Crowdfunding For Startups: 8 Tips For Launching

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startup crowdfunding

For a people who revere startup culture and the idea that one can bootstrap one’s way to business success, we seem to prefer the TV version to the real thing — especially as of late. It turns out that new business creation recently approached its 40-year low. Banks are retaining their Great Recession-era tight-fistedness and the costs of education, housing and healthcare continue daily to expand beyond the ability of most Americans to keep pace. Frankly, our veneration of the entrepreneurial spirit does not appear to extend to supporting policies that would actually increase people’s ability to take the financial risks required to start their own business.

Due to these factors — along with the legalization of equity crowdfunding accomplished via the passage of the JOBS Act in 2012 — crowdfunding has arisen as a means of raising startup funds. You may only be familiar with crowdfunding in the context of all the medical- and disaster-based campaigns that have been making the news lately, but crowdfunding is a viable way to raise money for businesses as well.

The fact is, for the right kind of new enterprise, a crowdfunding campaign can be a great way to raise a much-needed initial infusion of capital. The biggest crowdfunding site for startups, Kickstarter (see our review), has seen over $3.4 billion USD raised by product-oriented business projects. To be fair, this money didn’t just fall into the laps of the startups in question. Crowdfunding takes some work to get right. However, it’s hard to imagine that the campaigners who raised that $3.4 billion could have raised that same sum via conventional means.

Just know that you’ll have a lot of competition for those crowdfunding dollars. You need to go into it with more than just a good story (not to discount the value of a good story!) — you’ll need to tailor your campaign to suit your particular enterprise, and you’ll need to give your potential backers a personal stake in supporting you with the promise of rewards, profit, or both.

Here’s what you should do to prepare before you begin.

Table of Contents

1) Learn Which Type Of Crowdfunding Suits You Best

If you know anything about non-charitable crowdfunding, you’ve likely heard of Kickstarter and its rewards-based crowdfunding model. What you might not be aware of is that Kickstarter is but one method of crowdfunding available to startups.

Rewards Crowdfunding

Rewards crowdfunding is what most people think of when they hear the term “crowdfunding.” Along with Kickstarter, Indiegogo (see our review), Patreon (see our review), and GoFundMe (see our review) are examples of popular platforms offering rewards crowdfunding. I’ll get into the differences between these platforms later on, but suffice it to say, these platforms generally involve raising money from The Crowd in exchange for rewards that are directly related to your startup’s mission. The platform will then take a cut of what you raise (except in the case of GoFundMe).

Equity Crowdfunding

Equity crowdfunding is a different beast entirely. The field of equity crowdfunding is a new one. It was legalized by the JOBS Act, which was signed into law in 2012 and whose provisions have gradually taken effect over the last few years. The JOBS Act was seen as a way to facilitate greater access to capital in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Equity crowdfunding differs from traditional rewards crowdfunding in that instead of backing a project in exchange for exclusive illustrations or a gadget or tickets to a performance, backers become investors who receive an ownership stake in the company. Investing is much more heavily regulated than rewards crowdfunding, so it’s a more legally complex way of raising funds than using Kickstarter. What’s more, the JOBS Act provides for two similar yet distinct forms of equity crowdfunding: the type in which you raise money from accredited investors only (which basically means rich people) and the type in which you can raise money from non-accredited investors (everyone else). Most equity crowdfunding platforms, including Crowdfunder (see our review) and Fundable (see our review), offer equity crowdfunding for accredited investors only, while a few upstart companies like Wefunder (see our review) offer equity crowdfunding for all (sometimes referred to as Regulation Crowdfunding).

Debt Crowdfunding

Debt crowdfunding, like equity crowdfunding, involves investing in a security of the company in question. However, with debt crowdfunding, the investor is a lender who gets paid back on a fixed schedule with interest. From the perspective of a startup, getting into debt crowdfunding means you’re borrowing money — not from a bank, but from a crowd of investors. Kiva U.S. (see our review), Lending Club (see our review) and Prosper (see our review) are all prominent debt crowdfunding outfits.

If you’re wondering which of these three types of crowdfunding best fits your startup, here’s a quick rundown for you:

  • Rewards crowdfunding is best suited to startups in the business of producing content for people to consume. Artists, gadget makers, podcasters, filmmakers, and board game producers have all made good use of rewards crowdfunding.
  • Equity crowdfunding makes sense for startups with exponential growth potential that do not produce a singular product or experience to share with a crowd of backers.
  • Debt crowdfunding is for startups that need cash for a defined purpose and that have the ability to pay back the loan.

For more information on the subject, I recently wrote an article comparing and contrasting these three types of crowdfunding. Check it out!

2) Research Different Platforms To Understand Their Differences

Simply knowing the difference between the three varieties of crowdfunding doesn’t provide enough information for you to settle on a platform. For one thing, crowdfunders like Indiegogo and Fundable offer both rewards and equity crowdfunding. For another, the terms, fees, content policies, and even the structure of the crowdfunding campaigns themselves differ from platform to platform.

For instance, you might be trying to raise funds to build your own board game company and have your sights set on Kickstarter. However, Kickstarter is a more exclusive platform than most rewards crowdfunders — it might not accept your campaign proposal. What’s more, you might find Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing funding policy intimidating. With all-or-nothing funding, if you raise less than your stated goal amount during the length of your campaign, you get nothing at all. You might find a platform like Indiegogo more to your liking, as Indiegogo accepts any campaign that doesn’t violate its rules while allowing you to collect whatever you raise with your campaign regardless of whether you’ve hit your goal.

Let’s say you’re an artist collective seeking to put on monthly art exhibitions. The Kickstarter/Indiegogo fundraising-for-a-one-time-event model of crowdfunding may not be for you. You might find Patreon to be a better fit. With Patreon, backers (or “patrons”) sign up to support you on an ongoing basis, either per month or per creation. You won’t have to gin up a new crowdfunding campaign every time you want to start a big project.

Likewise, equity crowdfunders vary greatly in their policies — SeedInvest (see our review), for example, boasts of only accepting 1% of those who apply to crowdfund on its site, whereas EquityNet (see our review) accepts any startup applying to use its services.

3) Check Out Other Crowdfunding Campaigns To See What Works (And What Doesn’t)

When you’re raising money via crowdfunding, you have one big advantage over those trying to raise money via other means. If you’re applying for a bank loan, you don’t get to browse through every loan application ever submitted to the bank or view the result of every application. But with crowdfunding, in most cases, the data is there for everyone to see!

Kickstarter is typical for a crowdfunding site in that every campaign ever posted to its website is left up permanently, regardless of whether the campaign succeeded or not. For the creator whose ridiculous campaign never really got off the ground, this permanent record of failure may not seem like such a boon. However, if you’re a startup looking to identify patterns in past crowdfunding campaigns that correlate with success — as well as patterns that correlate with not-success — this data is quite valuable indeed. I would strongly advise you to make use of it! Don’t be too proud to emulate what has been shown to work.

4) Be An Intensive Self-Promoter

If you’re the modest, retiring sort who spurns self-promotion, get ready to change your approach  — that is, if you want your campaign to succeed. Spend some time promoting your startup’s cause before taking the crowdfunding plunge (Indiegogo recommends at least two months of prep time before launch).

Do the legwork necessary to build up your social media following before starting your crowdfunding campaign, so that when you launch your campaign, you’ll have a built-in audience that is already receptive to your message. Contact journalists who cover your field. Build an email list. Consider buying ads on Facebook or Twitter to promote your campaign. Unfortunately, with crowdfunding as with so much else in our fallen world, you have to spend money to make money.

Remember to tailor your self-promotional efforts to fit your audience. If you’re looking to conduct business with accredited investors, a hard-nosed, data-focused approach may bear more fruit than a flashier look-how-cool-we-are campaign.

5) Create A Professional Video

I suppose I could have included this point in the previous section, but I think it deserves to be emphasized on its own. According to Kickstarter, posting a video to go along with your campaign increases your likelihood of ultimately succeeding from 30% to 50%.

Here’s another example of “spend money to make money” — a professional video with decent production values will make your potential backers more confident in the potential of your enterprise than something produced on the cheap. I’d love to live in a world where one could devote all one’s energies towards their true passions and not have to set aside time and resources for salesmanship, but we don’t live in that world. So, make a video. Keep it to just 2-3 minutes. You can get personal, but make sure to hit all your main points about your startup and its potential. Don’t forget to mention the benefits backers stand to earn!

6) Get Commitments From Backers Before Launching Your Campaign

It might not be fair, but it’s not easy to attract backers when your campaign first launches. An adverse first impression can easily dissuade someone from contributing to your campaign, and seeing “$0 pledged” next to your project can be enough to cause a prospective backer’s wallet to close. That’s why it’s important to line up commitments from backers before your campaign launches.

Time to make your family and friends prove their love to you by securing their backing before your campaign goes live! Gather commitments from your followers as well. Remember how I mentioned that you should build an email list of potential backers? Here’s where you can put that list to good use. Email your followers immediately when your campaign goes live. Get some pledges early and it will be all the easier to get subsequent commitments from backers. Data provided by Kickstarter backs this up — while their overall project success rate is just a hair under 36%, projects that raise over 20% of their goal have a 78% success rate.

7) Don’t Be Afraid To Use Analytics

The use of analytics is the only way you’ll be able to tell just what kind of traffic to your campaign page is converting to pledges. Use whatever analytical tools are available to see where your pledges are coming from and how you can boost them.

For instance, Kickstarter’s Project Dashboard gives you access to a trove of data regarding exactly where your backers are coming from. This data is invaluable when determining where you should focus your marketing.

kickstarter

8) Stay In Touch With Your Backers

Show your backers that you respect them by staying in touch with them. Keep them updated on your progress. After all, these are people who made a financial commitment to you knowing that there’s no guarantee that your plans will come to fruition.

Monitor social media chatter related to your campaign to see if particular concerns pop up repeatedly. If so, do what needs to be done to address these concerns. After all, you’ll want to stay in their good graces if you want to launch another crowdfunding campaign in the future!

Final Thoughts

Crowdfunding doesn’t work out for every startup that tries it. If you do your due diligence, however, you greatly increase the likelihood that your campaign will reach its funding goals. Follow these tips, and you’ll have a fighting chance to get the funding you need so that you can ultimately focus on growing your startup, not on fundraising!

Jason Vissers

Jason Vissers is a writer, cereal chef and Netflix aficionado from San Diego. A native Californian who enjoys the beach, Jason nonetheless prefers to do his surfing on the World Wide Web, the raddest wave of them all. Jason can’t eat raisins.

Jason Vissers

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Thank You Page Best Practices, Ideas & Examples

A visitor has taken some sort of action on your site… hurray!

Before you celebrate too much, let’s talk about your Thank You page.

The Thank You page is one of the most underrated pages on a website. We often focus so much on getting someone to take an action (like purchasing a product, signing up for a webinar, downloading a whitepaper) that we forget how valuable a Thank You page can be, or the effort we should put into it.

A Thank You page, when used correctly, can be a crucial part of nurturing your audience.

But before we dive into some best practices, let’s cover the basics.

What is a Thank You Page?

A Thank You page is where a visitor is taken after completing a desired action on your website. It’s also sometimes referred to as a “confirmation” page because it confirms an action was taken.

A Thank You page can follow up any desired action on your site, from filling out a contact form to subscribing to an email newsletter or purchasing a product on your site.

Do I Need a Thank You Page?

If you have some sort of action you want visitors to take (also known as a “conversion” in marketing speak), then you absolutely need a Thank You page on your website.

This page not only serves as a way to confirm the action was taken successfully, but it also allows you to continue to engage your visitors, especially while they’re still “warm” (sales jargon for they’re more likely to want to interact/do business with you).

A visitor who has just taken an action on your site is incredibly valuable because they’re indicating they’re interested in you and what you have to offer. An effective Thank You page is a way to further that relationship and keep that interest growing.

Plus, saying thank you after your audience does something on your site is just plain polite.

Thank You Page vs. Thank You Message

A lot of forms and landing pages include built-in functionality to display a confirmation message once an action is completed. This functionality generally keeps users on the same page and simply replaces the form/download button/purchase area with a thank you message.

While showing this message is enough to confirm the action, in most cases, it doesn’t do much for continuing to engage with your audience. This is where a dedicated Thank You page can do wonders for your post-conversion opportunities.

By leveraging an individual page instead of a message on the existing page, you have more flexibility and opportunities to increase engagement, share relevant content, and provide additional opportunities to convert.

For more about thank you pages vs. thank you messages, check out this article by Hubspot.

Thank You Page Best Practices

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s dive into the details. Here are seven Thank You page best practices you can implement on your own site.

Give Confirmation

The first thing your Thank You page should do is confirm whatever action your visitor just took was completed successfully. For example, if they’ve just subscribed to your weekly newsletter, your page might say something like, “Thank you for subscribing to our weekly newsletter.”

Your Thank You page should also confirm any relevant details relating to the conversion, such as how long it will take you to respond after they’ve filled out a contact form, or when they can expect to receive the whitepaper they’ve opted-in for.

ShivarWeb Thank You Page

Ex: ShivarWeb

Remember, this is someone who has indicated interest in your business. You want them to feel valued right off the bat and to know that the action they took actually worked. The best way to do that is to confirm all of the details as soon as they finish the conversion.

Include Navigation

One of the worst things you can do on your Thank You page is keep your audience stranded there. These are people who have just indicated they’re into what you have to offer, which means this is the perfect time to keep them hanging around your site!

At the very least, your Thank You page should include your website’s navigation to allow your audience to stick around and explore your site some more.

The Skimm thank you page

Ex: The Skimm

Provide Related Content/Actions

Aside from using your navigation to give your audience an opportunity to stick around, your Thank You page is also a great place to provide related content or additional actions your lead may find interesting.

For example, if they’ve just opted-in to a whitepaper, you could provide related content on the same or a similar subject. This is a great way to continue to “warm up” your visitors (AKA make their interest in you grow) without being overly sales-y.

You could also use this opportunity to lead your users further “down the funnel” (the next step closer to purchasing) by offering another relevant action. For example, Hubspot offers a free session to learn more about their software after you opt-in to download one of their guides.

