The Tools of My Trade I’m Happy to Pay For

In the food industry, there’s a certain percentage of product you want to throw out at the end of the day. Sounds weird, doesn’t it?

depressed-donutLet’s think about a donut shop. If you have zero donuts at closing time, that means you sold out.  Your first reaction might be “that’s a good thing!” But what it really means is that you missed out on potential sales opportunities. How many customers wanted a cinnamon twist or a blueberry cake donut, but you didn’t have any to sell? You might have sold $100 more had your pastry case been stocked more generously.

On the other hand, if you’re consistently discarding bucketfuls of donut holes, you’re being wasteful with your resources.

The sweet spot is in the middle (see what I did there?). Give yourself room to grow, but don’t choke your profit margins with excess.

For my first post of the New Year, I wanted to continue where I left off last… a look at my business successes and failures in 2013 and some thoughts on how I can find my sweet spot when it comes to spending money to grow my business.

Today’s specific business expense topic is “tools of the trade,” the products and SAAS software I use to do my work and manage my business. Below I’ll give a mini-review of each one I used in 2013 and whether it’s worth continuing this year.

For those of you who ain’t got no time for that, here’s a quick summary. For a more detailed review, read on!

Warning: I’ve dropped affiliate link bombs all over the freaking place. But I only promote products I have used and can confidentially recommend.
Category Tool Verdict
Hosting & Security Hostgator Nay
Flywheel Yay
WPEngine Yay
Sucuri Yay
Domains & Email GoDaddy Nay
Hover Yay
Premium Pluguns Gravity Forms Yay
WP101 Yay
Scribe SEO Nay
Easy Digital Downloads Yay
Business / Productivity Tools ManageWP Yay
Aweber Nay
Adobe Creative Cloud Yay
Bidsketch Yay
Intuit Yay

Product & SAAS Software Reviews

Quick note: If you’re not familiar with the term SAAS, it simply means ‘Software As A Service.’ The difference between (a hosted software solution) vs (a self-hosted install) is a great example.

Hosting & Security


I started off 2013 hosting this site with Hostgator. They were my go-to recommendation for clients needing basic shared-server hosting. Customer service was speedy and the hosting service was as reliable as a person could hope at $5/month.

But, somewhere along the way, less than a year after being acquired by EIG, customer service went downhill. The first time they made it difficult for me to give them money was the last time I did business with them (no, I will not fax you anything).

I stopped recommending them to clients, removed them from my recommended affiliate programs list, and moved my site to a new host I’d heard good things about – Flywheel.


The contrast from Hostgator to Flywheel was shocking (in a good way). They migrated my site for free to an account that included a dedicated IP, malware monitoring, nightly back-ups, etc. — All the things you’d expect from a managed host. They were in beta for most of 2013 and had a few minor bumps, but they handled everything quickly and with excellent customer service. I  can’t speak highly enough of the service that Rick Knudtson and his team offer.

Their “Tiny” hosting package  is $15, an easy-to-justify price jump over bulk shared hosting, all considered. My favorite part about Flywheel? The ease of passing billing off to a client. The interface is, well, FLY.


WP EngineI’d heard lots of great things about the WordPress managed hosting from WPEngine. I started hosting with them after visiting with Austin Gunter and the WPE team at WordCamp San Francisco. Their customer service was impressive from the start (I especially dig their on-line chat) and they went out of their way to fix a sub-domain MultiSite install that I completely botched. I plan to continue hosting my theme demo domain with them this year.

Their “Personal” plan doubles up from Flywheel at $30/month, but they offer a one-click staging feature that will make you swoon (and is worth the extra cash if you stage a lot of client sites during development).


I’ve never had a site compromised with a managed WordPress host (knock on wood). But not all my clients are on managed hosts… This past year I had 3 client websites compromised – For the record, each site was up to date in terms of WP install and plugins.

When trouble knocked, my clients called. And then I called Sucuri, a service that provides malware detection, alerts, and cleanup for websites. I’ve met co-founder Dre Armeda at a couple of WordCamps and have heard him speak on web security. Sucuri’s reputation in the WordPress community is excellent.

