I’m always on the lookout for tools that free up my time and help me work more efficiently. I think for anyone who finds themselves running a business, any little thing that makes the business of business easier to manage is worth its weight in gold.
For a long time, one of my go-to tools was Mailbox, an incredible email management app for both iPhone and Desktop, that was–sadly–kill by its owner, Dropbox, in December. I also used a combination of other tools, including Outright/GoDaddy Bookkeeping, the aforementioned Dropbox, MailChimp and Stripe to round out my core business functions.
As I’ve become busier and busier and the scope of services I offer has expanded and I partner with other professionals to offer what’s akin to what an agency would offer, I’ve found that my micro-business tools I was using no longer served my needs. Plus, there was that pesky email app issue still linger. So, I tested all the services and here’s what I’m using right now–your mileage may vary and all that.
Bench Bookkeeping – bench.co
This is my biggest change–I’m now outsourcing my bookkeeping. I actually like keeping my books and really liked being hands-on with that stuff, but I also did the math and figured out how much time I was spending each month on this, usually evenings and weekends, and it just didn’t make sense to hand this on my own. I tried out a bunch of options, including more robust DIY options (Xero, Quickbooks, etc), as well as looking at more sophisticated local bookkeeping services.
However, Bench hit the sweet spot for me in terms of affordability and efficiency. Their service syncs with apps I’m already using and I was incredibly impressed with their on-boarding process.
Tip: If you’re a member of the Freelancers Union, you can get a big discount on their service for six months. If you use this link, you get your first month free.
Receipts, Mileage & Records
Shoeboxed – shoeboxed.com
I used to use Outright to catalog my receipts but it was all pretty manual. Shoeboxed allows me to forward receipt emails, track mileage and basically keep my records neat and tidy without a lot of work from me. Plus, it syncs with Bench, and someone else matches up the receipts with my bank records. WHOA!
Tip: use the code SARAHMOON for a 10% Shoeboxed discount.
Invoicing & Time Tracking
Harvest – getharvest.com
I was really happy with the invoicing feature in Outright/GoDaddy Bookkeeping, but I always found the time tracking and project management side rather lackluster. Since I tend to work on multiple projects for the same client, I had to do a lot of creative management of clients (ie, one client would be logged under several different names). Plus, there was no way to credit deposits, aside from logging partial payments–I developed a workaround for that, but it wasn’t ideal. I discovered Harvest thanks to Proposify, which is my new favorite thing, and I love how easy it makes it to generate invoices off of accepted proposals.
(Protip: Here’s a link for a $10 discount off Harvest; there’s another nice discount from the Freelancers Union floating around as well.)
Proposify – proposify.biz
I used to do all my project proposals using a template on my computer. It was actually a system that worked well, but the backend management was kind of a pain (tracking what I’d sent, tracking quotes for similar projects, all that glamorous stuff)–basically, I was doing it all manually on a spreadsheet, which is super inefficient.
Last year, I demo’d all sorts of software products to make that piece of the process smoother and easier to manage–pretty much everything from simple quoting software to CRM products. In the end, Proposify won out because it was so friendly to my already existing workflow and I could easily integrate it into my existing processes. Plus, it added all kinds of efficiency to my workflow after a new client accepts a proposal. Basically, I would pay quite a bit more for it than I do, because it has saved me so much time. A feature I particularly love is that I can immediately link an accepted proposal to Harvest and create a deposit invoice. (which secures a client’s position in my calendar). It’s a little thing, but it’s so great in terms of workflow.
Proposify is probably a bit much for businesses whose services are straightforward and simple, but if you offer a wide range of options, it’s tough to beat.
Tip: Everyone gets a free month of Proposify, but if you use my link, you get two free months.
Contracts & Documents
Hello Sign – hellosign.com
Honestly, one of the things I’d never gotten a handle on was an efficient way to do contracts. Since the bulk of my clients are out of the area, it’s kind of a pain to expect them to print and sign and mail documents back to me. I tried a whole bunch of different services and most had more bells and whistles than Hello Sign, but I pretty much just needed Hello Sign to do one thing, and it does one thing, which is allow for electronic signatures on documents. I create some fillable fields as well, so I can make sure I have all the relevant info on new clients, but it’s simple and it works and it’s great from a record-keeping standpoint. I’ve also used Zapier to make Hello Sign and Dropbox talk to each other, to better automate my processes.
Tip: Hello Sign is another service that offers a discount to Freelancers Union members.
Yep, the jury is still out on this one. The thing that prompted me taking a look at all my processes still hasn’t been resolved, as I’m yet to find any tool that really does the things I need it to, now that Mailbox is a goner. Currently, I’m using a combination of Spark (which works, but has ugly design), Boxer (nice design, but there are some usability issues) and Airmail (a solid desktop app). It’s an okay setup, but far from ideal. I’ll keep you posted.
The deal is that if you’re just starting out on your own, you’re probably fine with one or two lightweight apps to help you manage your business. However, if you get busy–and I sure hope you do–it makes a lot of sense to do what I did and evaluate how you’re spending your time and if using services and tools that free up some of your time, it’s worth the investment.
Note: While referral codes appear in this post, these are all services I pay for and use. Discount codes are provided because, hey, everyone loves saving money. I have been in no way compensated for this post.