If you are an independent contractor, freelancer or agency owner, you’re probably well aware of the proliferation of business tools to take care of everything from accounting and invoicing to analytics, proposals, and webinars.
With new tools released often and articles telling you about the “50 essential tools for…”, figuring out the best way to operate your business efficiently can make your head spin.
Many contractors fall under the spell of “shiny object syndrome,” where they’re always looking for the newest tool available. At the rate shiny new tools are released, they soon find themselves with tool fatigue—too many tools and not enough time to figure out what to use and how.
Adding to this fatigue is the feeling that you’re paying for too many things each month; you may want to remain lean, but what is the true value of having those tools for your business? You don’t want to end up ruling out programs which are actually valuable.
For better efficiency in your business, put aside the “50 tools” article and focus on the basic functions your business requires first.
The 5 Functions Every Freelancer Needs
Outside of the tools that are specifically used in producing your craft, there are 5 business functions that every freelancer needs to have:
- Document storage/sharing
- Project management/task management
- Website or public portfolio
Beside functions that keep your business going, other tools such as productivity enhancers are essential for some. The five areas above are your “shoestring” functions, the ones that you must have right to stay in business, whether you are just starting out or have several years of experience.
If you are feeling bogged down or like too much time is spent on non-billable tasks, having a few quality tools which streamline these basic functions is a good place to start.
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What to Look for in a Business Tool
It’s easy to become a tool junkie with collections of apps and services, but if you want efficiency, you need to create your own system with the services that are essential for your business. If you have the right system in place, it’s easier to ignore new “shiny objects” and get on with your work.
Define Your Needs
With so many tools available, you want the one you choose to do those top three things you need really well, not have a ton of features you don’t need.
- Do you need your tool to integrate with other software?
- Do you need to customize the appearance of what the tool produces?
- Do you need to be able to invite other users to your account?
To simplify your business and avoid tool fatigue, we recommend looking for a system that will integrate your chosen tools as far as possible.
Based on the needs you’ve defined, compare the available tools. Sometimes the sheer number available for what you need will be overwhelming; you could spend time searching through reviews and comparison articles (and there are many), or you could go straight to a comparison site such as TopAlternatives or AlternativeTo which categorizes tools for easier searching. Both of these sites work differently, so here’s a quick run-down for using them efficiently;
TopAlternatives was created to only showcase the best of the best. While there are still hundreds of tools and apps to be found on this site, you will not find every single tool for a category. To make it onto their site, TopAlternatives requires that the program has a proven track-record and should be able to be relied on in the future. You won’t find new start-ups or any software that is still in beta on here.
As an example to illustrate the difference between TopAlternatives and AlternativeTo, right now typing in “project management” in the search box gives you 30 results in TopAlternatives, but 643 results in AlternativeTo.
This is not the most efficient way to use TopAlternatives, however. Their “browse tools by tag” feature is much simpler because 1) you can see the exact categories they’ve used to classify tools which narrows down your keywords and 2) under each tag they list tools under specific features, which is handy if you’ve already listed the features you’re looking for.
You can also check out their 14 broad categories to the left on their homepage. These further drill down related functions (for example, “team project management” falls under “team collaboration“). On those pages, they only list the top few tools for the function—a great way to narrow your list. You can sort those by “recommended”, “price”, or their popularity according to Moz domain authority.
If you would like a broader view, they have created a “collections” page where they group tools into popular collections (emphasis tends to be on small businesses and startups, but there is something there for everyone). As an example, there is a collection of the “Top 27 CRM Software Solutions For Small Businesses And Startups”. Collections are made more efficient to search by being broken down into further categories, e.g. “CRM (Closing Deals)” and “CRM (Gmail and Outlook)”.
Lastly, if you already know the name of a tool you want to compare, you can type that into the search box at the top right to bring up alternatives. As an example, typing in “Basecamp” brings up one comparable project management software—Asana.
AlternativeTo has a different premise to TopAlternatives in that the content is open to the community. Anyone can add a tool, program, or app, so you could find new startups which you won’t find on TopAlternatives. This means you will be presented with more choices, but if you’re the early adopter type, you just might find the next great tool that is too new to have come across the radar of TopAlternatives.
Another key difference is that you can choose to start your search based on your operating system; you don’t want to get excited about a tool then find you can’t use it! The steps to starting your search are outlined in the screenshot below:
As AlternativeTo is open to the public, you can read comments and reviews, as well as post any questions you may have in the comments. While it gives you more options to sort through, it will also give you a wider range of opinions on each tool, rather than the aggregate popularity which puts a tool on TopAlternatives.
