01/28/2021

Tools every startup should be using

Founder: Danny Ellis, Founder and CEO

Company: SkySpecs

Date Founded: 2012

Headcount: 75 employees

Stage: Series C venture-backed tech company

Industry: Energy

Five minutes reading this article will save you hundreds of hours building your company

As a founder, your most precious resource is time. You can always find ways to raise more money, but you can never get back time spent. You may find you didn’t get to market fast enough, you didn’t capture a customer’s attention when they had the highest pain point, or you may reach the end of your runway faster than you predicted. There are many ways you can optimize your time, especially in the initial stages of your company. If you put the best tools in place you will save yourself from manual, repetitive processes and from redoing significant amounts of work later. Take the time in the beginning to set up an infrastructure that will streamline your work so you can focus on solving big problems.

I have spent almost the last ten years as the CEO of SkySpecs, a company based in Ann Arbor that is focused on powering the world with renewable energy by automating the operations and maintenance of wind farms. Throughout our journey, I have tested and implemented dozens of software platforms for every angle of the business. I have earned a reputation on our team of gravitating toward new software, always searching for ways we can gain efficiency. My goal in this article is to help you shorten your time to finding efficiencies by sharing my experience with the best platforms I have found. Hopefully, these tools can provide you and your organization the same time benefits they have for SkySpecs.

Presentations for Customers and Investors

Beautiful.ai (replaces PowerPoint and Canva)

Great communication is one of the most important skills you can develop as a founder or leader. Without great communication you will struggle to find team members to join your journey, investors to fund your ideas, or customers to buy from you. The most common form of communication in each of these areas is a pitch deck. Most of us have probably spent hundreds of hours in PowerPoint, searching for the best format, perfect colors, most eye catching images and animations, constantly rebuilding and rethinking what it is we are trying to say. Once the deck is finished, we try to send it off to investors or customers, but it is often too large to email. As soon as we send it, we realize we want to change something and either quickly send a follow up or kick ourselves for sending it too early.

This is where beautiful.ai comes in. It is the most important tool that I use on a daily basis. Beautiful is a slide deck software that completely handles and automates the formatting and branding of slides so you can focus solely on the content and message. It has dozens of slide templates and examples built-in to get your ideas flowing and onto paper. You can easily change the slide themes, color palette and other visual touches that will automatically update all slides. If you are working on slides with your team, real-time collaboration is simple. You can set a default theme for all presentations the team creates. You can also develop a library of existing slides that can only be edited by people you select, but be inserted into any presentation by your team. These features give you the confidence that your team can quickly build slides and have all the current information in them.

Once the deck is built, you can present it in any web browser or desktop player, or share custom links with the viewer. These links can track which slides they look at and for how long, which is very valuable when selling to customers or seeing what is most interesting to investors. These links will automatically show the most current presentation, allowing you to make changes to it after you’ve shared it. You can also delete each link separately, preventing some viewers from seeing the presentation again, but keeping it live for others.

Since finding Beautiful, I have removed PowerPoint from my quick access bar and only open it when others send me presentations that have to be opened that way. It has cut down on my presentation building time easily by hundreds of hours and helped me conceive new ideas quickly. Investors and customers will never again be distracted by bad formatting or weird color choices and will focus only on the message you are trying to convey. I cannot recommend this software more enthusiastically.

Visible.vc (Replaces email templates or no communication at all)

Along the lines of great communication, it is very important for founders to over-communicate with their investors, both prospective and existing. Raising money is extremely challenging, takes far more time than you would expect and can get exhausting with the repetition of pitching your story. Visible.vc is a platform specifically focused on investor communication (with the added bonus of some team communication features). Visible allows you to create nicely formatted updates that you can share with different groups of investors. If you are raising a series A and have investors that would like to keep in touch throughout the process, you can add them to your prospective list and then when you hit some milestones and want to let everyone know you can send a quick update. Investors love to see momentum and watch you hit milestones that you promised in your pitch. Instead of taking hours to keep track of each investor and individually email them, Visible makes it easy to follow up with many stakeholders in a single communication. Visible also has an investor login so they can follow all their prospective or portfolio companies on a single dashboard.

In our early days, we struggled to keep up with all the investors we met and send them updates. We probably missed some opportunities with investors that would have been interested had we simply followed up. I would highly recommend adopting Visible with the very first set of investors you pitch who may be interested in learning more.

Once you do succeed in fundraising, Visible quickly becomes the platform to keep all your current investors updated. You can connect data sources and build simple dashboards to show revenue, runway, costs, headcount, etc. Some of the simple questions your investors will email you can now be answered for them by simply logging into Visible or in the update template you build and send every month. With a template, it now becomes very easy for you to quickly add your progress and hit send. The more you communicate with your investors the more willing they will be to support you through the inevitably tough times.

