I talk to a lot of business owners.
Through my work on The Personal MBA, I’ve been advising entrepreneurs – primarily early-stage independent founders – for over a decade now. One of the most common topics of conversation is how to handle the day-to-day logistics of keeping a modern business running: accounting, payroll, credit card processing, invoicing, website management, email marketing, data backup, and password management.
There is a small set of services that can make life as a business owner much easier, more productive, and less stressful. Here are the seven business services you’re most likely to need, along with my current recommendations:
- Bookkeeping: Bench
- Payroll: Gusto
- Credit Card Processing: Stripe
- Invoicing: Freshbooks
- Website: Squarespace
- Email Marketing: ConvertKit
- Data Backup: Backblaze
- Secure Passwords: 1Password
(Note: I have direct experience with all of these services, either in my own business or via businesses I advise. Some of these services offer affiliate programs, and affiliate links have been used in this post when available. As always, affiliate programs have zero bearing on my selections or recommendations, and proceeds support this website. For additional details, see my Disclosure Policy.)
Bookkeeping Service: Bench
One of the first things entrepreneurs should do is get help with their bookkeeping.
When I started my business, I kept my own financial records in a spreadsheet designed to calculate monthly profit & loss. It’s not rocket science: add up income and expenses by category, subtract expenses from income, done. Add some basic analysis, like income/expense category percentages, if you’re feeling motivated.
It sounds easy. The problem is that bookkeeping requires time and mental energy – both of which are better invested in improving the business.
In practice, my books were always a few months behind. I’d “get around to them when I have a spare minute,” which inevitably reduced to “when my quarterly tax payments are due, and I need to figure out how much I owe.”
Bench is the first accounting/bookkeeping company that solves this problem in a simple, straightforward, affordable way. Instead of having to set up and maintain a complex accounting system (like the confusing-but-ubiquitous Quickbooks), Bench assigns a real honest-to-goodness human bookkeeper to your business, who takes care of your books for you.
Bench’s software pulls in your transaction information from all of your various accounts automatically, and categorizes the vast majority of them. If you have a receipt, email it to Bench, and it’s categorized appropriately. Every month, your bookkeeper takes a look and sends you a short list of questions to answer to resolve any ambiguity.
Setup is fast and painless, and your books are updated every month with an absolute minimum of effort and fuss. At the end of the year, you get a nice clean spreadsheet to send to your accountant, which makes tax time much easier. You can even hire Bench to import your records from past months or years, so you can have all your accounting records in the same place for easy reference.
Bench is the first service I recommend to anyone still managing their own bookkeeping. I’ve been using them since 2015, and plan to for the foreseeable future.
In the early days of running a new business, most founders choose to forego paying themselves in favor of re-investing any income into growth. That makes sense in the early days, but eventually, you’ll want to take money out of the business on a regular basis.
Generally speaking, there are two ways to pay yourself: owner distributions and payroll.
Owner distributions are simple: you’re the owner, so you (in your capacity as the owner of the business) write yourself (as an individual) a check for however much you want to take out of the business. You can do this whenever you like: it’s your business, after all.
There are two primary issues with owner distributions. First, they’re irregular: not exactly ideal if you have regular expenses to pay, like rent or a mortgage. Second, the distribution doesn’t include any tax payments: you’re on the hook to pay taxes to the appropriate jurisdictions manually, which is a task that most business owners find annoying and stressful.
Payroll processing services can resolve these issues. When your business is stable enough to support an ongoing salary, paying yourself on a regular basis via payroll makes a lot of sense.
Payroll services do a number of useful things. First, they make it easy to pay employees or contractors automatically at scheduled intervals. Want to set up a monthly salary, or pay a contractor a retainer fee? No problem.
Second, payroll services make it possible to automatically deduct tax payments from your income. Instead of having to manually cut a huge check to the government every month or every quarter, your tax liability is automatically deducted from your income via payroll, and the service makes the payments and files the appropriate tax forms on your behalf. These smaller, more regular payments make tax time much less painful.
