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A Basic Toolkit for Building Your Site

March 26, 2010

Some of us on the GrowthSpur team are hardware store junkies. We’ll start a fixit project around the house, run to the hardware store for a part, and get lost for hours contemplating all the wonderful tools and materials available.

Several recent conversations about how to launch a site reminded us of how site operators need their own “hardware store”—a place they can go to get the tools and parts they need to run their sites.

Fortunately, this doesn’t require a trip to the hardware store—or even a software store. The last couple of years have seen the release of tons of great—and often free—tools that can largely replace even venerated applications like Photoshop or Flash.

Here’s a collection of some of our favorites. Note that these are simply the stuff we like and use regularly. J-Lab’s Knight Citizen News Network covers even more. And Publish2’s Wired Journalists board is a terrific place to ask a question and get fast, smart responses. Check ‘em out. Got one you like? Suggest it in the comments, below.

Our faves:

General management tools

  • Google Docs
    • The word processor is an excellent way to collaborate with writers and freelancers, of course, without the hassles of email and confusion over which version is the live one. The shared spreadsheets are handy, too. Google Docs can be a bit finicky, but they’re hard to beat for free team-collaboration tools.
    • Even better, however, is how you can use the CREATE NEW FORM functionality to create an email or embeddable survey. It’s useful for taking the pulse of your audience. Or try SurveyMonkey for quick and easy polls.
  • Invoices to collect money from your advertisers? Try Freshbooks, or one of a dozen other free competitors.
  • Need to create basic financial statements (like a P&L), plus handy tax forms? Some of us like Outright because it plugs-and-plays nicely with Freshbooks; others are fans of the online version of Quickbooks. As with invoicing, there are a lot of choices in this space, and a lot of overlap between different products. (Note to prospective GrowthSpur partners: as good as these tools are, we’re adding even more powerful back-end financial management and billing tools to our systems. We’re even going to offer you credit-card processing.)

Site development and technology

  • WooThemes—Lots of terrific people are releasing pre-packaged designs, called themes, for every major blogging and content management system. For WordPress (and now ExpressionEngine), Woo’s folks go a step farther. They’ve built in easy-to-use widgets that make tweaking those designs a breeze. Also cool: a “playground” where you can build a test site to play around with one of their themes before buying. In particular, keep an eye on Woo’s “Canvas” theme. It’s already easy to customize—and rumor has it they’re considering adding in widgets to easily place all of the major standard ad units just about anywhere on the page. That would be a huge step forward. (Hey Drupal, Joomla and Blogger users: Yes, we know there are lots of those theme designers for your platforms, too. Trouble is, we just haven’t used those systems enough ourselves to highlight some of the best. Feel free to suggest your favorites in the comments below.)
  • For photo editing, Photoshop clearly is the pro’s choice. It also costs almost $700 for the full edition, and about $100 for the stripped-down Photoshop Elements. If you’re just resizing, changing resolution and tweaking a photo a little, a ton of free sites handle those jobs quite nicely. And did we mention they’re free? We like Pixlr, but that’s simply because we’re familiar with it. With all of the web services, you can probably finish a tweak in less time than it would take to simply launch Photoshop. If you’re a Mac user, the inexpensive Graphic Converter handles most of the basics for a fraction of the price of Photoshop.
  • Flash is the gold standard of sophisticated graphics program. It’s also expensive ($600) and notoriously tricky to learn. If you’re doing a major multimedia project, go with Flash. But if you just want to design a couple of slick-looking display ads or a simple interactive graphic, try BannerSnack instead. It’s free if you don’t mind their watermark on your finished product; if you do (and you should), you can pay a couple bucks per project or a small monthly fee.
  • CoolText creates free customized logos out of a string of text. You can easily tweak the colors, font and size. It’s not as good as a custom-made graphic logo—but if all you want or need is some stylized text, it works great.
  • iStockPhoto is one of the leading free and cheap stock photo outfits (there are other services, too). As with Bannersnack, you can pay as you go—from between $1 to $24 per picture, depending on size and resolution (for web work, 72-dot-per-inch resolutions work fine).  You can also pay a monthly fee for heavily discounted bulk purchases. Flickr can be a useful photo source, too—but be sure to read the licensing details on each photo. Some allow commercial use; others don’t. (We know of a major publisher that almost got hit with a lawsuit for ignoring those restrictions.)

The point in all of this: Free or incredibly inexpensive tools are out there for just about every function you need to run your site. Have favorites of your own, or a type of tool that we haven’t mentioned? Share and discuss below.

  1. March 27, 2010 4:41 am

    Great stuff. I just installed BambooInvoice — only took an hour, and it’s free, exports reports in .xls and XML and integrates with my brand and email nicely. I’m a fan.


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