Farzad Ban
Founder/CEO
16
min read

Tools we use to run our remote studio and startups

While most teams believe they shape their tools to fit their processes, we believe the tools we use influence our processes and thereof shape our companies culture. As a SaaS product design studio working with governments and leading SaaS startups since 2010, we consistently explore and try new tools as they emerge to stay current with the latest technologies as well as continuously evolve our processes to make sure we benefit from what wasn't possible yesterday. In this post, I'm sharing our current toolbox as well as my opinion on the alternatives.

Roadmap

I have to say that I would've never been able to grow 3drops to where it is now if we didn't invest in building our own internal project and team management software 3 years ago. Running a remote team with todo lists and kanban board is chaotic. I was constantly stressed out by the fact that we had no idea when things will be completed and whether everyone is working on their most important tasks or not. It's one thing to read the stand-ups in your Slack channel or see the list of tasks people are assigned to but it's entirely a different thing to be able to see which one of those tasks your team currently working on, their status and when they are aiming to get them done without dropping annoying slack messages like "What are you working on?".

Roadmap, is designed to answer questions like: "What are you working on?", "Are we on the right track to complete this project on time?", "With all these new requests, are we still going to complete the project on time or do we have to compromise on other tasks and if so, which ones?". You can easily find the answer to any of these questions at a glance on Roadmap. Roadmap is a visual workspace for small remote teams to stay aligned on what's next and track their progress at a glance. In our experience, the number one reason for chaos at work is the misalignment between teams/members. Who's doing what and what's next. The type of information that usually is in the mind of the leaders like founders, managers but haven't been shared with the rest of the team in a clear, digestible way which blocks members to make progress on their own without constantly checking in with their managers to see if the things they are working on matter or they should be moving on to more important tasks. Once you share the plan with your team with some rough estimates, clear milestones and assign them their tasks on a timeline, they can easily see the big picture, the why's behind each task and how everything is connected, down to each actionable task that they need to complete the task. All in one place. So if you haven't tried it yet, go ahead and sign up for free here ->

Figma

Figma

This fast and collaborative design software has empowered us at 3drops to pull off so many *impossible* projects remotely that we've lost count on. The most recent one was the new visa system we designed for over 65 governments to simplify the processes for millions of people traveling the world every day. The level of remote collaboration we had to pull off to ship such a high stake project for so many clients at once wouldn't have been possible without Figma and Roadmap. Figma makes collaboration frictionless and fun. But it's worth to mention that Figma wouldn't be here if Sketch didn't pave the path for them and so many other design tools that popped up in the past couple of years. Sketch revolutionised the interface design market with a small remote team with 0 funding and took a big piece of Adobe's pie. What are the odds of that. A thoughtful solution built by a small but super talented team won the battle with the giant. Remarkable. undefined

That's what I love about today's world. We are in the midst of a technological revolution where newcomers can rival and take over their markets in just a few years time. We are seeing the same shift in the fashion industry as well. Brands like OFF-White rise in just a few years and outshined the old leaders thanks to Instagram. Something that would've taken decades to accomplish before, takes just a few years now. There couldn't be a better time to launch your new company and benefit from this wonderland of opportunities (Internet).

Side note: with their pace of funding and growth, I bet they are looking for a new home soon and I'm sure Microsoft been watching them for a while now to find the right moment to strike the deal. With Github under their belt, Figma is an obvious choice to make Satya's dream come true. He's been turning an old enterprise into a hot new one-stop-shop for startups and Figma is his way into the creative workspace. If I were you, I would get some Microsoft stocks today because their future is brighter than their competitor.

Slack

Slack

All that noise aside about real-time chat is suffocating teams, Slack is the Sketch of communication software. I'm not exaggerating when I say that they truly revolutionized how teams communicate today and they raised the bar for anything to come. Their legacy is seeing chat apps in big corporates that were locked to Emails for so long. They changed how organizations think about emerging software. Thanks to them, corporations are now more open-minded to try new solutions.

Slack is the first choice when you consider tools for team communication, especially among remote teams because of their integrated eco-system. So as long as you don't move your task communication to Slack, it's the best tool to chat in. It's fast, it's fun and it's everywhere.

I'm all ears if you want to talk about thread-based communication software for teams, but you should know that the next thing that comes out of my mouth is Email. Turning our internal communication to yet another inbox is not the solution. If that was the case, I think Front is probably best positioned to tackle this to truly become the Single Source of Communication for Teams (internally and externally). Another player that has a better shot at this is Outlook. Since Sunrise joined their team, their mobile and desktop apps have improved radically and made room for something new perhaps. And they have the infrastructure to make it happen. But if you insist, there's Twist and Threads to try out.

