Things Worth Paying For as a Freelancer

Jun 30 2011 by James Parsons | 31 Comments

Things Worth Paying For as a Freelancer

A freelancer, like a baker, needs a few essential tools with which they create their products and use in order to offer their services.

Instead of pots, mixing bowls, spoons and an oven, a freelancer needs software.

Be aware that these thing can cost either time or money, and in some cases, it may be both. This is an important issue that many seem to deem as unimportant, but will help any freelancer be more efficient and produce high-quality outputs.

We are going to look at some of the basic things that all freelancers will need; things that, even if you have to pay for, are worth the cost.

Time Management

One of the biggest priorities of working freelance is the allocation and management of time. This includes personal time (your life outside your work) and business time (billable hours).

You may have heard this before, but it’s worth repeating here: It’s important to keep your work life and your personal life separated, especially if you work in an environment such as your home where it’s difficult to establish clear boundaries.

An unbalanced life can cause friction between loved ones, not to mention reduce your motivation to work.

One way to help you manage your work time is to use a time-tracking tool. This is also very important in order to keep track of billable hours for invoicing purposes.

In addition, if you’re an analyst, you can mine this data later on to gain insights into your work processes. You can, for example, identify things that take up too much time or determine more accurately how much to charge for a certain job based on the average time it takes you to complete similar jobs.

Old School: Pencil and Notebook

You could use what I call the old school method, which has worked brilliantly for me in the past. Quite simply, you write down your tasks in a notebook and manually keep track of how much you spend on them.

This is a handy method, relatively cheap, and gives you a simple overview of how much time you are spending on a project and what to charge a client.

On the other hand, it is not as efficient as computer-based programs or web apps, it is quite repetitive and it also means you need to do a few calculations manually.

And then, what if you lose your notebook? All that data, gone in an instant.

Time-tracking software is reasonably priced. Even if it saves you a few hours a month and improves your workflow the tiniest bit, it would have already paid for itself in spades.

Tools for Time-Tracking

You should consider some desktop-based solutions such as Chrometa or QuickBooks (QuickBooks requires an additional add on for time-tracking since its primarily an accounting app). They range from free to a relatively low cost alternative.

A web-based solution to time management is a very good idea. My personal favorite is FreshBooks, though there are many others that are just as capable and may work better for you. FreshBooks supports things such as customized reports, email integration, shared notes, invoicing, and an interactive timeline display.

There is 1DayLater, an efficient and friendly program with an easy-to-use UI that also includes expense management for things like stationary or mileage logs.

Another good web-based solution is 5PM, self-described as "an intuitive web based project management tool."

Accounting

It doesn’t matter what your profession is, everyone needs a good way to process his or her accounting needs, especially when tax time comes around!

You can use software or web-based solutions in conjunction with your accountant, or you can DIY by simply using basic accounting and software to do your own taxes. The former is by far the easier solution and the most cost- and time-effective.

Tools for Accounting

QuickBooks is a premium and extremely popular accounting solution with a vast array of features that are powerful and simple to use. There is also a web-based version that can work in conjunction with the desktop version or standalone. Either way, you still get the best of the system’s features.

FreeAgent is an amazing web solution for accounting. Used by thousands of freelancers and small businesses, it provides a stress-free way to manage books and invoicing. This software allows you to send estimates, track time, invoice clients, bank online, do your accounts and even perform tax reports.

Industry-Specific Software

The type of software that you will need is dependent on your chosen career. For example, a freelance writer most probably wouldn’t need Adobe After Effects.

In any event, look at your professional field and identify industry-standard tools that are critical for your success.

Industry-Specific Tools for Designers

Adobe Creative Suite (CS) is a software package that includes Adobe Photoshop, Fireworks, Illustrator, and more.

Industry-Specific Tools for Developers

When coding, it is important to pick a code editor that suits your needs.

It’s impossible to identify industry-standard tools in this profession for several reasons. First, there is a wide array of languages. Secondly, developers are builders by nature, and so this has led to a wide selection of tools available at your disposal.

So I suggest participating in online communities to gain insights on tools that might work for you. For example, many Rails developers using Mac OS have traditionally preferred TextMate, but, still, you might find Rails developers that choose another text editor or go with an integrated development environment (IDE) instead.

Below are a couple of my personal suggestions.

For an IDE that’s robust in features, Adobe Dreamweaver is a powerful code editor. It features templates, FTP and code snippets, perfect for coding websites using HTML, CSS, PHP, Ruby, JavaScript, etc. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Linux installation available for it out of the box, though there are workarounds for this.

For front-end development, Coda is another option. It’s a one-window web development software.

