There are two pieces of advice every founder has heard: Keep your startup as lean as possible, and only do things that are high-leverage uses of your time. There’s an obvious tension here: How are you supposed to get done all the things a company has to do without hiring a bunch of people?
Here’s one way: by gluing together the various software services that are available to automate many business functions. You can practically outsource an entire business this way.
A typical company has the following departments, give or take a couple: production, marketing, sales, support, finance, administration, and HR. Another common one is some variation on operations, distribution, or logistics. None of these functions can be turned over to software entirely — but software can get you most of the way there. Let’s say that you make a beautiful product or offer a fantastic service, but you don’t want to spend much time on the auxiliary aspects of the business. Where should you turn?
Marketing probably can’t be delegated to just one service, but marketing automation companies offer the possibility of setting up your marketing flow once, and then just sitting back to let it all happen. (Savvy marketing is key business success, but you can certainly reduce the necessary effort.) MailChimp allows you to construct a whole cascade of promotional emails that are triggered when someone joins your newsletter. Specialized marketing automation solutions like Hubspot Marketing and Marketo are not work-free, but adding in a virtual assistant can help.
The industry standard in sales is the appropriately named Salesforce. Their Sales Cloud product, replete with its own AI, supports automation. Hubspot is also keen to help you automate as much of the sales process as possible. ActiveCampaign and Agile CRM join the previous two companies in competing for your sales automation spend.
Customer support headaches are hard to eliminate, but Zendesk offers solutions for both growing businesses and flourishing enterprises. Someone still has to write the emails — or, God forbid, answer the phone — but at least keeping track of the back-and-forth is easier. Support software is also yet another facet of Salesforce’s giant suite, both through Service Cloud and Desk.com. Freshdesk and UserVoice round out the most popular options.
Finance goes to another leader in its category, Quickbooks. Bonus points if you’re using an ecommerce platform and can hook it up directly. Xero calls itself “the Quickbooks alternative” and FreshBooks is right behind. Even PayPal can handle invoicing! As for managing your outflow, Bill.com promises to “[s]lash the time you spend on bill approvals and payments by 50% or more.” Xero will also handle bill-paying, and Quicken is among the alternatives.
The most complete solution for administration is probably G Suite — communication, calendaring, and file management all in one. But if you’d rather split up these functions, FastMail will handle your email while Dropbox, Box, or Office 365 help you wrangle documents. Upstart Zoho also enables collaboration and file management, while Smartsheet does all of the above in an augmented version of the traditional spreadsheet.
Zenefits is the best-known startup that wants to disrupt HR, but they’ve stumbled several times over the past couple of years. Luckily, the whole point of this article is that you want to stay lean. You won’t need hiring services like Greenhouse either. Instead of traditional staffing, contractor platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, and 99designs may come in handy.
If you’re selling a concrete product, a big part of distribution can be handled by your ecommerce platform. If you choose a marketplace like Etsy or Amazon, they’ll even jumpstart your marketing for you, since it’s in their interests to draw willing buyers to the website. Customers may already trust those websites. What about the rest of distribution? A company like Shipbob will handle all of that for you. Send inventory to their warehouse, sync your ecommerce platform, and they’ll do the rest. Fulfillment by Amazon offers a similar service to Amazon sellers.
From top to bottom of a company, varying levels of “set it and forget it” are available. Outsourcing the entire business isn’t quite possible — at least not yet. But the days when you can assemble a “Franken-startup” out of spare parts is fast approaching. Hopefully, it will be a long time still before someone figures out how to automate entrepreneurship itself.