The Best Tools to Grow Your Business

Ardi Coetzee

Over the years we have tried a variety of applications and websites in an effort to find the best set of tools to make management and development easier at Namhost. Below I mention some of these tools and also how we use them. If you don't know about some of these, try them out as they are sure to help your business become more productive and efficient.

If you think we missed a great tool that deserves to be on this list, scroll down to the bottom and leave a comment! We'll be sure to check it out!

The tools have been divided into the following categories:

  • Chat Software
  • Security
  • Programming & Tech
  • Office Tools
  • Billing / Invoicing
  • SEO
  • Helpdesk / Ticketing System

Chat Software

Chat has become a crucial part of most modern businesses. Having instant access to your entire team is a sure way to increase productivity. But chat has also become so much more than that just conversations between people. Many chat solutions now offer APIs, which means you can integrate chat into your business workflow.

Pro Tip #1 If you are not already making use of chat in your business, we highly recommend giving it a try. Group Chats are the best way for just about any team to collaborate.

1. Rocket Chat

Price: FREE (but you will need a VPS to host the software or alternatively a dedicated server)

Rocket.Chat is a Web Chat Server, developed in JavaScript, using the Meteor fullstack framework. It is a great solution for communities and companies wanting to privately host their own chat service or for developers looking forward to build and evolve their own chat platforms."

We recently switched from Hip Chat to Rocket Chat. Both are excellent chat solutions if you want a reliable group chat for your company that comes with all the typical bells and whistles. The reason we switched to Rocket Chat was that Rocket Chat offered a free self-hosted solution while HipChat charges 10 USD per year for 10 users according to this page. But still, FREE is better than 10 USD and even more so if you intend on having more than 10 users. The only hidden cost is that with Rocket Chat you will need a server. And the server will determine how many user's you can support. But this will work out much cheaper than 72 000 USD per year for 3000 users, which is what HipChat charges.

Rocket Chat also offers an API. The API allows us to programatically post information to specific channels in Rocket Chat. Using this we can create channels for specific users where we programatically post relevant information. For example, we have a #uptime room where we receive "Uptime Robot" notifications. This means we can instantly see if a website goes offline and those in the room can instantly respond to it. We have other rooms for various other purposes, such as incoming payments, email queues filling up and many more. By having these rooms ,we have created an easy way for all relevant team members to instantly receive notifications regarding just about anything. And with Rocket Chat's mobile app, you can even stay informed on the go.

Pro Tip #2: If you choose a decent chat solution, like Rocket Chat, and make it the center of your business, your productivity will increase. If you go one step further and integrate using Rocket Chat's API, you will likely see an overall improvement in the quality of your service because your team will be able to work better together.

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2. Hip Chat / Stride

Price: FREE (unless you want advanced features)

Stride is an advanced chat client with a strong focus on collaboration features. Stride defines itself as the "complete team communication tool".

HipChat cloud is eventually going to be turned off. It is essentially being replaced by Stride. If you have any questions about the switch, I recommend reading this. Bottom line, it's best to go with Stride as it should be a decent improvement over HipChat. Stride will come across as a hybrid of hipchat and Slack, but it does offer features that neither Slack or Hipchat has. For example, Glances and Sidebars and Actions.

Stride seems like a good competitor for Rocket Chat, especially as the free option is still there and it will certainly be easier to set up than Rocket Chat. We've tried various solutions, including Slack and even Zulip, but nothing comes close to Rocket Chat, especially not at the affordable price of 0 USD a month.

Pro Tip #3 Before settling on a solution, do a thorough review of both Stride and Rocket Chat before making your final decision. Rocket Chat might be more effort to implement initially, but it might pay off when you need more freedom to configure it and when you need to add more users. Stride on the other hand, might be a lot easier to set up, but might start costing you if you need to upgrade to use any of the advanced features.

