The Definitive Startup Toolbox

10 min read | Free PDF of impakt Labs's Operating Manual

Essential tools, products and processes for startups seeking to maximize effectiveness and productivity.

Posted by Alika Graham on January 31st, 2017

Our organization is focused on the application of best practices for startups in order to maximize effectiveness. We believe that the best ideas win, and that in order for an organization to come out ahead, it must constantly seek out ways to maximize efficiency.

Given the fact that we are also a startup, we’re constantly exposed to the challenges of managing and balancing our commitments to ourselves (our mission and vision), to each other, and to our clients. At the onset of our venture, we had no idea how to address these issues. We were so caught up with the excitement of being our own employers, fulfilling our own vision and calling ourselves entrepreneurs that we, initially, neglected the importance of structure: the type of structure most people get by NOT working for themselves but for a larger organization with managers and hard expectations.

After several months of having effectively made zero profit and having realized none of our initial ambitions, we decided we desperately needed to change things or else we would be thrown right back into the 9-5 job market that drove us to self employment to begin with. While working from home and keeping our own hours was fun, we had become complacent. In order get back (and stay) on track, we drafted the Execution Method, the document that to this day serves as the constitution of sorts for our organization. In it, we defined our basic guidelines; the organizational rules by which all members are expected to abide.

Among those rules include:

  1. Our Mission and (both short and long term) Vision Statements - the broader goals of the organization
  2. Communication - details on platforms and timeliness
  3. Task management - how to select tasks and run meetings
  4. Plan-Do-Measure (PDM) goals - those focused on personal growth and accountability

This article describes the specific internal standards that we defined in that original document and outlines the tools and best practices we developed in order to continue to uphold them.

Our Mission and Vision(s)

See our blog post on specifically how to accomplish create your mission and vision. The most important process at the onset of any organization is the team-wide alignment of the big picture goals: the very reason you are banding together to begin with. No matter the size of your organization, these goals should be recited as often as possible as - at the highest level - they dictate every decision you make as an organization.

Best Practices

  • Make sure every member of your team is involved in the process of defining these statements and make sure they can easily communicate them to people outside of your organization as well.

Communication

The next most important factor for us is ensuring timely and transparent communication both internally and externally. To accomplish this, we have several tools and processes at our disposal:

Slack

Our standard application for all work related instant communication. Slack serves as a simple, organized instant messaging platform, and is the only one we need. In addition to a being a great tool for instant messaging - we use it in place of text messages and have even created channels for sharing non-work-related topics - Slack lets you control access to specific channels so that only relevant team members can follow specific conversation threads. Given our involvement in such a wide variety of organizations and covering numerous client work streams, Slack’s ubiquity in the Startup world makes it an essential communication platform.

Best Practices

  • Turn alerts off. This is especially important if you follow multiple channels. Instead, set the tagging expectations, where a person is only expected to see a message relevant to them when their username is mentioned in the conversation.
  • Set response time expectations for you and your team. For example, we have a maximum response time of 1 hour for all tagged messages between the hours of 9am and 7pm.
  • Avoid excessive exchanges by designating a channel for casual conversation. In our case, we have a ‘socialize’ channel.

Gmail

Kind of a no-brainer. What Startup doesn’t use Gmail?

Google Drive

Our primary storage platform for nearly everything. Google Drive enables easy collaboration and organization for all our files and documents. With upgradeable storage options, there’s no limit to the amount of items you can keep on the Drive. As we also keep copies of everything on our respective computers and devices, Google Drive also serves as a backup tool for all of our information so nothing is ever lost if, for example, you experience a hardware crash.

Best Practices

  • Make sure your file labels are clear and start with the highest possible level. In our case, every file can be placed in one of nine categories of our business’s operation.
  • Number your files for easy organization/sorting

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Google Calendar

We schedule just about everything. In fact, every item in our to-do list for a given day is assigned a corresponding calendar slot. It’s the only way to ensure anything gets done. In addition, we track actual times for completing tasks as we work so we can compare the amount of time a given item took to finish. While that level of granularity may not be desireable for everyone, it gives us a very realistic picture of our days and provides us data into how we should design future workdays. For all scheduling purposes, Google Calendar is the ideal platform. It allows us to share (with controls over specificity) our plans across the entire team so that, for example, scheduling meetings isn’t a matter of first figuring out when everyone will be available. Instead, we can see what each person in our team is doing at a given time and make plans accordingly, saving countless time wasted on back-and-forth inquiries of each other's’ availability.

Best Practices

  • Share all your calendars across all of your accounts. In other words, if you run multiple organizations like us, make sure every account is subscribed to the other with “Make changes AND manage sharing” on so that you can schedule things from and on behalf of any account.
  • Also share calendars with each member of your team. You can easily manage permissions for third party calendar sharers so that, for example, personal calendars don’t display specifics to your colleagues.

Google Sheets

For simple-to-moderately complex spreadsheets, Google sheets provides a great solution and is our go-to over Excel in most cases. Being able to collaborate on a spreadsheet remotely and in real time is especially useful, making Sheets an ideal presentation tool as well.

Google Docs

Essentially the only word processing tool we use, Google docs easily beats Word in nearly every category.

