I have the most fun freelancing when I’m actually working on a job. Sometimes I wish the business side of it would just go away. But being a freelancer means that you’re running your own small business and need the right tools, just like you need tools for the work you do. Here are 27 things that you probably need for your business or that you should at least look into. A lot of these tools are free or have free options; others are almost certainly business write-offs.
No matter what kind of freelance work you do, you need to keep backups of all your business files—records, contracts, actual work, reference files, etc.
External hard drives
First, I like having a hard-copy backup of my files. Cloud computing and online storage have come a long way, but I still use an external hard drive to backup my computer. Some hard drives come with programs that allow you to synch—mine does but I prefer transferring folders manually.
Automatic online backup systems
The advantage of automatic online backup systems is that, well, they’re automatic and they backup your stuff somewhere other than your home, where whatever takes out your main computer could also get your backup. Right now, I’m using Mozy’s free 2GB backup to backup current client work & records. The downside of using their free program is that I have to change what’s getting backed up each month. If you’re a freelancer, you probably only need the home package, unless you have entire servers that need backing up.
I’ve also heard good things about Carbonite’s online backup system. So far nothing I’ve heard from other users I know indicates that one is better than the other. Prices are comparable, but Carbonite has you pay by the year & Mozy charges by the month.
Whether you’re sharing documents with clients or just working on multiple computers, there are some great free tools out there. When it comes to sharing files across multiple computers, I can’t get enough of Evernote & Dropbox! Both are free basic systems with paid options to raise your limits. I’ve found that the free version is just right for me.
Evernote has online access and a program you download to your computer in which you can create, organize, and search. If you have several computers, Evernote will synch the files. The paid service offers more upload/download bandwidth & types of files, but I’ve found the regular just fine. I store code snippets, clip web pages and how-to articles, lists of what’s involved in the different services I offer, and even to-do lists.
You can access files in Dropbox online and it serves as its own online backup, but I mostly use it to synch files between multiple computers. You can also have shared folder with other Dropbox users. Micah & I have a shared Dropbox folder for everyday stuff and I have Dropbox installed in my user on our tower PC.
Large files take a while to synch, but if you’re just dropping in a few documents or text files, they get there immediately. While a good home network (ours spazzes at lot) is better than Dropbox, it’s a great tool if your network is spazzy or you’re working with someone in a different location or if you’re trying to share files across different operating systems which don’t work together (i.e. Mac/Windows). Dropbox allows you to store/share up to 2GB free. It has several paid plans for more storage.
For ordinary documents, spreadsheets, PDFs, & presentations, Google Docs is a great way to access them anywhere and to share them with clients. You can make a file public or just invite a specific client/collaborator to read or edit it.
I only became aware of aDrive recently. Unlike Dropbox & Mozy, who have 2GB limits on their free programs, it has 50GB of free space. It doesn’t do automatic backups like Mozy and the desktop application is limited to paying users, but as a place to put backups, it looks great.
If you’re not using Delicious for your online bookmarking, you should be. It’s great for marking pages you can reference anywhere. There are Firefox plugins to let you share/synch your delicious bookmarks in browsers on multiple computers (and even different OSes) and you can also import all your Delicious bookmarks into Evernote for even more storage.
Invoicing, Records and Receipts
If you want to go bare-bones & free, the only program you need for invoicing, records, and receipts is Open Office, a free alternative to Microsoft Office. Here are some free spreadsheets I created to help: Freelance Income Spreadsheet, Potential Deductions Spreadsheet.
But if you’re willing to pay a little (and write it off), you can get some excellent programs to manage your client lists, invoicing, receipts, and bookkeeping (one of the bookkeeping ones is free).
Freshbooks is a one-stop-shop for client management, invoicing, and even bookkeeping if you’re billing under $300k. It offers timesheets, including an iPhone app, which help you calculate and send your invoices. All accounts include your logo on the invoice and all except the free one support e-mails without the Freshbooks branding. If you want to have them mail the invoice via first class business snail mail (USPS), you can—though there is an extra fee for postage. The site offers import/export so that you can back things up for yourself.
