While running SeatShare for managing a season ticket group, I have kept an eye out for low-cost but full-featured services that I can use to improve customer support and gain a better understanding of user behavior. Being budget conscious is really important if you are working on a project as a hobby. These are a few of the tools and services I use.
Hosting & Email
Linode or DigitalOcean
About $14 / month
Depending on your individual server needs, either Linode or DigitalOcean will give you an affordable place to start out. I use a $10 Linode instance and a pay for their backup service. Note that a virtual private server requires a fair amount of knowledge to run and keep up to date with the latest security patches, so investing a bit of time in some basic DevOps practices (such as configuration management and automation) is a must.
See my note on GitHub below for a tip about static content hosting.
Free tier available; $10/month for up to 25,000 emails
Mandrill is a transactional email service created by the group that makes MailChimp. If you are sending less than 2,000 emails a month, the free tier will be more than enough. This is a better option than trying to authenticate a Gmail or other account because they make very specific efforts to keep bulk email deliverability rates high. Still, it is better to be sure what you are sending is really “transactional” (meaning, the result of a specific action or scheduled action on the user’s part). They take into account things like send quality (how many emails reach their recipient) when determining the rate at which your emails can be delivered.
Google Apps for Work
$5/month/user for 30GB of storage
Google Apps for Work at one time had a free tier (called Standard Edition) that came with up to five users, but that was eliminated back in 2012. I still use my free version for SeatShare and other projects. The “group” email addresses do not count as users, and you can route those to arbitrary email addresses (including Gmail). This is useful if you want a
firstname.lastname@example.org address to be routed to something like Help Scout.
Varies based on storage
While other products from Amazon Web Services may not be a great fit for your budget starting out, their Amazon S3 service is an inexpensive static file storage option. If your application stores and retrieves arbitrary user data, an Amazon S3 token is essential. Most uses in the early going will only cost a few dollars a month. SeatShare uses Amazon S3 for storing ticket attachments and group avatars.
Application Monitoring & Testing
Free tier available; $14.95/month for 10 checks
Pingdom is a great example of a tool that does one thing very well. Having a simple “is the site up” monitoring check is really helpful in the early goings of your project, particularly if you are experimenting with platforms and other configurations that may invariably cause some downtime. If your infrastructure becomes more complex or you have more specific needs for what to monitor, a paid account would be useful.
Free tier available; $149/month/host for some extra features
New Relic is good to have installed, but it may be quite a while before you can meet the price point for a paid account. A free tier account will give you basic performance information about how your site performs with your current traffic. There is a lot of information you can obtain from the various language-specific daemons that run on your server if you have the time to pay attention to them.
Free tier available; $50/month/container for more parallel testing
If you have a continuous integration testing suite for your application (you do, right?), CircleCI is the most cost effective option for running it every time you open a Pull Request or push to your
master branch in Git. It has saved me several times from introducing an embarrassing bug into production because I forgot to run the test suite before pushing.
I use TravisCI for all of my personal projects. Their plans are a bit more expensive for private repositories at $129/month.
Free tier available; sponsored tier to increase data points; $150/month for 500,000 data points
Mixpanel is definitely more geared towards mobile application development, but you can use it with a web service as well. This gives you a “live” look into user activity on the site. When integrated correctly, you can start to monitor things like retention after sign-up and create custom emails to trigger based on what action the user did or did not take. The API also integrates with other services, like Help Scout.
Free; Premium plan available for large enterprise
Google Analytics is one of the most recognized brands for collecting data from website visitors. I similarly have it installed within the application itself to provide an extra level of insight, particularly around where I am receiving backlinks and what registration landing pages convert the best. On that note, be sure to set up conversion tracking to get the most out of it.
Free tier available; $15/agent/month for full plan
Help Scout is a recent discovery for me, but it works exactly as I need it to. You pick an email address that you want to have as your “Mailbox” for support requests. From there, you set it up so that all email sent to that address is forwarded on (transparently) to a unique Help Scout address. Email then lands in the Help Scout web application, which can then be triaged, tagged, reassigned, etc. The free tier does include a Help Scout link at the bottom of all replies. Depending on your email configuration, you may need to set up an SPF record to use it effectively. You can integrate with MailChimp and Mixpanel to show a more “full picture” of how a user that contacts you is using your platform.
Free for open source; $7/month for five personal private repositories; $25/month for 10 organization private repositories
GitHub’s tag-line is “build software better, together.” I use this every day for work, and cannot believe there was a time before it. If used properly, it is a great place to keep up with your work-flow and monitor the progress of meeting your design and development milestones. Even for personal projects, I use the GitHub Flow process of opening a PR for a discreet feature or bug fix.
For most projects, you can start off with a personal private repository. You really only need to consider the organization model if you would benefit from easier collaboration with a team and a need for more robust access control.
Bonus: You can use GitHub Pages to host your static marketing site or blog for free. If your marketing site is seperate from your web application (or serves as a landing page for your mobile application), this is an easy way to go without having to worry about extra hosting costs.
Free tier available; $8/user/month for full message retention and unlimited integrations
Slack is great even if you are the only person working on the project, particularly if you already have other Slack networks connected. You can enable integrations with MailChimp, Help Scout, Trello and others to keep a consolidated log of what you are working on. When other collaborators come on board, you will already have the tools needed to make it work effectively.
Free tier available; $3.75/user/month
Trello is a favorite of anyone familiar with Kanban or Scrum methodologies for software project management. That said, the card-based interface is intuitive enough that anyone can pick it up fairly quickly. It is really easy to manage your roadmap with one or more boards. Trello offers some fairly robust integrations with other services as well.
Marketing & Advertising
This is bit of a shameless plug for Raven, but the truth is that I use it frequently to help keep on top of things for SeatShare. It integrates with MailChimp, Google AdWords and Google Analytics to create reports, as well as provides site auditing and research tools for finding potential high-quality backlinks. With conversion data flowing, I can get a birds-eye view of everything going on with my internet marketing efforts and easily share a report with other collaborators.
Free tier available; $10/month for unlimited sends to up to 500 subscribers
MailChimp is an easy to use platform for communicating new features with your early adopters. The best approach is to allow users to opt in to receiving news from you when they sign up. It is also a good practice to plan how you want to announce a new feature at the same time you are preparing to create it (such as its own Trello card). This keeps your marketing and messaging current and on task.
Variable investment, can likely find credits towards account
Google AdWords is one that I only recommend after you have a solid first iteration of your project. Also, it is very easy to spend money on advertising that does not necessarily lead to new user sign-ups, so reading up on how to build decent keyword lists and structure your account is an important step. Also, like Google Analytics, setting up conversion tracking is critical. If you do this well, you can spend anywhere from $30 to $50 a month and have a slow but steady stream of new sign-ups depending on what keywords you are targeting.
Each of these tools have helped me keep the cost of maintaining SeatShare low while maintaining a rather robust tool set that can grow later. The lowest cost option out there may not always be the one you can grow with, so evaluate the tools with both budget and future plans in mind.