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An Inside Look At The Tools I Use To Run My Business

The tools I use to run my business

Recently, I had the pleasure of being featured on a website I really enjoy: Minimums.com. The site is about showcasing the interesting items that people own.

After reading a few other features on the Minimums website, I started thinking about what things/tools/service these same people use to run their businesses. What email client do they use? Any weird habits or cool tricks they use to be better at email? Did they use any apps I haven’t heard of?

Which leads me to the reason for this article. If you want other people to do something, you should probably do it yourself first, ya? So I’m gonna do it first. (But stay tuned, because I want you to do it next.)

Here are the tools and services I used to run my business and how/why I use them

15” Retina Apple Macbook Pro

This is the only piece of hardware I’m putting on this list because truthfully, it’s the only one I use and need. I own a 24” external monitor. I own an external mouse and keyboard. But I’ve realized that I like the condensed experience of working on just my laptop (plus, the retina display is SO pretty).

One of my personal rules for keeping my laptop running smoothly is no more than 15 items saved on my desktop at a time. Why 15? That is the total number that fit in one vertical column. I typically clean off my desktop or move files away from it twice a day, and you’ll notice I don’t have a “catch all” folder to play hide and seek with a bunch of other files.

Jason Zook Desktop

You might notice my dock as well. It’s pretty minimal, but it’s also organized in a way where the applications I have open at (nearly) all times are on the left side. Everything to the right of the Spotify app are ones that get opened and closed after use. I don’t know when, exactly, I started doing this, but I like it.

I also only use apps in full-screen width. I’ve manually sized all my app windows to fill the entire screen. I do this so that when I’m using one application (Mail, Google Chrome, etc), I can only see and use only that application. This little trick keeps me focused without even having to try.

I don’t use spaces, hot spots, or mission control—those things freak me out. Hah. I use command + tab to jump back and forth between apps. I’ll use Spotlight to search for a file, open an app I rarely use, or check the weather. I probably use about 10% of the “features” of a Mac.

WordPress and Flywheel Hosting

JasonDoesStuff.com is the foundation of everything I do these days. Because I’m a solopreneur (read: I own my own business with no employees), I need a hub that organizes everything I do.

I am not a WordPress developer, but I choose to use WordPress because of its customizability and access to affordable developers. The current “theme” of my site was designed by me and brought to life (coded) by my buddy Matt.

I use WordPress Posts for my weekly articles. Each week, I copy and paste my article from Google Docs into a new post. I typically have to fix a few formatting issues and then add an image to the top of the article. I add an image for multiple reasons:

1. People like photos and visual content.
2. If someone shares my article on Twitter or Facebook, there’s an image available for those sites to show.

(Note that I do not put the image in my email to the Action Army just because I tend to prefer reading emails that aren’t loaded with images.)

The most technical part of my website is ConvertKit, which we’ll get to in a sec. The only other technical aspect of my site is that it’s hosted on Flywheel. I’ve used Flywheel hosting (aff link) for a few years now, and it costs more than Hostgator or Bluehost (other WordPress hosting providers), but the support and ease of use in Flywheel is what sets things apart for me. I know I could save money and make more money through other hosting provider affiliate programs, but I genuinely enjoy the experience of using Flywheel.

ConvertKit

I just recently made the switch from Mailchimp to ConvertKit. I’d been using Mailchimp for as long as I can remember and don’t have anything bad to say about them. But ConvertKit, man oh man. They’ve built something special for folks who run content-based businesses (bloggers, etc).

One of my absolute favorite things about ConvertKit is the ability to quickly and easily see how effective certain email signup forms are. Tweaking the copy and call to action on email forms is simple, and you can quickly see stats on which form is working better than another (without having to dive into code or be a guru at understanding conversion rates).

ConvertKit Dashboard Jason Zook

Each blue segment in the bar chart represents the number of new subscribers to each individual ConvertKit form on my website. Here are a handful of the 30+ forms I’ve created in my ConvertKit account:

ConvertKit Forms Jason Zook

I did a three-week email experiment and found that the Welcome Mat was an incredibly effective way to up my email conversion on JasonDoesStuff. But I didn’t want to continue to show the Welcome Mat to people who’d already signed up. This is where my friend Matt (and ConvertKit) came together in majestic harmony. Matt used the ConvertKit cookie to make the Welcome Mat disappear as soon as someone signs up using any form on my website or clicks “Don’t show this again.”