I think the interface is really easy to use. The “Time Tracking” section allows you to add projects, tasks, and generate invoices right from there. Tasks are independent of projects and can have different hourly billing rates. So if I chose to bill my consulting work at $35/hour and client phone calls at $50/hour, then I can set up each of those as tasks, log the amount of time I spent doing each on a project, and voila—invoice! You can have as many tasks as you like. In an invoice, you can also group the amount of time you spent doing each task or have individual lines for each time you did a task, including the date and time. When scheduling a time block, you can also put in a note on what you were doing specifically, such as “working on revisions discussed in Mar 14th e-mail.”
You pay for a Freshbooks account on a monthly basis—based on how many clients you’re handling (and how many staff accounts you create). You can delete a client if you’re not working for them for a while & then restore again if you start up again. They have a free plan which allows you to try it out and manage 3 clients/month, sending unlimited invoices. And if you do sign up for a paid plan, you get 30 days to change your mind on it.
OutRight.com is a completely free online bookkeeping service. It helps you track income and expenses for your small business, calculates estimated taxes (though they can’t guarantee accuracy for obvious reasons), and helps you file your Schedule C. It’s designed for sole proprietors and single-person LLCs who file Schedule C, perfect for a freelancer.
OutRight.com also has some special import features that help eBayers export their eBay records straight to their OutRight account. And if you’re using Freshbooks, you can export the data to OutRight in order to use their other services.
Quickbooks Online (a more freelancer-friendly version than the heavy software) has most of the same features of the two programs dicussed above, but it also has an add-on option to include payroll for contracting employees. This is a bit more advanced than a Freshbooks option to let other Freshbooks users (presumably your contracters) invoice you.
Quickbooks Online Edition Basic is less expensive than the smallest paid Freshbooks account, but it does not allow you to have employees or other contractors enter time tracking. Quickbooks Online Edition Plus, allows you to track expenses, manage several employees, categorize your income and expenses.
If you use TurboTax Home & Business for your taxes, it has a place to import Quickbooks data to help with your Schedule C.
I first ran into Shoeboxed over two years ago as a way to track my online receipts. It’s a nice free service for regular people, but they also have a service which could be quite useful for freelancers with a lot of receipts (both physical and electronic) to get organized.
Mail them your physical receipts (in pre-paid envelopes) to get them scanned. Send them PDFs or other electronic receipts to have them added to your account. Take & send a picture with certain smart phones & have the receipt added to your account. They do automatic categorization, but allow you to create your own categories and organize things in a way that makes sense to you.
Shoeboxed is compatible with Freshbooks, OutRight.com, Evernote, Quicken, and Quickbooks. As a plus, they’ll also scan & organize business cards if you want to have them keep track of your contacts.
There is a DIY plan which lets you use their organization system for free, but you have to scan and upload your own stuff. The other plans offer 30-day trials and their monthly billing currently gives you 2 free months/year if you buy a year up front.
Web Promotion & Analysis
Unless you get all your clients by word-of-mouth or seeking out job postings, you probably need a website for your small business. Sites can showcase your portfolio, outline your services and pricing, include testimonials and contact, and extend your client base to anyone who’s searching for someone like you.
Buying a Domain
Even if you use a free website service like Blogger or WordPress.com (though WordPress.com doesn’t like hosting commercial sites), having your own domain is a must for appearing professional. You can get domains fairly inexpensively through services like GoDaddy (though I don’t recommend GoDaddy for hosting).
Google Apps for Your Domain
With your own domain name, you can sign up for Google Apps Standard Edition (free) to send & receive your own e-mail through the easy-to-use Google interface. You can also use Google Docs & Calendar for your site.
Easy Site Hosting With Typepad
I’ll make no bones about it, I dislike Typepad/Movable Type. A lot. Its system is inferior to WordPress (though it’s started copying some of WordPress’s look and feel) and it doesn’t always import cleanly if you want to move to a WordPress system. Plus its development community just isn’t as big, so it doesn’t have as many awesome add-ons.
However for some people who want nothing to do with the business of hosting a website and don’t want to pay someone to do it for them, then Typepad is a workable solution and a step up from free blogging platforms. It’s not great hosting, but it’s easy.
Creating a Site on WordPress
WordPress software from WordPress.org is entirely distinct from WordPress.com. Rather than hosting at WordPress.org, you download software and extensions from it and create an entirely distinct site on your own hosting. This is a step up from free services and allows you a great deal more flexibility in look and feel as well as add-ons.
