Buyer Guides

Best CRM for Startups

Finding the best CRM for your startup is hard. Most CRMs are not relevant for *your* needs. Every CRM has trade-offs. Here’s our take on how to find your perfect CRM.

Ed Fry

Software Reviewer

Best CRM for startups

Finding the best CRM for your startup is hard. There are over 650 different tools to choose from. There are hundreds of meaningful differences between each of them. Every week, new CRM products are released and existing products are updated.

And most CRM advice is not relevant to your startup. 80% is written by the vendors (making it difficult to trust), and the rest is mostly written by journalists rather than product experts.

Copying what another startup uses isn’t helpful either. A 200-person software startup with a product-led growth model sells in a totally different way to a 20-person startup selling to enterprise. People in older companies won’t have had the choice of today’s latest CRM products too. They might not have seen what “best in class” now looks like.

Just like hiring your team, getting investors, and landing customers, you need to find the ‘best fit’ software for your startup. That means you need to understand their trade-offs.

So, we spent over 100 hours testing different CRMs and interviewing real users to bring you the definitive guide on how to choose a CRM for your startup.

Inside this guide:

  • The Top #3 mistakes startups make buying CRMs
  • How to narrow down CRMs for startups in #3 questions
  • Our Top #6 CRMs for different startup use cases
  • How to shortlist best fit CRMs for your startup in under 24-hours

Top #3 mistakes startups make when choosing a CRM

There is no perfect software product. Choosing software is about making trade-offs. Typically, more power and functionality means higher costs and a steeper learning curve.

Mistake #1: Fall for the brand

The best known CRMs aren’t necessarily the best fit for your business. They might cost you more, slow you down (more time with implementation, harder to use, slower support), and not meet the needs of your sales team.

To share my own example, the last five startups I’ve worked at (prior to Stackfix) have migrated to or were already using Salesforce. It felt like there was no real alternative. Sales leaders, ops, and reps would join and recommend (or even demand) to use Salesforce having only really known that platform. But, in every one of those companies:

  • The implementation and migration project took at least three months (and was never “done”)
  • Sales reps made their own workarounds (like their own spreadsheets) instead of using Salesforce for everything
  • Pipeline reporting and “hygiene” of pipeline was always an issue (so you have to chase reps and their managers to get accurate numbers)
  • We spent at least as much as our Salesforce bill buying other tools to add functionality (lead routing, data enrichment, calendar scheduling, email sequencing)
  • It was someone’s whole job to implement and manage Salesforce

In 2024, there are genuinely great alternative CRMs for startups. Not just other big brands like HubSpot (their CRM turns 10-years old this September), but new challenger brands that could be a great fit for your business.

Mistake #2: Fall for introductory offers with bad fit software

Some CRM tools offer introductory offers and startup discount programs. On the surface, these look like great value. Plus, the discounts disappear as you grow so you must act now!

But, you risk getting sucked into using software for years that is a terrible fit for your needs. This could cost you a lot more in the long run! For example, hiring a CRM specialist (or an agency) to manage your CRM will cost you far more than whatever total discount was offered.

If you’re starting out and choosing your first CRM, try a simpler, cheaper option first. They will be quicker to learn and easier to adapt. Then, use your knowledge of your CRM to evaluate best fit alternatives later on (and grab any introductory offers then).

Mistake #3: Thinking too far ahead

Buy for your real needs today, not a ‘best guess’ of your needs in 4-years time.

Typically, CRM software is often the most expensive tool for your go-to-market teams. More functionality usually comes with higher pricing plans. Since every CRM prices per user, the total cost of your CRM can quickly multiply with new requirements.

More functionality also takes more effort and expertise to setup and maintain. Complex CRM software is more likely to slow you down which can lower your productivity.

Focus on your immediate requirements. Remember you can always migrate to another more powerful CRM at a later date when your needs are more defined.

How to narrow down CRMs for your startup

In 2024, you have far more choice than startups 10 years ago. You don’t have to pick Salesforce!