Using ConvertKit for my weekly emails (or “broadcasts” in CK language), I manually write each email (just copying + pasting from Google Docs). It sounds silly, but I enjoy knowing I’m sending a well-formatted email each week to the Action Army. I also manually send broadcasts each week because I want to be able to add little updates or callouts to projects I’m working on (instead of just doing an RSS to email setup).

I’m sure I could get a higher open rate if I didn’t use a custom email template in my weekly emails—I’ve heard from multiple people that plain-text emails are more likely to be opened because they look more personal. But again, I prefer giving a certain experience to my subscribers. I want them to feel a part of the Action Army, not just eek out a couple extra open rate percentage points if I sent a plain-text email. I enjoy knowing that my readers could pick my emails out of an e-mail lineup.

*The link I’ve included for ConvertKit gets you 1-month free. If you end up signing up for a paid account I make a small commission and you don’t pay anything extra. Yay!

GoSquared

While we’re still on the topic of my website experience, I’m going to tell you why I’m happy to pay GoSquared $18/month for the same analytics I could get from Google for free.

Google Analytics frustrates the crap out of me! Just tell me where people are coming from and how many people are currently on what pages of my website! (Those are my two favorite things to know.) I have to click multiple different links to see that simple data in Google Analytics. In GoSquared? It’s all right there on the main dashboard. Beautifully designed and incredibly easy to understand.

Screen-Shot-2016-05-06-at-9.48.17-AM-compressor

I check my analytics 3-4 times per week. I like to keep an eye on which of my articles are getting organic search traffic, and if any other websites are driving unexpected traffic. GoSquared also quickly helped me realize how little traffic my website was getting from social media—just 6% overall! I thought social media was a big traffic driver, and realized it simply wasn’t. (Good to know for allocating time and resources in those platforms).

Spending $18/month to keep sane when it comes to website analytics is 100% worth it to me.

Mac Mail

My favorite “social network” is my email inbox. So many people hate their email inboxes, but I spend a lot of time in mine and genuinely enjoy it.

I’ll be 100% honest: I’d rather use Gmail or one of the well-designed desktop apps for Gmail accounts, but alas, I currently have 11 active email accounts and not all are through Gmail. Don’t believe me

Here’s a screenshot as of the day I wrote this article:

Mac Mail

My inbox is probably worse than nails on a chalkboard for many of you. But! I keep it clean and do a few things to stay on top of 100-200 emails per day:

  • Unread emails: These emails need my attention or are very long
  • Red Flagged emails: I need to look at this, but it’s not urgent
  • Orange Flagged emails: Travel-related stuff (airline tickets, rental cars, hotels)
  • Yellow Flagged emails: Podcast related and need replies
  • Purple Flagged emails: Opportunities to make money! You’d think I’d use green for this, but the color purple stands out more to me
  • Green Flagged emails: Nice things people have emailed me

My email secret weapon when it comes to email is FollowUp.cc. I’ve been using it for years, and it’s essentially my personal assistant. Get an email, but I don’t need to do anything with it for a week? I forward that email to 1week@followup.cc and in a week, I’ll get an email reminder. I use FollowUp.cc about five times per day, no joke.

Slack

I guess I have another favorite “social network,” and it’s Slack. I remember hearing about Slack when they first launched, and I kept scratching my head: Why would I want to be in a chat room all day long?

Yeah, I didn’t get it. Now, I get it:

Slack

I probably have more Slack Teams than most people have pairs of underwear. And believe it or not, none of them are public teams. They’re all private teams that I use to manage my various projects and the people I work with on those projects. Well, actually, one of them is a public team and it’s my girlfriend’s Made Vibrant community.

The Slack desktop app is essentially my way of coworking with people all around the world. Sometimes, I wonder how I ever managed a project with another person without Slack. The immediate back-and-forthness of the conversation is fantastic. Plus, you can integrate different apps into any Slack channel—things like:

  • Stripe notifications for successful or failed payments (great for communicating immediately on how to handle failed payments)
  • Notifications from customer support platforms like Intercom (so I don’t have to have yet another email account!)
  • GoSquared notifications for traffic spikes
  • Error tracking notifications (awesome for the technical folks I work with so we can chat about errors and bugs)
  • Giphy! Man, I love some animated GIFs in Slack

Any time I work with someone and we have to correspond through email or a project management website, I cringe. It feels so archaic and inefficient. Oh, and did I mention I don’t pay a freakin’ dime for Slack? That’s incredible.

