Solopreneur Software and Other Tools

I run three separate technology-related businesses, and that means a lot of software and tools to help me keep everything running semi-smoothly.

For context, these are the three businesses I run:

  1. IndieHive, which consists of this site, my newsletter, courses and other info products that I sell, etc.
  2. Everleads, my subscription service for freelance designers and developers to find new clients
  3. mobileCTO, my iOS development consulting firm

This list doesn’t cover every single product or service I use, just the ones at least mildly notable. I’ll link to more in-depth reviews as I write them.

One of the themes that emerged while writing this is inertia. Switching tools is expensive in terms of time, risk, and mental energy. As a result, my threshold for migrating away is pretty high, and that leaves me stuck over time with a bunch of tools that get on my nerves in various ways. I don’t have a clear answer for this, but it’s something I keep in mind a lot more now when I research new tools and services.

Selling things online

I use this course platform to sell and deliver Freelance250k. It’s fairly easy to get setup, so it’s on the list of what I’d recommend for someone who wants to sell their first course, but I can’t recommend it beyond that. There are just a bunch of little annoying things that have gotten under my skin over time, especially as my sales have scaled up. For example:

  • You can’t manually retry failed payments, you just have to wait until they’re automatically tried again.
  • Once payments have failed a few times, they cancel the subscription and there’s no way to restart it. You have to to create a one-off pricing plan for that student for whatever their balance is and then have them go check out again.
  • There’s no way to pass data into the cart for analytics or other purposes.
  • Their API, webhooks, and Zapier integrations seem to be glitchy
  • The reporting in the app is almost completely useless, which is annoying since they have all the data they’d need to make it awesome.
  • Crummy options for doing tiered courses

More troubling, they seem to be changing their pricing model, as I keep getting emails about how I haven’t switched to using the new default for course creators to handle their billing, something called “BackOffice” that costs 2% of revenue.

I’m currently using Stripe through Teachable to process the payments and paying Teachable $99 / month. I have zero interest in some new product that they’re charging a percentage of revenue for, but I fear that it’s only a matter of time before that “option” is no longer optional.

One of the things I’ve learned the hard way is that platforms are not to be trusted. When your interests align, it’s great, but at some point if they decide to switch directions, you’re screwed.

I’ve been frustrated with Teachable since day 1, but the product has not really evolved much in the last 2+ years, so I’m working on migrating off of it.

It hasn’t been terrible, just mediocre.

In thinking about moving off of Teachable, I looked at a lot of alternatives before choosing Woocommerce. Truthfully, Woocommerce has a lot of issues too. It’s ugly and complicated out of the box, it’s designed more for physical products than digital ones, and on and on.

But it has one huge thing going for it: it’s open source software written in PHP. My experience has been that mature open source software is much safer to build your business on.

I’m currently selling some smaller products on Woocommerce and it’s been solid. It was a few days of work to get everything styled and configured the way I want, and I’m not thrilled with the update process, which feels pretty risky, but that’s what backups are for!

Another classic example of platform risk. We run all the membership billing for Everleads through Memberful. I chose it back in 2015 because it was simple, cheap, and integrated nicely with Mailchimp.

Unfortunately, in the first year or two of using it, they decided to change from charging 1% of revenue to 2% of revenue. They just sent me an email saying “Hey, we know we said we were going to charge 1%, but that’s not enough. So starting next month we’re charging 2%”. I never trusted them again after that.

Now, I could have migrated off Memberful, but that’s a pain, so I didn’t. And that’s what they were counting on, so I guess they won. Then they sold to Patreon and the fees went to 5-10% per month. Fortunately, Patreon grandfathered me into the old 2% pricing, but I don’t think that’ll last.

Oh, and all of that is in addition to the $25 / month subscription fee, and there are other annoying things about the platform too that have been present for years. I intend to migrate off Memberful in 2019, and I can’t recommend them. There are plenty of alternatives that just charge a flat rate. I’m only stuck there because of inertia.

What can I say about Stripe? I’m a huge fan and I’d use them for everything if I could.

Full disclosure, I did have an issue with Everleads last year where they appeared to be about to cut me off with 5 days notice because someone there erroneously flagged my account. Fortunately, I was able to reach out to the right people about it and get it sorted out within a day or two. Still, it was really stressful and it’s on my list to get setup with Braintree or another processor to be able to switch to if Stripe ever causes me issues like that again.

People like to pay with Paypal, so I support it where I can. I don’t like it though, and I transfer money out of it as soon as received, thanks to all the horror stories about them freezing funds for months or indefinitely.