Sucuri Security

But the real reason I’ll keep paying for their service? It’s a far better use of time/money than if I tried to offer that service for clients. It would take me hours to clean up malware on a client site (and even then I likely wouldn’t do a great job – that’s far from my area of expertise), which would result in hundreds of dollars billed to clients for a problem that may or may not be solved.

Instead, I can pay Sucuri a fraction of what it’d cost for me to do the work and trust that it’s done properly. It’s less expensive for my clients and less stressful to me.

Domains & Email


Ahhhhh!!I know a lot of people like to hate on GoDaddy. I’ve done it myself. To be fair, I’ve always had good customer service from them, but here’s what I hate: The endless, in-your-face service add-ons and cluttered account management dashboard.

It’s impossible to go to the site, do a simple maintenance task (or basic purchase) and not be bombarded with up-sells. And the worst part? The up-sells are purposely positioned in a way that makes them seem required. They prey on consumers that aren’t savvy enough to differentiate between the service they need and add-ons they don’t.

That said, in 2013 I moved all of my domains away from GoDaddy. I still have to deal with them as a lot of clients have domains registered there, but I don’t plan to give them any of my money in 2014.


Hover’s an interesting little service that Jesse Petersen turned me on to. They take care of domain registrations, transfers, and email services (for those of you who remember Tucows, they’re the folks behind it) .

I bought/transferred 5 domains with them in 2013 as well as several IMAP email accounts. What I like? Domain registrations include privacy at no extra charge. The interface is minimal and easy to move around. It’s a targeted service, meaning they do one thing and do it well.

I haven’t had cause to contact their customer service via phone, but I do appreciate this:

Hover has a “no wait” telephone policy. Call us and we pick up the phone – immediately. –

The bottom line? Until I have a reason to change, Hover is my preferred domain and email service provider.

Premium WordPress Plugins

Gravity Forms

If you’ve hung around my site at all, you know I have a love affair with Gravity Forms. When my subscription came up for renewal last year, I wrote a breathtaking post about why’d I’d happily fork over my credit card for another year. Read my Gravity Forms review if you want the scoop, otherwise suffice to say I’ll continue to use and recommend them.


WP101 is a series of really well-done WordPress tutorial videos available two subscription formats.

In early 2013, I invested in the video library (subscription format #1), planning to incorporate the videos into my site content as part of an education series to offer my readers. The idea never materialized – I ran into challenges figuring out the best way to host the videos in a protected environment, setting up a membership area on my site, and blah blah blah. The video library is really ideal for a single user looking to learn WordPress. I didn’t renew.

WP101 Learn WordPress Fast!

Instead, I recently snatched up an annual license for the WP101 Plugin (subscription format #2), a software service that brings WordPress video tutorials straight into the WordPress dashboard. The plugin is a perfect way for me to let clients self-educate (and have an ongoing reference) for how use their new site. Clients save cash they would’ve spent on one-on-one training and I save time answering basic support questions. A major win and well worth the money.

At the time of this post, WP101 is running a promo on both monthly and annual plans.

Scribe SEO

This is a tough one. I think it’s a great tool for identifying keywords and helping optimize your posts accordingly, but I frankly don’t write that much. The entry-level plan is almost $100/month and includes up to 300 post evaluations. If you’re Chris Lema, that’s awesome, but if you’re 5-post-a-month Carrie Dils, it’s harder to justify.

If you’re unfamiliar with the process of content optimization, I still recommend Scribe as a way to both optimize and learn the process of how to focus your content. My favorite part is actually not the post evaluation, but the cross-referencing tool that helps you leverage links across your site.

Bottom line? It’s a good product, but it’s not right for me (at least until they offer a Mini plan).

Easy Digital Downloads

Easy Digital DownloadsEasy Digital Downloads is free (and it rocks!). I’ve used the core plugin on several occasions, but needed some of the paid add-ons when I launched my store last fall.

So far I’m using the Stripe Add-on and the Affiliates Pro Integration pack. Both worked as expected right out of the box. I spent roughly $50/each on those and saved myself who knows how many hours of development time had I tried to hack together a custom solution.

If you’re only selling digital products, the win goes to Easy Digital Downloads. All day long. Plus, creator Pippin Williamson is known for his speedy product support.