Hubspot Thank You Page

Ex: HubSpot

If your Thank You page shows when a visitor has already taken a purchasing action, you can still use related content to keep them engaged. The easiest way to do so is to display related items they may also be interested in — Amazon is renowned for doing just that!

Amazon Related Items

Ex: Amazon

Add an Offer/Promotion

Did a customer just enter to win a free product? Why not offer a coupon code to encourage them to purchase something sooner?

Adding an offer or promotion can be an excellent way to encourage warm visitors to convert, or to increase the value of a converting customer by enticing them to purchase additional items.

Keep in mind that your offer should be something relevant to their action and worthy of their attention. You don’t want to come across as spammy over overly sales-y. You want to provide something that feels uniquely valuable to your audience and relates to whatever action they just took.

Get Social

Encouraging people to connect with you on social media is a great way to further connect with a warm audience.

Instead of just leaving links to your social profiles, take it a step further and tell visitors why they should follow you. What can they expect to see if on they follow you? News about your business? Tips and tricks related to the action they just took? Spell out the value and make it clear it’s worth it.

katelyn dramis thank you page

Ex: Katelyn Dramis

You can also use your Thank You page as an opportunity to spread the word about your business. This works particularly well for actions like webinar registrations and offer redemptions.

If your Thank You page is confirming an offer redemption or webinar sign-up, include social share buttons to encourage your converters to spread the word on social media with their friends. They obviously think what you have to offer is worth signing up for! There’s a good chance they’ll spread the word for you, too.

Show Off Testimonials

Even if your visitor has just completed a purchase, your Thank You page can still be a place of reassurance that you’re as great as you say you are.

Use your page as an opportunity to show off social proof, whether it be customer testimonials, the number of social media fans you have, or a quick stat or case study.

Your Thank You page should continue to warm your visitors and encourage them either to purchase down the road or to purchase again. Using social proof to help reassure them that you’re the real deal can help this process significantly.

Encourage Opt-Ins & Account Sign-Ups

A Thank You page is the perfect time to ask your audience to become a regular part of your community and an ongoing converter.

For e-commerce businesses, asking your purchases to create an account after converting can yield far more results than asking prior to purchase (and can reduce cart abandonment).

If your business doesn’t include the opportunity for customers to create accounts, you can still invite converters to be regulars by asking them to opt-in to your email newsletter on your Thank You page. Make sure you specify why your audience would want to subscribe to your newsletter — what is it you’ll be offering that makes it worthwhile?

Conclusion & Next Steps

Your Thank You page can be an amazing tool in your sales arsenal if used correctly. Don’t let all of your focus go toward the conversion — spend adequate time on your confirmation page and yield the benefits time and time again.

Start by taking a look at your own Thank You page. Does it confirm the action your visitor took? Does it offer opportunities to stay engaged with your business? If it doesn’t, start by introducing one way for users to continue to interact with you.

Remember, like all pages on your website, your Thank You page isn’t set in stone. Test one approach to adding some meat to your page (like adding related content or a call-to-action to follow you on social media) and see how it works. Then, adapt!

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Top 3 Project Management Apps For Large Businesses

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Earlier this year I wrote a blog post describing the top three project management apps for small businesses. In the interest of fairness, I figured I should round things out and post a similar list, this time focusing on apps that can handle the demands of a larger business. I actually thought it might be a simple task, but it wound up being more complicated than I expected. Whereas small businesses might appreciate ease of use and simplicity, these things are potentially less of a priority in a larger company (though I would argue that good design lends itself to ease of use). Instead, comprehensive features that include time tracking, scheduling, and even invoicing are the order of the day here.

With that in mind, my criteria for selecting the following apps were price, breadth of features, and finally, of course, that “X-Factor” that makes these choices stand out from the crowd. I also considered whether or not the program has an open API, allowing you to develop your own apps and fully customize your experience.

Okay, enough of the intro! Let’s dive into our analysis of the top three project management apps for large businesses.

Table of Contents

Smartsheet

Smartsheet review

Smartsheet (read our review) is one of the oldest kids on the project management app block, founded way back in 2006. Affordable and powerful, Smartsheet’s biggest strength is its scalability. It will feel immediately familiar to employees with knowledge of other spreadsheet programs (like Excel) and can be used in many similar situations. It’s not easy to use in a broad sense, but this is not an overly complex program and it has only a relatively small learning curve.

Price

While not the cheapest project management app, Smartsheet is also by no means the most expensive. With an upper limit (for the “business” subscription) of $25/user/person, Smartsheet’s pricing scale ends where other, more expensive apps begin. There is also an option for Enterprise pricing, but you’ll have to contact Smartsheet to hash out the details on that one.

Breadth of Features

Smartsheet is far more than just a spreadsheet program or budgeting tool. Offering portfolio management, scheduling functions, and more, this is an app that covers almost the whole range of standard and advanced project management features. Importantly, Smartsheet also offers an advanced suite of reporting features to analyze every level of your companies inner workings.

“X-Factor”

Smartsheet has two major attractions for me. First, it looks and feels like a spreadsheet. If you have employees trained in Microsoft Excel or its competitors, Smartsheet will not provide a completely alien experience. That right there might be enough to counteract the fact that this is not exactly a gorgeous piece of visual design. The other big draw is the level of automation you can achieve with Smartsheet. Scheduling, task assignment, and more can be handled automatically, which reduces the chances of human error mucking up the works.

Open API

Yes!

Podio

Podio (read our review) is a project management app that, though it could be shoehorned into a mom-and-pop style business, is really intended for use in enterprise-scale environments. At once user-friendly and complex enough to handle more large-scale requirements, Podio is designed to feel like a social media platform that also houses your daily schedule and task list.

Price

Starting with a low-end price of nine dollars/user/month and topping out at $24/user/month (with enterprise pricing available), Podio is unlikely to break the bank relative to the competition, much of which starts in the $30/user/month region. I will say that, whereas with Smartsheet you could probably get away with at least some users subscribing to a lower level of service, with Podio, you may find it valuable for a larger percentage of users to work with the most expensive version. The advanced workflow and interactive dashboards alone would be worth the extra cost.

Breadth of Features

Offering time tracking, scheduling, and reporting features, Podio also pays more attention than most large-business-focused project management apps to communication. Using the aforementioned social media DNA to drive the look and feel of the app, Podio provides dedicated communication services, meaning that if your offices or employees are spread out over large distances, this might be the perfect app for you.

“X-Factor”

For me, the most pleasant surprise in Podio is the level of communication tools available. As I said, it is relatively rare to come across a developer that includes this kind of feature on an enterprise-focused project management app. Podio’s collaborative features are not just limited to in-company chat either; you can bring your clients into the conversation from within Podio itself. Neat!

API

Yes!

Genius Project

Designed originally as a project management option for IBM systems, Genius Project (read our review) is an SaaS app clearly intended for large companies with multi-tiered teams working on several projects in tandem. Some project management apps (including a few on this list) are designed in such a way that pretty much any user can figure out use them, but many of Genius Project’s features are pretty clearly intended for only trained project managers to use.

Price

While somewhat complex, Genius Project’s pricing scheme is intended to help you better tailor your subscription to your specific needs. Most employees accessing the app will need the Timesheet subscription, which currently costs around $20. Some may need the Team Member level, which runs in the $35 range. Finally, a few will need the more pricey, $45-ish subscription. It is worth noting that to acquire more accurate pricing, you will need to contact Genius Project directly.

Breadth of Features

If you can name a project management feature, Genius Project likely has some version of it available. From document management to workflows, from portfolio management to cost and resource tracking, from communication to reporting, Genius Project has covered just about everything. Importantly, though, not all users will have access to these features, so you will need to anticipate what each employee needs when deciding on what exactly to buy.

“X-Factor”

For me, the biggest attraction of Genius Project is that it is basically a one-stop shop for project management. You won’t need time tracking, chat, or even invoicing apps if you buy Genius Project. That might make the slightly higher price tag worth it.

API

Yes!

Final Thoughts

Large businesses have different needs than smaller ones, especially when it comes to project management. The three solutions listed above provide enough scalability, advanced features, and API access to make them invaluable to a large or enterprise level organization.

Looking for something for a smaller team? Check out the Top 3 Project Management Apps For Small Businesses. Have you used and liked any of the solutions mentioned above? Let us know in the comments!

Wesley Kriz is a writer from the misty peaks of the Pacific Northwest, or as he prefers to call it, the Best Coast. He is willing to debate on almost any topic, but he is admittedly very stubborn, so beware. When not writing for Merchant Maverick, Wesley is likely thinking about Star Wars, or reading Lord of the Rings.

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Business Credit Card Rewards: Everything You Need To Know

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One of the biggest perks offered by business credit cards, other than convenience, is rewards. Gamed correctly, business credit card rewards can be a way to save money on your biggest expenses.

Not sure which rewards are right for your business? Wondering what kinds of expenses to use your card on? Not even sure what’s out there? Read on!

Table of Contents

What Are Business Credit Card Rewards?

Simply put, they’re incentives to use your card to make purchases. When you make a purchase on your card, you’ll be awarded points or cash for each dollar you’ve spent. The number and type of points awarded vary by card. In many cases, where you’re spending it matters too.

How Many Types Of Rewards Are There?

A lot. In fact, many business credit card rewards cater to a specific type of spending. Overall, you can break them down into two broad categories.

  • Cash: This is the simplest, and oldest, kind of reward program offered by business credit cards. Cash rewards accumulate as you make purchases on your credit card. You may, for example, earn 2 percent back on every purchase you make. Depending on your carrier, you’ll have the option to redeem the rewards automatically at specific times of year, when you reach reward thresholds, or when you request them. Cash rewards can be redeemed as checks, statement credit and, in some cases, as gift certificates.
  • Rewards: Other business credit cards don’t return cash, instead awarding points or frequent flyer miles to cardholders. These cards tend to cater to specific types of business. For example, businesses whose staff frequently travel may choose a card that awards flyer miles. A business that spends a lot on telecommunications, on the other hand, may choose a card that rewards expenditures on those expenses. Other reward programs are more general, presenting you with a diverse (but limited) array of rewards to spend your points on.

What Are Reward Tiers?

Not all business credit cards have reward tiers. Cash cards almost never have them, for example, but many reward cards do.

Reward-based cards use tiers to influence your spending habits. For example, the Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit card breaks its reward point system into two tiers. For each $1 you spend on travel, shipping purchases, telecommunications, and social media advertising, you’ll earn three reward points. Any other purchases you make will be compensated with one point per $1.

Most cards that use tiers will have two or three of them. The lowest tier almost always represents miscellaneous purchases.

How To Choose The Right Reward

Business credit cards, ideally, reward a specific kind of spending behavior. With that in mind, it’s best to consider which rewards best sync up with your expenses.

This means you’ll probably want to itemize your monthly business expenses to see where you’re spending your money. You’ll also want to get the cash value of the reward points offered by any rewards cards you are considering (expect a value somewhere around a cent or two).

To make a comparison, pretend you’ve put all of your monthly expenses on the credit card and calculate the cash value of the points (or cash back) you would get for making those purchases. So if you have $800 of expenses that qualify top tier points (3) and $1,000 of miscellaneous purchases, you’d be earning $34 worth of rewards each month or $408 per year.

If your expenses aren’t concentrated in any specific area, consider cash rewards. You may not get as big a multiplier on specific purchases, but you’ll often recoup a better value on your miscellaneous purchases. Not only that, but you can spend your cash return on whatever you want. Consider cash as “breadth” to rewards’ “depth.”

What Else Should You Factor Into Your Reward Calculations?

You didn’t think it would be quite that easy, did you? Business credit card terms feature a large number of asterisks and footnotes. Here are some things you should also consider when calculating a card’s reward potential:

  • Sign-up Bonus: Many business credit cards will offer an initial sign-up bonus. This is a one-time offer and usually requires you to spend a minimum amount of money in order to qualify.
  • Annual Fee: Some business credit cards charge an annual fee to keep the card active. You’ll want to deduct this amount from your yearly reward value. Note that many cards will waive the first year’s fee.
  • Reward Limits: While it might be fun to think of ways to earn an endless torrent of reward points, your carrier is one step ahead of you. Some carriers will limit the number of top tier points you can earn. Others may stop rewarding points or cash for the year after you hit a spending threshold of, say, $150,000.

Final Thoughts

Remember that your business credit card should match your existing spending habits. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you should have a specific card just because it’s popular or even well-reviewed.

Need help getting started? Check out our 2018 business credit card comparisons.

Chris Motola

Chris Motola is an independent writer, journalist, programmer, and game designer who has mastered the art of using his laptop in no fewer than 541 positions, most of them unergonomic. When he’s not pushing keys or swiping screens, he’s probably out exploring urban or natural environs, experimenting in the kitchen, or delighting/annoying his friends with his ideas and theories.

Chris Motola

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7 Ways To Make Your Business Website Better

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As a reviewer of small business software and services — and a human who lives in the modern era — I’ve seen my share of business websites. Many of them are so basic that they serve only to confirm that the business in question, be it a bowling alley or an accountancy firm, is not merely a front for backroom bookie Big Sal and his associates (Fingers, Lefty, and Slippery Joe). What is dodgier than a business without a URL, after all?

(Read this article if you’re wondering whether your small business even needs a website. Spoiler alert: it does.)

Few websites are anything other than forgettable, and the ones that stand out usually owe their memorability to monumentally funny errors rather than to craftsman-level design.

Your website can be — and should be — more than just an online throwback to the yellow pages, a mere repository for basic information about hours and addresses and contact emails. Your website was destined for greatness. And I’m going to help you take it there. Here are several steps you can take to make sure your website stands out for all the right reasons:

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Join The 21st Century (Be Mobile Responsive)

When I say, “join the 21st century,” I am not being snarky in the manner of a 90s sitcom character. (If I were, I would have said: Welcome to the Oughts, holmes!)

I am trying to stress the importance of having a modern, mobile-responsive site. There’s a word for businesses with websites that don’t work well on smartphones. And that word is defunct.

Consumers are addicted to their mobile devices. And according to this article by Marketing Land, mobile devices now drive an estimated 56% of web traffic. That’s right — chances are that more than half of your customers will find your website on their mobile browser. If your site isn’t mobile responsive, I guarantee they will exit your page as quickly as they enter.

