How many of you resolved to go freelance in 2016? For many of us it's the dream: working from home for yourself, whenever you want, for great clients and getting paid. I freelanced for a number of years and while some of those benefits are true, it's fair to say that it's far from a stroll in the park.
Finding work, doing the work, dealing with feedback, billing for the work, finding new work – it's a constant cycle. I learned a lot during my years freelancing and, of course, made my fair share of mistakes.
Thankfully, there are plenty of tools, apps, and services that take the pain out of the business side of freelancing, leaving you more time to focus on doing the work – the element you enjoy most.
01. Financial tools
One thing I learnt quickly is that it's essential to keep a keen eye on the financial side of your freelance business. Taking advantage of an online accounting service is money well spent. Creating invoices, tracking payments, and sending out reminders is not the best use of your time.
- Invoicing creation and reminders
- Quotes and estimates
- Customer management
- Expenses management
- Bank feeds and reconciliation
- Payroll management
- VAT management
Having your transactions directly imported from your bank is a huge time saver. This not only gives you a great overview of your cashflow, but will be a big time saver at tax time. If you're new to freelancing it's definitely worth checking that your preferred bank has feeds enabled.
I also strongly recommend having a dedicated savings account that you can deposit money into after each project for items such as tax, insurances and professional fees. Most banks offer this when you set up your accounts.
Finally don't skimp on a good accountant. They will ultimately save you more than their annual fee and are a great source of information on what can, and cannot, be claimed for.
02. Project management tools
I am sure many of you are familiar with project tools such as Basecamp but there are a few other tools that you might consider for your freelancing toolbox.
Dropbox is not only a great backup tool but a great way of sharing and collaborating on documents such as proposals, contracts, work in progress graphic files and more. Another useful feature is that all Markdown files are automatically converted into very presentable, and readable, files when viewed online.
Sharing files with clients is also simple and effective. You're able to share a document via a public link or can hide the document behind a password. You may also set an expiration date for the link, which is often very useful.
Additionally, the file requests feature allows you to invite anyone to upload files to your Dropbox, even if they don't have an account. Coupled with the in-built version control, it's a effective way of keeping project files together. The mobile app has also come to my rescue on more than one occasion.
03. Communications tools
Client communication is key to a project's success. I am sure we've all sighed heavily when "yet another email"” has landed in our inbox. I often found talking with clients face-to-face solved problems quicker and more effectively.
Skype is a great tool for client meetings – especially one on one video chats. For a few pounds a month you can also purchase a Skype In Number5 which you can add to your website. Calls to your number will be routed to Skype, or you can send directly to a voicemail greeting and pick up your messages at a later date.
Another trick I occasionally used was to record client Skype meetings. I'd mention this at the beginning of every call and only do so if everyone was comfortable. It's often easy to miss key items when in the heat of conversation and being able to go over the conversation later ensured I had everything covered. A couple of great options to help with recording your calls are Skype Call Recorder and Audio Hijack.
I also often recommend HelpScout for client communications. Whilst often seen as a support tool, it can easily be used to manage client projects. The great feature is that you don't have to deal with all incoming email in your inbox, as it's rerouted to HelpScout. It also has a number of great integrations with popular apps. If you only need the basics, the free plan includes three users and one mailbox.
One final recommendation is Calendly. Booking meetings can often be more painful that it should be. Calendly allows people to book a time slot with you and have it automatically added to both your calendars (it works with both Google and Office 365). It caters for conflicts and only shows slots that you specify.
04. Design and code tools
InVision11 bills itself as "The world's leading prototyping, collaboration & workflow platform" and it's certainly popular amongst designers. It's really come to the fore in the last couple of years and having used it myself, I would definitely recommend you adding it to your freelance toolbox. InVision can do a lot, here's a flavour:
- Advanced animations and transitions
- Cross platform support
- Contextual feedback
- Threaded conversations
- Automated project management
- Custom mood boards
- In-browser design meetings
- Guided product tours
- Unlimited version history
- Integrations with services like Photoshop, Sketch, Dropbox, and Slack
- Instant code generation
- Downloadable components
You can sign up for free and have one active prototype. Paid plans start at $15 per month.
Another tool I have used almost daily for many years is CloudApp. It's a really quick and simple way of sharing screen shots, documents, files and taking short screencasts. Each drop, once uploaded, autogenerates a unique URL, which is copied straight to your clipboard for sharing. Like InVision, it also integrates into Photoshop and Sketch.
A good code editor is another essential asset. I've recently switched to the open-source Atom editor from Sublime Text. It has some really nice features and a great plugin eco-system, and is well worth a look.
05. Content tools
As much as you might love designing and coding, words are going to form a huge part of your freelance business. Many of us find writing hard and time-consuming. Luckily, there are a few tools that can help.
First up is a personal favourite called aText. This is a very neat Mac menu bar utility that allows you to avoid typing the same thing repeatedly. From inserting email signatures, to code snippets, and auto corrections to words you constantly type wrong, it's well worth the $4.99 cost. You can also use it to create boilerplate estimates, contracts and more.
For those of us who struggle with grammar rules, a Chrome extension called Grammarly could well become your new best friend. The extension corrects over 250 types of grammatical mistakes, while also catching contextual spelling errors and poor vocabulary usage. As it's a browser extension, it can be used wherever there's a text input.
Finally, when it comes to writing emails to clients it's often helpful having something to work from. Kurt's Elster's Email Templates For Freelancers is available for only $47 and includes proven templates for:
- Qualifying new leads
- Declining a bad fit
- Scheduling a call
- The magic email
- Surveying your clients
- Asking for a testimonial
- Asking for a referral
- Weekend work
- Handling NDAs
Kurt also goes into detail on how he configures GMail to triage his inbox and includes a list of the best email one-liners he uses to keep projects on track and on budget.
I hope you have found these suggestions and personal recommendations useful. Freelancing can be very rewarding and lead to interesting projects and great opportunities. With the help of a few tools you can free up time to concentrate on the reason you became a freelance – to work on challenging projects.
If you are interested in moving into the freelance world, you can download a free PDF copy of Grow: Volume 1, a book I helped produce with my colleagues at Shopify last year. Volume 2 will be released later this year.
I look forward to reading your recommendations in the comments.
Words: Keir Whitaker
Keir Whitaker has been been making a living with web technologies since 2000. Today he works at Shopify helping grow the Partner Program and building a community around designers working with the platform.
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