Tools to Use to Manage Your Freelance Business
Today, freelancers have more tools, programs, and fancy widgets (both real and digital) to choose from when running their businesses. Most people get overwhelmed with all the types of tools available with communication tools, project management platforms, CRMs, and more.
Which one is right for you? Which ones will help you? Should you use premium tools or start with the free ones? Hint, there are a lot of free tools that could be very useful to you.
In today’s article, I want to help you navigate this world of tools. But instead of giving you a “best of” list, I want to do something else. It’s not enough to get a list of tools. Sometimes, you need help deciding which one is right for you.
So, I’ve broken the tools down into categories and included a short section about how to choose, understand, and think about selecting the right tools for you.
I can’t (and won’t) tell you which ones are right for you. Only you can make this decision. I want to lead you through a proven decision-making process to help you make that decision yourself.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. There are new ones almost every day. However, this list covers what most freelancers will use to manage their businesses.
You can use various tools with your clients, including text-based communication, email, video/web chats, and more. It’s now easier than ever to connect with clients, whether you are down the street or across the world.
It’s tempting to adopt all of them but don’t. Very quickly, things can get overwhelming, confusing, and counterproductive because there IS such a thing as too much communication. They are hiring you to accomplish a task, not spend all day talking to them.
So, how do you choose tools to use?
- Limit the channels of primary communication. If you can keep everything in one place (that isn’t email), do that. We’ve grown too dependent on emails, and it’s easy to miss an important email or get distracted from work because our inbox is too full.
- Define which channels are used for what types of communication. Generally, a chat tool like Slack is used for quick notes, email is for formal feedback or significant updates, and video chats are for routine meetings.
- Decide how “available” you will be on each channel. Will you respond during specific business hours or the next business day? Do you have a standing video call weekly, or will you only schedule these things as needed (with a 48-hour notice)? If your client expects immediate responses and you miss them or are busy working, they can get very frustrated.
- Limit your email activity. Especially with corporate clients, it’s easy to become a slave to your email. Choose specific times when you’ll check/respond to email. Limiting it to the beginning of the day and immediately after lunch is a common way to restrict email’s intrusion into your workflow.
Here are some great communication tools
Microsoft Office 365
Love it or hate it, writing is essential. It’s vital for client communication, keeping track of projects, preparing presentations, and more. Some people love writing. Others can’t stand it. This is true as much with developers as it is with everyone else.
There are many ways to track, organize, and store writing for your business. They range from relatively all-in-one solutions (like Microsoft 365 or Google G-suite) to individual programs like Evernote or Google Keep. There are also programs like Grammarly (and others) that help spell and grammar check your writing, so it’s more professional.
How do you decide which programs to use?
- When in doubt, use an all-in-one solution. The internal ecosystem of G-suite and Microsoft Office products means that you can seamlessly work in different programs and transfer things without issue. Working seamlessly is usually worth any extra expense you need to make that happen.
- Choose programs based on your specific needs. Do you need a place to keep and store quick notes? Don’t use Microsoft word or Google Docs. It isn’t designed for that. Choose a program designed for quick notes (or whatever task you need it to accomplish.)
- Get a program that makes you feel comfortable with written communication. Invest in Grammarly or a similar program if you don’t feel confident in your writing. The comfort programs like this offer and the embarrassing mistakes they catch is worth the cost.
- Prioritize programs that are enjoyable to use. If you have the interface of G-suite, don’t use it. You need to feel good while you use the programs.
- Get organized. The almost limitless capacity of cloud-based storage creates massive organizational problems for many. The more you use a program, the more organized it needs to be. So, find a system that is easy to use and stick with it, so you don’t lose important files right before a client meeting.
OneNote / MS Word
An endless stream of project and task-management programs is competing for your attention. Choosing between them can be overwhelming. So, which is right for you? The good news is there is no perfect program. Every single one has benefits and drawbacks. Some offer robust features at a free tier, while others hide those features behind a paywall. Some are built to work with specific methodologies like Agile, Kanban, or more. Others are more customizable.
- Prioritize enjoyment. It doesn’t matter how good the program is. If you don’t enjoy using it, you won’t—picking something pleasing to you. This is entirely subjective and will require you to test and look at different programs. But don’t pick one that drives you crazy because someone recommends it. It is probably great for others, but it might not be right for you.
