It’s a cliché and a truth of startups that your most important decision is your first hire. Founders should spend a majority of their time finding the right people to fulfil their vision. But if like me you’re a media artisan, a solo creator who’s not yet keen to bring anyone else on board, you may not realise that you too are hiring. Possibly the most important decision you’re making is what tools you’re using – because behind those tools are companies and teams you’re essentially recruiting to back your business.
You can do much more as a solo entrepreneur than you could even five years ago. Online tools will let you automate tasks and spare you (for a while) the use of a marketer, a community manager, even a developer. The right tools will have a quick learning curve, adapt with you and push obstacles out of your way. The wrong tools will frustrate you and limit your growth. How do you know which is which? I explored, stumbled and moved around in the first year of Borderline. I’ve now settled on a suite of products I would happily endorse. Here’s what I’ve learned to look for and some recommendations.
Keep it simple
Your time is your biggest asset. Don’t spend days figuring out how to work a piece of software. Mailchimp or Google Analytics are for corporate employees who do a single job and can spend days tweaking dials to get exactly the right report. That’s not you. Be realistic about your own technical skills too. I’m nerdy, I like changing a line of code on Ghost to see what happens. That’s not for everyone. If you’re looking at a piece of software and you don’t think you can figure it out within at most a couple hours, move on.
The feature set matters less than the speed of release
Sometimes the software is just too simple and won’t let you do what you want. How likely is that to change? Look for release notes to understand how often and how significantly the software is updated. Some are pretty much set in stone: I can’t remember any major updates over the years I used Squarespace. Others are more dynamic. I love Descript (changelog) and Ghost (changelog) because I know that whatever I’m missing, I won’t miss for long.
Make sure you get to be on the team
The other side of that equation is having an open line of communication with the company so you can influence what updates are coming. You don’t want just effective customer support when things go wrong. You want a chance to co-create the tools you really need. That’s where supporting smaller businesses pays off. I love my podcast host Transistor because cofounder Justin Jackson is a friend and a champion to all his customers. Always there to help, take product feedback or RT an episode. Descript has a great feature request board where you can suggest changes, upvote others’ suggestions and crucially get updated on which are being worked on. Ghost’s team is also super responsive and maintains a forum and Discord server for the community where you can get help on just about anything. That’s important for more technical software. I’m no developer but with community help, I’ve been able to build crazy stuff on Ghost.
Free tools are fine if you know what bargain you’re striking
There’s a school of thought that says never to use free software. If you’re not paying, you’re the product, they say. That’s a nice principle but we’re not made of money in this industry. So go ahead, use free software. Just make sure you’re not signing a Faustian deal. Yes, that means reading/googling those T&Cs. Verify you’ll be able to transfer your work when you’re ready to move up. Check Twitter to see how well-behaved the company is when people leave. I especially recommend free tools when you’re testing the waters: Most podcast episode lists don’t make it into the double digits and there must be a post-lockdown graveyard of expensive audio kit somewhere. (Please donate within.) Make sure you’re going to stick with something before investing.
You (and your customers) should feel good about using them
Free or paid, don’t use a tool that gives you the heebie-jeebies. Life’s too short. I use Plausible, an analytics tool that doesn’t follow you around the Web. I like Ghost because it’s non-profit and open-source, and Transistor because they’re an independent business supporting independent businesses. It’s not always possible – I still give a little money to Google and can’t do away with Spotify embeds yet – but if you’re not doing business in line with your values, why are you doing it?
Keep an eye on the bill and regularly reassess your needs
Everything is a “small monthly fee.” Add them up and I’m now spending about £1,200 a year just on software keeping Borderline online. (Help!) On the one hand, it boggles the mind that you can run a media business on 135 bucks a month. On the other hand, it’s 135 bucks and I’m not even paying myself a salary. Regularly reassess: Are you using this tool enough to justify the expense? Would a free alternative be acceptable? You’ll usually save 20% if you pay annually, but it’s not a saving if you stop using it after two months. Start monthly on the cheapest plan and evaluate your use. Look for non-profit discounts. Beware auto-renewals. A company you can trust will make it as easy for you to leave as to sign up… which lets you confidently return when you need it again.