Sending emails

After a huge fiasco with Drip, I switched all the email list stuff for to ActiveCampaign, and I’m pretty thrilled with it so far. It’s an absolute beast when it comes to complex marketing automation workflows. My main complaints are the lack of a Javascript API and the fact that a few basic features are only available for their higher tiers, which are prohibitively expensive for me. Still, I highly recommend.

Everleads has simpler email needs that my list, so I decided to use ConvertKit. The team behind ConvertKit is excellent and their vision for the product gives me more faith in it than most. That said, as my need for marketing automation on Everleads grows, I may switch this to ActiveCampaign as well. ConvertKit functions best for relatively straightforward email lists, not heavy marketing automation. If you’re a blogger and you want to grow a successful newsletter, this is for you.

We use Mailchimp for the Everleads daily leads emails, mainly because it integrates with Memberful so we can easily keep everything in sync so that paying subscribers get the full leads email and free users get the abbreviated version later that day.

Sending emails from your server directly is generally a bad idea, and many hosts won’t even allow it. So we use Mailgun for various transactional emails, like from Woocommerce or the Everleads backend. Our usage is low enough that it’s free.

OK, this is as much about receiving emails as sending them, but I put it in this section anyway. We use Freshdesk to manage customer support for both IndieHive and Everleads, and the free tier works fine for us for now. The other big contender here was HelpScout, which is awesome, but our customer support load is really small, so it didn’t feel worth it to pay for something here yet.

Connecting with my audience

I hate the back and forth about when we can schedule a call, so now I use Calendly. I have different event types setup for different types of meetings and calls, and I send out a link to let people schedule things when it works for them. It all syncs with my calendar so I can block off days when I’m not available, no double-bookings, etc.

I’ve had great success doing webinars with this platform. It’s less ugly and complicated than other platforms, and I’ve not had any audio or video issues. Note that it works best in Chrome, for both the presenter and the viewers, which is a little annoying, but not the end of the world.

I used Skype for forever for coaching calls before finally switching to Zoom. Skype works fine, but it just feels a little old and clunky. It’s nice to be able to send someone a link for your call and be done with it. It also integrates nicely with Calendly.

The IndieHive community runs on this open source forum software. It’s a little complicated in terms of all the settings and customization options, but the defaults seem sane. Free software but costs about $20 / month for hosting. So far so good!

Vimeo Pro
I need some place to host videos for my audience, and I haven’t found anything better than Vimeo in terms of features vs. cost. People seem to love Wistia, but I think it’s exorbitantly overpriced.

Data and analytics

For basic analytics like “How many people are visiting my site, and from where?”, then Google Analytics is fine.

But things get more complicated when you want to keep track of the behavior and value of someone across longer periods of time and across multiple funnels, product purchases, platforms, etc.

For doing slightly more advanced things with analytics than Google Analytics can, Mixpanel is awesome. I use it to track where visitors and subscribers come from, what they look at, what they purchase, etc. I’ve written custom code to keep it in sync with ActiveCampaign and other key pieces of software, so that I can answers questions like “If someone downloads lead magnet X, how likely are they to buy product Y?” or “What’s the lifetime value of people who saw landing page variation 1 vs. landing page variation 2 twelve months ago?”

I use it to do keyword research for data-driven content creation, research competitors, find guest post and partnership opportunities, and keep track of my niche. I’m a huge fan of this tool.

Google Analytics
What else can I say?

Website integrations

Awesome for throwing up good-looking landing pages, doing A/B testing, personalization based on where the person is coming from, and more. Not cheap, but solid. Much, much better than Leadpages (blech).

I use this to run non-annoying forms and popups on my websites. You can definitely do timed popups, exit intent popups, etc, but I don’t do that. I mainly show popups on click, or subtle slide-up promos on the sites.

Social proof plugin that shows how many people have visited your site, subscribed, purchased products, etc. Almost anything you can think of. Cheap and easy way to boost your conversion rate.

Gravity Forms
I use this for all kinds of forms all over my websites. Contact forms, surveys, onboarding, reviews, etc.

Team collaboration tools

Google Apps
We use Gmail, Docs, and Sheets fairly heavily.

My domain is grandfathered into the free plan. I really wish I had signed up my other domains for that back when it was an option 🙂

I’ve used just about every project management tool out there. They all suck, but Asana is a little less sucky for us at the moment.

If it wasn’t Asana, it probably would have been Trello or Basecamp.

This isn’t a software tool, it’s a service that offers expert executive assistants, marketing specialists, and project managers, and my assistant Danielle works on my stuff via this service. Big fan!

