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  • Writer's pictureCharles Edge

Beginning CRMs for Startups

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management and is a piece of software organizations use to store information about customers and sales prospects. Once upon a time, we had a piece of software to track trouble tickets in support, another to track inbound sales leads, another to track email list subscribers, another to track outbound sales leads, another to store vendor information, and the list goes on. But these days, we often use a single piece of software for all of that. And that software is increasingly Salesforce.

We also used to buy big complex software tools that took days to set up. Now we can get started in minutes with a number of simplistic SaaS tools and then customize them over time to do a myriad of tasks. From tracking support tickets to building out inventory, many of the solutions can easily end up acting not only as a way to store contact and communication histories, but also run other aspects of our companies.

Given how much of the company we automate in the CRM, the package, or service, that we use is likely to be one of the more important decisions we make in starting a company. Having said that, provided we choose something where the data can be exported we can always move to another tool when we grow into it. A common work-stream we see here is to move from a fairly accessible tool like Hubspot to a more comprehensive tool, like Salesforce.

What We Need In A CRM

The tool should allow for going from a simple sales paradigm to one that is complex and automated in any place allowed. This might be simply exporting the data prior to such a migration, but hopefully includes the following abilities:

  • Store information about customers and prospects: The original CRM was Act! A digital rolodex introduced in 1986 that did basic contact management. Siebel Systems rose to prominence after releasing the first true CRM in 1993, which did basic sales tracking and from there Oracle, SAP, and Peoplesoft quickly entered the market adding other aspects of enterprise resource planning. But that original tracking of information about prospects that moved from spreadsheets to ACT! Included contact information and the various attributes of a contact that are important for a given industry (and so preferably extendable).

  • Ingest leads: Today we want to flow data from web forms on our sites directly into our CRM. This might mean that we can embed a form we copy from the CRM into our site, or that we use APIs from our CRM to capture information on those forms and PUT them into our CRM.

  • Assign leads to sellers in a programmatic fashion: Each time a new potential customer comes in, we want that lead to go to the most appropriate seller. This might be assigning leads based on geography, company size, revenue, or vertical market. The more we can automate this, the more quickly leads will be assigned and the faster we can get to working on converting leads to paying customers.

  • Score leads: Each time we communicate with a prospect we want those communications to positively or negatively impact the score for the prospect. That way we can focus different activities on those that we’ve nurtured at various stages of their journey with our organization. For example, if a prospect looks at our pricing page we might add 10 points to their lead score whereas if they opt out of our email newsletter we might remove 20 points.

  • Automate communications with leads: Here, we’re looking to simply automate a set of emails that go out when a specific trigger is reached. This might be after an in-person sales meeting or when a lead gets a high enough score to change the type of communication we have with them. If the lead opens the email, responds, or clicks on a link in the email then we want those actions to impact the scoring automatically as well.

  • Synchronize contact information into other solutions: We increasingly live in an app-driven world. We likely benefit from some of these apps connecting to and leveraging the data from our CRM. This might be automatically connecting to Outlook or Gmail to import emails with leads, report on LinkedIn Ad performance, connect to one of the hundreds of automated messaging platforms out there, connect to surveys, a social network, POS systems for retail or anything else we can think of.

  • Produce bids or quotes: We want to do as much of our bidding and quoting in our CRM as possible, to keep all sales data in one place. This helps keep from double-entry when reporting and if we’re not fulfilling orders in the CRM then when we close a deal we can manually update other systems as a check and balance until the deal flow quantity reaches a point that it needs to be automated.

  • Provide detailed reports on conversions and quota attainment: As our organizations grow, we can’t rely on our perceptions. That qualitative analysis should be backed up with quantitative charts and graphs that complete a given story. Most modern CRM solutions come with plenty of reporting options, but we should also make sure that we’re able to actually build the charts we need - and if not maybe look to the developers to explain how they’ve built tools for others so we can fall into potential more mature workflows. Those reports should extend to forecasting as well, once you have enough conversion metrics to build meaningful forecasts.

  • Accessibility: Making sure our tools work for everyone in our organization helps us to make sure that we are a fair and equitable place to work for everyone. We want to make sure there are text options for all non-text fields, make sure we can navigate from a keyboard if needed, that the software works well with the accessibility features in our computers, provide descriptive text for form inputs, make sure software still looks acceptable after zooming, and anything else we might put on an accessibility matrix for our own products.

  • An app: Today more than ever, we need to anticipate that our sellers will be looking at their computers and an app on one or many of their devices. This means being able to easily see information. But importantly we also want sellers getting alerts when deals change, when conversions happen, etc.

  • Compliance: We need our software to make us compliant and not to be a liability when we begin our own process of compliance. Making sure to understand opt-in options and GDPR is important to make us compliant. But we should also look for software that is SOC2 compliant, or software that maintains the compliance our upstream customers will rely of us. We should also start thinking of any Data Processing Agreement (DPA) that we might need to provide to people who work with us, especially if the CRM will track information beyond when the quote is provided (e.g. synchronizing a list of users in a tenant or usage data to our CRM).

Looking to the Future

The above represent what we might consider the modern basics of a CRM. But as mentioned, the CRM is now asked to do much more than back in the days of tools like Act! and Goldmine. Today, we also

  • Track customer service issues, or act as a ticketing system: The sales process should not end when we get a PO. Many sellers will want to keep in touch with customers, not only because we want the customer to renew, but also because we genuinely care about making sure the company lives up to our promises from the earlier conversations with the customers. Most CRM packages have moved into also providing ticketing systems. As a result, many ticketing systems have also started to do CRM.