Third, completing tax paperwork is not an enjoyable use of time, and staying in compliance can burn weeks of your capacity. Automated filings take care of a huge, recurring distraction, and ensure that critical business administration work happens correctly and on time. If your business can support ongoing payroll, a service like Gusto is worthwhile for the time savings alone.
(Note: Gusto specializes in US businesses. If you’re not in the US, search for similar services that support your jurisdiction.)
Credit Card Processing: Stripe
Modern businesses – even tiny ones – need to be able to process credit card transactions.
The rationale is simple: in exchange for a small fee (generally 1-3% of each transaction), you make it way easier for your customers to buy, and remove risk and headaches involved in manual collection processes. Getting paid in full and on time is a serious issue in many businesses, and provided you deliver on your end of the deal, accepting credit cards can alleviate most of those issues.
I’m old enough to remember the old way of setting up credit card payments. First, you had to approach a specialized financial institution to set up a “Merchant Account.” They’d ask you to fill out a 20-page application, mostly to ensure you’re not a drug dealer, scammer, or money launderer. After a few weeks, they’d set you up with a tiny maximum charging capacity, along with significant monthly fees for the privilege.
Today, you can go to Stripe, open an account, and start charging credit cards in a few minutes. Stripe does their underwriting behind the scenes, using automated tools and background data analysis to keep bad actors from abusing the system.
Stripe is by far the best choice for beginning entrepreneurs. Setup is simple and fast, using the account is straightforward, and the interface is easy to understand and use for all of the most common administrative tasks, like looking up orders and refunding transactions. They even have built-in tools to reduce the risk of fraudulent transactions, which can be a significant risk for small businesses.
Large businesses still use traditional merchant accounts, since they can usually negotiate for smaller fees based on volume. Until you’re processing millions in transactions every year, Stripe is by far the best option.
Invoicing Service: Freshbooks
Let’s say you have a few offers that require sending an invoice. Maybe you’re selling products in bulk, or run a service-based business that invoices after delivery.
You could spend hours generating invoices manually, keeping track of payments, and sending follow-up after follow-up to the folks who don’t believe in prompt payment… or you could use a system like Freshbooks.
Freshbooks makes generating and sending invoices to your customers simple. Just enter the customer’s information, click a button, and the invoice is sent via email or postal mail.
Freshbooks can even follow-up with non-paying customers automatically, so you can focus on all of the things that actually improve your business.
In addition, Freshbooks integrates with payment processors like Stripe, so you don’t have to wait for a check in the mail. Getting paid on time is critical, and Freshbooks ensures the money you’re owed hits your bank account as quickly as possible.
Website Service: Squarespace
Customers expect every business to have a website, even if the business has nothing to do with the web. That’s a problem for business owners who don’t have web design skills.
For decades, new business owners have looked to web design firms for help, and are often charged thousands of dollars for simple websites, along with significant monthly retainer fees to keep that site updated and maintained.
Today, that’s not necessary. Your best bet is to use a managed website service like Squarespace.
Squarespace makes it easy to set up and maintain a modern website, even if you don’t have technical skills. Whatever you need, they have a pre-built module to handle it: basic marketing sites, online stores, forms, newsletters, podcasts, etc.
The default template options look great, and can be customized to look however you want.
Experienced programmers (myself included) will still want to have full access to the underlying system, which is complete overkill for most business owners, and requires ongoing upgrades and maintenance. I don’t recommend that route unless you know what you’re doing, or you're committed to leveling up your programming skills.
If you just want a website that does the job in a reliable way, and looks great doing it, Squarespace is your best bet.
Email Marketing Service: ConvertKit
One of the most effective marketing techniques is permission: encouraging new prospects to give you the information necessary to follow-up with them over a longer period of time. Email marketing services like ConvertKit make that simple.
Let's say you have a visitor to your shiny new website: what can you offer that visitor in exchange for staying in touch, or taking the first step toward doing business with you?
Maybe it's a short course. Maybe it's a whitepaper. Maybe it's a trial account, or a personal follow-up.
Regardless, ConvertKit makes it easy for your customers to raise their hands and say, "I'm interested!"
I started using email marketing services back in the stone age, in my corporate career. They were horrible: clunky, complicated, and inflexible.