But, how do you narrow down over 650 CRM tools? These three questions can help you quickly filter down to a shortlist based on what your startup needs today.

#1: How big is your sales team today?

A bigger sales team tends to mean a wider variety of users of your CRM. Not just sales reps, but operations, managers, sales development, solutions engineering.

Why does that matter? Your CRM will be the primary tool for all of these different teams to do different jobs.

That’s why you generally need more CRM functionality with larger sales teams.

Typically, the variety of roles tends to increase quickly after 10 sales reps. If your sales team is smaller than that, you have a wider choice of simpler, cheaper CRM products that could be a good fit.

As startups scale, you might want to plan ahead to where future needs are going to be vs. just your needs today. For example, if you’re planning to double revenue through your sales team over the next 12 months, you’ll probably need double the number of ramped sales reps. Otherwise, you may need to find and implement another new CRM system again within a year.

#2: Do you have a predictable sales motion?

Most established sales teams will source most of their leads through either inbound lead generation (like forms and live chat on their website) or through outbound prospecting (like email outreach and calls to lists of prospects).

Typically, CRMs are best for one type of lead sourcing. For example;

  • HubSpot CRM is good for inbound sales motions: It is tightly integrated with other HubSpot marketing tools like forms, chat, and email
  • Close is good for outbound sales motions. It has a rich feature set for outreach through email, calling, SMS, and more.

If you already have a clear, repeatable sales motion, choose a CRM that matches how you source most of your leads.

But, if you’re a startup, maybe you haven’t figured out a repeatable sales motion yet. You might have mostly inbound leads today, but they might mostly be referrals and so are harder to scale. Or, perhaps you’re pivoting and trying to reach into a new segment of customers.

If that’s the case, choose a CRM that gives you:

  • Flexibility today to quickly change your CRM setup
  • Makes it easy to export your data (in case you need to migrate to another CRM later)
  • Quick and easy to learn how to use

These needs might come at the expense of richer functionality. But, they enable you to move faster. Plus, they will probably save you a lot of money! More functionality typically comes at higher cost and takes more time to implement (or more cost to hire in help).

#3: Do you have a dedicated specialist to implement your CRM?

Different CRMs will take different levels of time, effort, and expertise to fully implement. If you don’t have a specialist (like a sales operations manager) or the budget for an agency, avoid buying a fully featured CRM. You’re far more likely to lose time to more setup and implementation.

If that’s the case, choose a simpler CRM. Make sure you (or someone on your team) are confident in how to use it well. Look out for:

  • Free trials and monthly billing — test drive the software before committing to an annual contract
  • A simple user interface — a motivated user shouldn’t have to guess where to find the right thing
  • Clear, concise, searchable documentation — great software comes with a great manual
  • Fast, helpful customer support — when you get stuck, you need to count on someone getting back to you with a good answer the same day

Our Top #6 CRMs for different startup use cases

Every startup will have unique needs and use cases for their CRM. Here’s our suggestions for the best CRMs for use cases we see most often from startups.

  • High-volume inbound leads and simple deals
  • Scaling outbound prospecting
  • If you’re still working out your sales motion
  • Starting to scale your sales team
  • Cutting cost per user
  • Use cases outside of sales (like fundraising, partnerships & founder-led sales)

For high-volume inbound leads and simple deals, try Pipedrive

If most of your leads come via your website forms and live chat, pick a CRM that makes it easy for reps to see and quickly follow up. For that, we love Pipedrive.

Pipedrive is really simple for sales reps to use. All the most important views (like the pipeline, activities calendar, and lead inbox) are always one-click away via the main navigation. All the profile pages for Deals, Contacts, and Organizations highlight “Focus” actions at the top.

Pipedrive's pipeline view
Pipedrive's pipeline view

The Lead Inbox makes it easy to see and work all your new leads. Pipedrive has the “LeadBooster” add-on which includes website forms, chat bots, live chat, and meeting scheduling all for one low monthly cost. If you have an inbound sales motion, this add-on could save you significant money on buying many other tools and more time on setup.