When viewed on a smartphone, non-responsive sites appear either too large or too small, requiring the reader to manually adjust the screen. Responsive sites, on the other hand, automatically adjust to accommodate each device, be it an iPhone, a Kindle, or a Galaxy Note8. Mobile sites are often simpler and/or allow the visitor to scroll down for more information, rather than navigating from one page to another.

Effective mobile sites are sleek, minimalistic repositories of information. They should be reminiscent of your full site and good ambassadors for your brand. They should not make people throw their phones in anger.

Happily, most do-it-yourself website builders allow for mobile responsive design; if yours doesn’t, it’s time to look for a new platform. And it goes without saying that if you’re paying a developer to design your site, you should insist that they make it responsive. If you want more information about this topic or tips about how to make it work for you, read our articles What Is Responsive Design? and Creating Websites For The Smartphone Generation.

Update, Update, Update

To stay competitive, your site has to look current. People are only becoming more attuned to (and judgemental about) the aesthetics of their technology. Older designs simply won’t cut it. You must update, and update frequently, to stay alive.

To be clear, we’re not just talking about upgrading from something like this…

If your site looks like that, you either went out of business in 1996, or you are using the design ironically. If it’s the former, and you’re now trying to get back into the game, good for you. Burn the site and start over. Burn it. If it’s the latter, you are invariably a hipster and I don’t want to talk to you or your handlebar mustache.

This is the horrible truth: your pages don’t have to be neon and underlined to look hopelessly dated.  Sites built as recently as 2012 now appear sad and outre. First impressions matter, and the average consumer will ditch your site without blinking an eye if it looks sketchy or old.

To stay in the game, you must update the design of your site every few years. Yes, it’s a pain. Yes, it will cost you time, money, or both. But what you gain in street cred will be worth every dime.

Updating actually isn’t so bad if you’re using a modern website building platform, like Wix (read our review) or Squarespace (read our review). New, intuitive site editors make it easy to switch layouts, change templates and forms, and alter color schemes — without paying an hourly rate to a spendy developer.

Provide Accurate & Complete Information

I know I spent a good part of the introduction talking about how business websites need to be more than just storehouses of basic information. That is 100% true, and I stand by every word. But…and this is a big but…it is vitally important to put basic information about your business on your website, front and center, or everything else in this article is pointless. Highlight your operating hours, address, phone number, and digital contact information, and put that information in more than one place. If your business occupies a physical space, your address and phone number should be above the fold. In other words, website visitors should not have to scroll down or navigate to another page to see this information.

You also need to give potential customers and new visitors at least a hint of what your company is all about on your home page. Don’t write a novel at this point. As you’ll see in the screenshot of Merchant Maverick’s home page below, a simple summary phrase — Unbiased Reviews That Save You Time And Money — is enough to convey the purpose of our site.

An “About Us” page is a great place to go more in-depth about exactly what your business does, and why you do it. It can also be a good vehicle to introduce yourself or your staff. Include mini-bios and pictures if you can. People are social animals. We’re evolutionarily wired for relationships, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. The exchange of goods and services is occurring less and less in the meatspace, but we still like to know who we’re dealing with.

Avoid Grammar Mistakes

You don’t have dig deep to realize that American public schools are sadly failing when it comes to even basic writing competency. Just log in to Twitter for 10 seconds and yOull sea that Im rite. (There’s a little editor humor for you.)

You can get away with shocking grammar in Tweets, texts, and even over email (alas). But your website is not the place to be slipshod and careless. Save that devil-may-care attitude for Facebook or Christmas cards, where only some of your acquaintance will be judging you. If your website is riddled with typos and syntax goofs, you will lose customers, period. Error-laden copy connotes one of two things to your client base: you are illiterate or you are lazy. Ponder this riddle: What’s more off-putting to a consumer — an uneducated merchant or an indifferent one? The answer, of course, is moot. Neither one is going to survive.

This may all seem terrifying if grammar isn’t exactly your thing. But don’t worry! There’s no need to hastily enroll in a community college course. Simply running your site through spellcheck should catch most spelling errors, though you’d be surprised how many merchants neglect to do so. For higher level syntax and grammar issues, try using a service like Grammarly. It’s not perfect for higher level writing, but it catches almost 100% of basic errors (there/they’re/their, etc.), and it’s free. You can also enlist help from friends and family. The more eyes on your website copy before you publish, the better.

Write Engaging Copy About Your Products/Services

It’s not enough for your content to be grammatically perfect. It must also be useful and interesting. And there’s the rub.

How does one write captivating copy? Especially if one is trying to sell items as unsexy as, say, lawnmower parts or plumbing services? The key is to know your audience. Your stuff doesn’t have to be Dostoevsky-good. It doesn’t even have to be Reader’s Digest-good. Excellent website copy is defined by only three characteristics:

  • Detail
  • Utility
  • Appeal

Let’s take them one by one.

Detail

Presumably, you understand your business and your products or services well. Take the time to describe them, providing as much or more of the minutia as is reasonably warranted. Color; size; shape; weight; feel; smell; taste. Go further into the aesthetic sensibility of your items if you want. The more your customer knows about the product or service, the more likely they are to be satisfied with their purchase.

Utility

The overall helpfulness of your copy will depend in part on how wisely you’ve used detail in your descriptions. But you must go even a step further. It’s not enough to state that a scarf is hand-knit, blue, and made of angora wool. It’s not even enough to say that it is 60-inches-long and machine-washable. For optimal impact, you’ve got to paint a word picture for your potential customers. Give suggestions about various ways to wear the scarf. Talk about occasions or events the scarf is appropriate for. If a customer can imagine your product as a useful part of their daily life, you’re far more likely to make the sale.

Appeal

This one’s not so straightforward. The line between interesting copy and content that is mind-meltingly dull is thinner than you’d expect. When in doubt, go back to the advice above: know your audience. If you’re hawking lawnmower parts, it’s best not to be cutesy or make attempts at humor. You’re likely to simply irritate people. For utilitarian products and services, appealing equals factual and descriptive. But if bespoke spa treatments or patchwork quilts are your daily bread, be as whimsical as you want. Go nuts. Employ first-person language. Break out the charm. And if you don’t feel up to the task, hire someone who is. There are plenty of freelancers out there who write website copy for a living. Sites like Upwork are teeming with writers who would fist-fight each other for the privilege of generating your web content. (I know because I used to be one of them.)

Use Original Images

On the internet, as in life, it often pays to be unique. And not in an after-school-special, every-snowflake-is-beautiful kind of way. Search engines like original content. They give preference to it, in fact.

That said, unless your name is Dorothea Lange or Ansel Adams, you’re much better off using BigStock or Getty Images for your graphic content than simply uploading pictures from your digital camera or smartphone. Unique isn’t always equivalent to good. My iPhone pictures, for example, are invariably blurry and too dark, invoking what I’m sure are merely pity-likes on Instagram. Yours may be better (and likely are), but I can say with near certainty that they aren’t good enough to be featured on your website.

Website-quality photographs and images should be:

  • High-resolution
  • Well-lit
  • Sharply focused
  • Artistically blocked, posed or designed
  • Minimally cluttered

Images like this don’t grow on trees. They come from professional photographers and graphic designers who use professional equipment. In other words, you’ll have to pay for them. Craigslist is a good place to find relatively cheap freelancers in your area, or you can solicit help from sites like Upwork and Guru.

Maintain A Blog

Blogs aren’t just for bloggers. Used wisely, a blog can be an excellent marketing tool for your retail, restaurant, or service business.

For starters (to reiterate my point in the section above), search engines give preference to original content. They gobble it up, in the manner of hungry hippos. To be clear, Google is an equal opportunity tool in that, if you have a URL, you’ll show up in an appropriate keyword search…eventually. But if you want to rank a little higher than the two-millionth results page, you’ll need to put it a bit more effort. Creating unique, high-quality content for your site increases your visibility to potential customers online. The key phrase here is high-quality, by the way. Search engines employ highly trained digital bloodhounds that can sniff out BS filler-content a mile away. You can try to cover redundant or pointless copy with metaphorical coffee grounds, but Google algorithms just keep getting smarter.

If you equate blogs solely with hot-button social issues like politics, the Mommy Wars, religion, and the like, it may be difficult to see how having one could benefit — or even apply to — your business. There are only so many edgy articles you can write about lawnmower parts.

Blogs don’t have to be hilarious rants or incisive social commentaries. In fact, if you want them to work well for your site, you should avoid controversy and/or high-art altogether. Instead, think about what kinds of things your customers are interested in, and provide content that caters to those interests. Do you sell custom clothing? Write a few how-to posts about accessorizing or blog about fashion trends. Run a pet shop? Talk about what pet owners can do to keep their dogs healthy. Rank cat toys from worst to most purrr-fect. Cat owners in your area who search for toy ideas may just stumble on your article and become loyal customers. Blogs exist to provide helpful information for your current clients, but they serve to draw in new customers as well.

Here are some articles types that work well for business blogs:

  • Top 10 Lists
  • How-To Articles
  • Dos & Don’ts
  • Product Comparisons
  • Guides
  • Best Of/Worst Of Lists
  • Industry News
  • Trends & Fads
  • Interviews

If you don’t feel up to creating the content yourself, hire someone who is.

Final Thoughts

In our increasingly digital society, your website is the most visible face of your business. It behooves you to make that face as clean and attractive as possible. The good news is that it doesn’t take much to create a professional, effective site.

Consider the tips above and take action where you can. With just a little TLC (and a little cash), your website can go from bland and forgettable to sleek and profitable.

Further Reading

We’ve talked about seven ways that you can create a better website for your business. Here are some other resources to help you get started.

Starting From Scratch?

Check out our large selection of do-it-yourself website builder reviews or compare top website building software vendors. If your website needs to incorporate an online store, you’ll want to peruse our eCommerce software reviews and compare some of the top shopping carts.

Read these articles if you need help deciding on a platform:

Looking To Improve Your Current Site?

If you already have a site, but need some tips on how to take it to the next level, these articles should help:

Want Tips On eCommerce?

We’ve written a comprehensive ebook on starting an online store. It’s free and well worth a read. If you’re operating an online store already or are thinking about adding one to your website, check out these articles:

Need Help With Social Media For Your Business Website?

Social media is a huge part of good business marketing, and it’s helpful to integrate your social media channels with your website. Check out these articles for more information:

Julie Titterington

Julie Titterington is a writer, editor, and native Oregonian who lives in the beautiful Willamette Valley with her husband and two small children. When she’s not writing or testing software, she spends her time reading early 20th century mystery novels, staring blankly at her iPhone, and attempting to keep her kids fed, clothed, and relatively uninjured.

Julie Titterington

Julie Titterington

“”

13 New Year’s Resolutions For Your Business

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Why Small Businesses Need New Year's Resolutions

The beginning of a new year is a good time to think about what has passed and what is to come, but this time shouldn’t be limited to personal reflection alone.

As a small business owner, give yourself an opportunity to reflect on your business and its finances. What worked last year? What didn’t work and why? Where do you want to be a year, two years, five years from now? What will it take to get there?

Once you’ve spent some time reflecting, start creating new goals to strive for. There’s no better time to reevaluate your business strategy or implement new financial processes than at the start of the new year. Build on what you learned in 2017 and make 2018 even better by creating financial and business resolutions.

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Business Resolutions To Consider

Here are some possible financial resolution ideas to help get you thinking about how to make this year a success for your business…

Create A Budget & Stick To It

This could be the year to create, implement, and stick to a reasonable budget. Most accounting software programs make it easy to create yearly budgets, and some even allow you to use last year’s data as inspiration.

Increase Sales

Who doesn’t want to increase sales? Begin by considering practical ways to make this happen, like creating specific motivations for your sales staff or expanding your clientele. Use your existing accounting software to drill into your sales records and analyze the trends in your business. What sells well? What type of customers buy your products? Leverage this data to make informed decisions going forward.

Go On An Expense Diet

It might be time to cut back on the expenses. Use your existing accounting software and purchases records to pinpoint unnecessary spending. Find ways to automate processes so you can save time on projects and avoid paying excess wages. When it comes to the overall profitability of your business, this is one diet that isn’t so hard to stick with.

Reinvest Money In Your Business

Did your business make a decent profit in 2017? This year, make it a point to reinvest in your company. Increase your company’s assets, or buy those new computers everyone has been needing to boost productivity. Incentivize your employees to stay by providing more benefits or increasing wages. The more you invest, the more return you’ll see.

Try A New Marketing Strategy

Marketing is always changing and adapting. The New Year is a great time to evaluate your current marketing strategy to see what’s paid off and what hasn’t. Continue practicing the strategies that work, dump the ones that don’t, and don’t be afraid to experiment with some new strategies during 2018.

Pay All Bills On Time

A New Year’s Resolution doesn’t have to be grand and impressive. Your resolution could be as simple as paying your bills on time. If you struggled to get all of your bills paid on time in 2017, make it a priority to stay on top of that this year. Use your accounting software to set reminders and automate your billing if needed.

Stay On Top Of Invoicing

It’s easy to get backed up on invoicing. But when invoices are your company’s bread and butter, it’s important to follow through. Fortunately, almost all accounting software allows you to set up invoicing automations and automatic late-payment reminders. QuickBooks Online even has an invoice scheduling feature when you can schedule invoices to be sent at a later date.

Keep Better Tax Records

If tax time is looming large for you right now, a good New Year’s Resolution would be to keep better tax records for next year. Use your accounting software to keep financial records and check out what tax support your accounting software offers.

Switch Accounting Software

There’s no better time to switch accounting software than at the beginning of a New Year. If your software isn’t cutting it, maybe this year should be about finding a program that actually works for your business. Check out our accounting software comparison chart and read our comprehensive accounting software reviews to see which software is right for you. If you need extra help, read our Complete Guide to Choosing Online Accounting Software.

Update Existing Accounting Software

Even if you don’t want to switch to a new accounting software program, it might be time for an upgrade. This could definitely be the case if you use an old locally-installed program. Read 5 Signs It’s Time to Update Your Accounting Software and start your new year right with the best-performing accounting software.

Add A New Software Integration

Integrations are a great way of adding extra features to your accounting software. Integrations can cover everything from project management to time tracking, email marketing, analytics, scheduling, and much more.

