The 2020 Stackies: Auxesys Inc. Editor’s Choice Awards
Welcome to the inaugural Stackies: The Best Software for Small Business. In this installment, we’ll take a look at the top contenders in some of the most popular creative software categories, and crown a winner in each.
Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for our next installments: the best technology solutions and the best operational software for small business.
On to the awards!
We live in the golden age of software. I’ve been saying it for years now, and 2020 might have been the pinnacle of this proposition (Let’s see what you got 2021!).
When my obsession with software began, I was a 12 year old with a video camera, trying to figure out how to put together videos on a budget. That passion grew into the first stage of my career. I founded a video production company and pursued freelance corporate video gigs.
With both pursuits, getting the most out of my hardware and software was always on my mind. My video camera, editing rigs, storage systems, video editing software, motion graphics software; these were my tools. As the founder of a business rooted in creative production, I also found myself wearing many hats. My toolkit expanded beyond the basics of pro video production to include tools for web development and design, vector graphics editing, project management, writing and office productivity, and much more.
I loved the tools, but really, I was in love with solving problems. However, back then there was one limiting factor. 25 years ago, kitting out a fully-featured editing rig with all the creative software I needed could easily rack up a $20k+ bill. These were the days of software as product. A license for good NLE video editing software would run me upwards of $1500, and that was just a starting point.
The SaaS revolution turned everything on its head. The software development firms discovered that they could both fight piracy and maximize profits at the same time. The SaaS and agile revolutions took off – all of this was of serious benefit to the independent contractor, the freelancer, the boutique agency or production house, and the small business. Day by day, it got easier and easier to compete with the big dogs.
In 2021, it’s common to find a twenty-something-year-old independent creative with a portfolio that rivals some of the biggest agencies in the world. I talk about the golden age of software primarily through the lens of finance: for only dollars a month, we can run a software suite that would have cost us tens of thousands of dollars two decades ago. Capex can be a tricky game for independents and boutiques to play, and the shift to Opex has been welcome!
But… It’s not about the specific software. It’s not about the money. It’s about what you can do with the tools at your disposal. It’s about how much brilliance you can bring to the world. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression: “It doesn’t matter what camera you have, it’s how you use it that counts”.
When I founded Auxesys Inc. my vision was to help small businesses focus on what they’re great at by combining creative and technology service under one roof. At Auxesys, we talk about the intersection of creativity and technology being the “sweet spot”. 2020 was the culmination of this proposition.
Creativity and creative services are great, but a small business’ success with creative production depends largely on how well they can systematically and reliably produce high quality content. This requires great technology. This means that design and marketing agencies need to do more than just be great at the typical creative endeavours – they also need to be great with technology. They need to ensure maximum uptime. They need to be able to streamline production processes. They need to make sure that their creative deliverables are technologically solid and built with a client’s IT infrastructure in mind.
On the flip side, technology and technology services are great, but a small business’ success with technology also depends on how that tech looks and feels. This requires a creative approach to technology. This means that IT and technology services firms need to do more than be great at the typical technological endeavours, they also need to be great creatively. They need to evoke joy from their users. They need to get client staff excited. They need to deliver tools and capabilities that look and feel amazing and provide fantastic user experiences.
In the small business, operations ties together the creative and the technological. On a day-to-day basis a small business needs great email software, operating systems, web conferencing, office productivity software, CRM software, financial management software, and more. If you’re a small business in 2021, you could try to get along without making a choice in each of these categories – BUT – if you choose well, and use the tool well, these solutions will always pay for themselves, and more!
2020 saw a world of software options that made more of this possible than ever before. From massive incumbents, to agile and scrappy startups, the world was gifted with a set of tools better than anything it had ever seen before.
In January 2021, Auxesys Inc. took upon itself the task of publishing an editor’s choice awards: The Stackies was born! The Stackies will be awarded every year henceforth, and will crown a best in category in some of the most critical software verticals, from the worlds of technology, creativity, and operations.