Business / Work Tools


I started using ManageWP in spring of 2013 as a single dashboard to manage multiple WordPress accounts (a brilliant SAAS solution, IMHO). I originally signed up for a 10-site standard plan as part of a promo I found over on Appsumo, but it didn’t take long before I grew into a bigger plan.

For about $20/month I can manage 15 sites from a single dashboard (update plugins, clean up spam comments, etc.). While some of the features are less important to me as I’ve moved my sites to managed hosting (i.e. backups, security monitoring), the money I pay to ManageWP is still worth the time I save bouncing around all my WP installs. If you want to know more, here’s an article detailing the love I have for ManageWP.


Aweber‘s one of the major players in the email newsletter space. After researching the main e-news providers, I signed up with Aweber for their impressive feature set. It was a lot more than I needed up front, but felt it was a service I could grow into.

I gave it six months to see if my business would evolve in a way that leveraged more of what Aweber has to offer. But it didn’t. To date, I don’t do email marketing, I don’t drip content, and I don’t need a load of fancy filters. In the end, I rented an RV when a motor scooter would’ve been enough for my needs. (My “motor scooter” is now powered by the free plan from MailChimp, which I dig).

Maybe in the future I’ll need the services Aweber offers, but for now? No renew for you.

Adobe Creative Cloud

adobe creative cloud saasPossibly my favorite piece of SAAS software evah! My work tools have included Adobe creative products since Moby Dick was a minnow. When I transitioned from PC to Mac I was using CS3 and had the option to out-right buy (no upgrade option) CS4 disks for Mac or move to the cloud software subscription service. I opted for the subscription and haven’t looked back. It’s $49/month, although the first year I received a small discount since I was moving from a registered desktop version.

As a side note, in 2012 I paid for a Typekit subscription. This is now included as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud service, so added bonus for font lovers.

This is a non-negotiable business expense for me. I just hope the price doesn’t hop…


The jury is still out here. Last year I both started and stopped my Bidsketch subscription. No question it’s a really cool tool for writing better proposals and digitally managing and tracking proposals. I even got compliments from clients on how lovely my proposals looked.

So why did I cancel? Well, I frankly don’t write very many proposals. Last year I worked on a lot of small, informal projects that didn’t need a proposal; I felt like I was not getting enough use out if to justify the $30/month.

This year I intend to go after larger, mid-market projects, which means better proposals (and time saved writing them) are worth the money spent on a subscription. As of now, I’m trying out the service again for a couple of weeks. I’m in the process of writing a detailed review and will unveil my final opinion then.

Update 2/9/14: My Bidsketch Review

Intuit (Quickbooks Online)

Similar situation here as the Adobe Creative Suite. I’d used the desktop version of Quickbooks for a long time, but when I switched computer platforms I had to make the choice to re-purchase a desktop license or move to the SAAS software model. I opted for the latter.

Quickbooks Online syncs with my bank to keep my business transactions organized and allows me to generate/send invoices to customers. There’s an add-on service that enables customers to pay via credit card directly on their invoices, but I haven’t tried it yet.

From what I’ve heard, Freshbooks is slicker for folks who just want to send invoices/receive payments, but I like the full-featured financial management I get with Quickbooks. Also, massive bonus points for their kind customer service reps who’ve helped me unravel messes I’ve created with my books.

Out with the old and in with the new

While there are plenty of things I’ll happily pay for, I want to make sure I’m spending my money well and investing in tools and services that help me do my work more effectively.

I’ll continue to evaluate the “thumbs up” services above to make sure they align with my needs. What about you? What tools are critical to your business and which ones could go?

63 thoughts on “The Tools of My Trade I’m Happy to Pay For”

  1. I still use Site5 for VPS. Check out their reseller accounts. Maybe my note above wasn’t as clear as it could be: I was on their shared hosting, but moved to their dedicated VPS plan because when you buy the cheapest hosting alive, your neighbors tend to be email spammers. Lesson learned the hard way – email blacklisting!

  2. Hi Carrie,
    Thanks for this great post. I picked up from one of your previous posts that you were experimenting with the desktop server from Serverpress. I have also tried the free version and am very impressed with it, considering getting the full version soon. How are you going with it? Will that be added to your list in future?

    1. Hey Tim,
      You’re an astute reader – I have been playing with Desktop Server. 🙂 I’ve got a post planned to review it alongside WP Migrate DB. So far I’m really digging it, especially being able to set up / configure my basic install and then replicate it as a starting point for new projects.