Reconcile Your Bank Accounts Every Month

Were you overwhelmed last year when closing your books? Make things easier on yourself by striving to reconcile your bank accounts each month. Not only will this help you to be less stressed, it will help you to be more proactive with your business’s finances.

Automate Your Business Processes

Perhaps, when looking back on last year, you realized how many day-to-day business processes could be streamlined. This year, choose to automate your business as much as you can. Use your accounting software to automate invoicing and billing. Or take advantage of software integrations like MailChimp to automate your email marketing.

Make Resolutions A Reality

We all know how resolutions go. You are oh-so committed at the beginning of the year, but come March, the diets have been forsaken, the gym memberships are wasted, and nothing is accomplished like you thought it would be. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

There are several tricks you can employ to make your financial resolutions last.

First of all, break the resolution up into smaller, manageable tasks. Resolutions often involve worthy but intangible ideas. Take ‘increasing sales,’ for example. This is a great idea, but how do you achieve it? Break it into achievable components. You could start by running a sales rep competition for the most sales, breaking out a new social media marketing strategy, or implementing a loyalty program to encourage buyers to come back.

Second of all, don’t go at it alone. Bring your whole team in on your business resolutions. Let them know what your goals are for the year so you can all work together to achieve them — and hold each other accountable. Your team may even have a few ideas of their own.

Now that you have a few potential financial resolutions for your business, run with them or come up with new ideas all your own. Whatever you do, don’t let this precious time of reflection and new beginnings go to waste. Seize the opportunity to regroup and create new business goals for yourself and your team. 2018 is yours for the taking!

Chelsea Krause

Chelsea Krause is a writer, avid reader, and researcher. In addition to loving writing, she became interested in accounting software because of her constant desire to learn something new and understand how things work. When she’s not working or daydreaming about her newest story, she can be found drinking obscene amounts of coffee, reading anything written by C.S. Lewis or Ray Bradbury, kayaking and hiking, or watching The X-Files with her husband.

Chelsea Krause

“”

10 Tips For Building A Winning Patreon Campaign

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patreon success

It used to be that if you wanted to try crowdfunding as a means of monetizing your physical and/or creative output, you had to set up a campaign on a site like Kickstarter (see our review) or Indiegogo (see our review). That’s all fine and good — after all, these sites have raised billions in funding for creative business ventures of all kinds. But what if you want to crowdfund on a continuing basis and have your fans support you with monthly (or per creation) payments? Platforms like Kickstarter aren’t set up to facilitate that — not until Drip becomes open to all, at least.

Enter Patreon (see our review). Patreon enables you to draw an ongoing income from The Crowd by soliciting donations from patrons on either a per-month or per-creation basis. It’s an ideal crowdfunding model for podcasters, YouTubers, musicians, journalists, artists, and anyone else who creates content on a regular basis and would like to be compensated for it.

Just remember: Crowdfunding isn’t Field Of Dreams, and you’re not Kevin Costner. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. You have to go in with the mindset that building up your Patreon is a job and your patrons are customers who will require content of value in return for their investment. Rewards crowdfunding isn’t charity — it’s business, albeit with a strong human element.

Here’s what you need to do to ensure you have the best possible chance at Patreon success.

(If you are, in fact, Kevin Costner, I apologize.)

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1. Have An Existing Fan Base

Some people may see popular Patreon creators who pull in several thousand dollars a month and come away thinking that Patreon built their fan base. This line of thinking gets it backward. Patreon is just a platform for your work — it’s not going to generate interest in what you do if the interest isn’t there in the first place!

A successful Patreon campaign requires that you have a base of potential patrons — not necessarily a huge base, but one that exists — who are already inclined to support you financially in exchange for access to your content. In reality, the path to being a winning Patreon creator starts long before you sign up with Patreon. Typically, people don’t browse randomly through Patreon creator pages looking for unknown creators to support. They seek out the campaigns of creators they already know and appreciate.

Before you start with Patreon, acquire a following of people who are willing to drop at least a dollar or two per month on your content. Otherwise, you’ll just be wasting your time.

2. Post A Video. Be Concise!

Building a personal connection with your followers is key in inducing them to open their wallets for you. There’s no more direct and efficient way to bolster this connection than with a killer video.

Don’t use your video to appeal to the consciences of your fans and plead for support on moral/charitable grounds. Regardless of the merits of such a case, it just doesn’t work. Approach your introductory video as if you were making an elevator pitch to investors because essentially, that is what you’re doing.

Appear personally in your video. Be passionate and sincere. Make sure to explain how the rewards system works and what patrons will receive at different tiers of support — some of your followers likely don’t know how Patreon works. Also, don’t post a video longer than three minutes (or so). People’s attention spans aren’t getting any longer.

gamer chair GIF

Nobody’s going to expect to see a video with Hollywood-level production values. Just be direct, sincere, and explain exactly what patrons will get in exchange for their support.

3. Examine Other Patreon Campaigns

If you’re trying to raise money by applying for a bank loan, you don’t get to study the loan applications of other applicants to see what works and what doesn’t. Crowdfunding platforms, however, are much more transparent. With Patreon, you can check out every active campaign on the site, along with the number of patrons each has acquired. And while creators don’t have to make their monthly (or per-creation) earnings public, about half of them do.

This is tremendously valuable information! Before you launch, do your homework and study the Patreon campaigns of other creators in your field. Take note of what characteristics successful campaigns have in common, along with the commonalities between campaigns that generate less interest.

This campaign data is too valuable to go unexamined. Take advantage of it!

4. Set Goals

With Patreon, you don’t have to set funding goals, but I highly recommend it. When you set a goal, you’re telling your patrons that you’ll be able to complete a certain project or make some campaign-related purchase once you’ve hit a certain level of funding. It’s both a way to demonstrate that you aspire to grow your operations and a way to inspire more patronage by letting people know what they stand to gain should your goals be met.

You can set as many goals as you like, but stick with a few at a time so as to not inundate people with information. Once you reach a goal, consider setting a new one so you’ll always have a few goals laid out in front of you. These goals can serve as inspiration for both you and your patrons.

5. Create Several Reward Tiers

In general, it’s a good idea to offer some kind of reward to patrons at the $1-$2 subscription level to appeal to the broadest possible swath of the populace. Many people divide their support among numerous Patreon creators at $1-$2 per month/creation, and you’ll want to appeal to this type of subscriber. However, you also want to set higher reward tiers for the bigger spenders, because a certain percentage of your supporters — and it can be a small percentage — will likely jump at the chance.

Patreon has posted data indicating that as your number of reward levels increases, so too does the chance that you’ll process at least $100 in your first month.

The key is to offer your potential patrons several options for supporting you in exchange for rewards so as to appeal to both the big spenders and the small spenders. Offer a lil’ something for everybody.

6. Promote Your Patreon On Social Media

If you have a social media presence and you’re not using it to promote your Patreon, you’re doing it wrong. People who know you and are familiar with what you do are more likely to support you. This goes back to my first point regarding tapping your existing followers for support.

You might be a bit squeamish about annoying your social media followers with requests for crowdfunding support. Do it anyway! Otherwise, you’re effectively leaving money on the table. Plus, if your campaign is unique or unusual enough, it might just go viral, thus getting you all the more attention — and more attention leads to more patron moolah!

7. Be Mindful Of Shipping Costs When Offering Rewards

It’s great to offer cool rewards, but if you’re not careful about who you’re offering physical rewards to, you could end up blowing your budget on shipping costs. This is particularly true if you have lots of overseas backers.

hovering stop motion GIF by Reuben Armstrong

Make sure that the rewards you offer at lower levels of support are either digital in nature or are the sort of thing that can be sent in a simple envelope. If you’re sending packages overseas to people who support you at $5/month, you may well find yourself in deep doo-doo.

8. Create Continuously

This one may be a bit obvious, but it’s true — particularly if your Patreon campaign offers per-month subscriptions. If your content releases are few and far between, patrons are going to realize they’re not getting much bang for their buck.

If you’re focused on offering major works a few times a year, platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are probably better suited to you. Patreon’s crowdfunding model requires that you continuously release bits of content on a regular basis. If you’re building up to publishing a novel or something along those lines, you can always launch a Kickstarter/Indiegogo campaign and run it alongside your Patreon campaign.

9. Keep Creating Things For Non-Patrons

If you’re earning Patreon money for your work, that’s great. Just don’t make all your content exclusive to patrons. You want to continue to grow your casual audience and spread awareness of your work in order to expand the pool of people inclined to become a patron of yours in the future, and you can’t do that if you put everything behind the paywall.

Freebies make for good patron-bait. Give people just enough to leave them wanting more.

10. Send Patrons Personalized Messages (Particularly When Starting Out)

It always helps your cause to make your patrons feel loved and wanted, and while it may not be possible to send personalized thank-you messages to your every patron once you’ve hit it big, it’s definitely worth doing when you’re starting out. Patrons may feel like they’re taking a chance on you in your early days, so why not go the extra mile to thank them for having faith in you?

Show patrons some extra TLC when you’re starting out, and they’ll be more likely to stick with you. It’s just common sense.

Final Thoughts

It would be nice if good content sold itself. Unfortunately, with Patreon, just as in meatspace, this just isn’t how things work. You’ve got to be methodical and strategic when devising your Patreon campaign if you want to draw significant funding. Most people don’t have the disposable income to support every creator they like just out of the goodness of their hearts. You have to make your patrons feel emotionally invested in your success while simultaneously offering them tangible benefits in exchange for their patronage.

Remember, your followers don’t owe you anything. They’re struggling too! However, if you can enrich their lives with engaging content while making them feel as though they have a stake in your success, your Patreon campaign can be a winning proposition for everybody.

Jason Vissers

Jason Vissers is a writer, cereal chef and Netflix aficionado from San Diego. A native Californian who enjoys the beach, Jason nonetheless prefers to do his surfing on the World Wide Web, the raddest wave of them all. Jason can’t eat raisins.

Jason Vissers

“”

The Debate Over Patreon’s New Fee Policy: Who Benefits, And Who Doesn’t?

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patreon fees

When Patreon (see our review) announced a change in their fee structure, they touted it as a way to ensure that creators were paid a greater portion of what is pledged to them. However, many in the global creative community immediately perceived it as a threat to the viability — and thus the livelihood — of smaller creators on the site. What are the motives behind this change, and what will be its effect?

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The Change: Payment Processing Fees Will Now Be Assessed To Patrons

The simple way to summarize the change is to say that the payment processing fees charged in the transfer of funds from patron to creator will now be charged to the patron (rather than to the creator, as was the case in the past). But this broad explanation glosses over the specifics of how patrons will be charged, and it’s these specifics which lie at the heart of the issue.

Prior to December 18, 2017 — the day the new fee regime takes effect — Patreon’s policy was to charge the content creator for the cost of payment processing, deducting the amount from the earnings, which were bundled together and paid out once per month. This amount would vary, both month-to-month and creator-to-creator, because it depended on the number and amount of the individual pledges you received from your patrons, not the sum total of your patrons’ contributions.

As of the 18th, this all changes. Creators won’t be charged a fee for payment processing, and will instead pay only the 5% platform fee Patreon has always charged. Patrons will now be charged a 2.9% + $0.35 fee on each individual pledge they make to a Patreon campaign.

To those not involved in crowdfunding, the significance of this change may not be immediately apparent, and, in fact, it was initially presented by Patreon as an unalloyed good. According to the company’s much-criticised first statement, the change was made because it “allows Patreon creators to take home exactly 95% of every pledge, with no additional fees.”

However, here’s the thing. To charge a 2.9% + $0.35 fee to a patron’s every individual pledge adds a significant burden to patrons, most especially those who contribute a small amount — often $1 — to several different creators.

Seriously, though, it’s a big hit to small contributions! You might see the 2.9%, or even the $0.35, and think “well, that doesn’t sound like a big deal.” But the truly significant part is that this fee is charged to your every individual pledge and not assessed to your total monthly donation. This means every $1 pledge you make to a creator — whether monthly or per creation — will cost you $1.38. That’s a 38% fee you’re now paying on your donation, which sounds a lot worse than “2.9% + $0.35.” So if you contribute to, say, 20 different Patreons at $1/month each, you’ll now be paying $27.60 instead of $20.

This issue is especially acute if you run a per-creation Patreon. According to their FAQ explaining the changes, Patreon states the following:

As a per-post creator, your patrons will see the 2.9% + $0.35 service fee added to all paid posts. For example, if you are a per post creator making two paid posts per month, your patrons will be charged 2.9% + $0.35 for each paid post.

This means your $1-per-post patron will be paying $2.76 over the month for $2 worth of content, and not the $2.41 that would be assessed if the patron’s per-creation charges were bundled by month and then had the fee assessed. This disparity gets more pronounced the more prolific the per-post creator.

For the patron, it’s the aggregation of the per-pledge fees that is so insidious. This is particularly the case if you divide your giving into small amounts sent to many different creators, and less so if you give larger amounts to fewer creators.

The Criticism

Backlash was swift and unforgiving, ricocheting remorselessly down the weary corridors of social media. Many creators recognized this change as a massive new disincentive for patrons to spread their wealth, in the form of small pledges, among many different campaigners, with the new payment regime incentivizing patrons to concentrate their giving to fewer creators. The primary beneficiary of this change, according to many, is Patreon itself, not the majority of creators (and certainly not patrons). Crystallizing this view, a recent VentureBeat article quotes indie developer George Buckenham as describing the change like so:

This especially disincentivizes people pledging single dollars per month to multiple creators, which I assume they factored in and are happy with, in favour of people backing fewer projects for larger amounts of money.

The effects of the change are already being felt. Many Patreon creators tweeted screenshots of the canceled pledges they had already experienced, often accompanied by patrons giving the new fee structure as their reason for cutting back. Artist Blue Delliquanti noted in just such a tweet that they had already lost the equivalent of the cost of their dental insurance.

Artist/writer Josh Fruhlinger responded to the change by offering his $2-level patrons the chance to resubscribe at $1.60 per month for a unique reward to induce them to stay while paying roughly the same $2 monthly rate. Again, Patreon made this change ostensibly to benefit creators, yet now we see creators effectively cutting their own take just to keep their patrons from fleeing.