3. Skype

Price: FREE

Skype is a telecommunications application software product that specializes in providing video chat and voice calls between computers, tablets, and mobile devices via the Internet and to regular telephones.

Skype's popularity can vary from country to country or even from office to office. Some love it. Some hate it. But one thing is for sure, if you get stuck, Skype is usually the first option you fall back to. It's always a good idea to keep Skype installed on your computer and to make sure you have your whole team added on Skype.

Pro Tip #4 It is worthwhile having the Skype app on your phone with some Skype Credits. This way you can call any number in any country in the world, just as long as you have an internet connection.

4. WhatsApp

Price: FREE

WhatsApp is a free to download messenger app for smartphones. WhatsApp uses the internet to send messages, images, audio or video. The service is very similar to text messaging services, however, because WhatsApp uses the internet to send messages, the cost of using WhatsApp is significantly less than texting.

WhatsApp is extremely popular around the world and easily one of the easiest and most reliable mobile chat solutions available today. Business or not, it's just a good idea to use WhatsApp, and many people are. Now with Facebook acquiring WhatsApp, you can be sure there's decent money behind the app, which means it's likely to only get better. For example, the already added Group and Business Chats have shown innovation and that WhatsApp is not going to stagnate. It was also nice to see the addition of the "delete message" feature, which was well overdue!

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Security

1. Tinfoil Security

Price: 59 USD to 799 USD (free trial available)

The Tinfoil Security Website Scanner routinely scans your website for vulnerabilities, alert you with what it finds, and tell you how to fix it. It is also affordable, scanning you regularly for a low monthly fee and sending actionable reports right to your inbox. Tinfoil Security prides itself on being the most usable security solution, making it easy to find holes in your website and helping you fix them without hiring an expensive consultant.

You can never know how secure your website really is if you don't run it through a scanner like Tinfoil Security. Even the best of programmers can miss something that advanced programs like Tinfoil Security can find. At the very least consider the trial version so you can get an idea of the how hackable your site is.

The price tag is quite steep, but it's something that Namhost invested in. Security is extremely important to us and with new hacks coming out every day, there just isn't any other way to make sure our website stays unhackable, other than using a service like Tinfoil Security, where there is an entire team dedicated to finding exploits.

Pro Tip #9: The staff at Tinfoil Security at real pros and very eager to help. If you get stuck or can't seem to get rid of a vulnerability , simply pop them a mail and they will be sure to assist you.

2. Netsparker

Price: 4995 USD and up (or request a demo)

Audit the Security of Your Websites with Netsparker Web Application Security Scanner. Netsparker finds and reports web application vulnerabilities such as SQL Injection and Cross-site Scripting (XSS) on all types of web applications, regardless of the platform and technology they are built with.

Unlike Tinfoil Security, which is executed remotely, with Netsparker you can download the software and execute hacks against your site from your Desktop. But Netsparker is significantly more expensive than Tinfoil Security and most likely unaffordable to most small businesses.

But is Netsparker better? It's hard to say. I tried the NetSparker demo a long time ago and the software was quite impressive. But whether or not it provides better results than Tinfoil Security, I would not know. Tinfoil Security would probably be enough to insure your website remains safe, but Netsparker has been in the game for a long time. If you want the absolute highest level of security, I highly recommend at least requesting a demo.

Pro Tip #10: Scanners like Tinfoil Security, Netsparker and Detectify can help to keep your website extra secure, but there are certain thing they can't test for. For example, using weak passwords, or a staff member's computer being hacked, etc. For that reason I highly recommend making use of services like Server Secure Plus, which will give your server an extra layer of protection, and also to make sure your staff has an updated Anti-virus installed on their computer as well the latest updates for their Operating System.

3. Detectify

Price: 50 USD and up (free trial available)

Detectify is an online security scanner that automatically tests your web application for 800+ vulnerabilities.