Best Practices

  • Have a standard naming convention for all your documents. Our preferred method uses the date format YYYY-MM-DD before the title. This makes it easy to organize and keep track of more recent versions of a particular file without having to delete older ones.
  • Because written items tend to be passed along and go through multiple iterations, always put the goal of each document at the top in the header.

UberConference

Of all the conference options available Uberconference is the superior option. The free version is also more than sufficient for all of our purposes and is full of useful features such as a very attractive user interface that lets you see who is on the call without having to do a roll call. It also enables meeting recording as well as letting you choose to participate in a call via your phone or your computer - both very handy features for us.

Task Management

Managing responsibilities and to-do’s is critical, especially when managing multiple ventures and work streams. We keep a relatively short list of tools that enable us to do so. They include:

Asana

Our primary application for managing to-do’s across all teams and projects. Asana let’s us easily assign, acknowledge, and set deadlines for to-dos. Since tasks in Asana can be color coded and tagged to specific projects, it’s a very effective tool for assessing the current progress within a particular workstream. Similarly to Slack, Asana allows you to control user access so only relevant team members can see the status and details of each project.

Best Practices

  • Set up a ‘Core Dashboard’, that is, a project whose sole purpose is for keeping track of everything each team member is planning to work on in a given week. This let’s you - and everyone else - get a big picture view of all your work streams.
  • Categorize tasks as ‘Today’, ‘Backlog’, and ‘Completed’ etc so you can get a good grasp on the Past, Present, and Future status and intentions of all your team members.

Trello

Great for managing specific projects with specific outputs, using Trello boards is a great way to ensure accountability and progress on a particular work stream. Our primary use case for Trello has been with managing software development. For example, we’ve been using it to assign changes/updates to our development team on the Evolution 2 platform. In contrast to Asana, Trello functions more as a project management platform for focused work.

Plan-Do-Measure

At it’s core, impakt Labs is a personal development focused company. Each of us are driven by our unending pursuit of maximizing personal and organizational effectiveness. As a result, we have spent a great deal of time and attention to developing our own solutions, the first of which is currently in beta and available to select users:

Evolution 2 (E2)

Our very own in-house developed habit tracking tool. We developed E2 based on the principle that the best way to make progress on your goals is to start by habitualizing the incremental steps necessary for reaching them. The E2 platform has been in constant development over several years. It was inspired by our internal operations and currently in beta testing nearing a full public release. Features of Evolution 2 include:

  1. Habit trackers - define the necessary daily sub goals that get you closer to your big picture ones and record whether or not they were completed each day. Observe progress visually over 7, 30, 60 and 90 days.
  2. Issue logs - a diagnostic tool when habits are missed that allows for inspection of root causes and fixes.
  3. Sharing and Leaderboard implementation- creates competition and added accountability to and from peers.

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If you’re interested in being one of our first users, click here.

Best Practices

  • Accountability is a very important factor for ensuring you actually accomplish all of your habits. With that in mind, we’ve enabled sharing of your habit building stats. We recommend doing this with at least one other E2 user who can push you on goals that you’re failing to accomplish.
  • Make use of the Issue Log. The point of it is to recognize - and ultimately remove - any roadblocks preventing progress on your habits.

Other Useful Tools

Evernote

Evernote is the only note taking tool we use and we use it a lot: for keeping meeting records - both audible and written formats - to just jotting down general thoughts to process later. We also use it to share content as Evernote makes it easy to save documents and websites as PDF’s for reading offline.

The Most Dangerous Writing App

Freewriting is one great method we use to overcome blocks. One great tool for doing this is The Most Dangerous Writing App (MDWA). It’s function is simple: set a writing session length and start freewriting. If you stop typing for 5 seconds, all your words are erased. Only after your session time has elapsed are you able to save your work. The point of MDWA is to get you into flow and, and is a very effective way to jumpstart productivity and get unstuck.

Upwork

Some work we do is completely outside of our areas of expertise. In those instances, Upwork is very handy. Upwork is a marketplace for freelancers whom you can hire - per project or per hour - to perform nearly any task that you aren’t proficient in yourself. Whether it’s coming up with an attractive logo design or inputting a complicated macro into an excel spreadsheet, Upworkers are a great resource that can save you countless hours of unnecessary skill development and allow you to focus on your most productive work.

Adobe Creative Suite

For producing, editing, and signing PDF’s, designing brochures and editing photos, Adobe Creative Suite has been in our toolbox since the beginning. With Creative Cloud, we always have access to the latest versions and can save our work on the server to ensure nothing is ever lost.

Mailchimp

The best mass emailing tool available and the standard for many organizations, Mailchimp is incredibly simple to use, reliable, and provides great insights into the effectiveness of mailing campaigns. With templates and saved contact lists (which can be categorized for specific types of campaigns), we can get a mass email set-up and fired off in a matter of minutes.

Streak

We conduct sales across several of our own and our affiliated organizations. In order to keep track of all our efforts, Customer Relationship Management is critical. Compared with other CRM software, Streak is a breeze to setup and use. Features like mail merge for bulk sales emailings, color-coded pipelines to keep track of deal flow, and the Chrome plugin that eliminates the need load a separate page or download an app make it even more convenient.

The standards and expectations in place that dictate how we use the above listed tools are defined separately the impakt Labs Execution Method document here. Without it, our organization would be incomplete.

Have questions about our tools and guidelines or curious about how we address specific problems? Just ask us at [email protected]




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