How to Pick the Right Tools for Your Ops Stack
When Alex Haff became the head of operations at Brainbase, the fledgling startup had only a few employees — but plenty of tasks to get done.
Brainbase needed software tools to stay organized. Especially since its business — helping brands manage their intellectual property licensing agreements and partnerships — is complex.
Like many startups, Brainbase makes a habit of trying out lots of cloud-based services designed to help it stay on top of all the unglamorous components that keep it humming, like project management, human resources, legal, finance and IT.
Finding the right tech stack can be a hassle. But it’s worth the effort.
Tips for Building an Operations Tech Stack
- Look for tools that offer the level of support you need.
- Leverage freemium self-serve products.
- Prioritize project management tools.
- Beware of tool fatigue.
- Consider multiple stakeholders.
Identify Your Pain Points and Find the Tools That Address Them
When Brainbase had fewer than a dozen employees (it’s up to 40 or so now), it was looking for a new tool that could offer administrative support for things like payroll and benefits.
The big-name software Brainbase relied on for those tasks wasn’t cutting it.
“We have a lot of complex questions from time to time,” Haff said.
Unfortunately, the service Brainbase used had a support staff that sometimes took over a week to address its issues and help with troubleshooting. It was time for the company to find something more its speed.
The team identified a priority — fast-acting support — and evaluated its options. Eventually it settled on a product called Rippling.
Now, whenever Haff runs into a payroll issue, he’s able to shoot over a question to Rippling’s support, and he usually hears back within a day.
“We feel like we have something to fall back on, some pretty good support,” he said. “[Rippling] is very founder friendly. It puts a lot of things in understandable text that were previously very hard to understand.”
Haff recommends that smaller startups find software that makes their lives easier and fits the size and stage of their teams, regardless of name recognition.
Even though his team is growing now, Haff is still happy with his choice.
Find a Reliable ‘Home Base’ for Project Management
Though tools with more specific use cases may cycle over time, Haff recommends that ops leaders find something stable for project management and housing important company documents. Asana is a common choice for that.
It has its shortcomings, though.
“There’s no way you can be organized with paper and pen.”
“Sometimes, we find that it’s not customizable enough, or it’s too templated for certain things, like onboarding customers or for some engineering tasks,” Haff continued. “But it does feel like a consistently stable place that everyone will go back to for team OKRs or larger company goals.”
Emad ElShawa, senior manager of business operations and strategy at Fundbox, relies on Asana for his project management too.
“The most important tool that you can use as a business operations manager is some sort of to-do list or project management software that helps you stay organized and stay on track,” he said. “No matter how organized you think you are, when you’re dealing with five or six different organizations throughout the company, there’s no way you can be organized with paper and pen.”
Take Self-Serve Tools for a Spin...
The rise of self-serve SaaS products has empowered young startups. It’s enabled them to experiment with various tools until they find the ones that suit their operations best — often at little (or no) cost.
At Brainbase, a few employees started using Hugo, the note-taking app, independent of one another, for their own personal workflows. Finally, several of them realized they were trying out the same app. Now, Haff said, “we’re working toward getting on a paid plan.”
Haff also noted that the team has been creating a company-wide wiki in Notion, a free-to-use tool, to store onboarding materials and other company documents that need a place to live.
Regardless of whether other companies adopt these tools specifically, the lesson here is that you don’t have to settle for a multi-year contract, enterprise-level installation from the get-go. You can play around with various apps and see which ones fit best with your specific needs.
But there’s a danger here....
... Be Aware of Tool Bloat and Tool Fatigue
New tools are fun. But there comes a point where the proliferation of free and easy-to-use tools is no longer convenient — it becomes a burden.
“One thing we run into a lot is tool fatigue,” Haff said.
He added that most people at Brainbase have, historically, only used a couple of tools to get their projects done, such as Google Drive and Docs. Trying to find that line between useful and too much can be tricky.
“How do you get people comfortable with, and used to, using like 10 to 15 different ones? Even if they’re all significantly better at a certain function? We’re working through that,” he said. “It’s a challenge to get people to remember to go to each tool — to go to Asana for certain things versus JIRA for certain things. So that’s a challenge that needs to be solved.”
When a teammate asks Sara McNamara, senior marketing operations manager at Cloudera, if the team can try out a new tool, she likes to ask a question in return: “Is it something we’re going to use in the future?”
If it’s a one-off thing, she said on the Operations With Sean Lane podcast, it’s probably not worth pursuing.
For her, the tool should solve multiple problems. Not just one, super-specific situation.
The job of an operations leader is to make processes easier and more efficient for others — not more cumbersome. This principle should be kept in mind by operators building their companies’ tech stacks.
Watch Out for Workflows Made Out of Duct Tape
McNamara also noted on the Operations podcast that finding tools that integrate with the rest of the tech stack is a common struggle.
So not only should the tool serve multiple or repeatable purposes, it should also fit neatly into the existing constellation of technologies without causing too much of a fuss.
“When I see something that we call a bunch of duct tape put together, then to me that’s a red flag, that we either need to look at the process or look at the tool and figure out why it’s so fragile,” she told Operations. “I try really hard to have things that are scalable. It doesn’t make sense to duct tape something together if it’s something that’s important enough that the company’s revenue is going to depend upon it.”
Be Sensitive to Multiple Stakeholders
Leaders love the tools that work best for them and their functions. That’s not a criticism. That’s just human nature.
Revenue operations (RevOps) as a discipline came about partly because sales, marketing and customer success heads were reluctant to give up their preferred software.
So it’s crucial for operations leaders to keep in mind the different stakeholders who may be affected by which tools become standardized at the company-wide level.
I asked Haff if this was a dynamic he’s run into.
“Yeah. That’s something that we’re experiencing more often now. Someone comes in and they have a tech stack that they really love, that they want to fight for at this company, or they see something that they could bring that is an improvement,” he said.
“Everybody has a pretty hard opinion on some of these; we’re trying to find that line between which tools are working best versus how much time you want to invest in changing to something else, and if now’s the right time.”
Other factors may come into play too — like cost, efficiency and the time it takes to transition to the new tool. They’re all key in evaluating what tools to adopt for the long haul.