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The Top 5 Product Development Tools for Startups on a Budget

Product development is a sprawling, complex endeavor - a process supplemented by a variety of productivity and collaboration tools. For startups strapped for cash, the most obvious solution is one of the free, cloud-based productivity and collaboration tools that exist in today’s market. These vary in shape, complexity, purpose, and growth opportunities. What are the most common? What are the most successful for startups looking to quickly iterate and ship?

Let’s say there’s a hardware startup that wants to build a pair of sunglasses with embedded video cameras for recording short films, and yes, they had the idea before those Snapchat Spectacles. What tools might they consider, and what kind of advantages could they glean from finding the right tool for their product? Electronics manufacturing is never easy, after all.

Evernote

Evernote is one of the longest-running web-based platforms for storing information and collaborating with colleagues.

Highlights: Handy for ideation, brainstorming, presenting and collecting information on similar projects: potential contracts, products and any research. Great for informal collaboration!

Lowlights: Formal collaboration, change and history management is nonexistent. Bill of materials would need to be handled elsewhere.

Dropbox

Another staple in the cloud collaboration space, and one that has been making big strides to add more collaboration tools as of late.

Highlights: Storage of pictures, PDFs, and files relating to a project is easily achieved. Because of some stellar sharing capabilities, the team can share hardware specifications with a contract manufacturer on the other side of the world without worrying about losing track of their intellectual property and designs. Version control and built-in collaboration tools for Microsoft Office are a nice bonus.

Lowlights: Bill of materials, task management and milestones would need to be handled in a static document.

Google Docs

Google’s cloud offering is one of the most popular collaborative tools in existence today, and for good reason: real-time collaboration capabilities and comprehensive replacement for a number of standalone tools (like Microsoft’s Word and Excel) make it a convenient option for collaboration.

Highlights: The sunglasses startup team can use Google Docs to build an internal wiki, ensuring that everyone can collaborate, in real time, on the same files.

Lowlights: Formal collaboration with reviews, approvals and the ability to manage a bill of materials with documentation attached at each part level is missing.

Slack

Slack hasn’t been around for long, but it’s disrupted the way companies communicate with each other. Startups in particular, love it.

Highlights: The sunglasses startup will find that they can communicate more easily on Slack versus email or phone calls, particularly when they’re traveling or located in different parts of the globe. The ability to communicate instantly within a topic thread without the overhead of sending an email can mean that the little issues, like a tweak to a design or a bug in the software, can be resolved in a matter of minutes rather than days.

Lowlights: Great communication platform. Not made for managing Bill of materials, Product SKU, lifecycle or engineering change order.

Product lifecycle management (PLM)

The four tools above tend to focus their feature sets around a specific capability, whether it be collaboration or communication. For startups that are ready to mature or are experiencing the limitations of these basic platforms, there are more powerful tools available. PLM platforms offer, above all else, a means of managing the complex pathway between the brainstorming of a new idea and the many phases that make up new product introduction (NPI). The core of these systems is not just sharing pictures, or sending instant messages, but rather creating reliable workflows with oversight from those who can make the right decisions about how to move forward. For the sunglasses startup, this means configuring the right workflow for their type of business and how they work, and then syncing that up with the rest of the information in the PLM system, such as the BOM or compliance details. This is where product development meets project management, and it’s going to enable another level of productivity throughout the process.

A PLM system is a bigger investment than any of the others, no doubt. For the sunglasses startup, it adds cost and complexity right off the bat. But cloud solutions make this pill much easier to swallow. Startups are made to grow, and grow fast—and only NPI, offered through a PLM system, lets them get work done whether they’re an unfunded startup, or about to get bought by Facebook for a billion dollars.