We’ve gone far and wide to run our analysis and make our decisions. Countless hours of demos and testing; endless amounts of on-the-job system administration; arduous days in the cockpit using creative tools; and a survey that goes out to our growing pool of Auxesys independent contractors – to make sure that we’re taking every angle into account.
So, without further ado, we present to you the first third of the 2020 Stackies awards. Read below for our summary and results for the best creative software for small business.
Best Creativity Suite
The Winner: Adobe Creative Cloud.
Adobe remains king of the castle here. However, disruptors Affinity and Canva are making serious moves in this category. If you’re a marketing coordinator wearing multiple hats and dealing with design responsibilities, look no further than Canva or Affinity. But, if you’re a serious creative professional, or a creative agency working on projects in a wide variety of mediums, then Adobe Creative Cloud continues to be the place to be.
- The right tools for the job: From video, to audio, to vector, to UX, each of Adobe’s tools in a given subcategory are best-in-class. Of course in any given subcategory there is room for debate, but if you need a suite to handle it all, nothing comes close.
- Great pricing structure: If you’re a small business, each new license will run you just $60 a month. That may sound like a lot, but it’s insane considering everything you get. Run the costing analysis against any other way of putting together a comparable toolkit, and Adobe comes out on top.
- Great team licensing: Easily onboard and offboard new users, and move licences around to get the most out of your dollar.
- Cloud syncing: Build libraries of colours, assets, rules, and more. Competition in the creative service space is more fierce than ever, and your ability to leverage efficiencies and systematize production is what will keep you at the forefront. Adobe’s tools for building out systematized creative work not only keeps you lean and efficient, it makes sure that your client’s deliverables are clean and cohesive.
- Updates and versioning: While this is getting better, Adobe Creative Cloud suffers from being a kind of hybrid SaaS platform. Application files reside locally, and therefore must be pushed to user systems from a central application. Updates come sporadically, keeping track of versions is difficult, and a cohesive “singular version ecosystem” is difficult to achieve.
- Lack of portability: Again, because of its hybrid nature, if you want your tools on a new device, you’ve gotta download Creative Cloud, log in, and re-provision your machine with the specific pieces of software you want on that machine. Once you get the software up and running on multiple machines, you’ll inevitably run into the “login wall”, where Adobe insists on booting you out of a session on one machine, to make sure you can initiate a session on another. Large strides have been made in combating software piracy and double dipping, but there are still plenty of kinks to iron out.
- No Linux: Linux is the operating system of choice for organizations truly operating in the “sweet spot” between technology and creativity. However, getting Adobe products to work well wil Linux device is, well, a work in progress.
The Winner: Adobe XD
This result is sure to be hotly contested! In full transparency, Sketch and Figma are each incredibly powerful design tools, and many design professionals still prefer Sketch for day-to-day UX/UI design. In full transparency, Adobe XD wins this category for three primary reasons:
- It won the popular vote with our Auxesys IC designers;
- It has seen the greatest degree and pace of improvement in recent years;
- It is well integrated with the entire Adobe Creative Cloud portfolio.
- Built in: Comes as a piece of the Adobe Creative Cloud. If we think about the lifecycle of a business’ creative elements, Adobe UX slides right in. Once logos and brand identity systems are dialed in illustrator, brand guidelines documents are published in InDesign, brand photo assets are edited in Photoshop, and brand video deliverables are chopped and screwed with After Effects and Adobe Premiere Pro, using all of the assets in a brand’s library to build a web or mobile application in XD is insanely streamlined.
- Motion and prototyping: Unlike Sketch and Figma, Adobe XD came out of the gates swinging with baked-in motion capabilities which resulted in designs being able to double as prototypes. Although Figma and Sketch are catching up, Adobe continues to increase the degree to which designers and developers can use XD to build interactive prototypes with high-fidelity motion and interactivity.
- Productivity: Systematically crank up your ability to increase production throughput with many of the cool features XD has to offer. From libraries, to repeat grid, to premade elements, to dev link (easily share assets with developers), Adobe really has baked in features that make XD the tool of choice for a small business use case.