I used the trial to do a few scans. Aside from the beautiful interface, you should also notice the detailed results. Tinfoil Security doesn't provide this level of detailed. It only reports on the actual errors found. It's nice to also get confirmation that certain things are set up correctly.

There's a good chance that Detectify could be better than Tinfoil Security. So why is Detectify listed as nr 3? The reason is due to Tinfoil Security finding a vulnerability which Detectify did not. It made me lose a little bit of confidence in Detectify. I intend to run Detectify and Tinfoil Security at the same time over the next few months, after which I will be able to provide a better opinion on which is better.

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Programming & Tech

1. Ampps

Price: FREE

AMPPS is a solution stack of Apache, MySQL, MongoDB, PHP, Perl and Python for Windows NT, Linux and macOS. It comes with 442 PHP web applications, over 1000 PHP classes and 6 versions of PHP.

If you are a PHP developer, you need a basic stack: Apache, PHP, MySQL. There are a number of options out there that makes this easier for you, such as wampp, xampp, etc. The one we have found to work the best, especially because it makes swithing between PHP 5 and PHP 7 a breeze, is AMPPS. If you are using any of the other variations, we highly recommend switching to AMPPS.

2. PHPStorm - IDE for PHP Developers

Price: 199 USD per year

PhpStorm is a commercial, cross-platform IDE for PHP[1] built on JetBrains' IntelliJ IDEA platform.

At today's rate, 199 USD is about N$2700. Quite steep if you consider Sublime and NetBeans are both free. It took me a really long time to make peace with this price, but when I finally did, I didn't regret buying PHPStorm for a second.

"A true programmer uses a plain text editor!"

Says most programmers, right? But surely if you can have a text editor that makes you work faster and more accurately, that would make it so much better? That's what I finally realised when I made the switch. The hours I have saved by allowing PHPStorm do the heavy-lifting for me is growing by the day. I easily notice it when I switch to a normal text editor and all the nifty things like proper code-completion isn't there.

Pro Tip #5 If you are a PHP Developer by profession, or even if you spend a significant amount of time coding in PHP, then you should do yourself the favour and invest in the best PHP IDE on the market: PHPStorm by Jetbrains

3. NetBeans - IDE For Developers

Price: FREE

NetBeans is an integrated development environment (IDE) for Java, but supports other programming languages like PHP as well.

After PHPStorm, Netbeans is my favourite IDE by far. NetBeans offers a lot of the features that PhpStorm does, plus it's free. It was the IDE I used before PhpStorm and I still recommend it above Sublime, Eclipse or any of the other popular options out there today.

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4. Uptime Robot - Get notifications when your website goes offline

Price: FREE for 50 monitors (advanced options available)

Uptime Robot monitors your websites every 5 minutes and alerts you if your sites are down.

A simple service that gets it right. If you want to know when your website goes offline, this is the tool for the job. Aside from getting e-mails, you can also integrate it and receive notifications on various platforms. As mentioned, we have integrated Uptime Robot with Rocket Chat, so that we can receive notifications in one chat room when a site goes offline.

5. Drupal

Price: FREE

Drupal is a free and open source content-management framework written in PHP and distributed under the GNU General Public License. Drupal is a world-class framework that can be used to build just about any type of website.

Namhost primarily develops using Drupal. It is an extremely powerful piece of software, even more so now with the release of Drupal 8. Drupal is not an easy framework to learn or to use when compared to Wordpress. In Drupal you need to configure a lot more before you start seeing a website. But all the tools are there and for everything else you can download a module or easily create your own.

It takes time to learn how to do things the "Drupal" way, which is why it might be intimidating at first. But once you come to grips with how much control you get right out of the box, you'll quickly realise that Drupal has very much matured into an Enterprise solution for a wide range of problems.

6. Mail-tester.com

Price: FREE (3 queries per day)

Mail-tester.com is a an extremely easy to use service that allows you to test your newsletter's spam score and quality.

