Leaving the safety of a full-time job and going freelance can be terrifying, but it can also be hugely rewarding if you go about it the right way. Working for yourself without being tied to 9-5 life is an irresistible prospect, but it's easy to overlook the business end of the deal.
If you don't spend some time taking care of business – pitching, billing, dealing with tax, knowing how to network and so on – your freelance journey could be over before you know it.
Luckily, there are plenty of tools (opens in new tab), apps and services that can make the business side of freelancing a lot less painful, giving you more time to do the actual work and enjoy the freelance lifestyle. Read on to discover some of the best tools available...
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 isn't the best use of all of your time – so streamlining the process as much as possible is a good idea.
I've used a variety of online accounting services including (01) FreeAgent (opens in new tab) and (02) Xero (opens in new tab). Both offer a range of features that will help with everything from billing to taxes including:
- 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 save time and hassle 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
You're probably familiar with project tools such as (03) Basecamp (opens in new tab) and (04) Trello (opens in new tab) but there are a few other tools that you might consider for your freelancing toolbox, and some have more features than you might currently be using.
(05) Dropbox (opens in new tab) 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. See more in our guide to the best productivity tools.
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.
Alongside Dropbox, don't overlook the benefits of (06) Google Drive (opens in new tab) – it offers many of the same features you'll find in Dropbox, and ties straight into Google's office apps, making collaboration a cinch. Find out your cloud storage options here.
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.
(07) Skype (opens in new tab) 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 (08) Call Recorder (opens in new tab) and (09) Audio Hijack (opens in new tab).
I also often recommend (10) HelpScout (opens in new tab) for client communications. While 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 (11) integrations (opens in new tab) with popular apps. If you only need the basics, the free plan includes three users and one mailbox.
One final recommendation for communication is (12) Calendly (opens in new tab). Booking in 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
(13) InVision (opens in new tab) has really come to the fore in the last couple of years and having used it myself, I would definitely recommend 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 CC, Sketch (opens in new tab), 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 (14) CloudApp (opens in new tab). 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 (15) Photoshop CC (opens in new tab) and (16) Sketch (opens in new tab).
A good code editor is another essential asset. I've recently switched to the open-source (17) Atom (opens in new tab) editor from (18) Sublime Text (opens in new tab). 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 (19) aText (opens in new tab). 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 (20) Grammarly (opens in new tab) could well become your new best friend. The Chrome 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.
Overall, 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 (opens in new tab), a book I helped produce with my colleagues at Shopify (opens in new tab).