If you’re in search of code editors, check out the following lists:

General Purpose Software

There are other essential apps that you should have access to; they’re useful and, in many instances, a requirement for interfacing with clients and other freelancers.

Office Suite

An office suite is a collection of productivity applications. Basic components of an office suite include word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation software, and often, an email client.

Microsoft Office has traditionally been the most popular, and it comes with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Open Office is an open source office suite that has software similar to Microsoft Office.

For a web-based solution, Google Docs is an excellent option. It’s especially good for collaboration since your documents are regularly synced.

Backup and Storage

As a freelancer, your computer files and documents are your primary business assets. Just as a brick-and-mortar store might takes care to protect their physical properties with insurance, security guards, surveillance cameras, etc., so should you with your digital properties.

There are many backup and storage options out there. Picking one that’s web-enabled gives you the ability to use multiple computers with ease and with little fear of your backup device failing.

One of the storage solutions you’ll often hear being mentioned is Dropbox. It’s free up to 2GB, and upgrading to 50GB (25 times the storage capacity of the free version) will cost you less than $200 a year. What’s great about it is that it’s seamless. Once you install it and save your files in your Dropbox, it automatically syncs and backs up your files so you don’t have to think about it much.

Email Marketing Software

As a freelancer, emailing is important. Whether it’s for sending a monthly newsletter to your clients, reaching out to blogs with press releases or offering email marketing as a service to your clients, it’s not a bad idea to have access to an email marketing tool.

Campaign Monitor is used by many to send newsletters and email campaigns. MailChimp is also a popular option, along with VerticalResponse, Constant Contact, and many more.

Reading Materials

There are a number of books available out there that can give you a head start in your freelance career. I’ll suggest a few of my favorites.

How To Be A Rockstar Freelancer. Written by the inspiring duo, Cyan and Collis Ta’eed, it provides practical advice on difficult situations. They teach you not to make the same mistakes they made in the past and the book includes a section on how to manage your budget.

Freelance Confidential. Yet another magnificent piece of published art from those wonderful people over at Rockable Press. The author Amanda Hackwith has compiled what is considered the secrets of the freelance trade all in one book. Through the use of surveys, statistics and interviews, we get an overall insight into the world of freelancing, showing all of its ups and downs.

The Principles of Successful Freelancing. A book from SitePoint that walks you through the transition from being an employee to becoming a fully-fledged freelancer, it also offers an education outline on the business of freelancing and also covers the emotional aspects. It’s packed with advice and tips to help you get started.

Conclusion

Every freelancer must consider investing their time or money to become successful in the profession. A lot of software and advice out there are free, so search Google, read blogs, and most importantly, learn from your own (and from other’s) mistakes.

This way, you will be able to avoid what has plagued other freelancers in the past, giving you a leg up into the world of working for yourself and always keeping you on the right track.

One thing that you must keep in mind when freelancing is that you must be ready to invest some of your income into your own career.

The concept of investing your hard-earned income is a scary thought, but at the same time, you’re investing it in yourself and your business.

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About the Author

James Parsons is an avid web designer from England and is also the Creative Director of Start Design Studios. He blogs regularly at Web<A>Zine. You can connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

31 Comments

Corday

June 30th, 2011

My God. This ought to be the lamest article in Q1+Q2 2011. I mean; Office, Dropbox, Adobe Creative Suite, Freshbooks… They all have been around for ages. Anything new ?

inspirationfeed

June 30th, 2011

Wow, what a hefty article! Great tips, I will try them out!

Michael Martin

June 30th, 2011

Great post. There’s definitely a line to walk between being careful with your money, to just being cheap.

One other expense that I think is well worth it for freelancers is a great webhost. There are a lot of budget ones out there, but a reliable website is more than worth the few extra dollars each month.

Sean

June 30th, 2011

On the accounting side, have a look at http://waveaccounting.com. It’s a lot like Mint, but for small business. It lets you mix your business and personal accounts, but report on them separately.

Inventika Solutions

June 30th, 2011

Thanks for the tips.
I would add Zoho to the list, they have great products.
Gmail is one big help,its powerful yet easy interface is amazing. Thanks to it, I don’t have to use the clumsy web mail interface like squirrel mail.

Matt Yutzy

June 30th, 2011

Excellent post; I’m happy to see that I’m already using most of these applications. FreeAgent looks interesting and much cleaner than Quickbooks; I’ll have to give that one a try.

Nicole

June 30th, 2011

Love it! Just signed up for a free trial at FreeAgent :)

Travis

June 30th, 2011

I’d add project management tools to this list, as well. I prefer Codebase for its integration of Mercurial, but there are of course others to choose from.