Before sending a newsletter, always send a test to Mail-tester.com. It should be the final step before sending out a newsletter. Mail-tester.com will give you a score out of 10. If the score is less than 5, there is no way anyone is going to get your e-mail. And with this tool, you can easily follow the on-screen steps to quickly fix the issues discovered.

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Office Tools

1. Google Docs - Docs, Sheets and Slides

Price: FREE

Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides are a word processor, a spreadsheet and a presentation program respectively, all part of a free, web-based software office suite offered by Google within its Google Drive service.

10 years ago there was no way you could have told me that I'd stop using Microsoft Word and instead store all my documents online, and even edit them, in my browser, online. I fought against it for a long time, but it wasn't until someone asked me: "Name one thing you can do on MS Word that I can't do on Google Docs?"

There wasn't anything MS Word could do, which Google Docs could not do. The same goes for all the Google Docs tools, including Sheets and Slides. And in fact, there were things that Google Docs had that MS Word could never have... live comments! Sure you can leave a comment on a Word Doc and then e-mail it to a friend. But with Google Docs myself and a colleague could both work on the same document at the same time. We can even leave comments at the same time that can be responded to in real time. It was clear as day, Google Docs is the way forward.

Pro Tip #6 Switching to Google Docs will only be beneficial to you and your business. Aside from costs, working in the "cloud" offers a wide variety of benefits, all of which will make your team work together more effectively.

2. Microsoft Office

Price: +- R 6000.00

Microsoft Office is a family of client software, server software, and services developed by Microsoft. The first version of Office contained Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint.

I know I said Google Docs is the way to go, but there are cases when MS Office might still be needed. I was working on legacy code that uses an old PHP Excel Library to create Excel files. The problem was that the files created could not be opened in Google Docs. There were 2 reasons for this:

a) Google simply could not understand the encoding in some cases, while MS Office could.

b) Some of the files were really big. To open a big file locally is a lot easier than working with a big file on Google Docs.

So MS Office still has it's place, although maybe a small one. It certainly would help if the price could come down a bit.

Pro Tip #7 MS Office can still be useful when working with big files, as opening big files in your browser could be a very slow experience.

Billing / CRM

With GDPR taking over the world, a trusted and reliable backend system has never been more important.

1. WHMCS

Price: 16 USD - 40 USD per month

WHMCS is an all-in-one client management, billing & support solution for online businesses. Handling everything from signup to termination, WHMCS is a powerful business automation tool that puts you firmly in control.

WHMCS is primarily designed for the needs of web hosts. Some of the main features include web host specific functions. For example, WHMCS can interact with a wide range of server types, set up accounts on those servers and perform other functions. But that's really only one side of what WMHCS is all about. The other side is Client Relations Management. WHMCS allows you to keep track of your client's personal details, log e-mail discussions, create invoicies and quotations and so much more.

Whether WHMCS was intended for web hosts or not, it certainly has become an all-round reliable backend solution for many use cases. So much so that we use it for sites that do not have anything to do with web hosting.

Project Management

1. Active Collab

Price: From 25 USD per month, or 999 USD if purchased and self-hosted (which again means you will need a VPS to host the software or alternatively a dedicated server)

Active Collab is a powerful, yet simple project management and collaboration tool. It combines task management, time tracking and billing into one easy-to-use and well designed app.

We wrote a program called MyTimeLogger. It was meant to make it easy for us to log time amongst all the many developers that work on various projects. It was manageable at 2 or 3 devs, but when we had to manage a team of 15 people, our app simply couldn't make the cut. I would spend anything between 1 and 4 days to review work before I had a timesheet I could send to the relevant client. This all changed when I was introduced to Active Collab.

Active Collab is a mixture between Trello and Wrike, but better. For example, it has 3 views. So if you want a Trello-style view, you can do that. If there are too many tasks, you can switch to a simple list view.

But as a business that primarily works on an hourly rate, the biggest benefit was that we could easily log development hours per developer, without relying on multiple apps. Active Collab brought time logging to the table in a way that no other app I came across before was able to do.