Yet another oft-heard complaint was that this change would be especially hard on non-US creators and patrons, considering the extra costs per transaction already incurred with the currency exchange, VAT, etc.

The Response

After the first wave of reaction, Patreon issued a further explanation of their new fee system through their payments product manager. The statement is an emphatic denial that the move is profit-motivated — “This was never (and still isn’t) about making more money for Patreon as a company.” Instead, they link the change to a change in the way patrons are going to be billed in the future. The explanation is complex, and I had to read through it a few times before I really understood it, but it boils down to the fact that Patreon wants to offer all creators the ability to get paid up-front when patrons subscribe to their content. This option has often been requested by creators who have to deal with the possibility of patrons signing up for their content and then canceling before the first payment is made.

However, when they let certain creators use a “monthly-with-charge-up-front” charging method, patrons were miffed. Because a patron’s monthly subscriptions are bundled and paid on the first of the month, a patron who signs up to support a creator with charge-up-front enabled on November 29th is charged a full month’s fee immediately, and then again on December 1st for the next month’s content. To prevent patrons from being effectively double-charged like this, Patreon wants to change the payment system to one in which each patron’s monthly subscription is paid on the monthly anniversary of the date on which they signed up with the creator in question.

But if they do this without changing the way payment processing fees are charged, according to Patreon, the cost of these fees will shoot up for creators and take a bigger cut of their monthly takes, because their patron’s payments will be spaced out over the month and not bundled and paid on the first of the month as before. They therefore justify the new fee system as a way to prevent this scenario from happening. They also added the fact that this new 2.9% + $0.35 was the lowest of the fee amounts they had experimented with during testing. “Be grateful we’re not making it even worse!” they seem to be saying.

As you can imagine, this response was not universally accepted.

Reaction To The Response

Many in the creative community, like author Natalie Luhrs, did not accept that soaking small donations with such a steep fee increase was the only way to make charge-up-front charging work. Several people pointed to another aspect of Patreon’s new billing practices which wasn’t addressed by the company in their “here’s why we did this” response but is mentioned in the FAQ page they put up to detail the changes. As things stand now, creators who are patrons of other creators can pay said creators out of their Patreon balance to avoid subjecting the funds in their balances to a second round of fees. However, according to Patreon,

We will likely be changing the way creator to creator payments happen in the future so that you will no longer be able to use your Patreon balance. One reason is that it causes many edge cases that add complexity to our payments system as work to roll out charge upfront over the course of 2018.

Of course, in smoothing out these “edge cases,” Patreon will just happen to collect more in fees as a result.

The Motivation And The Effect

Naturally, opinions differ on Patreon’s true motivation for enacting these fee changes. Natalie Luhrs pointed to this article, from June 2017, in which a Patreon employee explicitly states that “financially successful Creators” are more valuable to the company than creators who earn less money (“We’d rather have our GMV [gross merchandise volume] be made up of fewer, but truly life-changed creators rather than a lot of creators making a few dollars.” is a rather telling quote.). Luhrs claims this is evidence that Patreon is intentionally trying to prioritize big earners over small-time earners on the platform. If this is the case, there is no small irony in the fact that Patreon’s highest-earning project — and therefore its most “financially successful” — is a socialist podcast that has come out swinging against the new fee policy.

Others point to different possible motivations. Developer Jason Yu theorized that the real reason behind the change was not Patreon’s desire to effectively gentrify the ranks of its creators but to minimize costly instances of patrons getting confused and disputing charges that they made because they didn’t realize they were being aggregated by Patreon — the example given was a patron who makes 20 $1 monthly contributions and disputes a $20 charge from Patreon because they don’t recognize it. (Jason nonetheless concludes that “Unfortunately for Patreon, they may find that this change only shifts payment fraud to other channels while angering their creators and patrons in the process.”)

The fact is that we don’t have access to Patreon’s internal deliberations, so it may not be possible to pinpoint Patreon’s exact motivations for making this move. However, we don’t need to know the motivations behind the move to objectively assess its effects. It’s clear that the fee changes, as proposed, will make the act of contributing small amounts of money to many different Patreon campaigns much more expensive in percentage terms. These new fees, at 2.9% + $0.35 per individual pledge, plainly incentivize patrons to concentrate their Patreon spending on fewer creators in order to cut down on the number of times they’ll be forced to pass these new virtual toll booths. This can only have the effect of shifting patron spending up the ladder, benefitting larger creators at the expense of the smaller ones. Chalk up a rare win for the beleaguered 1%!

Final Thoughts

Don’t hold me to this, but I suspect Patreon will survive the current controversy. The most popular creators will see a net increase in the amount of revenue they take in, as they’ll be able to count on getting 95% of what is pledged to them. Patreon will continue to grow, and they will point to this growth to retrospectively justify this month’s change in their fee policy. But the numbers won’t tell the whole story. Creators will be left having to hope that their increased cut will be enough to cover the losses incurred from other patrons dropping or reducing their support. On this count, the big, established creators are obviously better positioned than the small-time creators.

Wasn’t the original intent of rewards crowdfunding to give a leg up to these very same small-time creators? To help them get the recognition they deserve in a world increasingly dominated by those who can leverage their existing advantages for their enduring benefit? Patreon might see increased aggregate growth from this move, but at what cost to those who Patreon might not define as “financially successful Creators” who have been “truly life-changed” but who rely on the platform to earn a few extra bucks to help make ends meet?

We know that when questions of this nature are ignored, the result is a society ever more aggressively stratified by wealth and power, so perhaps it’s high time these issues were given the consideration they urgently require.

Jason Vissers

Jason Vissers is a writer, cereal chef and Netflix aficionado from San Diego. A native Californian who enjoys the beach, Jason nonetheless prefers to do his surfing on the World Wide Web, the raddest wave of them all. Jason can’t eat raisins.

Jason Vissers

“”

Shopify vs. Squarespace: Online Store Options Compared

Shopify vs. Squarespace – they are two of the most well-known brands in the online store / website builder industry. I’ve written a Shopify review here and Squarespace review here. But how do they compare directly to each other?

First, a bit of background. Over the past few years, online store software costs have plummeted, and the technology to get a website from idea to reality has blossomed.

Whether you’re using a text editor and uploading to the Amazon cloud, hosting your own site powered by WordPress + WooCommerce or using a drag and drop website builder, there’s never been an easier time to create an online store. It’s no longer 2002 where every storeowner had to know PHP, HTML, CSS and a bit of Javascript.

All-inclusive ecommerce builders have been particularly interesting. Companies like Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, Shopify, and BigCommerce – not to mention platforms like Etsy, eBay, and Amazon – have brought ecommerce to everyone regardless of their coding skills.

On the wide spectrum of ecommerce store building solutions, they all live on the end that is all-inclusive and provides everything you need to get started and grow your website.

That is in contrast to solutions where you buy, install, and manage all the “pieces” of your website separately. That’s not a good or bad thing. But it is something to be aware of when you’re choosing one of them as a solution since it affects your website both long and short term.

In the long-term, it affects your versatility, functionality, and, of course, your brand. In the short term, it can certainly add/take away a lot of headaches. That said, just like choosing a physical house or office, there is no such thing as an absolute “best” or “top” choice. There’s only the right choice relative to your goals, experience, and circumstances.

Using an online store builder is like leasing and customizing an apartment in a really classy development instead of buying and owning your own house. You’re still in control of decor, cleaning, and everything living-wise – but you leave the construction, plumbing, security, and infrastructure to the property owner. That point is key because there’s usually a direct tradeoff between convenience and control.

Ecommerce Real Estate Tradeoffs

Shopify, Squarespace and other options like BigCommerce and Weebly as a group compete with options like WordPress (which provides the free software to build a website that you own & control – see my WordPress setup guide here) all the way to options like typing actual HTML code into a text file.

The last preface I’ll mention is that Squarespace is an all-around website builder with ecommerce capability.

Shopify, in contrast, is strictly an ecommerce platform.

This focus puts Squarespace behind as an advanced ecommerce tool and Shopify behind as a general website builder tool. With their respective free trials, you can quickly see the differences.

Try Shopify for Free

Try Squarespace for Free

Make sense? Awesome – let’s dive into the comparison.

Side note – if you want this comparison in a BuzzFeed-style quiz, you can take my online store builder quiz here…

You can also look at my posts on –

Otherwise, we’ll look specifically at pricing, onboarding/user experience, design features, technical features, ecommerce features, marketing features, and customer support.

Disclosure – I receive referral fees from all the companies mentioned in this post. My opinions & research are based on my professional experiences as either a paying customer or consultant to a paying customer.

Pricing

Comparing pricing between Shopify and Squarespace is fairly straightforward if you have a clear idea of your needs. This comes from the fact that Shopify focuses on *only* online store owners whereas Squarespace markets to everyone.

The short version is that Shopify is more expensive. But there’s a few caveats to look at.

Shopify Pricing

Squarespace Ecommerce Pricing

The first caveat is credit card fees.

Squarespace syncs with Stripe and PayPal. Their fees are 2.9% + $.30 per transaction.

Shopify has their own payments gateway that charges lower per transaction fees. But – if you use a non-Shopify gateway, Shopify charges an additional transaction fee that Squarespace does not have.

So why is this important? If you already have a gateway (ie, Authorize.net for your physical pop-up shop) and you want to use them with Shopify – then Shopify’s transaction fee kicks in. But – if you want to use Shopify Payment’s for your online store – you can save a bit of money on transaction fees. Those fees add up. If you have revenues of $100000 – a 0.4% reduction in fees could equal $500 per month.

The second caveat is value pricing.

On front-end features alone – Squarespace is significantly cheaper than Shopify, especially on their Advanced plan, which compares almost directly with Shopify’s Standard plan.

See Shopify’s Plans here.

See Squarespace’s Plans here.

But – like I mentioned in the introduction, it’s hard to compare their pricing tables directly since they are really different products for different audiences.

It’s a bit like comparing the pricing of a motorcycle vs. an SUV.

Sure, the motorcycle is much cheaper and it gets you from A to B. It has wheels, an engine, and it drives on the road just fine. But it’s also meant for a certain type of driving.

It all really comes down to what you need for you project – two wheels that will get you where you need to go or a vehicle that has plenty of room along with lots of features. So let’s look at other differences.

Aside – if you’re curious, Shopify’s $9/mo Lite plan isn’t applicable since it’s more of an inventory/payments software than an online store builder software. You can upload products, manage them, and accept payments, but you can only sell them via other platforms such as a Facebook plugin or a button on an existing website. Same goes with Squarespace’s Business Plan. It’s meant to do a website that happens to have a couple things for sale – not really a full online store solution. I’ll set both those options to the side for the moment.

Onboarding & User Experience

No matter how intuitive and simple a piece of technology is, there’s always that moment of “what am I looking at and what do I do now?”

Onboarding is the process of guiding you past that point. In theory, a huge selling point of online website / store builders is that they have a near-zero learning curve. They have a straightforward process from website concept to website reality.

On this point, Squarespace and Shopify both do alright but in different ways.

Shopify has a quick path from free trial signup to site launch. They have guided tours and a very straightforward setup. They also have customer support outreach focused on getting you up and running quickly.

Shopify Backend

However, Shopify also has many more features, apps, and technical options available that can present a challenge. The most daunting hurdle is linking your domain name to your store. It’s not difficult but is daunting at the mention of “setting your CNAME” (in fairness, you don’t have to direct your domain if you purchase via Shopify for a bit more per year than via a 3rd party).

Since Shopify functions as a platform for payments, offline inventory and more – their website store setup is actually on the second menu of their main dashboard rather than front and center.

Squarespace has a ridiculously fast sign up to live site process. Their backend is fairly intuitive for basic websites. However, they to have a “Squarespace jargon” to get used to. They like to appeal to developers and freelance designers – so there are advanced tools that can clutter simply launching a site.

SquareSpace Onboarding

Their support emails and tours are structured well. But since their software is made for all types of websites, the ecommerce features are a bit buried (and limited) from the perspective of an online store owner.

I would not rule either provider out on onboarding/user experience. But their differences are sort of like a restaurant with a waiter (Shopify) vs. a fast casual restaurant with a menu above the cashier (Squarespace).

If you want more help and more customization, then Shopify is your choice. If you want to quickly see and order from the features, then Squarespace is less daunting.

Design Features

Part of the overall value of website builders is simple, straightforward design – no web designers necessary.

But good design is hard. And it matters – a lot. A lot of people can spot a good looking website but have a harder time figuring out how to get there. Using a template for a foundation and then customizing it is a good way to get the site you want without paying for a custom design.

Both Shopify and Squarespace use templates (aka “themes”) for design. But they are very different in customization options.

Shopify has a solid drag and drop design feature. You can create any layout element you’d like and drag it into place. You can click and edit any portion of any web page – including both content and design.

But – Shopify does not combine design and content. You have to get your design right – and then add content in a separate area (ie, it’s a template).

Since you can edit HTML/CSS with Shopify, you can build any design possible. There are few, if any, limits to any design that you see on the Internet. Additionally, Shopify has a drag and drop template editor.

Shopify Drag Drop

Squarespace has a hybrid approach. They famously have beautiful pre-built designs.

Squarespace Designs

They also have drag and drop – and pretty intuitive editing.

But – they also combine design and content with their editor. This approach has tradeoffs. On one hand, you can edit the design for specific pages. On the other hand, your design can go “off-base” pretty quickly – especially with content for hundreds of products.

The other drawback with Squarespace is that their off-the-shelf themes require *a lot* of really good imagery. If you don’t have access to high-quality photography, their themes are not going to work well. Many of Shopify’s designs are fine and functional regardless of product imagery.

They both have large marketplaces for premium designs (in addition to professional designers).

If you are a fan of raw functionality – then you’ll appreciate Shopify’s approach to design. If you want your site to look amazing off the shelf, love to edit details, and have access to good imagery – then you’ll appreciate Squarespace.

Ecommerce Features

The absolute core features of an ecommerce store are a –

  • product database
  • shopping cart
  • checkout page
  • payment processor
  • order database

That is it.

But, especially in 2017 (and 2018 and beyond), there is a *lot* more than can (and should) go into an ecommerce store. There’s everything from selling via Facebook Messenger to syncing with Amazon FBA to integrating with eBay – not to mention features for executing on marketing fundamentals.

