I'm interested both in tools you use, and your actual workflow.
To scope this answer, we'll define early-stage startups as "here's got an idea, let's see if it'll work" and consider projects as discrete (and possibly discreet) efforts to gather evidence and traction. Further, we'll define "best" as "fastest". Early stage startups often have limited runway; thus, time is the scarce resource.
For a new startup, the "best" workflow is entirely dependent on market, sales cycle, customer size, purchaser vs. user, and other fit considerations. A thesis that requires enterprise-scale consultative sales will have a much different workflow than a direct-to-consumer software play or CPG play.
There are, however, a few best practices applicable in almost all projects in the early-stage:
Further, workflows should follow a Deming cycle regardless if the project is disposable or an ongoing concern:
Plan. Do. Study. Act. (Repeat where applicable.)
There are a few tools I keep find helpful in early stage—all of them resemble or can resemble a Kanban board one way or the other (in no particular order):
Most importantly, reduce the number of tools and increase usage of those tools. For one, it's cheaper; for two, it's easier to work within a limited set of functionality than have to swivel-chair/alt-tab between multiple applications all day. A spreadsheet will often get you 60-80% functionality, and it's more important that the tool be integrated into the team's workflow than it being the perfect tool for the job. If it can also satisfy individual workloads, even better.
@gruen covered a lot of great stuff regarding workflow, but I'd like to add my insight on tools as someone who's worked within a couple of early-stage startups.
The most important thing is to make sure that you have tools that people in your startup will actually use. Too many tools? Too complex? Nobody will use them.
I've tried pretty much every tool out there within the last few years and have found the best combination to be GitHub, Notion, and Slack. This has been echoed by companies like Gumroad and Sketch.
GitHub ends up managing milestones for the software, as well as tracking issues and the overall development work of the product. Do note you will need to pay for GitHub to keep your repositories private unless you're okay with them being public.
Notion can really act as your company's HQ and track all of your non-development tasks and goals in one place. It's very easy to turn kanbans into lists and many other views. It may be a little overwhelming for the first hour, but after spending a little time with it, you'll see the potential. This can be free up to a certain point.
Slack's free plan is more than enough unless you plan on storing files and need chat history. This is where I highly recommend implementing a standup bot so that every day or week everyone is updated with what everyone is working on.
Notion is overrated as hell. ClickUp is underrated as hell. I use both and can say this with utmost conviction.
Instead of scattering our work across multiple tools, Basecamp centralizes all project communication, task management, and documentation in one place.
Asana - very list based. But project management is about more than lists. Asana lacks shared files, places for unstructured discussion, and places for discussion that aren't exclusively connected to a TODO item.
Jira - never used it.
Notion - this is more of a Googles Docs replacement than a Project management tool
Trello - like Asana, Trello is certainly a useful tool for keeping track of things you're working on, once you list up your tasks, but managing the activities of a team project is about more than TODO lists
Github/Gitlab - how decides what to work on? Are the issues shaped up, or just a bunch of raw ideas? How is priority assigned? How designs solutions? Having a backlog is just one small part of a project management process.
Basecamp - give you list tools to keep track of ideas, and tasks. it includes Campfire, a Slack-like tool for impromptu discussion that stays connected to a specific project. Basecamp gives you a file section for sharing docs and assets, and a message board for making announcements, and getting team feedback on pitches.
Basecamp puts all our project communication, task management, and documentation in one place where designers and programmers work seamlessly together.
Shapeup is a great methodology for product teams about how to manage. It's created by the Basecamp team and full of eye-opening insights. The free book gives teams language and specific techniques to address the risks and unknowns at each stage of the product development process. https://basecamp.com/shapeup
My pick is Notion. Covers everything a team needs – roadmap, calendar, meeting notes, data tables. Things can be shared publicly with a link if needed. You can nest any type of content infinitely (although I don't recommend that haha).
I always try to use as few tools as possible. Easier to onboard people, and nobody forgets where something is.
Recently, Basecamp created a free version of their product, which made me try it, and I have to admit, I might like it more than Notion! It's highly opinionated, but that only makes it simpler to handle.
From my experience, if you are in early stage, Trello works. Sure there are a lot of features it doesn't have natively, and reporting isn't all that great, but it's simplicity is what makes it work.
With personal tasks, team tasks in project management apps, along with calendar events and appointments, it's tough to keep track of everything that needs done.
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