Back in July, I left my job to become a full time entrepreneur. In addition to helping InvestorGeeks grow, I spend my working day incubating a few projects through my design and development firm Stranger Studios.

At my old job, huge IT budgets were the norm. My salary depended on them. But everyone knows that the pioneers of Web 2.0 are capable of building huge applications and entire businesses on pennies. In any case, it is a lot cheaper than it used to be.

Below is a list of tools I use for my own projects and why I find them useful.

Prerequisites

  • A browser with tabs. I recommend FireFox.
    Most of the applications I use these days run in my browser. And if I’m going to have my email, a spreadsheet, a calendar, and an RSS reader open at the same time, I want to be able to keep my taskbar as clean as possible. It takes a little getting used to, but once your switch to a browser that has tabs you’ll never go back. It sounds like a small change, but it’s really one of those things that will change the way you work on the computer… for the better. One of my favorite features is the ability to “quietly” open a link in a new tab. The new tab doesn’t take control of the browser, and so I’m free to get to those pages at my leisure if I’m still interested in the page I’m already looking at.
  • A computer laptop with a lot of RAM.
    Whether you use it to work at the airport, at the cafe down the street, or on your couch in your apartment, a laptop is a great investment. A mid-range laptop will probably be powerful enough to run all of the software you need and is likely cheeper than you remember from college. Just be sure to max out the RAM on your machine (2gigs is typical). FireFox is a memory hog, and all of your applications will run smoother. When you spend 12-16 hours a day at your computer the seconds add up, and you’ll appreciate the speed more than you would an extra 100 gigabytes of hard drive space.

Phase 1: Planning

  • Google’s Personalized Homepage
    This is my base of operations. It’s my homepage for FireFox. Google has just added tabs to their homepage, which makes this product even sweeter. I have a tab for my investing interests, a tab for tech news, and a tab for all things related to WineLog.net. Google homepage has a lot of nifty widgets you can use to keep tabs on the weather or the stock market. Be sure to add the RSS feeds of your favorite blogs for quick access.
  • Gmail
    I’m rough on my computers. They crash often. I backup less often. I trust Google with my data more than myself. If my computer crashes again, all of my email is safely stored online. As a bonus, I’m able to get to those important emails from the library while I’m vacationing in Maine. I like the Gmail interface a lot. Its integration with Gtalk and the other Google products is another nice bonus.
  • Gtalk
    IM software is as crucial as email software these days. AIM and MSN are still staples in the business and college worlds. While Gtalk has a smaller base, I like it for its integration with Gmail. Again, for those times you are borrowing someone else’s computer, it’s nice to be able to message someone right from your web-based email.
  • Google Calendar
    If you have goals, you’re going to need a place to schedule them. I haven’t tried other online calendars, but Google’s offering is great. It is easy to view and manage multiple calendars at a time. I have a separate calendar for each project I’m working on. My girlfriend has access to my personal calendar so I know when I need to be home for dinner or ready to go out.
  • Google Spreadsheet
    I use spreadsheets to keep track of expenses, invoices, and other number-heavy documents. Google Spreadsheets makes it easy for me to share these documents with my partners. The features are good enough for most simple spreadsheets. For more complicated works, I fall back on Excel and email attachments. However, using Google Spreadsheets has forced me to keep my expenses and invoice documents simple… which is a good thing.
  • A Wiki. I recommend PBWiki.
    Wiki’s are great for planning. A Wiki will basically replace your paper notebook. However, it’s better than that because a Wiki is like a notebook that everyone can write in at the same time. And easy hyperlinking makes sharing complex ideas a piece of cake. You’ll want to use attachments to share important documents and files. Watch out though, as PBWiki is only free up to a certain amount of hard disk space. To get around this, you can upload files to another server and link to the files instead of attaching them into the Wiki.
  • Online bookmarking service. I recommend del.icio.us. Check out Ma.gnolia too, which has a few more features.
    In the spirit of keeping everything online, you might as well keep your bookmarks there too. If you’re doing heavy amounts of research, you’ll likely bookmark a lot of page. The ability to tag and later retrieve saved pages by tags will save you a lot of time. Newer services, like Ma.gnolia also offer groups, thumbnails of the sites you bookmark, and more community features.
  • Skype
    For contacting those long distance team members and partners. “Skype-out”, the ability to call someone’s “real phone” from your computer, is free through the end of the year. “Skype-in”, a phone number people can use to call your computer from their phone, is relatively cheap as well.