Even for advertising products, there’s selling via Buyable Pins, Google Merchant, Twitter cards, and more. There’s remarketing and coupon codes. There’s A/B testing. There’s inventory synchronization with vendors like AliExpress. And there’s order synchronization with shippers like UPS and USPS.

And that’s all a drop in the bucket.

Obviously, not every store needs every feature. If you are trying to sell a couple T-shirts or a couple specialty products – you certainly don’t need them all. But if you want to grow and expand, you’ll need your options open.

For ecommerce features, Shopify wins hands down, though Squarespace does make it simple to sell your product. Squarespace has a few advanced features (like abandoned cart recovery), but it’s nothing like Shopify.

Shopify not only has more features directly integrated into their platform, but they also have a well-established app store that includes free and paid apps to extend your store with every feature you could possibly need.

Shopify Integrations

That said, this section is a bit unfair to Squarespace, because, again, they are a general website builder that includes ecommerce. Shopify is strictly an ecommerce platform.

If Shopify didn’t “win” on ecommerce features it would be a surprise. Technically, Squarespace competes more with the likes of Weebly and Wix or WordPress who are also website builders that provide core ecommerce features.

In short – if you need core ecommerce features integrated in a simple, straightforward way, then Squarespace is fine. If you actually need a full suite of ecommerce features to grow, then Shopify is hands-down better.

Technical Features

Technical features are all the web development best practices that don’t really “matter”…until they matter a lot. I’m talking about generating clean URLs, editable metadata, allowing page-level redirects, etc.

On this point, Shopify does very well – and not just compared to Squarespace, but compared to any hosted platform.

Traditionally, hosted platforms presented a risk for web designers, developers, and marketers who wanted to work on the technical aspects of the site.

I know that I flinch anytime a prospective client tells me they are on a hosted platform of any kind.

But Shopify and Squarespace perform well in general. Many skeptics of hosted platforms note that they actually take care of the technical features well. You still don’t have FTP access to your server, but you do have access to change things via their Liquid editor (Shopify) or Developer Mode (Squarespace).

Where they differ (especially for me) is in their potential for technical features. And again, here, Shopify’s app store is their “killer” feature. Even if a feature is not native to Shopify, a non-developer can usually add it.

On the flip side, Squarespace has a lot of native features that simply “work” – and a process of continually adding & revising existing features.

Both Squarespace and Shopify have inherent limitations as hosted platforms (ie, when you leave, you a lot of your data), but Shopify does a bit more to eliminate the weaknesses and capitalize on strengths as a hosted platform.

Marketing Features

In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character says “if you build it, they will come.” Sadly, that is not true about websites. Like any business, you have to actively promote and market your online store for anyone to show up.

Marketing features like custom metadata, open graph information, Schema markups, email signups, share buttons, landing pages, etc all make marketing your site a lot easier.

For marketing features, both Shopify and Squarespace both do really well. They support header scripts. They integrate with many products. They add meta data, product schema and open graph tags automatically.

But like design & ecommerce features, there’s the same catch. For an ecommerce store owner, Shopify has many more (and higher quality) built-in features plus a better, more developed app store.

Squarespace has core marketing features built-in, but with more limits.

Support & Service

Customer support and service are difficult to judge. Like I’ve said in most of my reviews, a single customer can never really know if they happened upon a disgruntled rookie or if the company is really that bad.

That said, there are ways to look at a company’s investment in both customer services and support.

For Shopify vs. Squarespace, I think the clear “winner” is Shopify. Shopify not only provides more channels for customer service (phone, chat, email, forums, social media, etc), they also have an incredibly extensive help center.

The help center not only tackles technical issues, it also tackles customer success issues (aka problems with making money).

Squarespace has email support, and limited chat support – but no phone. Their knowledgebase does not have the attention or the depth that Shopify has.

Comparison Conclusion

So Shopify vs. Squarespace – which one is a better fit for your project?

If you plan on running a growing online store and want all the features possible, then you should go try Shopify.

Go try Shopify for free here.

If you want a simple store – or a general site with a beautiful look, then Squarespace might be a good fit for you.

Also – bookmark my post on creating an ecommerce marketing strategy here.

Good luck!

“”

Merchant Maverick’s Awards for Best Small Business Software

Best small business software

For most small business owners, it’s a jungle out there. Danger lurks around every corner, predators seem to be silently stalking your every movement, and – in the immortal words of Jethro Tull – the rivers are full of crocodile nasties. Let’s face it, when it comes to start-ups and small businesses the statistics are grim. According to one recent study, the failure rate of retail establishments after four years is over 50%, and businesses in the service industry usually meet the same fate. Sadly, restaurants tend to do even worse, and the majority are forced to close their doors before a decade has passed.

There are many reasons why businesses eventually fail – bad locations, limited staff, a poor economic climate, etc. But experts are beginning to agree that most failed businesses (no matter what industry they belong to) have one, very important factor in common: inexperience on the part of the owners/managers. It’s all very well to follow your dreams, but man does not live on dreams alone. For most of us, a little thing called money is required if we want to eat, access our electricity, wash our clothes, keep our children shod, etc. That’s right, money. It’s what you get when you run a business that brings in more revenue than it puts out. That sounds so simple: spend less than you make. But the reality is that pulling in a profit takes knowledge, skill, and access to the proper tools. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve opened up a cat-grooming boutique or finally launched that grilled-cheese food truck you’ve always wanted – if you don’t know what you’re doing when you set out, and/or don’t bother to learn as you go, you might as well throw your seed money down the storm drain.

Fortunately, at Merchant Maverick (MM), we understand how hard it can be to start a business – let alone to keep one going for more than a year or two. You shouldn’t have to do everything by yourself – keeping up with inventory, payment processing, invoicing, shipping, point of sale, website design and the like is nearly impossible without the right equipment (good ol’ pen and paper just doesn’t cut it anymore). The good news? Advances in software and cloud technology have resulted in some pretty impressive small business tools. Even better news? The writers and reviewers at MM have invested thousands of hours researching, testing, and rating small business services/software. In other words, we know our stuff. Running a business is a tremendous burden, but the heavy lifting has already been done – we’ve done if for you – and all you need do is benefit from our years of experience.

Each company below has undergone a rigorous evaluation by an experienced MM reviewer. We scoured websites, read help articles, and browsed through user forums. We talked to customer service and saw for ourselves how responsive they were. And most importantly, we tested the actual software or service ourselves. The following are our reviewers’ top small business software picks for merchant services/payment processing as well as for mobile payments, shopping carts, point of sale, accounting, inventory management, invoicing, booking, email marketing, CRM, project management, loyalty rewards, and website building.

So, without further ado, let the awards ceremony for the best small business software begin!

Merchant Account Providers

Winner: Dharma Merchant Services

dharma-merchant-services-logo

Dharma Merchant Services is one of our all-time favorite companies, period, here at Merchant Maverick. Defined by exceptional customer support, low-cost hardware, excellent industry connection, and reasonable negotiation-free rates and fees, Dharma is an ideal option for small businesses with in-person sales. It distinguishes itself from the competition by using only interchange-plus pricing and charging no early termination fees or monthly minimums. There are no annual fees, no application fees, and no pesky PCI compliance fees to deal with either. In addition, this company dedicates 50% of its net profits to charity. Dharma is basically a paragon of integrity, honesty, and respect, and it’s worth its weight in gold in this sometimes unscrupulous industry,

There is one small catch: businesses must process at least $10K per month to use Dharma Merchant Services. Businesses with smaller revenue streams are directed instead to Flint Mobile (see review below).

Dharma offers amazing in-house customer support during business hours (8:00am – 5:00pm Pacific Time). If you need support outside this time frame, you will be directed elsewhere, depending on the severity of your issue and what processor you’re using.

To read more about Dharma Merchant Services, see our full review here.

Runner-Up: CDGcommerce

cdgcommerce-logo

Boasting a great reputation and a low monthly base fee (which includes access to Quantum gateway), CDG Commerce is a budget friendly alternative to Dharma Merchant Services, especially for low-volume merchants or web-based businesses. CDG was established in 1998, and has had plenty of time to cultivate a reputation for honesty and excellence. In fact, customer complaints are nearly non-existent, which is a miracle in itself after nearly 20 years in business. Like Dharma, CDG offers interchange-plus pricing, does not charge an early termination fee, and has no gateway setup fees or PCI compliance fees.

CDG Commerce charges only $10 per month in base fees; beyond that, you can pick and choose which additional services you want to pay for. This is a great system, as it ensures that you won’t be stuck buying things you neither want, nor need.

CDG offers live chat, email, and phone support 24/7. In our experience, support staff is helpful, knowledgeable, and scrupulously honest.

Click here to read our full review of CDGcommerce.

Mobile Payments

Winner: Flint Mobile

Flint-mobile-logo

Flint Mobile is our overall top pick for mobile, based primarily on its speed, ease of use, reliability, and price point. To start off, it doesn’t offer a swiper – not a free one, not a paid one, just no reader whatsoever. You can either key in card numbers or simply use your phone’s camera to scan numbers instead. That in and of itself significantly reduces the cost for setting up your account. Flint therefore has the ability to offer lower rates, which is exactly what they do. And with a ridiculously low rate for processing debit alongside a very fair credit rate, they’re nearly impossible to beat.

Flint has only two rates:

  • Debit transactions: 1.95%
  • Credit transactions: 2.95%

Yep, that’s it. It doesn’t get more complicated than that at any point: there are no per transaction fees, no non-qualified fees, and no surcharges of any kind. Flint Mobile runs transactions at a much faster speed than other similar apps, and while it might take a couple tries to get your scanning settings set up the way you like, Flint makes customization an easy and intuitive process. Our one complaint is that they do not provide any means for printing a paper receipt.

One very important thing to mention about Flint Mobile is that, even with the EMV liability shift (effective October 1st, 2015), users have no need to upgrade hardware. The camera scan will continue to work as it always has, with no change to liability. Currently it’s the only mobile processor we’re aware of that will securely process chip cards with no hardware upgrade.

This app can’t replace a full-feature tablet POS, but it comes with a number of amazing features (integrated QR coupons, invoicing, customizable receipts, etc.) and executes service flawlessly. If you’re looking for a sensible, surefire way to accept payments and grow your clientele, you can’t go wrong with Flint Mobile.

If you’d like more information about Flint Mobile, check out our full review.

Runner-Up: Payline Data

payline-data-logo

Payline Data is mostly a standard merchant account provider, but it has a good mobile solution and low-volume fee structure. Extra services are offered as-needed, so you only have to pay for what you need. There are two pricing models (to accommodate both low and high volume merchants):

Simple (Under $5,000 per month)

  • $5 monthly fee
  • Interchange + 0.50%
  • $0.10 per transaction

Pro (Over $5,000 per month)

  • $20 monthly fee
  • Interchange + 0.20%
  • $0.10 per transaction

We really appreciate the number of customer service and support outlets Payline provides, and it has an extensive knowledge base and FAQ for self-service support, which is quite nice.

Payline Data delivers on any businesses essential needs, and has managed to maintain positive reviews and a spotless reputation since 2009 – which is no small task in the credit card processing industry. In general, it’s a great pick for mobile processing for small businesses everywhere.

Find out more about Payline Data by reading our full review here.

Shopping Carts

Winner: Shopify

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Shopify is unique in that it can be used as a physical POS or an online shopping cart or both at once. This inherent flexibility gives it a clear edge over other shopping carts, and its low price point make it well within the reach for small businesses, even those with strained budgets. Shopify is the industry standard for shopping cart software, and for good reason. There are never any limits to the number of products you can sell, which is nice, though there aren’t many limits to the software in general.

All Shopify plans come with a full 14-day (no credit card required) trial. There are no setup or cancellation fees. Plans range from $14/month to $179/month with rates ranging from 2.9% + 30¢ to 2.4% + 30¢. You can pay on a month-to-month basis, but you’ll receive a 10% discount if you choose to pay for one year up front (a 20% discount is offered for those who sign a two-year contract). We’re not terribly fond of Shopify’s transaction fees, unfortunately, although they do get waived if you use Shopify as your credit card processor.

Shopify is eminently user friendly, and the cart is easy to set up and easy to manage. In our experience, the software works flawlessly from the point of view of both the customer and the merchant, and it is one of the most feature-rich carts available. It is accessible for online mavens, but it is also well within the reach of newcomers and amateurs. Shopify offers a number of apps, some of which are free and some of which may cost a small fee. You can check out Shopify’s App Store to browse offerings.

Customer support is available via phone, email, and live chat, but there are other great self-help resources as well, including a support center, Knowledge Base, a discussion forum, and a Shopify “Experts” page where you can find experienced professionals in design, marketing, development, and photography.

For more information, click here to read our full review of Shopify.

Runner-Up: Ecwid

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Ecwid, the “go anywhere, sell anything, no manual required” shopping cart, is designed for small eCommerce businesses, as well as for individual sellers and start-ups. We’re big fans of Ecwid, and there are two main reasons why. Firstly, it is extremely ubiquitous, and capable of integrating with nearly every existing website, from social media platforms to blogs. Secondly, it is so reasonably priced, compared to its competitors, that you would be foolish not to take it out for spin. Unlike most shopping carts, there is no typical “free trial period” for Ecwid. Instead, you can simply try out the Free Plan (the obvious advantage to doing this is that your services won’t be cancelled after your trial period ends).

Ecwid offers unlimited storage, unlimited bandwidth, and no transaction fees on every subscription level, even the free plan. Paid plans range from $15/month to $99/month. Personal support by email and online chat are only available at higher subscription levels.

Like Shopify, Ecwid gives you the option to use the software as a physical POS. However, this function is really best suited for online-only business owners who want the option of having a mobile or “pop up shop” operation, but aren’t trying to maintain a physical storefront at all times.

In general, Ecwid is a solid product with great, user-friendly elements. It’s not the best solution for high-volume sales, but most companies out there (especially startups and very small businesses) will be fully satisfied with its features and ease of use.

Read our full review of Ecwid to learn more.