Pipedrive's Lead Inbox
Pipedrive's Lead Inbox

Basic email sequencing and automation are available on the 2nd lowest plan too, so you can confidently build follow up sequences to your inbound leads. However, you might find Pipedrives’ sequencing too limiting if you do a lot of outbound prospecting.

If you need to customize your CRM to fit your sales process, Pipedrive won’t be a great fit. But for simplicity and power in an inbound sales motion, it is a great option.

For scaling up outbound prospecting, try Close

Tooling to scale an outbound sales motion can become expensive. Typically, startups will need to buy a CRM + a sales engagement tool + prospect data (like lists of relevant people’s contact details).

Tools offering prospect data are wildly available and are becoming ever much cheaper. However, the CRM and sales engagement tools both usually price per user and aren’t becoming cheaper.

This is where Close can offer startups good value.

Close is a CRM focused on outbound prospecting. It has solid functionality for managing outreach across email, SMS, and calling alongside all the core functionality you’d expect from a CRM. See contact view with a cold call, SMS, email outreach, tasks, and status all included in the same platform.

Close CRM's account view
Close CRM's account view

All these CRM + sales engagement-style features are included with all pricing plans. The second cheaper “Professional” tier will likely suit the needs of most startup sales teams with an outbound sales motion.

The starting price of Close is more expensive than typical entry-level CRMs. But, their entry level pricing plans are more comparable to mid-tier pricing in other CRMs plus sales engagement tools. All plans offer a 14-day free trial and you can pay monthly.

For working out your sales motion, try Attio

When you’re trying to figure out how best to sell your product, the worst thing you can do is get slowed down with setting up CRMs. That’s why we love the flexibility of Attio.

Attio is one of the newest CRMs, founded in 2019. It has an incredibly clean and delightfully fast user interface that feels similar to Notion. The data structure is very flexible too. You can add custom fields but also custom objects, even with their lowest level plans. That’s functionality that most other CRMs keep to their more expensive pricing tiers. Data enrichment comes built-in, so Attio can “fill in the blanks” in your fields for you.

Attio's pipeline view
Attio's pipeline view

One of the most unique features is how Attio feels collaborative. Similar to Figma or Google Docs, you can see other users in your CRM as they view, edit, and type their notes and comments. For startups, that means these conversations can happen in-context in the CRM vs random Slack threads or commentary in a meeting. With everything in one place, it’s easier to quickly bring new hires up to speed with the detail of all of your deals.

As a newer CRM, Attio doesn’t have all the functionality yet of established players like Salesforce or Hubspot. The pricing per user also grows to Salesforce/Hubspot levels once you need custom reporting, single sign-on, and custom billing. For the time being, you might want to re-evaluate Attio as your startup grows.

But the free tier (up to 3 seats) and first paid tiers can help your startup get a long way. If you’re iterating on your early sales motion, it's hard to find a more delightful CRM than Attio.

For cutting cost per user, try Freshsales

Sometimes, this means your CRMs can be disproportionately expensive compared to the cost of hiring sales reps.

For example, if your startup team is based in a country where sales reps salaries are lower. Sales reps based in countries like Brazil, South Africa, or India might earn $18,000 per year. If you bought the enterprise tier of CRMs like Salesforce or HubSpot ($150/user/month), a seat for each sales rep would cost $1800 each year, or 10% the cost of their salary. That’s more like the cost of a coworking desk than the cost of software!

So if your CRM software costs are too high compared to your total cost of sales, take a look at Freshsales.

Freshsales dropped their prices significantly in September 2021. Previously, their pricing was higher (more like Salesforce) from $29 to $125 per user per month. Today, costs per seat go from free (for up to 3 users) to $71 per user per month.

In general, all their paid tiers generally cost less per seat than competing CRMs. Some paid tiers can be up to 50% cheaper, although functionality between products and plans can differ.

Freshsales CRM pricing comparison
Freshsales CRM pricing comparison vs. the average CRM

Freshsales offers discounts (averaging 19%) if you pay annually too, but they don’t force you to pay annually for any of their plans.