- Real-time collaboration is still missing
- User interface is lacking when compared to competitors
- Developer hand-off could be improved greatly
Everybody loves an underdog story, but what’s even better? A free and open source underdog. For years Maya and Cinema 4D ruled the 3D and 3D animation space. These are hollywood-grade tools, and of course, they come with a hollywood-grade price tag. Blender hit the scene in 1994 and continues to capture the hearts of 3D enthusiasts and professionals everywhere.
Blender is free to download and use, which makes it an amazing choice for any small business needing 3D animation software.
- Right price: Free to use, this is exactly the right price tag for an independent creative or upstart creative agency.
- Insanely powerful: The proof is in the pudding – simply run a web search for Blender portfolios and prepare to be amazed. Whether simulating fluid, smoke, or soft bodies, or working to texturize, rig and skin, animate, sculpt, composite, or edit, Blender is incredibly full featured, and computation performance is fantastic. Expert users can even leverage Python and Blender’s API to customize their software to their liking.
- Cross Platform: Run Blender on Windows, Linux, or Mac.
- Updates and documentation: Blender developers are constantly updating, improving, and adding new features. It’s a community-driven project with a public license (GNU GPL). Blender’s own website and documentation are fantastic, and because it’s an underdog with a cult-like following, high-quality third-party documentation, tutorials, and support are available in abundance.
- Complexity: A first session in Blender is absolute information overload. Because the software is so powerful and full-featured, the learning curve is long and flat. This isn’t a unique con though, as most 3D software is also typically very difficult to learn, especially those solutions that hold up in a professional environment.
- Hardware requirements: Again, nothing new here – professional 3D software requires some seriously powerful hardware. Blender is no exception and a professional workstation CPU and high-powered GPU are recommended. Be careful using Blender on a laptop (especially 2016-2019 Macbook Pros), as this can be a quick recipe for destroying a CPU. Having a proper desktop computer with fantastic thermal management is key to getting the most out of Blender. The hotter your system gets, the slower it works, which creates a vicious cycle. Even if you’ve got fantastic workstation hardware, a couple weeks in Blender will most likely leave you dying to upgrade your cooling solutions.
The Winner: Fusion 360
Now this is a tight category! Let’s jump straight to analysis and how we arrived at a winner. The first thing to consider is that although Sketchup is popular, it is polygonal modeling software, as opposed to curve-based (NURBS) modelling software. Additionally, Sketchup is a surface modeller, as opposed to a solid modeller. Why is this important to consider? Well, because this is the Stackies: The best software for small business. Any small business relying on CAD software should be focused on finding something that meets the needs of their profession, and satisfies their budget. While Sketchup may be appropriate for hobbyists and enthusiasts, it’s not quite full-featured enough to recommend for small business use. So, that leaves Fusion 360 and Solidworks. Both have incredible customer reviews, great support, fantastic features, powerful collaboration additions, and much more. Simply evaluating the two softwares toe-to-toe, Solidworks comes out slightly on top, that is, until you include price in the analysis. A solidworks license will run almost $4,000 and a subscription is about $1,300 (all prices in USD). In comparison, a Fusion 360 subscription is about half that of Solidworks, and adding team participant licenses is only $130 a year. Of course, there are upgrades for professional environments with more demanding requirements, and these will cost a pretty penny, but Autodesk has positioned Fusion 360 well to take the crown in the small business arena.
- Cloud collaboration: Sync project and asset files in the cloud and work on designs with your team. The mobile app also works quite well for getting a quick update on the fly.
- Fully featured: As a NURBS, solid modeller built by Autodesk, one of the best in the biz, Fusion 360 is seriously powerful and ready for prime time. Whether you and your team are using it to concept, develop professional designs, rapidly prototype, or move straight to fabrication and production, Fusion 360 can handle it all.