Modern tools like ConvertKit are completely different. Setting up a new campaign, creating an offer, integrating the service with your website and back-end systems, and automating following takes minutes, not days.
I've used most of the major email marketing tools out there, and ConvertKit is my recommendation for two reasons. First, it's very easy to use, even if you have no experience using email marketing tools. Second, it's reasonably priced for the advanced feature-set: other tools with the same capabilities often cost a multiple of what ConvertKit charges, sometimes up-front.
Data Backup Service: Backblaze
Modern businesses rely on technology. One of the worst things that can happen to a new venture is a sudden computer failure that results in the loss of critical business data.
Here’s a personal example: I write books that require years of research and effort. If my computer crashes and my progress is consigned to oblivion, I can’t just reproduce what I’ve done – I’d have to start over. I’m willing to move heaven and earth to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Businesses require copious amounts of critical data: operating agreements. Contracts. Invoices. Correspondence. Customer and prospect lists. It’s in your best interest to make sure that data is not lost, even if one of your computers is lost, destroyed, or stolen. Even more important: you need to ensure that the information is stored in a secure way.
Backblaze is the simplest way to ensure your data is backed up in a secure way. You install the application, set up an account, and it’ll silently back up everything on your device. You can encrypt your backups, so even Backblaze employees can’t read them – an essential feature for businesses that handle sensitive customer data.
Because Backblaze datacenters aren’t located in your city, your office could be obliterated by a meteorite, and you wouldn’t lose data.
If you need to restore a file or two, it’s easy to trigger an automated restore via the Backblaze website. You can even access your files via the internet if you’re traveling, which comes in very handy.
If your computer crashes and you need to restore everything, Backblaze can ship you a hard drive in the mail with up to 4 terabytes of files, which can get you back up and running in very short order. (Never underestimate the bandwidth of a hard drive in the mail when you have terabytes of data to restore.)
Secure Password Service: 1Password
All of the services we’ve discussed so far are online systems that require accounts and passwords. Here’s the worst way to go about it: use the same, easy-to-guess password for all of your critical accounts.
Smart business owners think about the security of their data. Not only can an account compromise affect your day-to-day operations or ability to serve customers: it can, in some cases, open your business to legal liability.
The best way to keep your business accounts secure is to use a very long, unique, randomly-generated password for every single account you create.
Most people don’t bother, because those sorts of passwords are difficult to create, impossible to remember, and a pain to type. That’s why so many people opt for “abc123” or “password,” and hope for the best.
1Password is the best way to manage your business’ passwords. A small application automatically generates secure passwords as you open accounts, stores them in an encrypted file that only you can access, makes them easy to access when you need them, and backs them up in a secure way so you never lose them, even if your computer goes poof.
There are three other features of 1Password I use constantly. For extra security, you can set up “Two-Factor Authentication” on critical services, which requires you to enter an extra, single-use password in addition to your regular password. 1Password can generate these one-time use codes, making that extra layer of security as painless as possible.
Secure notes allow you to store important information aside from passwords. Want to keep your business continuity plan in a safe location that’s assessable in case you’re incapacitated? 1Password is an excellent place to store it.
You can also use 1Password to share secure passwords with other important parties. I have a few accounts that require access by my accountant or agent, and I can ensure that everyone has access to the current password, manage access as appropriate, and instantly share updated passwords if they change.
1Password is the first application I install on new devices.
A Whole New World
One of the most interesting things about these services is that they handle essential tasks that, as little as fifteen years ago, you had to hire employees to manage manually.
People are expensive; bits are cheap. The moment a simple automated system can remove human effort from a necessary process, it becomes even easier to start a business.
My current operation, two decades ago, would require the efforts of at least five employees. Today, with the help of services like these, I’m able to run a complex global business by myself, without worrying about huge overhead costs.
That means millions of new business ideas are suddenly viable. When you only need to bring in enough revenue to support a single owner (or a small team of specialists), it’s possible to build a successful business serving heretofore-underserved markets clamoring for attention.
If you’re not using these services (or others like them), I highly recommend giving them a try. Consider them investments with a high rate of return: the less time and energy you spend completing routine tasks, the more time you have to invest in building your business.