Team Collaboration

Notion (replaces Google docs)

The third tool to help improve communication within your organization and foster more team collaboration is Notion. Notion has become extremely popular lately and I want to emphasize how SkySpecs has used it and why it has become beneficial to our team. In the simplest description, Notion is a wiki that makes collaboration on documents and notes extremely easy. While some of our team uses Notion in very advanced ways to build project management tools, we primarily use Notion as a knowledge repository. As your team grows, it becomes very easy for knowledge to be siloed or lost. Notion makes it incredibly easy to immediately document thoughts, ideas, and information that can be communicated across your organization. We have sections for a team directory, training, sales enablement material, customer profiles and account plans (which then connects to beautiful.ai), marketing and branding standards, finance and business operations. This has made it far easy for anyone in the organization to find the information they need. The earlier you get set up using Notion, the easier it will be to capture all information about your company and keep everyone aligned.

Financial Management

Causal.app (replaces Excel for financial spreadsheets)

Causal is a brand new piece of software that focuses on streamlining financial analysis and removing the need for spreadsheets. Financial models can quickly become unwieldy when built in Excel, usually only editable by the original creator of the model. It is very easy to break, very hard to adjust for scenario modeling and very hard to share with investors to allow them to build their own assumptions. If I could change only one thing about the beginning of our startup journey, it would be our financial modeling. We have gone through endless iterations and never felt like we had a great way to build sensitivity analysis or simulate scenarios with a high degree of confidence.

Causal begins by making every input a variable. It has a user-friendly interface, templates to get you started and amazing videos built by the founders to walk you through the functionality. All inputs are “human language” inputs. If you want to have a range on a variable, you simply type “10% – 20%” as your input. Causal immediately makes graphs of your calculations and you will see confidence bars based on the ranges you input. When you present the model, it gives you a new view where you can change all your inputs and see the immediate effect on your visuals, but your underlying model remains untouched. Whenever we tried changing variables on the fly like this in Excel, we ultimately would break the model and have to revert back to an old file to recover it. This quickly leads to dozens of versions of your model floating around.

Causal also integrates with your finance systems like Quickbooks, Salesforce, or NetSuite so you can bring in your General Ledger and automatically compare your forecast with your actuals. It can then readjust your forecast based on year-to-date performance. This is something we have always had to do manually and I have felt like the data is constantly days to weeks old by the time we get it updated. SkySpecs only just started using Causal, but we can already see the benefits.. It will be easiest for anyone to implement from day zero of your company, but it’s never to late to move over.

Carta (replaces Excel for your cap table)

Lastly, I want to touch on cap table management software because this is something that I ignored and delayed and that was a mistake. Carta is one of the leading software platforms for cap tables. If you plan on raising multiple rounds of funding, having a stock option pool for your employees or working with banks for any debt vehicles, I would implement Carta upfront. Carta makes it easy to see where your equity has been sold, assigned, or diluted. It gives investors the reporting features they need and gives you confidence you are following all the legal requirements and best practices for managing a cap table. When employees leave and want to execute on their options, Carta will make the process seamless. Even though in the early days it may seem like an Excel file is easy enough, eventually your cap table will become overwhelming and Carta can save you from all the headaches and mistakes that you might make. Please take this advice and do this sooner than you think you need to and thank me later.

There are many other valuable software tools that can save you time when launching and running your business, but these are the ones that I believe are most important. Every step of the way you are going to want to find ways to automate and streamline your work so you can free your mind up to solve the hardest problems. Hopefully these tools help you do that and you can avoid some of the roadblocks and hurdles that we encountered at SkySpecs.

Bonus topic: Which CRM should we implement?

When discussing software tools and how to optimize your time, the question that always arises is, “which CRM should we use?” Salesforce is the obvious dominant player, but it is also very expensive, complicated to implement (almost always requiring a consultant), and is so full of features it is easy to get lost. There are dozens of newer competitors in the space that are targeting early-stage companies including Ann Arbor’s own Nutshell, which is the platform SkySpecs originally used. While all these CRMs have their pros and cons, I have never found one that has solved all our problems and met all our requirements. The painful truth is that you will probably also go through many iterations of CRMs in your journey. Nutshell is great to get started, but then we quickly ran into scalability problems with our international markets and complex enterprise customer base. We transitioned to Salesforce and did ok for a period of time and then ran into international currency exchange problems with our connection to Quickbooks. We then transitioned to NetSuite, which could handle our accounting the best, but the CRM was subpar and our data connections were complicated. We are now transitioning back to Salesforce for the CRM, but keeping our accounting at NetSuite. All this is to say that I do not have a good recommendation for a CRM, but would suggest that you figure out what is most important to you. If you want the most functionality and connectability, start with Salesforce whenever you can afford to. If you want an easy user experience, give Nutshell a shot, especially if you’re located in Ann Arbor because they have great customer support. I wish you the best of luck navigating the CRM challenge!