- Intuitive: The learning curve to Fusion 360 is surprisingly steep and the software is actually fun to use. Watch your team get the hang of Fusion 360 after only a few days of use, especially if they have previous 3D/CAD experience.
- Hardware intensive: Fusion 360 is seriously hardware intensive, and in particular RAM intensive. If you intend to develop models and designs with multiple complex components, be prepared to watch the software grind to a halt if you have any less than 32GB of reasonably fast ram.
- Buggy: Fusion 360 is a new player on the block, and a unique take on CAD software, albeit from an industry incumbent publisher. Still, this means that version stability is improving, but there are still some kinks to iron out. Be prepared to have Fusion 360 crash from time to time if you are really going to be putting it through it’s paces in a professional environment. Still, the pros, and the great price, should be enough to outweigh any stability issues for most users, especially as Autodesk works to continually improve stability.
Best Video Editing
The Winner: Premiere Pro
This is another tight category, sure to be hotly debated. Be prepared for a little more from the editor on this category (If any category is my category, this is it!). So, let’s start from the bottom up. Warning: Tangent alert!!!
Apple’s Final Cut X has seen massive improvements since its release and the famous viral Conan O’brien skit. Final Cut is insanely powerful, well loved, and supported by a fantastic Apple hardware platform and software ecosystem. However, Apple lost me when they replaced Final Cut Pro 7 with Final Cut X in 2011. Whereas Final Cut Pro 7 was a true, professional-grade NLE (non-linear editing) software, Final Cut X was a complete redesign, not a professional-grade NLE, and more of a souped-up version of a consumer-grade video editing program.
At that time, I was a Final Cut user (lover) and major Apple fan. I had been using Apple products since 2000, and honestly couldn’t imagine going anywhere else. At that time, Apple was still a bit of an underdog, and it’s always fun to rave about the underdog. Then 2017 hit and it felt like Apple rocked the professional customer community to the core. I, along with many others, felt like Apple was betraying such an important customer segment, a segment that contributed to Apple’s growth, and brought them bountiful accolades of high esteem. But alas, from the perspective of Apple filmmakers, it was obvious what was happening, Apple was ready to focus on the mainstream. The iPhone and the app store had grown to be such a behemoth that Apple’s professional creatives were exiled to a dark corner, only to be forgotten about.
I hated Final Cut X. But I held tight to my Mac because PC was the boring guy (you remember the commercials). I think I edited professionally on Final Cut 7 for another 4 or 5 years before leaving, but for many professionals, the release of X marked the start of an exodus to Adobe Premiere (or to Avid and some other higher-tier professional NLE tool).
When I finally made the switch to Premiere Pro, Apple had so warped it’s approach to the professional community that I was absolutely blown away by what professional creatives could achieve on the PC platform. And I want to focus on this for a minute. For independents or small production houses that are willing to put some effort into PC building, system design, and system integration, PC is an absolute godsend, especially compared to Mac. After now having built from scratch several professional-grade workstations on the PC platform, I can confidently say that small businesses and independents can stretch their dollar at minimum three times further if they go the PC route. Hardware system design and hardware system integration aren’t required on the Mac, because all makes are pre built out of the box, with the design and integration already complete. However, in modern years, this custom building and integration on the PC platform has become more and more like building a lego kit. There are plenty of websites and tools to help you select components and verify their compatibility, and assembling them is surprisingly easy.
In recent years, the “Apple tax” has gotten out of control (This looks to be soon rectified with the introduction of Apple-made silicon and the M1 chip – look out for the ARM revolution!). But still today, an X86-(non-ARM)-based Macbook Pro starts at $2,399 USD and a Mac Pro starts at $5,999. Let me briefly illustrate the Apple tax at work: Let’s say I want to configure a Mac Pro with some upgrades to the base model:
- 12-core Intel Xeon W (Up from 8 core): Add $1,000
- 96GB of ECC ram (up from 32GB): Add $1,000
If I was building on PC here’s what the price differences would be:
(between PC base and upgrade)
($1000 minus the difference
in the column to the left)
|Apple Tax %|
All this talk about hardware matters when one of the leaders in the video production category is a publisher for a closed hardware ecosystem. If we could reliably run Final Cut on any hardware, the Apple tax wouldn’t matter. Be we can’t, and it does. Especially for small businesses, the cost savings on PC can easily amount to tens of thousands of dollars. For firms doing their own system design and integration, or working with a specialist, it is extremely easy to beat Apple by a significant margin in both the cost and performance categories, with only a minimal effort required (Sorry Apple, PCs are pretty easy these days too).
