Startup tips: 5 great tools for freelancers (and small businesses) Mike | October 17th, 2011

What is a freelancer if not a small business? Just like small businesses, freelancers must engage in marketing, manage payables and receivables and other accounting tasks, perform HR functions, direct production, and plan strategy.

1. Planning and strategy. There are lots of great tools and apps out there that will help you to plan and execute great strategy for your freelance career or business, but the greatest tool you can use is knowledge. The Harvard Business Review is probably the leading publication for business and their an online journal contains thousands of articles nonbusiness theory, practice, and technique. The current issue of HBR includes articles which can provide great value to freelancers, such as “Stop Procrastinating…Now,” “Customer Loyalty in the Twitter Era,” and “he Secret to Dealing With Difficult People: It’s About You.”

2. Marketing. The single greatest marketing tool that a freelancers can use is standing directly in front of you: your clients. Happy customers talk, and when they talk about you or your business, the people they speak to listen. The typical freelancer will receive well over half of their new clients through word of mouth, and strong WOM builds business. Wikipedia defines it thus, “Customer relationship management (CRM) is a widely implemented strategy for managing a company’s interactions with customers, clients and sales prospects. It involves using technology to organize, automate, and synchronize business processes—principally sales activities, but also those for marketing, customer service, and technical support. Two great resources are  Salesforce and Zoho.com. These two online resources allow you to plan and manage marketing campaigns, manage lead generation, automate sales management, perform inventory and customer support functions, and analyze and visualize customer data.

3. Managing HR. The human resources manager is typically one of the most important (and feared) members of the corporate management team. They typically manage processes that touch every employee every day: payroll, health benefits, incentive programs, performance reviews, pension and retirement plans, and vacation policies. But freelancers do all of this on their own, and more. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is the world’s largest association devoted to human resource management. Their website  has a ton of resources for small businesses and freelancers, including articles, forms and templates, and user groups and forums, as well as information on other resources such as health care benefits, employee assistance programs, and retirement plans.

4. Accounting Sure, there are plenty of expensive accounting packages out there as well as online resources, but the gold standard for accounting and banking software continues to be Quickbooks. QB organizes your finances in one place, and allows you to manage sales, expenses, and
customer & vendor profiles. The reporting functions allow you to quickly create and share detailed reports on your sales, AP/AR, and annual tax reporting. You can create and send invoices directly from the program, and track aging and payment of these as well. You can automate downloads, reminders, and reconciliation. Used in conjunction with your own bank’s online bill-paying services, QB provides a powerful solution for both freelancers and small businesses.

5. Project management. At this point in time it’s pretty simple how to manage clients, projects, schedules, and tasks: Basecamp. Yes, we’ve written about it before, and yes we use it extensively ourselves, but that is for a simple reason: no one else has developed a project which improve’s upon 37signal‘s leading online SAAS product. Basecamp is simple to use, includes powerful and streamlined features, has an incredibly intuitive interface, and (most importantly?) is ridiculously inexpensive with plans starting under $50 per month. The program allows you to collaborate with your clients oct team members, schedule events, share files and other resources, access features via email or the web, and simultaneously manage multiple projects, clients, jobs, or users. Sweetness indeed.

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  • http://www.online-business-virtual-assistant.com/ Virtual Business Assistant

    Great tools.I loved what you have done here. The design is elegant, your stuff classy. Yet, you have got an edginess to what you’re offering here. Ill definitely come back for more

  • Bobbiegarner

    Good tips – except Quickbooks. Never liked the tool at all! Freshbooks works really well for me.

  • http://mgboyd.com Mark Boyd

    Really? I love lists of tools especially for freelancers but i am surprised at how pedestrian this one is. 

    For planning and mngt i don’t know why you didnt instead list either data sites like comscore, neilsenwire or trendwatching or indie bloggers who are freelancers and know what really works for individual businesses. The market research data from comscore and neilsenwire immediately sparks how i can use the latest data to provide quality work to my clients. HBR is fine for a theoretical read but the contents list you offer up sounds hideously dull. If you are a freelancer you should have read enough generalist self-help articles about discipline, using twitter and social media, and managing difficult clients by now. I find it hard to translate HBR articles that i read into immediate business techniques. I would go with blog sites like alphaefficiency or futurebuzz or viperchill with really down to earth practical knowledge freelancers can use immediately. They have personal experience with what works, review  tools that really make a difference to productivity levels and comment boards that have a strong and active communities to learn from.

    For marketing, Salesforce seems to be priced for a much larger enterprise than fro this freelancer. Although i do use zoho reports a lot to design spreadsheets that track the freelance work i publish for my clients, the time investment needed to make zoho crm functional on a day to day basis is holding me back from integrating it into my business processes (oh okay, and the horrible looking interface). I can’t believe you didn’t mention that.

    For project management, what about thrive apps’ solo? It’s beautiful design and functionality makes it a pleasurable business and project management software for freelancers to use daily to keep track of time and projects.All up tho, i was left uninspired by this list and would have expected more from crowdspring.

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  • Anonymous

    @Mark Boyd – thanks for chiming in. Of course there are many hundreds, nay thousands, of resources to choose from and i appreciate you listing more of them! So sorry to leave you uninspired and will, of course, try to do better for you next time. And for all the others who did find some inspiration in the list – thanks for the notes, tweets, and comments!

  • Anonymous

    @ Bobbiegarner Thanks for the read! Yes, I know many who prefer Freshbooks over QB, but I have yet to meet a big-five accountant who felt the same. And, after all, the accountant must have her say. :)

  • Anonymous

    @ Virtual Business Assistant – thanks much for the comment! Edgy? We can do edgy… Give a read next week.

  • Joelydesign

    Another great accounting option is FreshBooks.com by far the best thing about it that sets it apart from QB is the Time Tracking feature. Specify Jobs/projects and track the time you spend on every aspect of your business to boost efficiency. You can also brand your invoices etc.

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  • Curtis

    Basecamp? People still use that program? So many better options out there.

  • Anonymous

    Big five?  This is an article for small business right?  What small business uses a big five accountant?  My accountant is very happy with my freshbooks reporting.  She says many small ops bring shoes boxes – so i’m way ahead there!

  • http://twitter.com/DarkRedIce Dark Red Ice

    Maybe fuller, but “better” is not necessarily the same. Basecamp rules because it is simple and if I have to train both clients and suppliers in order for them to stick to a single workflow, then “simpler” is indeed “better”. 

  • Anonymous

    @ Bobbiegarner sorry for the delayed reply. Many small businesses (including crowdSPRING) use a Big-5 accounting firm. There are many reasons for doing so, including choosing a firm deep expertise in an industry, or the choosing a firm for their ability to move a small company towards a successful exit, or choosing a firm that will bring confidence to investors. Not a knock on small accounting firms, just a choice!

  • Jane Berry

    Another important tool for freelancer is proofhub. Proofhub
    is a great project management tool in the market, that offers
    innovative and useful features to the users, like no other.

  • http://www.towoglo.com/ David Shallcross

    A good check list of some of the tools..Being in the online freelance industry, i must say that the freelance industry is getting more and more competitive. A well written article, does highlight some important points. I do believe that its important to show your advocacy in your field. Its important to engage in blogs, articles etc. and contribute something extra. Creating a social presence is also important in the field of freelancing. Lets not forget that the freelancing market is growing by the day and the competition is getting tougher..

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