  3. Carrie, loved your recommends and your mention of Chris Lema, the daily blogger. That guy is prolific as heck and the reason I found you. 🙂

    I’ve had issues with site speed on BH so I’m trying to move those clients off. I’m assuming that managed hosting like Flywheel may be the way to go. Thanks for the recommendation. It was very timely with all the recent outages. When you’re ready to do lots of proposals Bidsketch will more than pay for itself. I did a boatload last year as I tried to work with bigger clients. The ease of having most template sections is priceless. What used to take hours of editing in a Word doc now take minutes with Bidsketch. I also love the electronic signature so they don’t have to scan and email back and forth with me for a signed copy. The integration with Freshbooks was key for me. Not sure if it plugs into Quickbooks, but the invoicing is a one button push setting up a client and the initial invoice.

    1. My only caution with managed hosts is to know how much bandwidth your allowed on your account. I’ve never had a problem with overage, but have heard if you do you can rack up overage charges like a long distance phone call from the 90s.

      Great tip on Bidsketch/QB – I’ll look to see if that’s possible.

  4. Awesome post Carrie. These types of reviews are gold for newbies and really any time. Please keep them coming as you try new services. Unfortunately I’ve paid for several domains for a year in advance using No problems with them but am still thinking of switching to a WP-focused provider.

    Regarding email, I have two domains on Google Apps – I had it when it was free up to 10 users so I’m grandfathered in. It does work well until lately, Apple Mail doesn’t play nice with it sometimes. I’m a little hesitant to move it but I’ll check out some of these recommendations that offer migration.

  5. Very useful writeup, hadn’t heard of flywheel before – I’m trying to decide if that’s a live cam feed of their office they have on their home page or if it’s just a recording/animation.. quite cool in a “I forgot my glasses to day” kind of way!

  6. Very informative. I have a suggestion. You might want to check out Evenflow proposal software. Im on the $20 month plan and I think it’s well worth it.
    Thanks for the tips Carrie.

  7. Carrie,

    This was a helpful post; thanks for your honest reviews! At Lucky Hat Studios, we use FreshBooks for accounting, invoicing and billing. I don’t know when they started doing so, but they allow you to sync with your bank to pull in expenses and categorize them. They also offer great reporting tools. We like them for those features, as well as the nice looking invoices we create and send to clients, who get their own u/p to our company portal (a subdomain).

  8. Hey Carrie!

    I’m just revisiting solutions for WP staging and/or a synced/local version of my main WP website. So, my question is do you feel the same love for ManageWP in terms of cloning a site?

    And would you need both the Premium Version of DeskTop Server (love the free version) AND ManageWP to make the proper setup to keep my live site synced/backed up with a local copy of our live site?

    I’m also re-reading your deployment-related post, but I’m not a dev…just looking to have a local copy of our live site, so I can piddle with it, create posts, etc, (especially when stuck on an airplane, etc) check things out and then push approved/reviewed changes to the live site….

    Thanks for the help and updates regarding ongoing love for the products you review here…I realize things may have changed based on your day-to-day experiences.

    BTW, Hover is cool! Thanks or turning me on to them. I’ve sent an email to Hover asking them to do their Valet Transfer Service of all my GD domains…I provided your afflnk (cute duck pic!) and asked that you get credit for turning me on to them…


    1. Hey Steve!

      I do still like the clone feature of ManageWP, but have found that it’s really ideal for very small sites (I’ve had timeouts on larger sites – loosely defining “larger” as older sites with very active blogs).

      I’ve taken to using MigrateDB Pro (giant aff link!) to pull down a live database to replace my local.

      So, very loose workflow would be, develop local on DesktopServer. Use DS to deploy site to live. From there, if I ever need to get the latest database back to local, I use MigrateDB. As for the code, I’m never pulling that back down – my local copy is always “the latest and greatest” (I’m using version control as well).

      Long story short, ManageWP Clone feature is nice, but it’s really just a sort of side bonus to ManageWP (I use it for the ability to manage multiple sites and automate backups).

      I’m working up a webinar series called WordPress Development Workflows you might be interested in. You can stay tuned to that over at 🙂

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