April 07, 2014

Hi, I'm your new free consultant!

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You've got questions, I have the willingness to determine answers.

First of all, some introductions are in order. I'm Nate Sullivan, the new Director of Content Strategy here at Contactually, and from now on, I'll be your companion during the wild ride that is this blog, as well as Contactually.com itself, and probably a few other things. Never fear, though -- you'll still be hearing plenty from the likes of Ouzy, Brian, Alexandra, and the rest of the gang. It's just that from now on, you're going to get a whole lot of me added to that mix as well.

Now... what is it that I plan to do here, exactly? Well, for starters, I'd like you to think of me as your own personal research assistant. I've been around the block a few times (figuratively and literally -- I got on the wrong bus this morning), and if there's one thing I'm good at, it's solving people's information problems. I've written instruction manuals, set up CRMs, and helped design whole products from scratch. And now, I can do that for you, right here. You don't even have to pay me!

So while I already have a few good topics for the Contactually audience in mind, that's my standing offer to you. You want me to try different products? Solve hypotheticals? Recommend apps? Improve your golf handicap? Assuage your deepest fears? Teach my cat to use the person-bathroom? I'm here for you, with fast internet and a long train ride to ponder your biggest challenges. Whether you're relatively new to Contactually (like me!), or a grizzled veteran waiting for your pet feature request to be implemented, let me know what's on your mind, and I'll do my best to figure it out.

Seriously, I'll test ANYTHING for you.

And in fact, as a gesture of good faith, here's some free wisdom for you -- five tools I've fallen in love with over my career, that if you haven't tried, YOU JUST GOTTA TRY. Not only because they're great, but because they'll help you understand me (your free small business consultant) that much better.


Hipchat is, in theory, a chat program, but it's so responsive and well-built that it quickly becomes the default "virtual office" seemingly anywhere it gets adopted. We use Hipchat at Contactually, and as a long-time user, it was a welcome sight on my first day. Want to post a picture from the internet? A tweet? A YouTube clip? Just dump the URL into HipChat, and it takes care of the rest. I can't even tell you how many times an attempt of mine to collaborate in some fashion has ended with "you know what, just HipChat it". That fast, easy expressiveness makes HipChat rooms feel alive, and generates the kind of actual back and forth that groups often thrive on.


"Portal" and "intranet" are basically dirty words among small teams, thanks to years of overpriced, atrocious products designed for huge, faceless organizations. The idea of building an "intranet" for your five or ten person team doesn't just seem unproductive -- it borders on masochistic. Igloo completely blows this away with a fast, lightweight, visually appealing approach to web collaboration that should have been popularized years ago. If you need any kind of general information to be centralized among you and a co-worker, take my advice -- spend ten minutes and set up an Igloo. It's free for up to ten users, and it makes perfect sense right out of the box. You're never too small to benefit from things like version control, shared file libraries, and searchable discussion boards.


At some point, every growing business hits the point where they probably need some kind of customer/lead management system, and someone explains to them the concept of a CRM. It sounds great... until you have to find one. The average CRM is complicated, ugly, hard to use, and expensive; and to make things worse, sometimes it seems like every two-bit software shop on the planet has decided to sell one. I certainly took my time finding one that fit, and for me, that one is Capsule. It's very fast, pretty well-documented, and its somewhat jarringly minimalist design is actually the perfect way to focus on your work. It also has a great API, if you're into that sort of thing, which lets you automate things even further. And the whole thing is free for two accounts!


Simplenote isn't really designed to be much of a collaboration tool, but for writers, researchers, and brainstormers, it's a great way to have access to all your work wherever you go (laptop, phone, iPad, whatever). I used to do this kind of thing in Evernote, but I found all the UI chrome to be distracting, had some sync issues, and never took much advantage of storing things like pictures and audio. For true note-taking and long-form writing, it's hard to beat Simplenote's reliable syncing, searching, and uber-clean UI. In fact, I've found that the lack of whiz-bang features you'll find in other note-programs is actually helpful; I spend more time writing, and less time getting distracted.


If you're new to customer list management, mass communication, or email design in general, MailChimp is one of the first things you should probably look at. Just following their templates to create your content will give you better looking, easier-to-read emails than 95% of what's out there, along with understandable information on what's being read and what isn't, A/B testing, and all kinds of other goodies. Plus, it's free for lists under 2,000 people, so for a lot of smaller businesses, it's a no-brainer. I've heard good things about a few competitors, but I can vouch for Mailchimp from personal experience. These guys know what they're doing, and they've been doing it forever.


I told you I've been a consultant! Time tracking... man, what a bummer. Some of you guys are probably pros at it, but I'm one of those people who just cannot get excited about the concept of billable hours. For me, Harvest is the best way to keep me truly cognizant of how much time I'm really spending on projects, and to make billing people as fair and easy as possible. That doesn't even take into account that it's well designed, generally friendly, and features a variety of apps for effective tracking wherever you're working from. So if you're working per billable hour (or managing a team of people who do) -- stop looking at the clock. Get Harvest, and start looking at your work again.

Need help getting started with these? Or do you think I'm crazy for recommending them, instead of evangelizing your favorite? Tell me, berate me, or even add me to your "people on the internet who are wrong" bucket in Contactually and follow-up with me once a week. I'll make it easy -- you can make requests directly by emailing me at nate@contactually.com.