- Decide what features matter most to you. What features matter most to you? Different programs offer different project views, external collaborators, integrations, and more. Pick a program that gives you access to the things you will use.
- If you follow a PM methodology, make sure it supports that natively. If you come from (and want to continue working with), Agile, Six Sigma, GTD, or another productivity/project management system, pick a tool that supports it.
Accounting / Payments
Few programmers love accounting. It’s easy to ignore when you start, especially if you love a spreadsheet program like Excel or Google Sheets. You can use these programs (and some do), effectively. But, as your freelancing grows, the complexity of your accounting will grow quickly. A specifically designed accounting program will help you track and understand your expenses. If the accounting isn’t right, you could be in for a difficult surprise at tax time or the end of the month when your expenses and income don’t match up.
These programs offer excellent customer service and tools to simplify your life, like invoicing, accepting payments, and tracking expenses and income.
Email marketing and Customer Relationship Managers are a topic in themselves. Some freelancers prioritize these programs, utilizing them to connect with potential clients. Others ignore these altogether.
The difference between an email marketing program (like Mailchimp or Convertkit) and a CRM is relatively simple. Email marketing programs are designed to facilitate inbound email marketing, allowing people to sign up for newsletters, emails, e-courses, and more, and allowing you to reach out to them easily. CRMs are typically for a more personal touch, designed to help you track and optimize the individual customer journey.
There are a million different options for both. You need to decide how you’ll use email to grow your business. Want to become a thought leader, building a list of potential customers? Email marketing is your approach. Want to connect with clients individually, tracking in detail how they respond to you? Choose a CRM.
There are a few “comprehensive” solutions designed from the ground up to be a single place to manage your entire business. The most comprehensive of these is the Zoho One, which provides a suite of integrated tools (apps), that coves something for this entire list. Zoho One has apps for writing, project management, web design, analytics, billing, and more. Likewise, Gsuite and Microsoft 365 offer similar solutions to a smaller part of your business.
The benefit is simplicity. These tools are built to integrate natively, so you know they’ll work together. You also get several tools for one price. The downside is that you are locked into a particular ecosystem for our work. Honestly, this is only a downside if that ecosystem isn’t enjoyable and easy to use. If you are just getting started and can’t seem to make a decision, picking one of these is a rational and easy choice. You can choose the functions you use and discover what is valuable to you and what isn’t.
Microsoft Office 365
What Tools Do You Need?
This is a highly individualized and personal decision. Every freelancing setup is different, everyone has a different budget, and you will be comfortable with different tools. Many tools like Gmail, Slack, Asana, and Mailchimp offer free tiers of service that let you get started and test their platform and see how they work. If the free version doesn’t work, you can either move to the paid tier or try out a competitor.
How many tools do you need? There’s no one correct answer. Instead, consider the following to help you decide how many and which tools you need.
Every tool you use should accomplish at least one of the following things for you:
- Simplify how you work
- Help you work faster
- Make you feel better about working
- Help you get better results
- Enable you to connect with your clients better.
You probably don’t need it if it doesn’t do at least one of these things. And, notice the theme: simple, fast, enjoyment, results, and connections. If you can find a tool that helps you do more than one of these, great.
Add tools slowly and purposefully. Don’t add too many things at once. It will make working harder, not easier. Also, ensure you know why you are adding each tool and its purpose within your business. Never add something because it’s “the best” or the “right tool.” Only add it if it accomplishes something specific for you or your clients.
Prioritize aesthetics and experience. It doesn’t matter how “good” a tool is. If you don’t enjoy using it, you’ll never get the most out of it. As a freelancer, you have control of what tools you use and those that make you want to work (and this goes with digital and physical gear like notebooks and pens too). If you don’t enjoy using a tool, ditch it and find another.
Never use more tools than necessary. Be ruthless and honest about the tools you use. If they don’t serve you, get rid of them. Find something better, or don’t even bother replacing it, especially if it costs money. Don’t waste your hard-earned money on tools that don’t serve you.
There are more tools than ever designed to help you run your freelancing business: simple free tools and expensive ones with complex automations. The problem most freelancers face isn’t that they can’t find tools to help them. It’s that they don’t get the most out of their tools. So, whether you are considering email, project management, accounting software, or a video conferencing tool, pick the one you enjoy using. It’s your business. YOU get to choose how to run it!
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