The tools and technology available to us today are remarkable. Nearly every day I learn about new products, tools or services that change the way I work and how I look at the world.
KVNW Digital Marketing is a remote digital agency, otherwise known as “virtual” or “distributed” agency. This means that work is not performed within one office – instead, it is put together by a team of people who work remotely around the world. The team consists of myself (Kevin) and a number of highly talented and specialized freelancers.
Below are some of the tools I find indispensable to running my remote digital agency. You probably already use some of them, or maybe you have other favourites, but these are a few of mine.
FreshBooks is the bedrock of my business. It houses all of my transactional data and allows me to make the invoicing process far easier than other services I have tried.
It allows me to send out automated monthly invoices by email to my retainer clients, accept payments by credit card and gives my clients a historical record of their purchases to ensure they never miss a beat.
Mind you – I still use a bookkeeper to manage my expenses, which makes tax time that much more efficient and keeps my books legal and organized.
Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools, Google Keep, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Mail, Google Notifications, Google URL Shortener… the list goes on and on.
I have raved about Google Apps for Business in a previous blog post, but I’ll discuss some of the side benefits that I like about using it. For one, it allows me to consolidate all of my client’s performance data. With one email account, I can manage various client AdWords accounts, watch their Google Analytics data, manage their SEO via Webmaster Tools, and report on the key information – all from one account access.
It also has tons of storage to keep shared working documents. My team and I use Google docs to collaborate with each other and we save those documents to a shared Google Drive. My contacts are even synced to the one email account and my calendar is organized and synced with all my devices. This is essential in a multi-device world. If I were ever to lose my phone or laptop, I would be back up and running with all my contacts without missing a beat.
Being a distributed company (with remote workers instead of in-office staff), I rely on project management tools to deliver client work on time. Trello allows me to create tasks, assign them to various team members, watch the progress, give and receive feedback and track completed work every month. It’s a simple and visual way to manage my task work.
Skype is still the international communication tool for remote workers, as far as I am concerned. While it seems ordinary, everyone on my team uses it and is logged into it daily.
I have tried using Slack, only to find that it was more hassle than it was worth to get everyone to use it regularly. Skype allows me to share screens, have conference calls, chat in the background while doing other work, and keep a list of freelancers at my fingertips should I ever need just-in-time assistance. To me, it is the most underrated tool in the software arsenal. And it’s free. Slack needs just a little bit more time to popularize around the world, but it’s getting there.
Clients can book appointments with me directly via Calendly. This makes it easier than going back and forth to find mutually available time slots, and it also gives my clients and prospects direct access to me, while remaining under the parameters I allow.
For example, I rarely take calls before 11:00 am. That time is reserved for my morning routine, getting important work done, and generally getting into the swing of things. While there are exceptions, pre-11:00 am calls get booked manually through me, and only when necessary. I depend on uninterrupted morning time in order to get my most important work done and my day organized.
I also don’t take last-minute calls without a couple hours notice, when possible. This gives me time to breathe and organize my day around a somewhat set schedule, interruption-free.
Raven Tools is a great service that lets me report on the various components of my clients’ online presence and digital marketing activities. It combines website analytics, search engine optimization stats, pay-per-click performance, social media metrics and more in one organized, visual report. I use it for my retainer clients to give them a snapshot of the work I did, the results they received, how the numbers compare to last month, and a lot more. It has become expensive at around US$100/month, only due to the declining Canadian dollar, but that’s how these things go. It’s worth every penny.
I manage dozens of websites and have accounts on hundreds more. Keeping track of usernames and passwords would be a nightmare without this tool. 1Password is a great free tool (with a paid upgrade option) that lets me securely store my client passwords in one place. It’s encrypted and stored in the cloud, so I can access it from my mobile devices, and it generally just works every time. The bonus is that it is a Toronto-based company, where I live and work. I’m happy to support them.
WordPress and the Genesis Framework
It should go without saying that WordPress is a tool that I use basically every day. On top of that, I typically develop using the Genesis Framework, which is an ultra-lean, secure and powerful code framework to build on. I build all of my sites using it, and I will continue doing that for as long as it remains as one of the best available. Kudos to Brian Gardner and the team at Studiopress for building such a great community around it too.
Simplenote rocks. Brought to you by the folks who built and operate WordPress (Automattic) this lightweight little tool does one thing: it creates simple notes. It also syncs up with my phone, computer, and other devices should I need to jot down to-do’s or quick notes on the fly so I can refer to them later. I love it, it’s simple, and it works.
