My picks: The best service providers for startups

March 31, 2008 § 30 Comments

A friend of mine…I’ll call him Arnold Babar…is in the early stages of starting a company. Over a few beers the other night, Arnold asked me a few general questions about service providers we’ve used for various aspects of building the KnowledgeBid expert network management platform and other projects. A few came to mind immediately…then I thought of a few later that night…then a few more the next day. I’m putting them all into a post in the hopes that I might save someone else the hours of head + wall collisions it took me to find these guys. I’m only going to include services that I use heavily myself and would recommend to a close personal friend. I’ll add to this as more come to me. My top priorities: 1) cost; 2) functionality / flexibility; 3) quality; 4) reliability.

Best Corporate Telephony / PBX / Fax Service: RingCentral
My previous write-up on RingCentral is here. Super flexible PBX, digital fax delivery, digital voice mail delivery, $19.95/month. Can’t beat it. Mac friendly except for the sound recording / uploading feature.

Best Payment Processing Service: Braintree Payment Solutions
My previous write-up on Braintree is here. The payment processing industry is a total mess. The Braintree guys are straight shooters. Save yourself serious pain and go straight to them.

Best Press Release Services: PRZOOM, The Open Press
The web has antiquated the newswire industry. These two providers are free and get your PR messages on sites other than your own, which is all you really need. PRWeb and the others try to get you to pay, but it’s really not worth it.

Best Conference Call Service: Free Conference
My previous write-ups on the free conference call industry are here. The FCC says these guys can stay in business and so long as you just need them to work for your call tomorrow or next week, you’ll be fine. Call quality is good and reliability is good. I would advise against trying to bake them into your app though…you get what you pay for and who knows how long their loophole will be open.

Best Desktop Sharing Software: Glance
This a simple, functional, reliable piece of software perfect for sharing your desktop for demos. No install needed for your clients, but this means there is no way to see the screen of the person on the other end. It’s $39/month and WebEx has dropped prices in response. There may be some free stuff out there too but I would rather have my demos work and pay a little. Glance is Mac friendly, WebEx is not.

Best Domain Registrar: One and One
One and One is clean, easy to use, without constant upselling, ads and pop-ups. GoDaddy is a nightmare IMO.

Best Hosting Service: M5 Hosting
Previous mention here. These guys were referred to us by a friend and they have done a great job so far. Stay the hell away from MediaTemple.

Best Blog Platform: WordPress.com, WordPress.org
The best blogging and simple content management system out there, IMO. Open source so there are an amazing number of plug-ins, style sheets, and high quality WordPress designers out there so you can really make anything. WordPress.com is a free, hosted blogging platform (example here) while you need to host WordPress.org on your own server (example here, here, and here).

Best Corporate Email Solution: Google Apps for Your Domain
Face it, yourcompanyname@gmail.com is JV. Google Apps makes it free and easy to have Google tools under your own domain.

Best Bug Tracker: Mantis
We’re coming up on our 300th mantis ticket and so far, so good. Free, open source bug tracking & project management. We tried some of the more trendy solutions out there and were very disappointed.

Best Stock Photography: Stockxpert
High quality stock photography on a pay-as-you-go model. Many other players out there have high subscription fees which sucks when you only need 1 or 2 pictures. Examples here and here.

Best Professional Voice Recording: VoiceVector
These guys and gals are based in Alaska but you wouldn’t know it. $1o for your first 12 words and $8 for each additional group of 12 or fewer words in a single recording. Quick, easy, high quality, and they give you your recording in lots of formats. For example call here.

Best Screencast Solution: Camtasia
The web video world is like the credit card processing world…it’s a total mess. Camtasia makes it easy to record a screencast, polish it up, and host it so anyone can watch it. Example here. They have a free demo period. Tip: don’t try to cut and splice within a single recording – just go all the way through.

Best Competitive / Industry Monitor: Google Alerts
Previous write-up here. Cut down on your unnecessary news reading and get productive.

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I’d love to hear comments on these and other solid services out there. I’m actively looking for these:

Best Headset for Blackberry 8703e

Best Low Volume SMS Solution

Best Free CRM

Best Password / Login Manager

Braintree Payment Solutions

October 19, 2007 § 6 Comments

Braintree Payment Solutions, winner of this year’s New Venture Challenge at the Chicago GSB, has bravely entered what is, as far as I can surmise, one of the murkiest, confusing, and frustrating industries out there: credit card processing.

I spoke with Bryan Johnson, CEO of Braintree, early on in my search for a web based credit card processor but decided to grind it out and investigate all of my options. I was pretty thorough in my research. I spoke to five or six of the most legitimate providers I could find, including the major national bank I use for personal and business banking. Before I even started looking into the product and service differences of the various providers, what I found over and over again was convoluted rate structures, hidden charges, and mysterious fees. Bryan tipped me in our early discussions that all processors face the same interchange fees from the backbone of the credit card processing system, so when a processor offers you a deal that is too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Specifically, processors quote you attractive “flat” rates and hope you base your decisions on them alone. But since all processors face the same charges from the underlying interchange, these processors have to either be hiding costs or losing money on your contract…and you can bet the chances of that are slim to none.

One of the most common tricks I saw is processors quoting you a flat rate without giving you any additional details. Well, if you investigate and ask them if that the ONLY rate I will pay, you’ll find that the rate is generally only for “qualified cards”. Then most folks that are selling legitimate products who get this far then think “Great! My average consumers have jobs and pay their bills on time. They must be ‘qualified’, so I’ll get this rate.” Wrong. Many, many commonly used cards, like corporate cards and rewards/mileage cards are actually “non-qualified” and face much higher rates, which are never mentioned unless you specifically ask about non-qualified rates. Even then, sales reps will try to brush off non-qualified cards, hoping that you have no idea that the majority of the cards you’ll be processing, and even the cards you use yourself, are actually non-qualified. In the end, I figured I’d be better off with a company that didn’t try to mislead me from the get go.

Some other things Braintree had going for them is that they have products and services for everything we were doing. I needed a merchant account for credit card processing, electronic check processing (ACH & EFT), a payment gateway, virtual terminal, and an easy and flexible API to integrate everything. With some of the other providers I had to piecemeal a solution together myself. I like the fact that I have one company doing all of this for me. The other thing that I thought was significant was that Bryan made me aware of the industry security standard: PCI Compliance. Businesses that process credit cards must meet the 12 security requirements to securely protect credit card information. If businesses get breached, they can face some pretty significant fines. Bryan has some nice write-ups on this for large and small businesses on the Braintree Blog. To help us with that security threat, Braintree has tokenization technology that allows us to remotely store all credit card information so we have nothing onsite that we need to worry about. We simply submit the cardholder information once and receive a token in return that we can then use to remotely initiate transactions. In short, we are able to let our customers create accounts, provide their credit card information once, and never have to do it again. It makes things easier for them, which makes our business a better one.

Braintree was not only clear and above board with their pricing and fees, but have also been incredibly responsive to our technological needs, providing nearly instant support and solutions for all of our problems every step of the way. If you’re like me you’ll spend a couple weeks pulling your hair out trying to figure out all the terminology and tricks of the industry. I recommend talking to Bryan at Braintree before you begin. He’ll fill you in on what to look out for, and then when you find mysterious things along the way or deals that seem great, ask him what’s really going on. Then, after you’ve lost a couple of years off your life, you’ll end up back at Braintree and I’m guessing you’ll be very happy with their honesty, flexibility, technology and price.

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