POS Software

Winner: ShopKeep

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ShopKeep is one of the best software solutions we’ve ever encountered at Merchant Maverick. This simple, elegant, and visually-appealing cloud-based POS has carved out a solid niche catering to small-business food and beverage sellers. For a very low monthly cost, ShopKeep can help you manage your inventory, customers, employees, as well as record transactions and offer a variety of reporting options (for analyzing all this data).

ShopKeep does not require you to sign a contract. It is a pay-as-you-go, monthly subscription service. There are no extra maintenance fees, and what’s more impressive, tech support is 100% included in the monthly charge. The actual pricing system is beautifully simple as well: $49/month/register.

Other than it’s extremely reasonable price point, ShopKeep’s biggest selling point is its ease-of-use. There is very little learning curve involved, and even the most technologically deficient should have no problem learning the ins and outs of this software in a matter of days (or hours, more likely).

Customer support is fantastic, and unlimited email, live chat, or phone is included in the monthly price. The support page on the company website is also fantastic, and offers comprehensive articles and video tutorials on every aspect of the software.

Read our full review of ShopKeep if you’d like more details.

Runner-Up: SalesVu

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SalesVu is a perfect POS for the average small business, offering a robust feature set at a competitive price. eCommerce options are built right into the software, so you can design your own site from the back office without ever having to pay for (and integrate) Shopify or hire an expensive third party designer. Integrated eCommerce also ensures that communications between the web store and the brick and mortar store are smooth and seamless.

Prices range from $25/month to $150/month, depending on how many features you need (things like time tracking, accounting, etc. are a bit extra). Basically, SalesVu can be as affordable as you need it to be. Additionally, when you open an account with SalesVu you get a free credit card reader, which is a nice benefit (for some small business owners, an iPad and a credit card reader may be all you need).

Customer service is good, but the primary strengths of this software are found in its intuitive interface and broad flexibility. It is so much more than just a mobile cash register. With SalesVu, you can monitor inventory, create detailed reports, design custom discounts and promotions, maintain an active customer database, and manage employees – and you can do all these things anywhere you have a Wi-Fi connection. Opening an account with SalesVu gets you a free credit card reader, which is a nice benefit. For some business owners, an iPad and a credit card reader may be all you need.

SalesVu integrates with SalesVu Easy Accounting, Quickbooks, Facebook, and Zapper.

You can check out our full review of SalesVu for more information.

Accounting Software

Winner: Xero

best small business accounting software

It’s not hard to see why Xero takes the prize for best small business accounting software. It is mobile, cloud-based, easy-to-use, and extremely comprehensible for the small business owner who is handling finances on his/her own (click here for a full list of features). While it can be more expensive long-term than something like QuickBooks Pro, small business owners – especially those who aren’t accountants by nature or profession – are more likely to enjoy using a simple, intuitive program like Xero.

There are multiple pricing plans available, ranging from $9/month to $70/month (these prices include updates as they are released, usually every 3-6 weeks). Small companies with limited invoicing needs would have to look far and wide for a similarly robust accounting/payroll package that trumps Xero’s $9/month price tag. And happily, you don’t have to sign a contract with Xero; plans are paid by the month and you can basically cancel the service at any time. Xero offers a 25% discount for non-profits and a 15% discount on your total bill if you subscribe for multiple businesses. If you do feel comfortable making a commitment and signing up for a 6 month subscription, you’ll get a 30% discount.

There are only a few minor problems with Xero, one of which is slow customer support response times. Customer service is offered 24/7, year-round, but some customers have complained of long response times, cut-and-paste answers to questions, and reps who don’t seem to actually know how to use the software. This would be a much bigger deal if Xero was complex or had a steep learning, curve, but it’s not as alarming considering the software’s general simplicity and ease of use. Furthermore, many customers praise Xero’s level of customer service, and the wait times are comparable to those of other accounting software programs.

One real perk of using Xero is that it integrates with over 400 other applications which can facilitate nearly every aspect of business operation, including inventory management, CRM, and POS (some of these are only available to certain countries; in the U.S., there are about 350 Xero integrations available). 

Read our full review of Xero here.

Runner-Up: QuickBooks Pro

Best small business accounting software

Intuit’s QuickBooks Pro is a robust, feature-rich accounting solution, perfect in many ways for small business (to see a full list of features, click here). It is locally installed software, which results in lower per-year costs and more features than your typical cloud-based software, so if you’re willing to deal with a pretty steep learning curve at the beginning (especially difficult for people who have no previous accounting background), then QB Pro can be an excellent way to save money in your accounting budget. Though it lacks the convenience of a cloud based solution – you don’t get automatic, routine updates or instant access to new features – it is a very viable accounting solution for companies with complex bookkeeping needs.

QuickBooks Pro’s list price is $299.95. This might seem a bit high compared to something like Xero, but keep in mind that QB Pro requires a one-time purchase and does not use a subscription model — and it is nearly always available at a discount. While there’s no free trial available, Intuit does back QB Pro with a 60-day guarantee; if you return the program for any reason within 60 days, you can get a full refund. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the purchase price does not include updates, nor do you get full tech support or bank feeds. It’s also worth noting that customer service tends to be slow.

One comment we’ve noticed often on user reviews is that, while people aren’t particularly enthusiastic about QB Pro, it works and does what it’s supposed to do; many claim that it’s the best accounting program available. While that’s far from a resounding recommendation, it’s also true that despite its drawbacks, for many businesses, QB Pro is more than adequate. And whether you love it or hate it, QuickBooks Pro is often the best option for the money.

Read our full review of QB Pro here.

Inventory Management Software

Winner: Stitch Labs

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Stitch, the flagship product of Stitch Labs, is a cloud-based inventory management solution with tons of functionality, myriad useful integrations, and fantastic customer service. Designed to combine inventory, billing, accounting, shipping, and eCommerce features with your choice of 3rd party integrations, Stitch is the do-it-all, full service inventory solution. As the name would suggest, it is intended to be the thread that holds the backend of your company firmly together. Really, its only flaw is that is designed exclusively for American companies. International businesses will have to look elsewhere. 

Price plans range from $29/month to $449/month, not bad considering how many features this software brings to the table. What’s more, Stitch is easy to use, even for the uninitiated. The UI is clean, understated, and intuitive. Within a few minutes of signing up, you should feel like a pro, able to create products and customer contacts and generate sales orders with ease. It’s easy to pick up on your own just by experimentation, but if you’re queasy about finding your own way around, you can reference one of the many tutorials on each page that take you step-by-step through all the basic tasks.

In general, the customer service department is responsive and helpful. Our questions were promptly answered (never longer than 24 hours, even on the weekend), and ticket creation happened immediately, so we always had a case number to reference and never felt lost in the shuffle. Not surprisingly, the Stitch Labs support team is highly praised all over the web.

Stitch integrates with a large number of other programs and applications, including Amazon, eBay, BigCommerce, Magento, Shopify, and Square, to name just a few. And when you combine an excellent selection of integrations with powerful suite of tools,you’ve got inventory management software that is ideal for small to medium-sized businesses.

You can read more about Stitch Labs in our full review.

Runner-Up: TradeGecko

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TradeGecko, a cloud-based inventory application for small to medium sized businesses, is comparable to Stitch Labs in functionality and number of integrations, but is more geared toward international companies (it still works well for American companies, if you don’t mind a time difference with the support staff).

The design of this software emphasizes collaboration, group workflows, and activity feeds. This means that you can reference sales information, purchase orders, and stock levels at once, and they will all update in real time. TradeGecko is intuitive and easy to use, and has a clean – if spartan – UI which is perfect for a bookkeeping system.

TradeGecko offers a free 14-day trial, no credit card required. Plans range from $49/month to $399/month, though you can get a monthly discount if you commit to paying for a year up-front. The company provides a detailed knowledge base, with step-by-step instructions for performing many tasks, and it also offers 24 hour customer support. On the whole, our support experience was positive, though a few of our tickets took longer than we would have liked to resolve.

Integrations include Shopify, Salesforce, Xero, Magento, Quickbooks Online, Amazon, and WooCommerce (to name a few). All in all, TradeGecko isn’t the cheapest product on the market (which is why it’s the runner up for this category) but it is so intuitive and feature rich that small to medium-sized businesses with a budget to kick around should give it a look.

For more information about TradeGecko, read our full review here.

Invoicing Software

Winner: Freshbooks

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Officially, Freshbooks is a web-based accounting solution, though it is fair to say that it’s best utilized for its incredible invoicing features. This software is tailor made for independent contractors and small, service-based businesses; it is easy to use, has lots of interesting features (including time tracking, reporting, and expenses), and integrates with a huge variety of 3rd party applications.

Pricing, unfortunately, is a bit steep for the target market (small businesses), though there is a free plan which allows you to manage a single client. Paid plan range from $19.95/month to $39.95/month. Customer support is available Monday – Friday, 9am – 6pm EST. In our experience, representatives are remarkably quick to respond to emails (usually within 20 minutes during business hours) and are courteous, helpful, and knowledgeable.

As mentioned above, FreshBooks offers more than 60 integrations and add-ons including  PayPal, Shopify, Basecamp, and Stripe. It is as comprehensive an invoicing solution as you could hope for, especially since it does offer other perks, like reporting.

You can read our full review of FreshBooks here.

Runner-Up: Invoiceable

invoiceable-logo

Invoiceable is simple, easy to use software that allows you to create professional looking invoices. It’s actually free to all, with no feature limits, though you can opt to pay a one-time fee to remove the company’s branding from your invoices: this is a perk that no other free invoicing program offers. Additionally, unlike many of the other major free invoicing programs, Invoiceable isn’t just a wimpy, scaled-back version of a paid service. You can have as many clients and send as many invoices as you like.

Of course, with a completely free service you’re going to miss certain features that come with a paid subscription. Support, for example, is unreliable and sporadic. Response times can vary between 1-12 days, and sometimes you may not get any response at all. There is also limited sales tax functionality, which means that the software really only works for businesses that charge a single, across the board tax rate, or don’t charge tax at all.

That said, if you are a freelancer or own a very small business with relatively low sales volume, this may be all you need for now. It’s leaps and bounds better than simply typing out your invoices into MS Word or Excel, and it is one of the best free options out there that both allow you to have unlimited clients and actually works in the United States! The interface is basic and intuitive, and while customer service is slow, you probably won’t need it most of the time. If this sounds like a good match for you, we suggest you try it out. You’ve got nothing to lose – after all, it’s free.

Read our full review of Invoiceable here.

CRM Software

Winner: Zoho CRM

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User-friendly, reasonably-priced, and full of useful features, Zoho CRM is our favorite customer relations management software, hands down. It’s not hard to see why we’re such big fans. The “building blocks” which make up the Zoho CRM logo are not there for design purposes alone; these blocks allude to the fact that the Zoho team has developed many other business applications, all capable of working together seamlessly (much like Google Apps). In addition, Zoho has an well-deserved reputation for integrating nicely with a number of 3rd party add-ons, including MailChimp, Unbounce, Google Apps, MS Office, and Quickbooks (see a full list of add-ons and integrations here). In short, Zoho CRM software can adjust to any size business, be whatever you need it to be, and grow with you as your business expands.

You can try Zoho CRM for free with a 15-day trial of their Professional package. After that, pricing breaks down as follows:

  • Entrepreneur: Free, up to 3 users
  • Standard: $12/user/month
  • Professional: $20/user/month
  • Enterprise: $35/user/month

24-hour Mon-Fri telephone support is available to paying customers, though those using their free edition are limited to email support. However, your email questions can be flagged according to urgency, so that important queries do not fall to the wayside.

You would be hard pressed to find a CRM that provides more functionality at a lower cost. Zoho CRM is, without a doubt, the most bang for your buck.

Read our full review of Zoho CRM here.

Runner-Up: CleverTim

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Clevertim is a cloud-based CRM system with a firm mission: to cater specifically to small businesses. With a surprisingly reasonable price point, a clean, user-friendly UI, and the ability to integrate with 3rd party developers (via an open API), Clevertim may just be as clever as its name suggests. The only chink in Clevertim’s armor is the lack of a mobile app. As it is now, the app functions smoothly on a desktop, but is only so-so on a tablet and virtually nonexistent on a phone.

Clevertim offers a 30 day free trial. After that, plans range from absolutely free to $99/month. You can upgrade, downgrade, or cancel your subscription at any time. Unlike most other CRM systems, Clevertim does not charge on a per-user basis. Instead, each plan has a user limit. There is also  customized pricing available, which allows you to upgrade the number of users allowed in your plan.

Clevertim is relatively new and does not yet have its own dedicated Technical Support team. However, queries can be sent to the company either via web tickets or through the sales email address.

Read our review of Clevertim here.

Booking Software

Winner: BookingBug

bookingbug-logo

BookingBug can do just about anything you would expect from scheduling software, but still manages to be accessible and intuitive. Many companies claim to be versatile, but this software actually is designed for a wide variety of industries, making it one of the only options out there for B&Bs or bike rental shops, and a better option than most for medium-sized spas and salons. It is a perfect tool for businesses that want to offer combination services while managing limited resources and limited staff (see a full list of features here). It is distinct from other appointment booking software other ways as well: first, it’s designed for serious scalability – which again validates its claim to be “the only real-time distributed booking and reservation system that works for all business types” –  and second, it integrates with a vast number of 3rd-party apps all over the world. This is a company that prides itself on innovation and flexibility.

Plans run from $19.95/month to $69.95/month, or you can scale up to an Enterprise plan, which are priced on an individual basis. Customer service comes free with your account. Like most companies, BookingBug relies heavily on email support, but phone support is available for some of the more expensive plans. We received helpful responses to our email inquiries within hours – always a great sign.

One terrific thing about BookingBug is that it offers your customers the option to make online payments (full or partial, including pre-payment and bulk payments); you can also issue full or partial refunds directly through the site via one of the software’s numerous payment integrations. BookingBug integrates with programs like MailChimp, WordPress, Facebook, and Dropbox as well.

There isn’t much negative feedback about the company online or in user reviews. Granted, some people have complained about issues with their mobile apps, but BookingBug’s receptivity and responsiveness to these issues speaks well about the company’s commitment to customer service.

To read our full review of BookingBug, click here.