Front

Front

So many great email clients have come and gone too fast, which made all of us hesitant to trust our emails with a new app. Reason? Freaking freemium model. What a curse. But a few have been able to create a solution worth paying for. Superhuman for example. Their focus on speed and performance has earned them a place in the market among email power users like founders, CEOs, and mangers. So they certainly solved it for Personal Inbox but what's happening to our Team inboxes?

Front is here to rescue. Front is the first collaborative email client that just feels and works great. You can share your inboxes, collaborate on emails and draft up replies together. Delegating emails or an entire inbox is just a matter of a click. You can also automate a lot of your recurring tasks, using one of their integrations or automation rules. In terms of pricing, at the first sight, it might seem a bit on the expensive side of the scale, especially if you are running a few team inboxes like us, but once you think about how much time your team spends in their inboxes, it quickly shows its value.

Alt: I used to use Spark as my personal inbox a while ago before I switched to Front. Since then, they've shipped a Team package which seems to be a lot cheaper than Front. I'm curious to see where Front takes their company in the next year so I'm investing my money there. Hopefully, they expand on their Message feature and take on Thread based communication tools. They certainly have the room to do so, so we'll see.

Notion

Notion

Our team wiki. Everything from our internal handbook, contracts (it's just one page) to even this blog post live in Notion. What this small team has accomplished with this piece of software is amazing. Notion is focused on making it easy and fun for people to customise their tool to their needs and it's working. Since their start, they've done a stellar job at investing their time and effort on things that grow their company. Something most startups seem to be struggling with. Startups at their age tend to redesign their marketing website at least a dozen times thinking that it would bring them more leads. While the truth is, even though a rebranding might bring you a few more signups it's never what people pay your product for. Notion put all that time and energy where it belongs. In adding more power to their product by prioritising the right features. And if they do any marketing, you know it's not spray and pray. They know who they are after. Just look at their Students program. Brilliant.

I believe Notion's talent for developing the right features for their customers at the right time has been the leading factor in their success. They seem to ignore what's happening around them and because of that, they remind me of Harvest.

Harvest

Harvest

One of the few survivors in the bootstrap game that I hold dearly. And I say this because of two reasons. One, it takes a lot of commitment to bootstrap an idea into a profitable business. The amount of persistence needed to not give up in the early years is just overwhelming. The second reason is, I just love how timeless they make the SaaS industry to feel. I mean, while most of us are obsessed with what others are up to and trying to keep up with them, Harvest's focus has only been on improving what they already have with tiny steps. As an example, for a company that's been around since 2006, Harvest user interface has barely changed since they launched. To me, that's branding.

We use Harvest to sometime track our time but mainly for our invoices. Another great tool in this category is Toggl, which we had the pleasure to upgrade their product user experience design by implementing a 3drops design system to their entire product line from the web to desktop and mobile apps a while ago. Their latest iOS and Android apps are rocking our designs and the web version is still going through the development. For freelancers who are looking for a simple automated time tracking app, I would highly suggest Klokki. It's a beautifully designed app made by our very own indie maker, Stas Moor, that removes the need for clicking on Start or Pause buttons all the time. You simply just tell it which files/pages belong to which project and it automatically turns the timer on/off for you. Just magical like that.

Stripe

Stripe

An obvious choice for handling payments for a design-centered company. Roadmap's billing is powered by Stripe and we sometimes use Stripe to collect payments from some of our clients at 3drops (majority comes in via Wire Transfer). I'm a fan of their execution work on anything they commit to. We've seen a lot of new things from them in the past few years. From Atlas to Fancy Corporate cards and most recently Capital. All these amazing ventures and yet no proper built-in Data visualisation component to make sense of all of those numbers.

It's clear that Subscription is no longer the focus of their business which is a great opening for startups like Recurly or Chargebee (anyone else I should know about?) to upgrade their products and marketing efforts to become the first choice for SaaS companies. Billing and Tracking in one place. But until then, we have to rely on other tools to make sense of the numbers Stripe is providing us with. Which brings us to our next tool ↓

ChartMogul

ChartMogul

ChartMogul, the leading analytics tool to gain clarity on your SaaS business. A simple, customizable dashboard that enables you to visualise your  keys metrics with a powerful toolbox to dig deeper. At Roadmap, we are only tracking these few metrics at a weekly and monthly intervals: MRR, Conversion, Churn.

Another tool in this category worth mentioning is Baremetrics. A simple tool with a good Churn and Dunning solutions built-in. A good place to start until you have built your own solutions that is designed for your audience. But nothing helps startups as much as the next tool:

Fullstory

Fullstory

A god sent product. It's one thing to look at the numbers, trying to make sense of it all and it's an entirely different thing to actually watch people use your product to find gaps. I can easily say that Roadmap wouldn't be where it is today without this magical software. So to the amazing team behind Fullstory, I love you all.