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2. Trello

Price: Free (with paid options)

Trello is a web-based project management application. It offers a kanban style board where tasks can be created and assigned to users.

Even though Active Collab has resolved many of our tasking needs, there are still edge cases where Trello does the trick. Often if we get a really big task that is likely to cross multiple sprints, we rather open a whole new Trello Board for that task. Trello still has the best board out of the lot. Active Collab's board is a bit sluggish compared to Trello. This is especially useful when a big task has to be broken down into smaller tasks, tasks which can easily be created and hashed out on a Trello board.

Trello can also be useful in surpring circumstances. For example, let's say you have a large dvd collection and your friends borrow from you all the time. You can create a new trello board, create a column for each friend, with the name of the DVD as the name of the task. You could probably do the same with a spreadsheet, but hey, try it out and find out when is the best time for your business to make use of this awesome tool!

SEO

1. Screaming Frog SEO Spider

Price: £149 per year (there is a FREE version, but it's very limited)

The Screaming Frog SEO Spider is a website crawler, that allows you to crawl websites' URLs and fetch key onsite elements to analyse onsite SEO.

Screaming Frog's SEO Spider is undoubtedly the best crawler I have come across. If you really want to see what your site looks like, you need to run it through this. It's great at finding redirect loops, broken links, duplicate pages, errors and much more. This is not just a tool for those offering SEO services, but in fact a crucial tool in keeping any website SEO compliant. You might be scoring well when looking at single pages, but with SEO Spider, you can see the relationship between different pages, as a search engine would, and adapt accordingly.

2. GtMetrix.com

Price: FREE

GTMetrix is one of the tools that we have found ourselves using more and more to get detailed reports about our site's performance. It is a free tool that analyzes your page's speed performance using tools like YSlow.

Undeniably the benchmark tool for testing the speed of a website. It's where I go to if a site seems slow for any reason. It gives you a score for the site and tells you exactly what to do to speed it up. This tool is a true life-saver.

Pro Tip #8: If you are looking to speed up your website, I highly recommend reading this.

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Helpdesk / Ticketing System

Being able to provide answers to your clients in an effective and reliable manner is what makes good customer service. If you are still getting all queries in a single mailbox and replying from there, then you are missing out on the many benefits and conveniences of a ticketing system.

A ticketing system is simply software that allows you to receive e-mails where multiple users have access to it. This allows any available agent to respond. In the case of WHMCS, you also get full access to the client's profile, making it much easier to reply to queries. Essentially it's a software solution that makes it easier to manage e-mails coming into the business.

1. WHMCS

Price: 16 USD - 40 USD per month

WHMCS is an all-in-one client management, billing & support solution for online businesses. Handling everything from signup to termination, WHMCS is a powerful business automation tool that puts you firmly in control.

WHMCS is lesser known for it's amazing ticketing system, but it's such a fantastic solution for running a helpdesk that we use it on various sites. Especially if you consider that WHMCS is only a little bit more per month than other ticketing systems like ZenDesk.

2. ZenDesk

Price: 5 USD - 199 USD per agent per month

A ticketing system (support ticket system) is a software that collects all customer support requests from a wide range of sources and manages them in one location. Zendesk is a ticketing system that acts as a shared inbox for all your customers' questions and concerns.

WHMCS ticket system is quite basic, but it has just about everything you would typically need. However, if you have more advanced workflows, ZenDesk might be a better option for you. It's also a lot easier to set up than WHMCS. But unfortunately ZenDesk doesn't have the built in invoicing that WHMCS has. So if you use a different billing system, you miss out on being able to access the clients details in your billing system.

I hope you could find something in here that would ultimately make things easier for you or your business. Drop a comment below if you have anything to share!

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About the Author
Ardi Coetzee
Ardi Coetzee
PHP Developer @ Namhost.com