Do the math on revenue-cut business models
Some appealing tools start free but take a percentage from your revenue – 10% on Substack, 5% on Revue, 12% for a decent plan on Patreon… It’s only fair: they share the risk and provide free infrastructure. But what turnover do you need to reach before those tools become more expensive than a traditional pay-upfront app? These business models rely on your not knowing where the bar is and not bothering to switch. If you have 500 paying members at $100 a year, Substack will take $5,000. The same 500 paying members from a 10,000 subscriber list (standard 5% conversion rate) will cost you $1,188 on Ghost. Factor in payment fees too: Substack and Ghost both use Stripe, but Patreon is still on Paypal, which is extremely expensive. In 2020, I calculated that my Patreon cost 18% all-in. I shut it down. Quite early on, when you reach customers into the 3-digits, revenue cut business models get expensive. Of course, Substack et al. offer other advantages. It’s not a simple case of one bad, the other good. Just know your own cost-benefit analysis.
Don’t forget they’re businesses
Your providers will do what they need to survive and thrive. Startups may have to alienate early users to pivot to a more profitable strategy. New social products have outsized impact because the platform is putting its weight on the scale to help them take off. A year later, after you’ve built up your audience, crickets. There’s no point acting betrayed when a platform changes its algorithm or a tool kills a feature you relied on. They’re working for their business, and you should work for yours. Don’t build on rented land. Make sure you own your email list, your data and your content. Diversify your revenue and your means of reaching an audience. Don’t let any third party, whether a grant funder or a Facebook group, be your only lifeline. Look ahead and understand their incentives. Make them work for you, but don’t expect their loyalty or give them yours. It can be a friendly, mutually beneficial transaction, but it’s still a transaction.
So here’s what I’ve picked
With all that said, here are all the tools I’m sticking with in making Borderline – and what they cost me. This is just one woman’s toolbox. If you’re serious about finding better tools for your work, you cannot miss Jeremy Caplan’s newsletter Wonder Tools.
Website and newsletter
Ghost ($480/year): Open-source, non-profit, great community. A bit more technical, but worth sticking with. Starts free, then pricing depends on your member count. Watch out: free subscribers count as members too so delete anyone who unsubscribes from emails.
Aspire Themes (one-time $150 purchase): There are plenty of free options, but I bought a better Ghost website template from Ahmad Ajmi. He deserves a mention here because in addition to beautiful design, his work is perfectly documented meaning even a noob like me can easily customise it. And he's extremely friendly with the customer service. Indie business is the way, I tell you.
Descript ($288/year): Text-based audio and video editing with AI transcription. Makes great audiograms, includes hosting and gorgeous embeddable player. That doesn’t begin to describe how powerful and easy it is, even for people like me with zero audio training. If I could marry an app, this’d be it.
Transistor ($190/year): My podcast host. Does a simple job well and with a smile. Good but not overwhelming analytics. Built-in website.
Zencastr (free): Records remote interviews locally at both ends for better quality. (Zoom destroys audio, don’t use it for recording.) Better quality for $20/month but the free mp3s are plenty sufficient.
Youtube Audio Library (free): Finding rights-free music for your podcast when you can’t afford a sound designer is a nightmare. Youtube’s library of licensed tunes (you must credit though) is a hidden treasure. Still looking for that signature Borderline sound though…
Canva (£108/year): Creates stunning images in a few clicks. Vast collection of paid-for assets. Content planner and social scheduling. A consistent visual identity goes a long way in making your work look professional. Invest a few hours in building templates and a colour palette, and it’ll pay off every time you publish. Starts free.
Datawrapper (free): Builds custom interactive maps and charts from datasets, and for free!
Rawpixel (free): A curated collection of free images so you don’t spend too long sifting through ugly stock. Look for public domain images especially.
Plausible ($57.60): Ethical data analytics, easy to use, reasonably priced.
Carrd ($19 a year): Stunning landing pages with zero code, little time and so cheap! My landing pages do one job for people who need quick answers – borderlinepod.com for an intro to the podcast and roughol.fyi to get me hired. Starts free.
Google Domains (£37/year for 3 domains): It doesn’t matter all that much where you keep your domains, except most hosts are stuck in Web 1.0 with maddeningly poor user interfaces. Google does the job fine.
Ulysses (£48.99/year): Distraction-free writing, all my drafts in one place and on the cloud, publishes straight onto Ghost.
Zapier ($240/year): Automates a lot of tiny time-consuming things, especially for social media and membership management. Starts free.
Google Workspace (£55/year): Just my email basically. Drive and Meet as a bonus.
Calendly (free): Basic and indispensable for scheduling. I make do with the free plan at the moment, but it’s worth $96 a year if you do a lot of meetings.
What I’ve tried and stopped
Google Analytics, Substack, Anchor, Patreon, Squarespace, Wordpress, Buymeacoffee, Linktree, Bio.link, any and all social media scheduling clients… Why is for another post.