Runner Up: Bookeo

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Bookeo is cloud-based booking software with a lot to offer. Not only does it include important booking features, but it provides a surprising variety of marketing solutions, integrates with many payment platforms and third party applications, and boasts excellent security features. This is innovative software as it is, and Bookeo continues to improve with age; significant new feature releases occur every few months, and updates are frequent. The only consistent complaint disappointed reviewers have is with its lack of phone support. (Bookeo relies on email and a store of 300 tutorials for its customer support.)

Bookeo’s pricing differs by product (in other words, by whether you want to book appointments, classes, or tours), but each version offers a 30-day free trial and a 30-day money back guarantee on the first paid month of subscription. Bookeo accounts do not require set-up or processing fees and you don’t have to sign a contract – always a good sign.

One of the best things about Bookeo is that it is user-friendly. Action items and information are intuitive and clearly distinguishable, and the software in general is organized neatly, in a very manageable way. There isn’t much setup support, unfortunately, but the self-help tutorials available are precise, and sufficient enough to help you circumvent most major problems.

Customer service centers on the Bookeo Help Portal, which consists of 300 tutorials and an email support form. There is no phone support, however, and this is the only consistent complaint from disappointed reviewers. You can receive some support via a live chat option on Bookeo’s promotional website.

Read more about Bookeo here, in our full review.

Email Marketing Software

Winner: MailChimp

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At Merchant Maverick, we’re all in agreement that MailChimp is the boss when it comes to email marketing. It’s a mature, time-tested software with reasonable pricing plans, a great selection of features, and tons of integration, and it scales well to just about any size campaign. Better yet, for users with modest needs, MailChimp offers a robust, flat-out generous free plan which lets you have up to 2,000 subscribers and allows you to send up to 12,000 emails per month. There’s only one real catch: if you do your email marketing with the free plan, there will be a small MailChimp badge at the bottom of every email you send out. 

Paid plans come in two basic varieties: send-based (pay as you go) and list-based (monthly). These plans are fairly specific and complex, so if you’d like more details about pricing you should navigate here.

MailChimp is generally very easy to use, and signing up for a MailChimp account is simple; enter a name and email address and you’re on your way. The customer support system is pretty extensive as well, though it lacks telephone support, which is slightly disappointing. However, our experience with them has been good; representatives were courteous and well-informed, and inquiries were answered in anywhere from 20 minutes to 20 hours, depending on urgency. MailChimp’s biggest selling point, however, is that it offers over 500 integrations and add-ons. (These include Google Analytics, Zendesk, SHopify, Magento, and Salesforce).

Check out our full review of MailChimp here.

Runner-Up: AWeber

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AWeber appeals to a smaller niche than MailChimp, but it’s still incredibly easy to use and quite affordable. It comes with some very nice features, especially for businesses which want to send all new subscribers the same series of messages: the autoresponder setup in particular is easy, intuitive, and well explained within the program, and users have a lot of options. 

AWeber offers a free 30-day trial for lists of up to 500 subscribers. After that first month, there is a single list-based pricing plan available. It’s reasonably priced for the most part, but so robust that very small companies may find they are paying for lots of extra features they may not even require. If you don’t need much from your email marketing tool, you might be better off with MailChimp’s generous free plan.

In general, AWeber finds a healthy balance between ease of use and high functionality. Navigation is remarkably intuitive, considering the number of features available. The WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor has some quite impressive characteristics, and recent updates to the software have have managed to significantly improve the email design experience. Additionally, the analytics and reporting capabilities are well above par for an email marketing tool of this type, as are AWeber’s investment in numerous 3rd-party integrations.

Our experiences with customer support have been positive overall. As a rule, we’ve found AWeber’s representatives to be friendly, helpful, and prompt in responding to queries. Response times to our inquiries varied in time between 20 minutes and 6 business hours.

Read our full review of AWeber here.

Project Management Software

Winner: Trello

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Trello is a visually-oriented, Kanban-based project management tool that works by allowing users to see and manage their tasks and projects via detailed ‘cards’ which are then pinned onto ‘boards.’ At its most basic level, Trello is an ingenious way to create and organize a set of virtual 3×5 cards without the risk of misplacing them, but it also can also work as a simple task management tool, offering features like file storage and automatic email notifications.

The standard, free version of Trello allows for unlimited boards, users, and attachments (with a 10 MB max per file upload). However, for a fee, Trello also offers two upgraded versions of the software: $3.75/user or $5/user

Trello’s simple, visually-appealing UI makes it incredibly easy to use; there is almost no learning curve involved. A mere five minutes after I signed up I was able to navigate the software quickly, creating cards and boards like a pro. It may be integrated with several 3rd party apps, including Zapier, Google Drive, Box. Dropbox, and OneDrive.

Trello provides email support (via support@trello.com) to all users during normal business hours (Monday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM EST).

Not only is this software reasonably priced, but it is characterized by elegance, simplicity, and user-friendliness. It would be difficult to find a basic project management solution with a more intuitive, visually-appealing design. And in terms of sheer adoptability – of getting your employees to actually use a software-based task management tool – Trello scores extremely high.

You can check out our full review of Trello if you’d like more information.

Runner Up: Basecamp

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With over 9,000,000 current users, Basecamp is considered the most popular cloud-based project management software system of all time. It is, without doubt, one of the most user-friendly project management programs out there. When it comes down to brass tacks, simplicity is an enormously valuable characteristic, and Basecamp is just that – simple. This is project management software at its most basic and effortless level.

This software is celebrated for its no-frills, no-fuss pricing system. There are no hidden fees and no per-user costs. Plans range from $20/month to $150/month. Features include task tracking, a calendar, email notifications and a daily recap of activities, text documents (basically giant legal pads), and very simple reporting.

Basecamp is known for fast, reliable service. While they don’t provide the level of immediate personal support that you can get from other software companies (read: no phone or live chat support), the folks at Basecamp respond quickly to email requests and offer a large variety of ready-made aids and live training tools.

Basecamp itself is a pretty basic program, but there are a huge number of optional 3rd party applications available if you want or need to increase software’s functionality. You can see a complete list of Basecamp integrations on the official product website

If you have plain, bread-and-butter management requirements, we think you’ll find that Basecamp is a suitable, extremely affordable way to go. One of the best things about Basecamp is the fact that it is designed, updated, and supported by an established parent company. It is a sure bet, in other words.

Read more about Basecamp in our full review.

Shipping Software

Winner: ShipStation

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ShipStation is a reasonably-priced, web-based shipping solution for eCommerce retailers. Designed to streamline the fulfillment process as much as possible, this software has invested in a huge number of integrations that make it possible for you to sync up your business with the most popular sales channels, shopping carts, payment gateways, and mail carriers.

Pricing plans range from $25/month to $145/month. There’s a free 30-day trial that includes access to all features, with no credit card required. If you’re not satisfied with the product within 90 days, ShipStation offers a full refund, no questions asked.

The user interface can be a bit overwhelming at first, as there multiple options, menus, and sub-menus displayed on most pages. A bit of patience is definitely required when you start out, though you can take advantage of a number of video tutorials, a large knowledge base, and a pretty robust community forum if you run into trouble. Actually, you can have your own personal account manager if you want, and this person will help guide you through the setup phase of your account. Some of the higher paid plans can receive chat support as well. In general, customer support is slightly disappointing, and the responses we received to queries were somewhat boilerplate and indifferent.

One of ShipStation’s biggest selling points is that it integrates with an enormous number of carriers, marketplaces and shopping carts, especially when compared to the competition, including FedEx, UPS, USPS, and Fulfillment by Amazon, as well as Shopify, Etsy, Magento, Square, eBay, etc. The list goes on.

Check out our full review of ShipStation for more information.

Runner-Up: ShipWorks

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ShipWorks is probably the best shipping software available, though unfortunately it’s a PC-only app (which removes about half of the world’s users) and the learning curve is extremely high. The good news is that this software, which is designed to streamline the order fulfillment process for small to large businesses, has many amazing features you can’t find in other shipping applications. With a few clicks, ShipWorks can download shipping information from an online sales channel, calculate and print postage, generate labels, packing slips, and more. Combine this functionality with integrations for over 40 different mail carriers and eCommerce platforms, and you’ve got a shipping solution that really packs a wallop. Additionally, ShipWorks scales well, in a way that its SaaS competitors don’t.

Cost per month is determined by two different factors: shipment volume and number of licenses. Shipment volume is divided into three tiers:

  • $14.95/month for 0-99 shipments/month
  • $29.95/month for 100-999 shipments/month
  • $49.95/month for 1,000+ shipments/month

The price for shipment volume is then added to your licensing fee to determine the monthly bill. How much you pay for licensing is based on the number of online sales channels you use with ShipWorks.

Our own experiences with ShipWorks support have been positive. Turnaround times on support tickets were 24 hours or less, and we never had trouble reaching anybody on the phone. The Knowledge Base is extensive, and covers everything from setup and configuration to online marketplaces and shipping providers. What’s more, the articles are clearly written and provide plenty of screenshots.

As I mentioned above, ShipWorks integrates with a huge variety of shipping carriers and online marketplaces (including USPS, FedEx, UPS, Magento, Etsy, Shopify, Volusion), but if you happen to use a store that isn’t directly supported by ShipWorks, you can always work with a developer and use the ShipWorks Generic API to create your own integrations.

Click here to read our full review of ShipWorks.

Loyalty Rewards Software

Winner: Sweet Tooth

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Sweet Tooth is a prolific loyalty rewards software that currently works with over 3500 merchants worldwide, including Delta, Universal, and Olympus. Sweet Tooth is dedicated to increasing customer engagement, and case studies from many of the clients mentioned above have demonstrated nearly 20% increases in customer lifetime values, sales and repeat purchases. It is complex software with a high learning curve, but in general, the benefits of using a robust loyalty rewards software outweigh the inconvenience of having to learn how to use it! Sweet Tooth is an ideal solution for both eCommerce merchants and merchants who use combined methods of commerce.

Sweet Tooth works best – and is most full featured – when it’s used through Magento, though you can use a lighter, simpler version of Sweet Tooth on BigCommerce or Shopify (this is free for up to 500 customers). Sweet Tooth subscription plans are offered monthly and automatically renew unless cancelled. Plans begin at $49/month, and are broken down by loyalty point transactions and annual revenue generated on Magento. If your activity exceeds the limitations of your plan you will be required to upgrade to the next available plan. You can view the full pricing details for Shopify, BigCommerce and Magento on the Sweet Tooth website.

Customer service is available Monday to Friday 9:00 am to 5:00 pm EST. Overall, our experience with Sweet Tooth has been positive. Everyone we’ve spoken to at the company has been knowledgeable and friendly, and most reviewers on Magento cite the technical support as an essential part of their loyalty program.

Read our full review of Sweet Tooth if you’re interested in learning more.

Runner-Up: Belly

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Belly provides a more hassle-free loyalty rewards program than Sweet Tooth, and is ideal for smaller businesses with brick and mortar store fronts (such as bakeries, cafes, grocers, bars, spas, fitness clubs and boutiques). What’s really unique about Belly, though, are its customizeable rewards offerings and “all in one box” setup, which includes an iPad (with stand and combination lock), data reports, a personal support representative, social media integrations, and email marketing tools. Even more significantly, Belly customers get a mobile page for their business on the Belly app, where potential customers can look to find Belly-compatible businesses.

Monthly subscription costs range from $99 – $199, and all contracts run for 12 months. The cost of the iPad, iPad stand, application software, and unlimited rewards cards are included in the subscription costs for the highest plan, but an additional $150 installation fee is charged for lower plans.

Right now there are only a few drawbacks to Belly, most important of which is its steep price. Customer service can be a bit spotty as well, and unfortunately, not enough other businesses currently use it, which doesn’t provide much incentive to customers to get in the Belly network. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for an easy, no-worries loyalty program, you can’t go far wrong with Belly.

Read our full review of Belly for more details and information.

Website Building Software

Winner: Wix

 

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Wix is our number one choice for web building software, and it’s not difficult to understand why. With its sleek editing interface and multiple selection of apps and integrations, it is an extremely effective do-it-yourself website designer. In addition to being easy to use, Wix provides a great selection of unique and visually appealing templates (there are hundreds to choose from).

The free version of Wix is provided to anyone who signs up, though any website you create under the free plan will be branded with the Wix logo. Paid plans range from $4.08/month to $24.90/month. Wix’s store offers payment processing through a handful of vendors, including PayPal, WebMoney, Skrill, and PayU.

All in all, Wix is intuitive and user-friendly. Within a few hours, you should be able to take a template, mess around for a bit with the editing tools, and build yourself an incredibly fine looking website.

Because Wix allows developers to create and share their own add-ons, other users are given the opportunity to expand and diversify their websites as well. Some of the most popular integrations available include online shop expansions (like the Etsy app), the Wix Hotels premium booking system, live Instagram feeds, website profile systems, and a variety of other site boosting applications

There is one downside to the software: unlike most other website-building services, Wix does not offer 24/7 live-chat or provide an email response system. There is a toll-free number you can call for help with technical issues, but be aware that you could possibly be put on hold for an unspecified amount of time.

Click here to read our full review of Wix.

Runner-Up: Jimdo

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With its reasonable price points and clever, yet simplistic editor, Jimdo has made a mark on the website building industry. Managing to be both straightforward and comprehensive, Jimdo allows users to make custom, professional looking websites. Templates are provided, of course, but you’re not bound to the confines of the template you choose; you have total freedom to edit and can essentially be as hands-on about the design process as you want.

Jimdo plans range from free to $20/month, and all plans come with an HTML5 WYSIWYG web editor, usage of professional-grade templates, social media tools, a mobile device editing view, blogging tools, photo galleries, Google Maps, contact forms, direct video embedding, widget integration, optimized mobile websites, and unlimited bandwidth.

While the only online payment processor currently supported by Jimdo is PayPal, a selection of various real-world payment methods can be activated in a website’s store, including invoicing, payment-in-advance, collection-upon-delivery, local pickup, and local delivery.

This is an easy-to-use service that somehow still manages to astound with the depth of its overall functionality. Some things may be a bit too simple, and Jimdo isn’t sophisticated enough to work as a tool for a professional web designer, but it is perfectly suited – price-wise and in ease-of-use – for small businesses who would otherwise have to hire out their web design services.

Read our full review of Jimdo here.

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