Lucas del Rio

June 30th, 2011

Nice article. I’ve been thinking lately to adopt some of this useful tools to manage better my work time and see which results I get but I didn’t have any software recommendations. Thanks a lot!

JoeP

June 30th, 2011

In terms of billing/time management/invoicing apps, I can also heartily recommend Harvest. It’s a great app (that’s also really cheap) and the customer service is second to none. It also integrates with the Quick Books web API, and those of Basecamp and several others for free. Great app I throughly recommend.

http://harvestapp.com

I used Freshbooks for a long time, but switched when a friend showed me Harvest. It has all of the functionality of Freshbooks (and more to boot!), the UI is better and it’s HALF the price!

I know I sound like a raving shill, but I promise I’m just a satisfied user.

Evan Skuthorpe

June 30th, 2011

Nice article. I’d say ditch the accountancy software and just pay for accountants. The hassle they take away and the knowledge they give/have about the tax system is invaluable.

Henry Mortimer

June 30th, 2011

Great piece. Very helpful. Despite being a 3-year “veteran” consultant/freelancer, I learned a few new tricks. Thanks!

Henry

NoeG

June 30th, 2011

Very Nice and helpful for a new freelancer like myself, thank you

Andrew

June 30th, 2011

I do not recommend Open Office, as it is not supported by anyone but Oracle nowadays. Most everyone has moved on to Libre Office.

physio

June 30th, 2011

Thanks for the suggestions.
I like:
Paymo.biz for time tracking
Zoho invoice for invoicing
Textmate for developing
Open Office and Google Docs for an office suite combo
Crashplan for free backup to another machine local or remote

Muhammad Bilal

July 1st, 2011

thanks for sharing such a great post with us James Parsons. Its really helpful for all freelancers.

Aria

July 1st, 2011

Dreamweaver is not an “Integrated Development Environment” :)

Vladislavs Judins

July 1st, 2011

Great article. But no word about 3d modeling, as it is currently one of most requested things in many design jobs. At least in Europe.

Jacob Gube

July 1st, 2011

@Aria: What’s your definition of IDE? It can run JS in Live View, not exactly compiling/interpreting because it’s client-side, but to me, close enough. Dreamweaver gets a bad rap because it was pretty bad in the beginning, but CS, and especially CS4+, it’s pretty awesome.

James Parsons

July 1st, 2011

I’m glad that the article was helpful to the majority of freelancers out there! :D

James Parsons

July 1st, 2011

@Corday, this article is targeted at relatively new freelancers. One’s who know very little about the field and just to give them a few tips on what many have said that they found best to use in the past.

Donn

July 1st, 2011

All of those where very nice. But don’t you have to make some money in order to buy some :)… Next make an article about open source only tools for freelancer :)

David M

July 4th, 2011

As a freelancer, I’ve found the best tools for managing everything (clients, projects, finances, schedules, time tracking, etc) are those that integrate what I need into one system. Instead of using 3-4 different apps to manage these processes (the integration will waste a lot of time, and it costs a ton) using just WORKetc I manage everything online. WORKetc integrates CRM with project management, timesheets, billing, and other tools like email marketing. It’s my one-stop solution for total management of everything, I suggest taking a look at it!

This comparison of freelancing tools is also great: http://www.worketc.com/compare

Craig McPheat

July 5th, 2011

I’m looking into accounting software just now. I’m terrible at chasing up payments, by the time you get round to it (ie when you really need it) they’ll just drag their heels.

Nathan

July 14th, 2011

A very helpful article for people just getting into freelancing. A nice essential list of things to help you on your way.

François H

July 14th, 2011

Great article! Thank you for sharing all these helpful tips!

Robin Jennings

July 15th, 2011

There’s so many different points you have brought up.

The main one is- your time is probably more valuable than you realise.

Use it wisely.

Matthew Wehrly

July 15th, 2011

+1 for Quickbooks. It has made life during year end almost livable. :)

Best-
Matthew Wehrly

jeanine naviaux

July 19th, 2011

I would suggest being on top of your accounting and reporting all income and keeping all receipts. Why? The Internal Revenue Service (of the US) and all other countries tax collectors have lots of time and lots of money and can string you out on an audit for years. An audit will cost you hundreds to thousands of dollars over a minimum of two years and lots of sleepless nights. Just declare everything and save all your receipts. When the tax collector comes, just hand them all the paper you saved!!!

Nicholas Hughes

November 10th, 2011

A very helpful article for people just getting into freelancing. I also recomment the TABB as the online to do list and time management software.

PatrickC

November 15th, 2011

I myself am a starting freelancer as well. Thanks for the great tips!

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