Bootsrapping a Design Studio

As a small business we need a handful of tools and services to conduct our day-to-day activities. Being a startup we also want cost effective, light-weight solutions that have some flexibility for scaling as we grow. As I researched this topic I realized there weren’t many resources targeted for small digital design shops. We spent some time evaluating various products and services and this post summarizes what we found and what we’re currently using.

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What we needed

  • Web site hosting & storage
  • Document management
  • Email
  • Creative tools
  • Development tools
  • Blogging Platform
  • Project management software
  • Accounting software
  • Conferencing software
  • Internal chat and communication software

What is important to us

As a small business we are always looking for low-cost solutions. But more importantly, I’m a big fan of “light-weight” solutions. In other words, tools and services that are simple to set up and manage and don’t require a long-term contract.

I also wanted to avoid buying hardware to support these tools. Managing and maintaining various mail servers, blog servers, and any other equipment is always a headache and just when you get it right it becomes outdated and painful to upgrade.

Lastly, we needed everything to work well on both Windows and Macs.

What we found

We spent a couple of months evaluating various products and services. Some worked well, some didn’t. Below is what’s working for us now:

Website hosting & storage

amazon

We use Amazon Web Services to host Truthlabs.com and it’s various sub domains. More specifically we use:

  • S3  – static website hosting and storage for media.
  • Route 53 – manages all of our domain and sub-domain names and url redirects.
  • EC2 – we frequently host node.js and various web-apps for client work.EC2 gives us a ton of flexibility for deployment and configuration. Since we mostly use micro-instances it’s super cheap.

We also tried Google app engine and Azure, but found AWS to be the most flexible for our needs. Amazingly, our AWS monthly bill  is in the sub $10 a month range to host all of our web app needs.

Email, Calendar, Chat, and Document Management 

gapps

We’ve been using Google apps for the past 6-8 months for all of our email, chat, and document needs. More specifically we use:

  • Gmail – all of our email and alias email accounts (info@truthlabs and hello@truthlabs) are managed with gmail.
  • Google calendar – manages all of our meetings and events.
  • Hangouts – with the latest round of updates Hangouts has become very valuable for us. We use it for internal chat communication, but also as a means for video conferences, and voice phone calls.
  • Drive – With google apps everyone gets 30GB of cloud storage. We use drive for document storage and tracking project assets.

We also tried Office 365 for a while, which worked really well. In fact, I found Office 365’s calendar and mail to be the superior product, but everything else just didn’t play nice on OSX. Since we predominantly use OSX we decided to stick with Google apps. Oh and did I mention is remarkably cheap at $5 per user per month.

Creative Tools

creativeCloud

As a digital design studio our design tools are some of the most important and heavily used pieces of software we have. We all primarily use the Adobe Creative Suite. Unfortunately, we all had different versions of the tools and it was a nightmare trying to figure out a good upgrade path for both PCs and Macs. Luckily, Adobe has been pushing Creative Cloud this year and it’s been working great for us.

It is the most expensive of all of our tools, but that’s to be expected since they are a critical part of our design process. The best part is now there is one central place to manage the licensing and everyone is running the same version of the tool suite. Pricing is also more palatable now that it’s a month-to-month model.

Development Tools

bizspark

We develop all sorts of applications for a variety of mediums. But more times than not we find ourselves writing code on the Microsoft stack. Luckily, Microsoft offers the BizSpark program for startups that need tools but can’t fork over thousands of dollars. We get copies of Visual Studio, Windows, and pretty much every MS product you can think of for free for two full years. It’s an awesome program and I would highly recommend it.

Blogging

wp

Blogging is important to us. It’s one way were give back to the community and publicize some of our work. WordPress is by far the most popular blogging platform and has the biggest community supporting it. We opted for the hosted version of WP to avoid maintaining a blogging server of our own. It works well for most our needs, but the hosted version does have some limitations.  It’s cheap and has a decent amount of plugins and analytic tie-ins.

It’s working for us now, but I feel like WP is unnecessarily complicated and “heavy”. I’m a big fan of Medium and I suspect blogging and long-format content platforms will take cues in the next year.

Project Management Software

basecamp

We use Basecamp by 37 Signals. There isn’t much to say about it. It’s the best and it works nearly flawlessly. We manage about 5-7 concurrent projects with Basecamp. We track tasks, feedback threads, and client deliverables with it and haven’t had any problems. Highly recommended.

Accounting Software

freshbook

This was a tough one to figure out for us. We’re small and we don’t need a lot of the extra tools and services some of the big players offer (Salesforce). We considered rolling our own but decided it was a bad idea. We landed on Freshbooks which works well for our needs. One of my favorite features of fresh books is that it allows people to enter their time from anywhere. On the bus, in the john, or at your desk. This helps keep our T&E accurate and easy to manage.

Conferencing Software

joinme

This is another thing we spent a lot of time with. We tried all sorts of solutions but we landed on Join.me.  Join.me is a really simple screen-sharing/conferencing piece of software. It’s almost magical how simple it is to use compared to other conferencing applications. We use it primarily for screen-sharing and conference calls with our clients. I can’t remember all of the apps we tried, but it doesn’t matter. Join.me is awesome and I highly recommend it.

Parting Thoughts

All said and done I’m very happy with how everything came together. In fact, I’m amazed at how easy to use these products are. Just a few short years ago having our entire IT infrastructure hosted in the cloud would have been nearly impossible. The fact that we don’t own or manage a single server is great. Not to mention, all of this is relatively cheap. Just to give you an idea, our stationary (letterheads, folders, etc) cost about the same as all of these services combined for the year.

Phew! That was a lot. Hopefully you’ll find this stuff useful if you’re bootstrapping your own studio.

Best,
Erik

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  1. Pingback: Planting Seeds at Truth | Truth Labs Blog

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