The Tools We Use (And Can’t Live Without)


This post was inspired by a conversation I had the other day with a customer. As we were chatting, the conversation veered slowly away from tea to technology. As a student of computer science, this person was interested in how we were using technology at The Simple Leaf.

For those of you who have been following our company, you’ll know that we make no apologies for the fact that we’re techie geeks (who love tea). So I thought I’d share some of the tools we use regularly to manage our business and to keep track of the ever increasing amount of information we get bombarded with.

If you’re a technophobe, you may tune out at any time.

Edit: After I wrote this post, I was quite amazed at how completely lost we would be without the internet(s). It also made me realize just how much of a geek I really am.

Ok, here’s the list of tools, software and utilities that run our business (and to a large extent, our lives!).

For email we use Gmail. It allows us to track our corporate accounts ( and personal accounts in one easy place. We switched from Microsoft Outlook to Gmail primarily because of the ability to tag our messages with multiple categories instead of putting them in only one folder (like Outlook forces you to do). The ability to label messages this way really does make our lives easier. And now we can switch freely from one computer to another and not have to worry about finding emails ever again. The massive storage space is another huge bonus.

To schedule meetings and track appointments, we use Google Calendar. Again, since we migrated from Outlook, it was a no-brainer to switch to Google Calendar. And since it’s all web based, we have everything at our fingertips whether we’re using a desktop or our laptops.

To keep track of our daily tasks and manage to-do lists, we use Remember the Milk, a fantastic online task management system created by an Australian company. It also integrates very well with Google calendar, so that’s a huge plus for us. As we browse the web, we also use Google Notebook to jot down notes and thoughts that may occur to us.

For our online shopping cart, we use software from a company called EarlyImpact. We chose them because when you purchase the software, they give you all the source code along with it. That means you are free to modify the look and feel of the shopping cart system at will. Being the geeks we are, we modified the heck out of the system (can you say heck on a blog?) In addition to providing e-commerce transaction capability, it also gives us good sales reports on the back end so we can see who’s buying what and when. Their customer service is also fantastic. We also use Google Analytics to analyze a wealth of information about our site’s traffic.

By this point you’re probably thinking…hmm…that’s a lot of Google. Yes, it is.

For shipping, we use an online service called, an approved USPS provider. A lot of people have asked us why we don’t use FedEx or UPS or DHL. Well, we’ll be the first to admit that the USPS isn’t exactly known for it’s efficiency, but they’ve worked out pretty well for us so far (packages have been delivered accurately 99.9999% of the time). Their tracking capabilities aren’t as sophisticated or as real-time as FedEx or UPS, but the shipping rates are lower, and they deliver on Saturdays. That, coupled with the fact that they’ve managed to deliver almost* all of our packages to the correct destinations in a reasonable amount of time, made choosing them a no-brainer.

* Only one package has ever failed to make it to its destination on time, which is quite a good batting average if you think about it. Needless to say we successfully re-shipped the order and reimbursed the customer’s shipping costs. As an added bonus for that customer, the original package eventually arrived!

For back-office stuff – accounting, inventory and managing our wholesale customers, we use QuickBooks Premier. We use it to track our company bank accounts, credit cards, product inventory, purchases from vendors, bill payments, financial reporting and pretty much everything else you would expect of a small business accounting system. We also have it pull nightly batches of transactions from our website, so we can record those sales in a single system of record. It’s admittedly not the most fun system we’ve ever used, but it’s one of those things necessities we just cant live without. And that makes us (and our tax advisors) a lot happier during tax season.

For managing and delivering our email newsletter, The Leaf in Brief, we use MailChimp. It’s marvelously easy to use, affordable, and full of excellent features. It also ensures that people find it easy to unsubscribe from our newsletter whenever they want to (there’s always RSS!).

For this blog, we use WordPress. After comparing a bunch of other services, we found it to be the easiest to use. We plan on eventually moving away from the public version ( to hosting the blog on our own site using WordPress software.

To manage our RSS feeds, we use Feedburner. Unlike most tech companies, they’re not from Silicon Valley. In fact they’re right here in our back yard – Chicago. Which means we love them even more! We have two feeds that they manage for us – one for all our latest store alerts (deals, coupons, announcements, etc.) and one meant specifically for this blog. Feedburner makes RSS so much easier. You can choose to subscribe in any number of ways, including on your favorite news reader or even via email.

For hardware (desktops, laptops and printers), we use Dell and HP. No Macs yet – we’re just so used to PCs that we’re a bit hesitant to make the change.

For mobile email and phone communications we use Blackberry with service from T-Mobile. It goes wherever we go, so we’re never too far away from our email. A note of caution: they’re called crackberries for a reason! For instant (and free) voice communications, we use Skype and Google Talk. Saves us a ton on international phone bills!

We develop our website in Dreamweaver and/or TextPad as our programming environment / text editor. For all our graphics, it’s Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, depending on the particular need. We use a Canon Digital Rebel XTi to take our tea photos (note: I’m not a photographer, but I’m learning slowly, so hopefully the product photos on our site will improve over time. We also plan on adding more photos for each product – including tea liquor and infused leaf photos, so stay tuned for that).

Our online store runs on a SQL Server database on a Windows server that sits in a dedicated and secure hosting environment at GoDaddy.

For secure payment processing on our site, we use a combination of Authorize.Net, Google Checkout and PayPal. We think it gives customers the flexibility to choose from pretty much any payment gateway they’re comfortable with. For those who like anonymity, Google’s new Checkout service allows you to make purchases from our store without registering.

To manage projects, we use Microsoft Project. It’s a remnant from my consulting days, and we plan on switching to BaseCamp at some point in the near future.

To keep track of all the blogs we read and to stay abreast of all the latest tea news from our favorite news sources, we use Google Reader. It prevents us from having to remember every single website, news source or blog. As long as there’s an RSS feed to be consumed, we get it.

Oh, and we store our bookmarks on and our photos on Flickr.

To provide zoomable maps of tea regions on all our product pages, we use the Google Maps API, which lets us program the GPS coordinates of any tea estate so you can view it right from our website and see exactly where your tea was grown.

To browse the web, we use Firefox, although we do use other browsers to test our pages.

Phew. There’s probably more that should be on this list, but that’s all I could remember for now. That’s a lot of technology, but ultimately, they’re just tools to help simplify our lives and to get the job done. The most important thing for us is (and always will be) our tea.


3 Responses to “The Tools We Use (And Can’t Live Without)”

  1. Nikhil, where do you store your images for the shop and the blog?

  2. Hey Birthday-Blogger,

    Well, a combination of places actually. Some of them I just host on on my domain ( hosting space, which comes with a ton of storage in addition to the domain. If you have your own domain, or are thinking about moving to one, typically you will get storage space with it (depending on the plan you choose).

    I also have some photos stored on my Flickr account.

    Email me if you need any details…


  3. 3 Nikhil

    Just to clarify – for the shop, all photos are stored on my domain –

    For the blog, I use a combination of Flickr and my own domain.

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