Mailchimp. Who doesn’t love it? I use Mailchimp to manage email marketing campaigns for my clients. The free version has basically everything they need. You can create opt-in forms on your website, gather an audience, send our monthly, weekly, daily, or even ad-hoc campaigns. You get full reports on open rates, clicks, and much more. There are many other options out there, but this one has always worked for me.
Google Fonts, Typekit and Typography.com
Typekit is a cloud typography service that is part of the Adobe family. It allows me to install beautiful custom fonts on my clients’ websites. Fonts make a big difference to the user experience, so this small annual fee makes my work that much prettier.
I use Google Fonts a lot for smaller projects, where typography is less integral, and also use Typography.com on some occasions. Typography.com has fewer fonts, but I am beginning to love many of them, so you may see them appear on more of my sites soon!
UberConference provides a reliable, inexpensive way to have client conference calls. Clients from all over the world can dial into a local telephone number and join the conversation, view shared screens and chat. I’ve tried a few similar conferencing tools, but this lightweight option saves money and gets the job done.
I first heard of BugHerd while working on the client side of a major website redesign. The tool lets you visually tag items that need to be changed from right on the website screen. From bugs and typos to new designs and features, anything is fair game. You can attach files to the “bugs” and they are organized in cards similar to Trello. It lets you see the status of bug reports, make comments and assign them to other people at different stages. It shows when a task is assigned, in progress, ready for review or approved. It’s worth its weight in gold for projects requiring a team to execute.
Social media is an amazing tool for staying top-of-mind to your prospects and also for learning about your own industry. I follow industry experts on Twitter and share insightful resources to my followers across LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook and sometimes other platforms. I’ve even gotten some clients from it, so the ROI is beyond positive. Most of the clients I received using social media were from referrals of people within my network. It may not be a direct relationship, but referrals are a big deal in any business.
Having a remote team means I need to document my processes. The best way to do it is with video. Jing lets me make short, 5-minute screencasts to show how I do certain repeatable tasks every month. It’s free and makes it easy to keep systems and processes going when new team members join the team.
As my business continues to grow, so too does the need to manage support requests efficiently. HelpScout is the tool I currently use to manage most of my website maintenance and support requests. It lets you manage incoming emails, reply or forward them on, assign them to different teammates, change the status of a ticket so everyone knows what’s happening, store historical data to get smarter about our customers’ specific needs, and get feedback on how clients feel about our services. This tool is essential to keeping things from slipping through the cracks.
This is an industry-standard web development tool that allows me to write code in a clean visual field. It is free to use and is rock solid all around. If you haven’t heard of Sublime Text, you probably don’t need it.
Currently, I use Toggl to track how I spend my time every day. I record administrative work, billable hours and basically anything else that I measure. It gives me better insight into where my time goes every day so I can stay efficient. It is also essential for me as a time tracking mechanism for clients who are billed on an hourly rate.
While PayPal has a mediocre reputation to some people, I like it because it is the most commonly used tool to securely make payments on websites. I receive payments for some of my invoices to my PayPal account, and I also use it to pay for expenses like remote contractors, software expenses, and educational resources. In many cases, I don’t pay the fees because I use it to pay for expenses instead of withdrawing the money. I use cheques and e-transfers as the cash to put aside for taxes, personal income and other expenses.
I love Dropbox because it keeps my files organized and synced on all devices. If my computers got robbed tomorrow, I would be able to retain all of my data and not miss a beat. The only thing I would need to do is reinstall software, which isn’t too bad. I can also access files on-the-go using the Dropbox App on my iPhone. This makes it super easy to answer questions and send files while I am out of the office.
Balsamiq Mockups 3
Every good website design requires a mockup in some form. I prefer to use Balsamiq Mockups to wireframe my website projects as part of the strategy process. It’s a simple-to-use tool that has a lot of utility. Clients can get an idea for how the content will flow on their website before it gets moved to the mockup design stage. This gives my projects a reliable process and lets clients see and agree to decisions at every step of the way.
In business and in life, if you’re not learning you’re falling behind. I love Audible because it allows me to listen to business books while on the go. I have over 60 books at the time of this writing, and I have to say, I now prefer to listen to books more than reading. I’ve always loved reading, but this makes it much more immersive. I can listen to books everywhere I go, so not a moment is wasted!
iMac, Mac Air, iPhone
Where would we be without our essential electronics? I am a major Apple fan. Their customer service is the best in the world, their products last a long time, rarely get debilitating viruses and I never see the blue screen of death. If you aren’t an Apple user, it’s time to get on that bandwagon. In fact, it’s been time for many years, which is why they are one of the most profitable companies in the world.
I hope this little list gives you insight into the various tools required to run a distributed/remote digital agency.