There was a time when I thought that the tools and tactics would make me a success.
It's simply not true. Hustle, grit, and effective strategy are what will get you results in life. But given you have those, tools can make the journey a lot smoother.
Without some of these, I'd be working 200x more than I do (and I already work a LOT). I've slowly added these into my business systems over time as needed and they've made all the difference in either freeing up my time to focus on what I'm best at, or flat out doing the job better than I ever could.
Disclaimer: Some of the links to the tools I recommend are affiliate links. This means that if you decide to buy or subscribe, I'll get a commission for the sale. I only recommend what I have personally found to be great tools and services to run my business, regardless of if I get a commission or not.
It's important to make sure and fully evaluate if you actually need a tool to get where you want to go. Don't spend precious money or time on things that aren't going to help you achieve your goals.
Hosting and Registrars
Hosting and domain registration are the bedrock of starting any business with an online arm. I personally hate dealing with it, but recognize the importance. These two providers have been nothing but helpful, easy to use, and fairly priced...and believe me, I've tried about 10 registrars and 5 different hosts. These are the ones I've ended up using time and time again.
Namecheap - $10.69/yr for .com domains + private whois
After dealing with the awfulness that is GoDaddy, I will never register my domains anywhere but Namecheap from here on out. They're always running coupons for renewals and new registrations, their support is friendly, and you can get SSL certs and host email with them. Sometimes I even throw a site on shared hosting here if it doesn't need something as robust as KnownHost.
Traffic Planet - From $25/mo, my plan is $50/mo
After being on a VPS that was costing me $80/mo for slower performance, worse support, and more hassle I finally made the switch. Traffic Planet has possibly the best support of any hosting company I've found yet, their pricing is beyond fair, and performance hasn't been an issue at all. I went with the $50/mo plan due to bandwidth requirements.
One of the best features is their free website migration. I used it to transfer 5 of my sites over and they were all done within 24 hours, with zero problems. Such a relief.
Once you've got a site up and running, chances are high you'll be using WordPress. It's simple to use and powers over 1/5th of the web at last count. But to make use of it's full power, typically you'll want a theme that has all of the features you need already built in. After trying literally hundreds of themes, this is what I've settled on:
Thrive Themes - $49 for a single site
I actually picked up the yearly subscription to Thrive's entire database of themes for unlimited use. I use them on every site that I own, along with the rest of the Thrive products. They're optimized for speed, conversion, and sharing. I've found that installing one of these themes typically means saving myself from installing 5+ plugins, which goes a long way for ease of use and simplicity.
I try to limit the amount of plugins that I use for WordPress, but there are some that are just too good to pass up. They offer functionality that isn't built into the core WordPress install that either improve performance, optimization, or just plain save me time. Here are some of my favorites:
WordPress SEO by Yoast - Freemium
There is not a single site that I have built in my entire life that I haven't used this plugin. Well, except for the ones I made on Geocities...but that's beside the point. Yoast updates this plugin regularly and it's by far the best SEO plugin that has ever been made. And it's free.
If your business relies on email in any way to reach out to customers (it should), then you'll need an email service provider to make it easier to segment your list and promote your products and services. Email is the ultimate owned asset - it's not going to get taken away from you like your social audience could. Here are the tools that I use
Active Campaign - From $9/mo, my plan is $29/mo
I have recently switched over to Active Campaign from Mailchimp and I'm shocked at the value. Not only is it cheaper when compared to Mailchimp, it offers so much more functionality it's not even fair. You're able to create marketing automations that put every other email service provider to shame. I don't expect to switch from these guys for quite a while.
Landing Pages Creation
A wholly separate type of page than blog posts and pages, landing pages are core to any online (or offline) business. There are plenty of services out there that will help you create these and host them (Unbounce and Leadpages come to mind), but I prefer to create my own:
Thrive Landing Pages - From $59
A self-hosted WordPress plugin from Thrive that comes with a bunch of pre-built templates that you can modify to fit your needs. Unlike a service like Unbounce or Leadpages, you only have to buy this plugin once and you can use it over and over again, on as many sites as you want. Now that's value.
If you're building web properties that are offering real value to people, chances are good they'll want more information from you. I try to make this as easy as possible for them to get, and that means using software that helps me capture their contact information:
Thrive Leads - From $59
Thrive Leads is the best lead generation plugin on the market right now. You can set up any type of lead capture (pop ups, forms, slide boxes, bars, etc) and segment your lists however you choose. It's really powerful and again, is a one-time fee instead of a monthly service.
SEO is moving more and more into the technical and analytical realms these days, as good SEO becomes more of a science than an art. The grunt work is absolutely massive unless you invest in something to help take the brunt of the analytical work off of your shoulders. Here's what I use on a regular basis.