A Simple Freelance Business Model
Everyone has their own opinion on which tools are best based on their own needs and experience. In the name of simplicity, we wanted to create a model business setup for a typical freelancer to take care of those main business functions as efficiently as possible.
Here is what we came up with;
Unless all of your business finds you through word of mouth, then you need some kind of “shop front” online. Some people would rather not have to worry about maintaining a website for themselves, but having one does give you that added touch of professionalism (and helps to communicate that you are a business, not a hobby!).
The Freelancer’s Union points out that your website is not only an extended portfolio or resume, but a lead conversion tool for your business.
You could try one of the free website builders such as Wix or Squarespace, but we recommend building on your own real estate if you can swing it, for the simple reason that it gives you control over what happens with it and how it works.
“Your own real estate” means buy your own domain, then choose a host and a platform on which to build the site. The WordPress platform works well for most freelancers—we like it because with a vast range of plugins available, you can integrate most other tools. It’s also a low-cost option for shoestringers, which can be developed further as you have the funds.
Once you have a platform for your website, the real key is that second point made by the Freelancer’s Union up above; how is your website calling visitors to action and actually converting leads? Here are some of the most popular methods to include on your site:
- Have a “contact” page and make it easy to use. A contact form which automatically sends you an email tends to be the most efficient. If you only put down your email address, you’re giving visitors an extra step because they have to copy and paste it. Many simply won’t.
- Develop a lead magnet which showcases you as an expert and will appeal to your target audience. Give it away in return for an email address from them.
- Create your own newsletter. This puts you in front of people regularly so that (hopefully) they think of you when they need work done. (The key is to send it out consistently if you want to be remembered!).
- Give website visitors multiple options to sign up for your newsletter or lead magnet. You’ll need to test what works best, but placing sign-up forms in multiple positions and using pop-up lightboxes such as this free tool from Sumome are popular choices.
Every freelancer needs a good system for communicating with clients, and occasionally with teams if you work that way.
Email is still a given—everyone will expect you to communicate this way. However email on its own is not the most efficient form of communication. Emails get lost in a crowded inbox, action steps become hidden in long-winded emails, or you are so busy that you forget to follow up or don’t realize someone hasn’t responded to you.
Here’s a simpler way of managing communication:
- Set up keyboard shortcuts, labeling (including labeling emails before you send them for easy follow-up), and inbox settings for the priority in which your emails are listed.
- Use these extensions to make Gmail more efficient: Boomerang (remind yourself to follow up, have emails pinged back to you at a later time of your choosing, and schedule emails to send later), Mail2Cloud (reminds you when you haven’t replied), Sidekick (know who has opened your emails and have their profile data immediately available), and Remember The Milk (automatically add tasks for starred emails and labels).
- Get Inbox to organize emails into bundles and set reminders at the top of your emails.
Easy file-sharing and ability to leave comments and review changes with your clients. If you’ve ever received an email asking you to “review the third sentence of the seventh paragraph on page 60”, you’ll appreciate this one!
There are plenty of apps available for project and task management, but project communications with clients tend to be one of the biggest time-sinks. Instead of losing emails, organize client conversations across your team with ClientFlow so everyone’s on the same page.
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There are many tasks associated with accounting: bookkeeping, time tracking, invoicing, reporting, and accepting payments. There are apps that will do each of these things individually, but if you want it streamlined try a program that will do everything.
17Hats is specifically aimed at “businesses of one” and includes a range of features for accounting as well as project management, contracts, email, lead capture, quotes, and contact management. You could efficiently operate your business with only this, a preferred communication method, and your website.
The list is long in the project management space, but the key is knowing what you’re trying to organize and how you want it organized. There are different tools available which subscribe to differing organizational methods, so learn a bit about those methods to decide which will work for you. For example:
- Kanban style—a card system where each card displays a sequence of specifications or instructions (Trello)
- Projects with lists of tasks and assignments for each (Asana)
- Communication-focused (Basecamp)
The Efficient Freelance Business
The key to your efficient freelance business lies in getting your five “must have” functions right first and knowing which features you really need so that you can narrow down the selection of tools which will take care of them. Don’t let those “nice to haves” trick you into choosing a tool which doesn’t fully meet your needs.
Of all the core functions, finding an effective system for communication tends to be most complex, but it can be simplified with tools to organize your communications and make it easy for you and your clients to recall later.
Review your tools often to make sure they’re still working and you’re actually making the best use of them, but try to avoid shiny object syndrome. If your system is working how you want it to, stick with it and remain free of tool fatigue!