace and the platform itself has really begun to win me over for running boutique stores, on-demand product sites & other online shops).

Running a drop-ship business? Shopify rocks. In fact, you directly integrate with drop-ship suppliers from your Shopify admin panel.  Need POS for your physical store? Again, Shopify is the way to go. For mid to large-scale retail solutions, Shopify is absolutely wonderful. Frankly, there is very little this platform cannot do and if someone comes to me looking for a rock solid online shopping solution I'm likely to guide them this direction first.

Why look elsewhere, right? Well, here's why...

SPECTACULAR SQUARESPACE

Squarespace is an interesting platform that addresses multiple needs effortlessly in a seamless fashion. Over the past few years they have quietly encroached on the footprints of other platforms (I'm looking at you Wordpress & Shopify) to offer a complete solution for today's more integrated online sites. 

What if you want a gorgeous web site with blog content peppered in, context-sensitive products appearing on appropriate pages and customized sales pages that drive your audience to those products? Squarespace does this with incredible ease. Need video smoothly integrated as your page background or an easy way to sell those ebooks? Squarespace. I've developed a genuine appreciation for the platform's versatility and ease of use. Squarespace is (in my opinion) the winner if you see your needs as branded content first and also want to sell some products securely and safely. As noted above, it now has seamless integration with Printful and is a more robust ecommerce player. If you are running a boutique ecommerce business selling a limited number of your own products, I would consider Squarespace as the platform of choice first. Yes, first.

As an advanced front-end developer, both allow me the freedom to custom design any template with CSS and custom coding, meaning you are never locked in to an off-the-shelf design.

TOP QUESTIONS

Which platform is best for ebooks and PDF downloads? Both. Each solution (when set up properly) will generate a unique link for the customer to download the link to your digital content, good for 24 hours. Customers will also be able to download it instantly after checkout is complete.

I run an online apparel store, which solution is best?
If you run a niche apparel brand, either could work. But if you have Tory Burch sized dreams and an ambitious plan for growth, I would nudge you in the direction of Shopify in large part due to the robust administrative panel and ever-growing third-party app integration solutions. Also - the customer admin panel allows you to manage your orders the way a larger brand would. 

I run a brick & mortar business and want a better online presence to match, which solution is best?
If you have a physical boutique and area ready to take it online as well, Shopify's POS cannot be beat. You can use their system for in-store transactions and ensure real-time inventory updates with your online storefront. Shopify also offers robust accounting and other third-party integrations that make this option the best in class for your needs.

I want to have a successful lifestyle blog that also sells my art. What should I use?
For me, Squarespace takes the obvious lead. Your online store can grow with your art collection and I love the platform for blogging and site design. Products can be featured and integrated on virtually any page of the web site (including blog posts) and/or on a dedicated page, giving you rich content options.

What payment solutions does each use?
Get ready to meet your new BFF: Stripe (more on that here). This nimble payment processing tool is integrated with Squarespace and has a sleek (and enjoyably simple) app for your smartphone. You can even take payments from clients you meet in real life, over coffee, for example. Stripe integrates with many cool apps and offers high-quality bank security. Shopify now uses Shopify Payments or a number of other payment processing services.

I want to sell subscription memberships to special content not visible to the public. Solution?
Squarespace. All day long. It's not that Shopify can't do this, it's that it Squarespace is more nimble in the "what would you like to do with this page" arena. Using Shopify (in my opinion) would be overkill for the secured content and private access solution you are seeking.

I'm authoring another post on this topic shortly since this is the area of growth I'm seeing for most of my clients this year. Sign up for the newsletter to make sure you catch that post. It will be juicy!

I've been designing ecommerce storefronts since 1999 and have designed online stores for some very well known brands. This background only means one thing: I know a great ecomm solution when I see one and I can very easily spot deficiencies (and strengths) when I see them. Each of these platforms offer unique advantages to slightly different (and yes, sometimes overlapping) audiences. This brief post barely scratches the surface of the lengthy comparison of features and benefits of each solution.

If you are currently vetting ecommerce solutions, the above info has likely raised more questions than it answered. If you would like additional information, please enjoy a complimentary personal call and we can discuss your ecommerce and online marketing ideas. No obligation. No expectations. I'm happy to answer any and all questions you may have, free of charge. I look forward to hearing from you!