Ahrefs - From $79/mo
In the past, Moz or Majestic SEO had the best backlink index in existence. Today, Ahrefs holds that title and I expect them to for years to come. Their index is massive and they provide endless ways to navigate and manipulate the data to speed up your research workflow.
Buzzstream - From $19/mo
Buzzstream is an odd tool, but it has become invaluable in my workflow. I keep my entire database of contacts for links, articles, and press in Buzzstream. On top of that, I have my team set up in there with email templates for link building and press mentions. It has scaled my promotion efforts considerably.
Content Marketing Tools
Content marketing is the norm these days, but efficient content marketing is hard to come by. Without these tools, it would simply take up far too much time to be worth the effort - it's all I'd be doing! They're by no means necessary, and there are other options, but having a tool that helps you with content, sharing, and image creation is more or less essential.
Buzzsumo - From $59/mo
I like to think of Buzzsumo as the content version of Ahrefs. It shows you exactly what content is going viral for a particular topic or website. You can paste in a URL of a site and it will spit out not only the best content, but the people who shared it and how much influence they have.
Canva - Free
Creating compelling graphics that aren't terrible stock photos or memes is crucial, but also time-consuming. Canva makes image creation as easy as I've ever seen. Awesome templates for all types of images (social, headers, logos, ads, etc) with ability to customize fully. All free.
Social Media Tools
Many people over focus on social media, which is a problem because it's already a time consuming task. I try to make it as automated as possible while still retaining the human element that makes it a worthwhile use of time.
Here are the tools I use:
CoSchedule - From $15/mo
CoSchedule is a lifesaver for me when it comes to scheduling out social media promotions for posts, and seeing both my editorial and promotional calendar in one place. You hook in all of your social media accounts, add their WordPress plugin, and you can simply schedule out promotions across all channels and time periods with a few clicks. Has saved me countless hours.
I've used giveaways and contests quite a bit to either kickstart new businesses or take existing businesses to the next level in terms of my reach and audience. There are a lot of companies trying to solve the giveaway problem on the market, and I've tried quite a few of them. Here's the one that I've been using for over a year now:
Gleam - Free, but I use the $39/mo Pro plan
Without Gleam, a few of my businesses just wouldn't be where they are today. It's the most powerful app I've found for running giveaways. And giveaways are great ways to build an audience for your service or product. I've done a full tutorial on how I use Gleam that you can check out below - but if you're thinking of running a giveaway for your company, Gleam is the company to go with.
CRO & Analytics
"What gets measured, gets managed" is a classic Peter Drucker quote that I hold to in every aspect of my life, especially when it comes to business. Without knowing the analytics of my businesses, I'd have no way to know what's going wrong and what I need to improve. Here's what I use:
Google Analytics - Free
The gold standard of web analytics for a reason - it works. If you're doing complex tracking, you may want to augment with another analytics suite, but for most people Google Analytics is more that enough. Changes are high that you're not using all of it's capabilities either, so investing in learning the most popular analytics platform in the world will pay dividends.
I am a self-admitted productivity nut, so there are a lot of tools in here. That being said, I don't add tools just for their own sake - they must have a tangible benefit to my productivity or I cut them out. This section is probably the most volatile out of all of my recommended tools, because I am constantly working to be more efficient and productive.
Trello - Free, but has a business option
Trello is how I organize my personal to-do's, as well as the editorial calendars for all of my writing on this site, my personal site, and any other projects I'm working on. There's no better way to manage content, especially if you have a team of writers that are helping you out with the process.
Evernote - Free, but has a premium option
Evernote is my 'artificial brain'. Everything that I need to save for later goes here. That means my book notes, my article clippings, and any information that I need for travel or reference (logins, etc). By using it and a few key integrations, I never have to worry about remembering important details, which I'm terrible at.
As much as I love to be productive, it's better to automate work that you shouldn't be doing in the first place. I use two different-but-similar companies to help me do this - one for my professional life, and one for my personal life.
Warning: Don't try to automate processes before you've done them a LOT - you will cost yourself a lot of money:
Zapier - From $0, but I use $15/mo plan
Zapier is a non-human virtual assistant that 'fills in the gaps' between apps that you use every day. I use it for all sorts of little automations that make my sites and businesses run smoothly.
Fancy Hands - From $29/mo for 5 requests
Fancy Hands is a lifesaver. You get a set amount of requests per month and you can use them on almost anything - from getting a hair appointment to getting some market research done on a new business venture. They use savvy humans to complete your requests and I've been satisfied everytime.
IFTTT - Free
IFTTT, or If This Then That, is best thought of as the 'consumer' version of Zapier. It connects most of the services that many of us use on a day to day basis, like Facebook, Evernote, or Twitter. You can cook up some really cool recipes on there to make your life easier, I highly suggest you check it out.