Phase 2: Development and Marketing

  • Branding: logo and business cards.
    Business cards are important for networking, but they do something that is more important than that. Establishing a brand by creating a logo and copy for a business card will make you feel like you have a real business. It will get you in the mood and motivate you to follow through with your plans of world combination.
  • Website. Hosting: 1and1. Design: find a free template at OSWD or hire me.
    At some point, you’ll want to setup a website for people to learn more about your company or product. It’s good to have something ready so you can put the URL on your business cards. Websites are great conversation enders: “Just go to InvestorGeeks.com to find out more.” And like branding in general, being forced to come up with copy for a website will get you thinking about your business. 1and1 is a good, cheap hosting company. Their up time is great, and your site won’t crash when you get heavy traffic. User and DB management is a little clunky through 1and1, but you can do just about anything you would want to do with a web server with them.
  • Blog. I recommend WordPress. Pick a theme here or design your own.
    Google rules internet traffic, and blogs are perfectly designed to obtain a high “page rank” with Google. Because of this, blogs are great marketing tools if executed well. Write about your company’s product, community, or niche. Create some buzz about your project. The motivational factor is there as well. When you promise on your blog that you’ll have something done by next week, you are more likely to get there.
  • PayPal
    I do invoices through PayPal for clients who need to pay by credit card or just don’t feel like bothering with a check. The fees can cut into your profits a bit, but you might be able to charge that back to your clients. The convenience is usually worth it.
  • Adsense
    If you’re in the online publishing business, Google’s ads are still the king. They are the best context-based ads (and probably the only ones you can sign up for as Yahoo!’s and Microsoft’s are still invite only). I wouldn’t build a business around Adsense. At this point, Google cares more about the advertisers than the publishers, especially if your site is smaller. If you are suspected of click fraud, Google will disable your account with no prior notice and no explanation. You’ll be forced to convince them to re-activate your account, and when they do, all of your earnings will have been returned to the advertisers. I think Google is doing an admirable job managing click fraud and growing their system, but that’s just too scary a situation to put yourself in a position where you rely so heavily on one company. In any case, Adsense can be a great way to bring in a little cash and also gain user data for when you switch Adsense out for more lucrative ads.
  • Adwords
    This is the other arm of the Google advertising empire. I haven’t actually used it yet, but thought I would throw it in here for completeness.

That’s is. There is a lot of Google up there; maybe I’m a fan boy. In most cases I’ve tried other products, but come back to Google for their slick interfaces and interoperability with other Google applications. Astute readers will note that while I don’t trust Google with my Adsense earnings, I trust them with my email, which can be as important as money. For sure, you’ll want to find a way to backup all important email and documents.

One great thing about these tools is the cost. The tools in the planning section are all free for basic use. While you might have enough money to purchase Microsoft Office for all of your employees (and you probably should anyway), using free software means that you will be able to bring any new resource up-to-speed quickly since you won’t have to obtain licenses.

Also, readers should note that this is just my list. There are many applications out there that do the same things. There are many types of applications that I didn’t even mention (invoicing programs come to mind). Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Update: Here are a few I missed first time arround.

  • Google Groups
    A great way to setup a mailing list. Nice archiving.
  • SlimTimer
    A simple task manager you can use to keep track of time spent on projects. Could have better reporting.

1 and 1 is, by all reports, one of the worst hosts out there, for an array of reasons. I’ve been building sites for more than a decade, and I’ve yet to hear anything good about them. There are many (many!) better, more reliable, equally cheap options available.

Starvo, you’ve now heard three good things about 1and1:
(1) They’re inexpensive. (2) They have good up time. (3) They handle high traffic well.

Would you care to share some of those better options?

Adam, prlinkbiz, thanks for the suggestions. I’ll check those out.

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