Is the rant over? No! If Apple is now a dead horse, it’s time for some positive ranting. Black Magic Design has been constantly innovating in both the hardware and software arenas. They were one of the first movers to introduce high resolution cinema cameras to the masses with the Black Magic Studio camera in 2014. They’ve constantly innovated in the high end pro hardware space with their incredible physical interfaces: keyboards, panels, consoles, etc. And they’ve dedicated themselves to the continuous improvement of their NLE, Davinci Resolve, and their suite, Davinci Studio. With the release of Davinci Resolve 17 this year, they’ve continued to push the envelope in the right direction. A direction that happens to allow for the software to run cross-platform. Yes! Even on Linux. Huge points for Black Magic and hats off for Davinci.
Now, if the Stackies were about the best software for beginners, the free version of Davinci Resolve might win this category. And strangely enough, if the Stackies were about the best software for medium and large enterprise, Davinci Studio and its seamless integration with Black Magic’s insanely awesome hardware might win this category. But this is “The Stackies: The best software for small business”.
And you guessed it. Once again Adobe hits the nail on the head. Premiere Pro has the power. It has the integration with the rest of the suite and the ability to seamlessly move assets across project types. It integrates beautifully with Adobe Audition (for pro audio editing and post magic) and Adobe Media Encoder (for batch processing and insanely powerful multi-format publishing and compression). And to top it off, it’s the right price, and easy to run with a small group of professionals in a collaborative setting.
Look out Adobe, your throne is certainly being challenged.
Best Photo Editing
The Winner: Photoshop
In the wake of the train wreck that is the last category, let’s keep this one simple. Photoshop wins here for so many of the reasons that Adobe is cleaning up in the other categories. It’s great for collaborative teams, easy to move assets across the product line, and very sweet on the wallet when you purchase the Creative Cloud suite for your business.
Let’s take a moment to look at Affinity and Pixlr though. Adobe’s getting enough of the spotlight, and these two deserve special attention.
Affinity has made incredible strides with their software offerings. Across their product line, the power and quality of their software makes them a true contender with Adobe in 2021. In fact, if you’re an independent focusing on photo editing, Affinity might just be right for you (but do take a good hard look at Adobe’s Lightroom, which has more advanced batch processing features than Affinity, and can literally save you hundreds of hours of work a year).
For the modern independent or freelancer, Affinity is worth a good hard look because of the pricing model. An Affinity license will run you $50 – it’s refreshing to see a software publisher revert to a reasonable fixed price, in a sea of SaaS-base-monthly-pepm recurring revenue strategy. If keeping as much scratch in your pocket as possible is your priority, then Affinity might just be for you.
Next up, Pixlr has continued to make serious improvements, and is extremely suitable for certain small business use cases. Pixlr is cloud based and offers a free version that is reasonably powerful (though they will continually tempt you to upgrade to paid versions, which are still reasonably priced). If you’re a marketing coordinator in a small business wearing multiple hats, and find yourself needing to edit photos from time to time, then Pixlr might be just what you’re looking for.
Best Vector Editing
The Winner: Adobe Illustrator
This may seem like it’s getting old, but if there is a category that Adobe absolutely deserves to win it is this one. For no-nonsense vector editing, and the most demanding graphic design professionals, Adobe Illustrator is the gold standard for a reason.