Other CRMs might be cheaper for the functionality you need. For instance, Freshsales limits features like call recording, reporting APIs, and forecasting to their most expensive Enterprise plan.

Similarly, Freshsales isn’t as easy to use as other CRMs. For example, most screens display a lot of information and clickable options. It feels time consuming to filter and search data. Some key pages like the pipeline view for deals and contact profiles took a few seconds for us to load too.

For starting to scale your sales team, try HubSpot Sales Hub

From around Series A, the size and shape of your sales team will start to grow as you add more reps. In the three questions earlier, you should expect the wider variety of users to need a wider variety of functionality.

The key objective at this stage is to add sales reps to a repeatable sales motion. A bad fit CRM (or constantly changing your CRM tool and sales process) will slow you down.

This is where HubSpot Sales Hub can be a great fit. HubSpot was built for the needs of small and mid-sized teams. It has rich functionality as a CRM, but is much easier to use than tools like Salesforce.

One of the biggest benefits of HubSpot is the integrated sales, marketing, and customer support suite. It makes it much easier to keep all your tools, data, and team together. This would save your team time from learning and ‘jump between’ lots of different tools.

HubSpot's "Starter" pricing includes other products for free
HubSpot's "Starter" pricing includes other products for free.

That said, there is a steeper learning curve to master all of the functionality. As your sales team grows, you will probably need to hire a sales or marketing operations manager to “own” your HubSpot setup.

HubSpot’s pricing is great for startups to begin with. Anyone can sign up for their free tiers for marketing and customer support as well as CRM. However, pricing rises steeply through the paid tiers. The most powerful features are limited to their Professional and Enterprise plans that have annual contracts and onboard fees.

There is a dedicated HubSpot for Startups can apply for discounts on their top tier Professional and Enterprise plans. These can be up to 75% off the first year, up to 50% off in the second, and up to 25% off in the third. The discounts depend on how much money your startup has raised, and if your startup is associated with an investor or network that HubSpot has partnered with.

HubSpot for Startups program eligibility
HubSpot for Startups program eligibility

But, to our callout earlier, be careful about introductory offers. The steepest discounts on offer are probably for companies that need enterprise-grade HubSpot features the least. If you are very early, you may be better off choosing another simpler CRM and reviewing HubSpot startup discounts later instead of committing to annual contracts.

For use cases outside of sales (like fundraising, partnerships & founder-led sales), try Folk CRM

It isn’t just sales that needs CRM-style functionality. A typical startup founder will track and manage relationships with all kinds of people and entities: investors, partners, candidates, influencers, their own sales pipeline. All that can get a little crazy!

These use cases don’t have to be done in a spreadsheet, inbox, or in your head. Multi-purpose CRMs like Folk make all of these much easier to manage.

  • Gather and organize contact and company data
  • Prospect through LinkedIn and websites
  • Pipeline to show progression of deals
  • Send and track email outreach
Folk CRM's pipeline view
Folk CRM's pipeline view

There’s nothing stopping you from using different CRMs for different teams and use cases. Look how talent teams will use Applicant Tracking System (ATS) - a kind of specialist CRM for job applicants and sourcing candidates.

Folk is a fraction of the cost of a full-featured sales CRM. It isn’t trying to compete with CRMs like Salesforce on functionality. We think startup founders will love it!

How to shortlist the best CRMs for your startup in under 24-hours

This is the pain we had.

Prior to starting Stackfix, Paddy built an AI music company where he spent 2.5 weeks looking for the right CRM. 15 sales calls, and 8 hours of testing later, he found he was still only half confident that he’d chosen the right product. It was the same experience with countless examples of other business-critical software. That led to the idea of Stackfix.

Stackfix product experts buy, try, and review all the software we recommend. That means we can make expert comparisons between CRMs based on exactly what your business needs.

Get a personalized shortlist of three CRMs that match your startups needs in under 24 hours. And it’s free.

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