Infrastructure and meta-tools

I use Zapier to tie together all the different tools and apps I use without having to write the code myself. I can’t recommend this tool highly enough. One of my favorite products of all time and I’m constantly discovering new powerful ways to use it.

All the websites run on WordPress. Yes, it’s old and built on PHP that isn’t the best quality. Yes, static site generators are so much cooler and faster. I use WordPress for a few reasons.

First, I’m really experienced with it, so nothing about it makes me nervous.

Second, I like being able to do quick and easy integrations that are either harder or impossible with a static site generator. Like integrated ecommerce or SEO guidance and analysis.

Third, I have a team that also needs to be able to use it, and while I’m sure there are static site generators out there that a non-technical user can be trained to use, WordPress already covers this.

Finally, I’ve had zero issues with WordPress once I started installing a security plugin and a caching plugin. The sites are fast and secure, and run on cheap hosting. Good enough.

I’ve also switched to running WordPress on Composer and deploying with Deployer, which does add a little friction to plugin installs and updates, but feels a lot less reckless.

The backend for Everleads where we do the curation of the leads and prep of the daily leads email is built in Laravel. I’m a big fan of this framework, I wish it had been around back when I was primarily doing PHP development.

Laravel Forge
I use this for server provisioning and automatic deployment. Solid.

My preferred host. Fast, cheap, and simple. Great tutorials.

Domain name registrar. I’m currently using their free DNS, which I should probably switch away from for something faster, but it’s been fine.

Keeping track of the bottom line

After years of using Harvest for invoicing, I switched to Wave because it has decent enough bookkeeping tools that I don’t need Quickbooks. There are a few things about Wave that get on my nerves, but if you need invoicing and simple double-entry accounting for free, I don’t know of any other options.

YNAB stands for You Need a Budget, and it’s a fairly straightforward budgeting tool. It’s mainly for personal use, but I also use it for budgeting in my businesses as well.

Misc tools and services

My brain’s dumping ground. I have thousands of notes. There’s a lot I don’t like about Evernote, but more that I do. The key features for me are syncing across different platforms, reliable mobile apps, decent formatting, notebook stacks, and search. I haven’t seen anything even remotely close to better enough to contemplate switching.

Not as good as the original Skitch, but the integration with Evernote is nice. Wish it did video too.

Chrome extension to quickly record screenshare and get a URL to send to someone. It’s simple, fast, free, and reliable. They have a desktop app coming, which will solve my main complaint: that it’s a part of Chrome.

The best thing about Omnifocus is the fast capture. The worst thing is the complexity, the price, the continual shifting of the product with every new version, and many more things. But I need a native app to quickly capture todo items that I can deal with intelligently later, and I’ve invested enough time and energy in Omnifocus that I don’t want to switch.

I use this to make little graphics for ads and social media.

Hardware that I use

Macbook Pro
I’m fortunate to have a 2015 MBP that’s still going strong. I just replaced the battery myself a few months ago, which was nerve-wracking, but seems to have gone OK. Hoping to get a couple more years out of it.

Sony RX100 IV

I use this camera mainly to take photos for Instagram. Honestly pretty amazing functionality in such a tiny package, though I wish it had more zoom. I’m sure the current version is even more impressive.

I can’t live without these things. I probably use them close to 2000 hours per year. One of the best products I’ve bought in the last decade.

Tools I no longer use

Don’t recommend under any circumstances. They overcharge, their software is glitchy and broken, crummy deliverability, unhelpful support, and not trustworthy. I won’t even link to them here.

Owns Drip, which is enough reason to never use them again, but they also just kinda suck. Platform feels pretty glitchy and brittle, and their integration options are annoyingly limited. Most frustratingly, they have these gaps in their functionality that they refuse to fix. It’s impossible to send form data to the thank you page. This is so basic in 2019 that it’s laughable that you still can’t do it. I replaced them with Instapage and it’s 100% better.

Pretty happy with the basic version of Typeform, but I switched to Gravity Forms for better integration with my website. Still recommend this though.

Too expensive for what you get, in my opinion. Seems like support has also gone downhill.

I used Harvest for more than a decade as my invoicing software. I really only switched because Wave has much better accounting tools. I’d still recommend Harvest, especially since they have a decent free plan that they haven’t gotten rid of.

Note that some of the links above are affiliate links, so if you click through and purchase, I’ll get a small commission. Rest assured that I only put things on this page that I use myself and recommend.

Last updated February 11, 2019