Twitter

When it comes to promoting my business adventures, Twitter is pretty much the only social network I do that through. Facebook is always an afterthought, and I enjoy Instagram for more life moments.

I used to download every new Twitter app that popped up. Tweetdeck. Tweetie. The official Twitter App. But a few years ago, Twitter redesigned the web interface, and it was beautiful. Yeah, I couldn’t easily toggle back and forth between my account and my dog Plaxico’s Twitter account, but I got over it (and sadly, stopped tweeted about my dog’s pooping schedule).

I don’t schedule tweets. I use Twitter Lists sometimes, but rarely. I write every tweet through the “Tweet” button on Twitter.com.

Oh, and I’ve started using the Twitter “Mute” feature a lot more. People are so damn sensitive about being unfollowed. It’s a great way to clean up my Twitter feed, especially when baseball season or political events are going on.

Google Calendar + Sunrise

Speaking of my personal assistants, my other one is Google Calendar. Many people only use it to schedule a meeting or a call, but I use it to schedule everything in my day-to-day operations. Here are a handful of things currently on my calendar:

  • Writing (this is always first draft and ideation for articles)
  • Send to editor (this is time formatting articles and sharing them with my editor)
  • ConvertKit + JDS (this is formatting finished articles and adding them as a broadcast in ConvertKit and as a new post in WordPress)
  • Podcast recording (time spent talking into a microphone)
  • Podcast editing (time spent in Final Cut Pro X organizing podcast clips and updating a Google Doc that my podcast editing company uses to get me final files)
  • Podcast uploading (this is a recurring weekly event on my calendar for Wednesday at 6pm when I upload new episodes of my podcast to SoundCloud)
  • Water succulents (this one is every other week, and technically not business related, I know)

Sunrise Calendar

Like my 11 email accounts, the way I schedule things on my calendar would probably drive some people to the nut-house. This system works for me. It’s how I break down bigger tasks into smaller tasks and get so much stuff done. On a typical week, my calendar will be completely full from the hours of 8am to 8pm, but that doesn’t mean I’m always working during those times. I also schedule dinners, hanging out with friends, and even giving my dog Plaxico his heart worm medicine every month. I don’t have specific recurring time blocks for certain tasks anymore—I used to, but I’ve found over time that I don’t need that much structure. Two years ago, I definitely had a different answer.

I have one strict rule with my calendar: I cannot move an event more than three times. If I’m putting something off more than three times, it either must get done on the third move on my calendar (damn procrastination!), or I figure out why it didn’t get done and regroup: do I need to break it into smaller tasks? Do I need to outsource it?

And yeah, I still use Sunrise.am, even though they’ve technically shut down. Sunrise was essentially its own beautiful calendar app that you could plug your Google Cal into it. I’m a sucker for well-designed things, and Google Calendar is not that. Luckily the Sunrise web app still works perfectly and is way friendlier on the eyes than Google Calendar. I love the simple things like when you say “Skype with Ben” it adds the Skype icon in the calendar event. At quick glance, I can see how much of my schedule has calls on it or other tasks.

Acuity Scheduling

Scheduling calls with people is one of my absolute LEAST favorite tasks of all time. I’d rather wear wet socks for an hour than go back and forth over email trying to coordinate a call in different time zones (especially for people in Mountain Time, WTF!?).

Truthfully, I used to use Calendly for scheduling calls, but Acuity Scheduling reached out to sponsor the podcast I co-host. After signing up for an account to check it out, I realized how many more features they had, and that I could make my scheduling page customized with my photo and brand colors (you can go further and do CSS stuff if you’re extra fancy).

One of the best things about Acuity Scheduling is that it directly integrates with my Google Calendar so I just tell it I want to accept new events from 10am-4pm, Tuesday-Thursday, and it will navigate around my already blocked-off times (for watering my plants, obviously).

Oh, and I don’t schedule calls on Mondays or Fridays (or the weekend, but that should be obvious). I like my Mondays to be all about email and having the time to respond to any/all responses to that week’s Action Army newsletter (sent Monday morning at 7am). Fridays, well, I like to leave Fridays open for adventure, reading, or catching up on tasks that didn’t get done earlier in the week.