I could talk about WordPress sites all day, since I build WordPress sites, so I’m going to keep this brief. The advantage of WordPress over create a site in HTML is that once you get the look and feel the way you like it (by uploading a free or premium theme or by hiring a consultant to adapt it for you), you can add as much content as you like and modify things like the sidebar without knowing a think about HTML or CSS.
In order to host WordPress, you need to buy your own hosting. For smaller sites, shared accounts with companies like Bluehost, HostGator, HostMonster, and LunarPages provide everything you need to handle your traffic.
If you put up a business website, don’t just throw it up and leave it—use tracking software to find out who’s visiting, what they searched for, and what they did while on the site. I recommend using Google Analytics—one of the most nuanced free visitor tracking tools out there. It shows who’s driving your traffic, what your top keywords are, and you can integrate it with an AdSense account (even if they’re under separate users) to find out what keywords are driving clicks, if you’re using AdSense on your site.
Crazy Egg takes a more visual approach to visitor tracking. It allows you to track clicks on a number of pages on your domain (the number is determined by the plan you buy, as is the number of visits it will track) and see where users are clicking on the page. Is everyone clicking on the top part? No one clicking on the sidebar? Crazy Egg uses “confetti” map of clicks as well as heat maps of regions to show you what’s getting the most clicks and what isn’t.
It’s useful primarily when you’re trying to drive particular campaigns and user actions on your site—like getting people to subscribe to something or to click through from your homepage to a service you’re promoting.
Contact & Scheduling
If you’re like me, you’re not wild about talking with people on the phone. I prefer to have records of conversations or to write things out—especially when we’re talking about code or something else that the client may need to reference later, like a link.
One of my favorite methods of chatting, when e-mail won’t do, is the gChat function built right into Gmail. It’s searchable, it can pop out or be used right there in the Gmail screen, and, in an age when many people have Gmail accounts, it’s something almost everyone has.
When I have to talk on the phone, or want to chat with someone who doesn’t use Gmail, my favorite application is Skype. Skype-to-skype calls are free, you can alternate calling and chatting (and again, it’s saved). There’s also a video chat feature which I almost never use with clients, but it could be a way for some freelancers to make a connection.
Skype has a page for small business owners and options to upgrade so that you can call landlines/cell phones or have your own phone number and receive calls from clients. If you want to call from your computer but most of your clients don’t have Skype, it’s a decent alternative to a business landline.
For scheduling, my favorite tool is Google Calendar. I’ve given all my e-mail accounts privileges to access the account with the calendar (and each other’s accounts, while I was at it) and even create events. That way I can block out dates on the same calendar whether I’m logged into one of my business-related accounts or my personal ones. If you use two different accounts’ calendars (but allow them access to each other), you can distinguish between business and personal events by color.
I have a widget in each of my Gmail inboxes’ sidebars which tells me what’s coming up in the next few days on the shared calendar.
Remember the Milk
I used to use GoPingMe for reminders and to-dos, but since it’s ending soon I’ve started using Remember the Milk again. RTM is a nice, free program which allows you to add tasks, get e-mail reminders, and even synch up with Google Calendar. It can also be installed in your Gmail to sit beside your inbox.
Why do I use RTM when I’m already using Google Calendar? I like keeping to-do lists separate from my calendar, I see the calendar as a place for events. Gmail has a tasks add-on, but I like that I can access the same list on RTM no matter which Gmail account I’m logged into.
Besides backing up your data, it’s important to keep your computer itself secure. Backups are good for cleaning up after viruses or trojans which destroy your data, but you want to keep your computer free of spyware and other malicious programs which can steal your and your clients’ data!
Fortunately, there are a lot of good and free anti-virus, anti-spyware, & anti-malware programs out there today. Right now, I’m using a combination of AVG free (which also has an upgrade to a paid program), the free version of MalwareBytes, and the classic Spybot Search & Destroy (though I turn off its annoying monitoring service). I keep AVG running at all times and use the other two for periodic scans. Works like a charm.
There’s also Norton by Symantec, the granddaddy of all anti-virus software. While in college, I had a free copy which my college required and while it worked very well I found it a bit slow. But it was top-of-the-line protection.
Of course, these aren’t all the tools you might possibly need for your small business. But this list is a start. What else are you using?