- Tight integration with the Creative Cloud suite
- Intuitive interface, hotkeys, and powerful tools to increase your efficiency and output
- Incredible community and a bountiful supply of tutorials, how-tos, blog posts, sample files, and more
- Still no circle-edge point-to-point snapping. Yes… there are plugins for this, but come on Adobe!
- Steep learning curve: Many users report that Illustrator is just weird, and takes years to get the hang of. We’d have to say they’re right.
Best Live Streaming
The Winner: Streamlabs
This is such an exciting young category. In the past two years, incredible things have happened in the world of live-streaming software. There are at least 20 new entrants that should probably have a mention here, but hey, we’re a small business ourselves, so we’ve got to keep it focused!
No matter – Streamlabs makes it easy for us in this category. Streamlabs is definitely the right software for any small business aiming to dive into professional-grade live-streaming. It may not be where you start, but it will quickly become where you are led to.
Streamyard is definitely a notable alternative, for those looking for simplicity, and aiming to produce something clean and accessible as a side project. But, if your business is focused on live-streaming as a core activity look no further than Streamlabs.
- Insanely fun to use. Once you get the hang of things, you can unleash your creativity with very few limits.
- High powered: Streamlabs thought of nearly everything. It actually feels like you’ve got a prime-time tv new switching interface on a personal computer.
- Deeply integrated: Connecting up Streamlabs with your streaming channels, and using rich media tools and sources works very well.
- Right price: Free and open source continue to be two of our favourite words here at Auxesys.
- Your brain will be in knots for the first few weeks. If you are going to learn and use Streamlabs in a professional setting, TEST, TEST, TEST. And even after that, you will still make some embarrassing mistakes in your early days. But don’t give up, fighting this uphill battle is worth it.
- Tricky to configure: With scheduled streams and multiple platforms, sometimes Streamlabs will behave funky. As mentioned above: TEST!
Best Visual Collaboration
The Winner: Miro
I feel like this might be the most exciting category, and my favourite winner – fitting that this is the last category for the “Best Creative Software” awards for 2020.
At Auxesys, Miro might be the single most powerful and effective recent addition to our tech stack. Out of the box, Miro allows an organizational or cross-organizational team to collaborate in real-time, with powerful templates and visual tools.
If you’re looking for planning, rough design, moodboarding, process-mapping, and many more capabilities, Miro is a flippin’ game changer.
The most value we’ve found in using Miro is to centralize work on projects for easy access by clients. Especially on creative projects, gone are the days of endlessly sharing and searching for links, attachments, shared folders, collaborative documents, etc. Miro allows us to visually lay out everything an external party needs to collaborate with us through the lifespan of a project, and make it dead simple for those parties to jump in. We simply provide access and ONE LINK to a board, and we can spoon feed project management boards, documents, graphic concepts, deliverables, and so much more.
To boot, Miro has whole-heartedly adopted agile development. They’re constantly updating and improving, and their mobile application is actually a pleasure to use, which is a very rare feat indeed. Hats off to Miro (Formerly “RealtimeBoard”), you’ve won our coveted Editor’s choice “Best of 2021” award (Take that Adobe!).
- Highly adaptable: Even though the use of powerful template is at the core of Miro, it is insanely easy to customize boards to a specific use case.
- Integration: Miro just works with nearly everything you can throw at it. Drag and drop graphics. Paste in links to Google Docs, Sheets, and project management boards and they pop up beautifully. Supercharge Miro with additional API integrations for tools like Jira, Confluence, and Asana.
- UI/UE: Onboarding a new user with Miro is so fluid. The learning curve is quick and shallow, and your new internal and external users will feel like Miro masters in no time!
- Speed: Miro is built on Angular, NGninx, and AWS. Although the speed is decent and continues to get snappier with each release, the front end is so rich that there is still lots of room for improvement here.
- “Freemium”: Although Miro’s pricing is incredibly reasonable, you will want to pay close attention to where the paywalls exist, and what each tier means for visibility. For example, if you use the free tier, and you are adding team members, they will gain visibility to all 5 of the live boards (the max at the free tier) that your organization is running.