Startup tips: 5 great tools for freelancers (and small businesses)

What is a freelancer if not a small business? 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 strategies 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 online journal contains thousands of articles on non-business theory, practices, and techniques. The current issue of HBR includes articles that can provide great value to freelancers, such as “Stop Procrastinating…Now,” “Customer Loyalty in the Twitter Era” and “The Secret to Dealing With Difficult People: It’s About You.”

2. Marketing. The single greatest marketing tool that 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, 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 the aging and payment of these as well. You can automate downloads, reminders, and reconciliation. Used in conjunction with your bank’s online bill-paying services, QB provides a powerful solution for 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 improves 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 client’s 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.

Photo: J.A.G.A.