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP): Here, we get into managing every aspect of the organization. Inventory, Human Resources, purchasing, production schedules, delivery schedules, planning, and the list goes on. Chances are that a single tool will not do everything well and startups have increasingly looked to link together a number of relatively inexpensive tools rather than try to buy a single large monolithic package to do everything we need (often because we’re used to breaking up monolithic code into microservicey code).

  • Sync to financial systems. Tools like Quickbooks track our companies finances. Tools like Avalara calculate taxes we need to pay as sales increase. Tools like Stripe allow us to take payments on our sites and process them automatically. As we grow, we will think through not only how customer relationships flow but also through a lean and automated approach to how money and revenue flows. These are often handled as plug-ins to popular CRM packages.

  • Pulling in additional data: There are a number of data providers that can enrich, or supplement the information we have on a prospect. These often have automated integrations with our CRM tools. Maybe that’s getting the phone number, a job title, an email address, the department a contact reports into, etc. These can be used to improve lead scoring but also to allow sellers to better communicate with the leads they’re assigned.

Popular CRMs

Earlier in the article, we mentioned a few CRM solutions from early in the life of the industry. Today, most will be SaaS tools that might be available in a freemium model. Some that early stage founders should make sure to check out include:

  • Salesforce: Starts at $25 per user per month. Salesforce is the gold standard and pretty much unlimited in terms of flexibility and third party tools on their Marketplace. But Salesforce is also easy to train new team members on, as most sellers have used it at this point and as Salesforce has a considerable amount of training materials online.

  • Hubspot: The basic CRM functionality is free and as the needs grow and we start looking to add the things that can’t be tracked in a Google Sheet, like marketing, the cost goes up. There aren’t a ton of customizations beyond adding new fields, but it’s a great way to at least get all of the data in one place as we prepare for larger sales teams once we mature beyond founder-led sales organizations. Can also do integrated/built-in chat and support flows and has a large marketplace of vendors that provide integrations.

  • Act!: Starting at $25 per user per month, this Act! is very different than the original. It goes from just tracking user information to marketing automation, email management, etc.

  • Agile CRM: Starts with basic features for free up to 10 users and then grows in cost from there as plugins, support, and integrations are added. It’s simple to get started with and easy to track but seems limited as you get more advanced in needs.

  • Close: Starts at $21.25 per user per month. Close comes with pretty good custom email sequencing and reporting. Close can help with the phone call aspects and automated voice mails and they also have straight-forward integrations with tools like Zendesk and Mailchimp.

  • Copper: Starts at $19 per user per month and is probably a tool every organizations that have centralized around using G Suite for other services. Not only because of the way it integrates with Google but also in the shared design philosophies.

  • Insightly: Starts at $29 per user per month and has a lot of great built-in integrations, especially for reporting in Microsoft’s Power BI. Not a lot of custom fields so we’ll run up against customization limitations fairly quickly if that’s needed (it usually is).

  • Freshsales: Part of the sprawling Fresh* empire. Starts at $12 per user per month and it’s seemed a little clunky. But if using the rest of the Fresh ecosystem (Freshmarketer, Freshrelease, Freshsuccess, Freshchat, Freshservices, Freshdesk, Freshteam, etc) it’s a no-brainer.

  • Keap: Starts at $49 per user per month. Keep is one of the more user friendly tools in the beginning. It’s great for small businesses and freelancers, but has limited integrations and lots of built-in features.

  • Less Annoying CRM: Starts at $10 per user per month. It’s easy to use, easy integrations with Google, Mailchimp, etc, and not a lot of frills.

  • Monday: More of a board driven product but if using Monday for project management, might be used for CRM as well, to keep costs contained (as could Airtable or Trello or for that matter, but kinda’ missing the point of a CRM by shoehorning tools like that in). Starts at $8 per user per month.

  • Pipedrive: Starts at $12.50 per user per month. Easy to use, good sync for Google shops, who can grow into it (but make sure to use the Chrome extension to integrate with Gmail).

  • Sugar CRM: Starts at $40 per user per month and a minimum of 10 users. Sugar has been around for a long time and does a good job displaying customer journeys and helping sellers stay on top of tasks. Also one of the few that does GPS integration on the apps.

  • Zendesk Sell: Starts at $19 per user per month and integrates well with the Zendesk ticketing tool. Great API support, good email templates and the channel-based sales options are pretty sweet. Oh and a great app.

  • Zoho CRM: Free for three users and then $12 or more according to how many of the sprawling Zoho services we may choose to use. Good lead management options and great built-in social media options but to look at stages and use integrated intelligence might seem a bit unwieldy.

There’s no perfect CRM out there. Most are built to work with any industry and any sized company and so each will require a bit of customization. The important part is to test them and then see if any customizations we can think of up front are supported. And use the list of attributes earlier in the article to see how any tested actually map to necessary features or business logic.

One point, DO NOT build a CRM (unless it's the core product). You will hate your life. Same goes for building an accounting solution. The off-the-shelf products make us work in a way that builds on lessons learned by generations of sellers. That's a good thing. If we want to go down that road later (once we have a lot of experience and knowledge about running a sales and marketing organization), fine. But not in the beginning.


Starting a company can be expensive. We need to stay lean in the beginning. But we need to start tracking sales data as early as possible. We want to grow into software packages. We don’t need to build a complicated solution when we might pivot. Developing the CRM shouldn’t take valuable time away from development, product design, marketing, or actual sales time. We do need to know that as we grow we will need to devote time to building out the CRM fully.

A good sales team paired with a good CRM can move fast. We can build sales processes around the CRM that match with the values of our organization. We can automate the aspects of working with leads that feels right for our organization and when we meet to review the pipeline, we can do so in a way that puts data at the center so we can focus as much on the soft skills for selling and how we want the market to perceive our products as possible. In short, we can sell better and our teams will work smarter, knowing what we expect of them.


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