Once we implemented Fullstory to Roadmap, we instantly learned where the gaps were in our product. Meaning how we thought people would use the product and how they were actually interacting with it. In fact, after implementing Fullstory for just a month, we started tweaking our product to align the features with our user's expectations. The result of that effort was a much better conversion- and feature adoption rate which lead us to completely remove our support docs. Magical.

To make the process of constantly gaining insights of how our product is being used, we've created a habit for everyone in our team to watch a couple of Fullstory videos every day and publish their notes in our daily standup on Slack to keep everyone updated. So instead of watching YouTube or listening to podcasts, we have the Fullstory videos running in the background sometimes.

Amplitude

Amplitude

Data, Data, Data, you gotta track that data, right? But the truth is, most of us don't really know what to do with all this data and how to use it. Where do we even start? It's recommended to collect the feature usage data from the start so you can benefit from it at later stages of your startup's lifecycle. But during your first few years, you shouldn't expect much of it.

We use Amplitude to understand which features are not being used enough to either iterate on them to improve their adoption rate or get rid of them entirely. And that process is the hardest part. You know how it is, the more time you spend working on implementing the feature, the more attached you become and the harder it gets to let go without feeling the guilt of failing them. But we've learned the cost of not letting them go. More features, more problems. Meaning more feature means longer onboarding processes which result in lower conversion rate, let alone the sacrifices you make in the product development just to keep them around. So focus on getting the job done with the minimum number of features and spend the rest of the time, improving those features even further.

As far as this category goes, I have yet to come across a tracking software that is smart enough for its purpose. Amplitude and the likes are just good at showing you graphs and piecharts for the metrics you are tracking but that's all they do. We are still far away from humanizing this golden data that empowers startups to reach their glory days faster. Visualizing the data is only the first step, prioritizing it, is the second and third, humanizing it is the end goal so that it's clear for everyone what that metric means and what they should do about it.

Attention: if you are working on a new software in this category, we would love to hear from you. We are itching to create a smart tracking software that not only tracks your data but also educates you during the process, guides you to the most important details and notifies you on prioritized anomalies so you can act on time. If you know anyone working on something similar, please send them our way. We promise to make it worthwhile for you. I mean really worthwhile. $_$

Mailchimp

Mailchimp

Building an audience is the first step in turning any idea/business profitable and until today, the most promised way to do it is by sending people emails. Unlike your followers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, your email subscribers will always be there for you when you need them. algorithm, and they are no longer reachable. You need to pay just to get your message shown to all of your followers. What a scam. So invest your time in building real relationships from the start. And this is where Mailchimp comes in.

I love Mailchimp. Everything from their delightful app to their humble branding. What Ben and his co-founders have accomplished with this amazing company is astonishing. Unlike Uber or WeWork (OMG), Mailchimp is a true unicorn. The story is the same as most bootstrapped startups. They started as an agency, stumbled upon a need and built the product, realized the opportunity for a second business, survived the first few years, then grew it until it made enough to take over their first business. They bootstrapped Mailchimp from 0 - $600MM. They also turned down $1Billion in cash to remain independent. Nuts.

Ben Chestnut held a great talk at CreativeMorning a couple of years ago which I recommend for any founder/creative to watch. He talks about what it takes to run a creative company with as little control as possible. For founders that have a hard time to let go, this is a great video to watch. But their story aside, I believe Mailchimp is no longer the right fit for small businesses. You can already see the hints of this on their most recent rebrand. Their tagline today reads "All of your data, in one place" with an even more confusing description. What used to be a simple newsletter app has turned into a full-blown marketing platform, targeted at bigger companies.

In other words, it's time for a new player to swoop in and shake things up. A simple product for the one-man shops/small teams looking for just the simplest tool to start building an audience on their own terms. Who's working on this now? Let us know @3drops

Intercom

Intercom

Good idea, great product, one confusing pricing model. Also, they always seem to be on a never-ending redesign project for some reason. Have you noticed how many times they redesigned their marketing website in just the last year? But I have to say, their most recent rebranding, was on point in terms of copy/positioning. But their pricing page is a mess. More specifically, how they've packaged their offerings and their long list of side add-ons, make it almost impossible to know how much the service will cost you until it's the billing day. Don't get me wrong, the products they offer is good. From in-app messages to email campaigns and most recently Product Tours, all very useful. But the pricing structure is just living in its own little bubble.

We are using Intercom just to chat with people using Roadmap. Mostly we chat about how they manage projects and sometimes we bounce ideas around on upcoming features too. That's all. We don't use the Help Centre as Roadmap is so simple it doesn't need any explanation. No bots because we like to keep things human and personal. So actually, we are looking for a new home. Show me one app, with a good design, that enables us to chat with our customers and send them onboarding emails and we are there in a heartbeat.

That's all for now.
I'm soon going to update this article with a few of our most recent adoptions: Webflow and Fathom. But until then, head over to our curated tools directory to explore more products.

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How I went from freelancing to building my dream team working on 7-figure projects remotely