IFTTT

If you haven’t heard of it IFTTT (If This Then That), it’s probably going to blow your mind. It’s essentially robots doing chores for you, except the chores can be stuff for your business!

I don’t use a lot of fancy automation stuff in my business. I know I could probably automate a lot more things, but I like doing the things I do, so why automate them?

But there are two things I do use IFTTT for:

1. Scheduling events on my calendar while not at my computer. I use the SMS to Google Calendar IFTTT recipe. I have one text message thread that I send new messages to, and it automatically adds those things to my calendar. I’ve tried using Siri or even putting stuff in via Google Calendar, and it’s always so cumbersome. This recipe is money.

2. Sharing Instagram photos to Twitter. A year or two ago, Twitter decided to stop playing nicely with Instagram. When you share a photo through the Twitter share button in the Instagram app, it just shares the link. No photo. It’s a bummer. The Instagram to Twitter IFTTT recipe grabs the photo from Instagram and adds it as an actual image along with a link and the description. You can see this in action here.

Adobe

I currently pay $9.99 a month for Adobe Photoshop. I remember buying each new version of Photoshop when I was a designer and loathing the chunk of money that I’d have to put up each time. When Adobe moved its products to the cloud, it was a game-changer. Automatic updates to the newest version of a piece of software I use (almost) daily? Uh, yeah, I’ll pay $9.99 a month for that.

I use Photoshop for a lot of project mockups. I’m a designer by trade, and while not nearly as talented as people who call themselves “designers,” I’m dangerous enough to get the job done. I love being able to hop in Photoshop, mock something up as I envision it, and then send that to a person who will make the design 100x better or to a developer who will turn that design into something functional. I mentioned earlier that I don’t use an external mouse. This goes for using Photoshop as well. I simply use the built-in trackpad and let my fat sausage fingers do the talkin’.

Fun fact: I just recently learned about swatches. You could say I’m purist when it comes to tools in Photoshop (I barely use any at all). But swatches let you save all my colors for various projects and organize them for quick access. Brilliant!

Dropbox

Back when I was filming and editing a YouTube video every day of my life (during IWearYourShirt), I had to buy external hard drive after external hard drive. At one point, I had a box of 20 2TB drives. Nearly 40TB of raw video footage.

I started to realize that backing up my computer files with all the video files was becoming a pain in the ass. Trying to find large design files on multiple external hard drives became the bane of my existence. It was about that time when Dropbox swooped in and showed me how I could backup my entire system folder (excluding video files) and use cloud storage as my external hard drive.

Ya, ya, ya. I can hear some of you gasping in fear. What if the cloud disappears!? Well, I’ve had multiple external hard drives crap out on me, and there was literally no way to recover the data (even after physically bringing the drive to an overweight nerd covered in Cheetos dust). Since 2013, when I stopped making videos, I’ve used only Dropbox as my file backup service, and it’s been fantastic. I can be on a plane, in an airport, in a hotel, or in a different country, and I always have access to all my files without my hard drive being filled to capacity.

I pay $99 per year, and I love not owning any external hard drives.

Stamps.com

Here’s a random one for you. I effing HATE the post office. It’s such a miserable experience, even if you can avoid the scary soul-sucking employees behind the desk and use the automated kiosks.

I really enjoy the process of packaging something up and mailing it to people. There’s something about the physical nature of knowing someone is opening a box and doing nothing else while cutting through the tape and cardboard to get to the contents inside. It’s a truly captive experience that brings people joy (which you can’t say about much of the digital world these days).

Stamps.com lets me have my cake and eat it, too. It’s $15.99 per month and I consider that an avoid-the-USPS-trolls tax. I can print postage directly from my home on labels I buy through Amazon. When the package is ready, I put it in my mailbox or drop it in any blue USPS mailbox. If the package is too big, I can walk right into any post office and drop it off without having to wait in line or talk to a single human being. It’s fantastic.

What tools do you use?

So, that was kind of a long introduction to the idea that I want to read about the tools that other entrepreneurs use to run their businesses. In fact, I want to know about the tools you use to run your business and/or make your work life easier. If you write a similar article, post, whatever, send it to me, and I’ll link to it below.

It might be slightly ironic that a feature on Minimums might lead to the most maximum list ever of tools for entrepreneurs. But that’s how we roll around here.

This is the end of the yellow brick road. If you want to read more articles mosey on over yonder.