When you go out on your own you are the accountant/owner/receptionist/marketer/salesperson/gatekeeper/projectmanager/etc. You are it until you have the capital to delegate tasks to specialized employees. That means that you need to learn at least the basics in other areas of business keeping beyond what you are already bringing to the table. It also means that you will probably need software to keep all of that on track. The right software can save you time and help you manage your operation, all while looking like a pro.
You will most definitely need some sort of bookkeeping software. Sure, you could set up a fancy excel spreadsheet, but ultimately you will be creating more work for yourself when it comes time for taxes or evaluating how your business is doing. Don’t make your tax accountant cry.
Below are some options I considered for my business. I ended up landing on Freshbooks, which is all kinds of awesome. It worked well for me and the type of invoices I generate. I also really liked that they have an app, so I can issue invoices on my phone.
There are so many options for small businesses it can be a little overwhelming. Make sure that you do your research and think through what you need for your business. I think most people think accounting = Quickbooks. Just be warned it might not have the features that you need for a small, agile business. There are also lots of options within Quickbooks, I’d recommend talking with one of their sales reps to find the best fit for you if you decide to go that route.
The rest of the options on the list might not have hundreds of thousands of users, but may meet your needs better and have more direct support lines. Check them out before you cross them off your list.
Another thing to consider with accounting software is security. The only way to be sure that everything is secure is to take it offline. There are trade offs to that that may not be worth it to you. If you do choose a cloud software platform be sure that your documents are going to be protected.
There are always things that have to get done, keeping track of all the daily tasks, big picture projects, and business maintenance tasks can quickly get overwhelming. Even if you start out tracking everything on paper (digital or not), eventually you are going to out grow that system and by the time you realize it is probably too late. I highly recommend getting on a project management system early.
I use Trello to manage all of my projects. It mirrored how I managed my projects on paper with check lists, so it was an easy choice when I started looking into PM software. I love it so much that I use it to manage projects around my house.
Remember that any project management software is only as useful when you use it. I drop every task, resource I need to read, prospect, blog post topic, etc into Trello as soon as it enters my head. Don’t try to remember it all. It’s impossible and stressful to try and keep your whole business in your head. Trello has an app, so if I think of something at dinner or when I’m grocery shopping I immediately put it into Trello. And as I finish tasks I mark them as completed. Make your project management software work for you. It is worth your time to really learn the software in the beginning so you can leverage every single feature to your advantage.
This one I actually already had nailed down before I started my business. I track how much time it takes me to do everything, not just my client projects. It helps me evaluate where I am wasting too much time. What I like most about tracking my time is productivity.
I know, you are probably thinking: “Productivity? Timesheets are a time suck.” The app I use is like a stopwatch. It is hard to argue with the stopwatch about what you are doing. I feel guilty if I’m goofing off and the time tracker says that I’m supposed to be writing a proposal. It helps me stay focused on what I need to be doing so I can get stuff done.
I don’t have a whole bunch of recommendations for you to look into. Some of the accounting and project management software recommendations I gave have time tracking features, which may be a good fit for you and will obviously integrate with the software you’ve picked for your business. For my business, I’m totally in love with Toggl. Again, it has an app, which I use to track meetings and writing blog posts when I’m not with my computer.
If you’ve never tracked the time on your projects and just guess at how long it took you, you are probably missing out on income for your business. I bill all of my projects as a flat project rate, but that rate is based on my hourly rate and how long it takes to complete different parts of the project. I learned recently that I have been underestimating the time it takes to do quality assurance for web stores. As a result I have increased my rates for those projects. You can’t know if you are making a good return on your time if you don’t know how much time you are actually spending.
So, seriously, toggl everthing.
If you are going to use social media to marketing and connect with clients/customers it is a good idea to look into a social media scheduler. I got caught in a social media marketing trap pretty early on. I would get on to post something and would get distracted with reading articles and calling it work, when I was actually goofing off. Social media is a really powerful way to connect with your audience, but you have to be very purposeful and guard your time. If you struggle with this too, I recommend queuing up your social media posts with a scheduler and only hop on social media once or twice a day to connect with those that are interacting with you.
There are so many different platforms for managing social media. The main thing is making sure that it covers all the platforms that your brand is going to be on. Some have Twitter and Facebook, but no Linkedin. Others have practically everything, but not Pintrest. It just depends on what is important to you and your business.
I use Buffer for my social media. Buffer has great extensions and apps that make it easy to drop articles and resources straight into my queue without opening up that o-so-tempting social media account. They have good analytics right on the dashboard, without having to download a report. I was originally using Hootsuite, but noticed that none of my images were showing up in Twitter. That’s kind of a problem, especially for a graphic designer. I also really liked that I could easily add an old tweet to my queue, no more copy-paste errors.
If you are going to have contracts, which you should, you should have contracts. You have a contract right? If you don’t that is a whole other conversation. You need contracts.
If you sell services and are not going to be face to face with your clients/customers you will need a way to handle contracts. You could require all of your clients to print, sign, scan, and email you a copy. I like to make it easy for my clients and offer digital signatures. It reduces the barriers to entry and speeds up the client on-boarding process. I use SignNow because I have a low volume need and it is pretty inexpensive.
There are lots of different solutions out there. Make sure you do your research, not all digital signatures are legally binding.
Here are some apps/software that I love and use on a regular basis in my business.
Zapier is an online automation tool. It connects all of your apps together to save you time and mental energy. Zapier describes their service this way: “Zaps are automations created using Triggers and Actions. You can use Zaps to connect any two Zapier-supported apps to each other. ” I use it for lots of things, but one of the big ones is how I manage prospects. Anytime that someone fills out my “Work with me” form that information is automatically imported into Trello with a due date to follow up with them. No more prospects lost to the black hole of an email inbox. Zapier can do so much more than that, you just have to check it out for yourself.
Super pretty forms. It’s pretty easy to use and looks amazing on your website. What I like most about it is that it makes long forms more digestable by limiting the number of questions you can see at one time.
This is what I use for email marketing. I think it is the only truly free platform out there (under 2,000 subscribers). Fun and easy to use, plus they have great documentation and resources if you are new to email marketing.
I listen to music all day when I’m working. It helps me drown out distractions and doesn’t time out after an hour or so like Pandora. Rdio looks pretty and has a pretty good gnome to consistently give you music that matches what you want to hear. You can hit play on any song on demand, which means that when you want to hear that Macklemore song that gets you into the mood to code the day away you aren’t going to be distracted by endless videos on youtube.
I like Word and Google Docs as well as anybody, but there is something special about Evernote. It’s got a nice clean writing interface and beautiful fonts. Plus it has an app (surprise). I don’t use it for documents or contracts, just dumping words out of my brain, think: notes, blog posts, grocery lists, open letters, etc.
Now that you are completely overwhelmed, take a deep breath. You’ll figure it all out in due time. Accept that, if this is your first business, you will be doing a lot of learning, which is always a good thing. I would plan on spending a lot of time researching and learning new things in the first several months. The more you read and prepare before “going live” the better you are going to be. By the same token, things will change as you “do the do” of your business. Be prepared to change course and recognize that you aren’t going to get everything right the first time. I changed a lot of my systems and software as my business evolved and I learned more about what I needed to grow.